There are several ways in which abuse can be spiritual abuse. People use this term with a variety of meanings and it is quite important to keep track of which definition people have in mind.
There is a sense in which all abuse can be spiritual abuse. For example any form of child abuse can do damage to a child’s emerging spirituality. The fact that the damage includes damage to the spiritual self is what makes it spiritual abuse in addition to what ever other kind of abuse is going on.
Some abuse is spiritual abuse because it takes place in a spiritual place/context. Sexual abuse by a priest or pastor, for example, is clearly a form of spiritual abuse in addition to sexual abuse.
The use of spiritual truths or biblical texts to do harm is another form of spiritual abuse. Sometimes battered wives are told that God wants them to be submissive to their husbands. Sometimes children who are being molested by their parents are told that God wants them to be obedient. Sometimes people quote “do not think of yourself more highly that you ought” to suicidally depressed people. These are examples of abuse–even if what is said is a quote from the Bible, even if ‘submission’ and ‘obedience’ are in a general sense virtues. It is the twisting of good things in order to do harm that is so disturbing about this kind of abuse.
Some abuse is spiritual abuse because the victim is perceived to be in a position of spiritual authority. Think here, for example, of the abuse of pastors by congregations. The real power in religious systems may not be in the hands of the obvious leadership.
Coercive spirituality is a form of spiritual abuse. This is most obvious in totalitarian cults. But there are many other forms of coercion. Compulsive religious practices are thought by some to be appropriate forms of Christian education of children. Others more committed to the notions of ‘soul freedom’ and ‘liberty of conscience’ are repelled at the idea of religious coersion.
Some abuse is spiritual abuse because it invokes divine authority in order to manipulate people into performing behaviors which meet the needs of the abuser. Example: If I am anxious in my relationship with God and I think that ‘success’ in evangelistic activities will solve that problem, then I may try to get someone to convert so that I will feel less anxious. This ‘using’ of someone else’s spiritual life to meet my spiritual needs is uncomfortably analogous to someone who ‘uses’ another person’s sexuality to meet their own needs. The latter is sexual abuse. The former is spiritual abuse.
Some abuse is spiritual abuse because it introduces a grace-less contingency in our relationship with God. This form of spiritual abuse is one of the central preocuppations of the New Testament text. Consider Jesus’ harsh comments about those who ‘lay burdens’ on others — those who make God’s love contingent on spiritual practices of one kind or another.
Biblical references on spiritual abuse
Spiritual abuse as speaking for God when God has not spoken
Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’-when the LORD has not spoken.
Spiritual abuse as adding burdens
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”
Spiritual Abusers as Ravenous wolves
“Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Spiritual Abusers as Whitewashed tombs
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Spiritual Abusers as “Brood of vipers”
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
Spiritual Abusers as “Blind guides”
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
- Three lectures on the topic of spiritual abuse by Jeff VanVonderen:
- An Interview with Jeff VanVonderen
- A pdf of Bible studies by Dale and Juanita Ryan on spiritual abuse can be purchased here
- For a fascinating (and very painful) case study of spiritual abuse in the Christian community get a copy of All God’s Children (DVD)This video can also be viewed online for free here
- Spiritual Abuse Resources (International Cultic Studies Association)