Ten signs of Spiritual Abuse….

by Rod Smith

Take Up Your Life

Take Up Your Life

Ten signs of the presence of spiritual abuse, manipulation, domination, or intimidation. Spiritual Abuse (which is always expressed in varying degrees) is occurring when a pastor, leader, or even a friend:

1. “Hears” God for you. God apparently “goes through” him/her to speak to you. (This requires a sense of superiority – from him or her and is often framed as being “more mature,” and a sense of being “less” from you.)
2. Alienates (shuns, ignores) you if you do not adhere to his/her guidance, leadership, or authority. (This is usually VERY subtle – so it is easy to deny.)
3. Suggests that rejection of his/her “higher understanding” is done so at your spiritual or even physical peril. (You will hear things like, “Be careful. You will move yourself from the covering and protection of God.”)
4. Rewards your obedience with inclusion, and punishes your questioning or resistance with withdrawal. (Compliance gets stroked, resistance gets struck!)
5. Demands “cathartic” honesty. Unless you spew out every detail of your life you must be hiding or withholding something (and that “something” will, of course, impede your spiritual development).
6. Lavishes you with praise, acceptance, and understanding when you are “good” and “pushes” you away when you are “bad.”
7. Is apparently fixated on the use of titles like reverend, pastor, elder and cannot appear to relax in the company of “ordinary” mortals. The issue is not in the use of legitimate titles (or robes or religious garb) – it is that identity seems impossible without the titles or the trappings.
8. Leaves a trail of cut-off relationships. Usually in the trail are those who refuse to bow, to submit, to stand in awe of, to be thoroughly entranced by, the will of the pastor, the leader or the friend. Always regard with suspicion or caution leaders who are cut off or alienated from members of their family, especially their parents.
9. Lives from a “for me/or against me,” “black/white,” “all/or nothing” platform of “relationships.”
10. Genuinely sees God’s Call so zealously, so fervently that any signs of resistance are seen as the expressions of The Enemy or an enemy – thus, relationships are expedient (disposable) in the light of getting on with God’s work.

The perpetrators of abuse apparently fail to see that reconciliation, and forgiveness, “space,” and room to move, and room to respectfully disagree (boundaries, morality) are all part of the glorious work of the Gospel. Freedom begins with recognition. Recognition must result in action. Stand up to those who misuse their positions of leadership. Spiritual abuse serves the welfare or neither the perpetrator nor the victim – quite apart from the disservice it does to the church.

(This post is written in honor of “J” in Honolulu – I am sorry for all you had to endure.)

13 Responses to “Ten signs of Spiritual Abuse….”

  1. This is a very good list and reveals some traits I haven’t seen in other lists of spiritual abuse. The only one I hesitate over is the one about loving titles. Some spiritual abusers can appear very humble and meek. Deception is deep sometimes. Our former pastor on the surface shunned titles, dressed down and appeared “normal.” It was all put on, however. Otherwise, very helpful, and I think I will link this post on my site.

  2. This is a fantastic resource. “Leaves a trail of cut-off relationships” is especially poignant for me.

  3. Hi Everyone,

    My book: ‘Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness’ has been released Dec./09.

    I believe that I address many of the topics that people are concerned about. This book is based on my doctoral research on how people recovered after experiencing the devastation of spiritual abuse in their home church.

    You can purchase a book from me. My email address is: info@churchexiters.com.

    I welcome questions or comments on this topic.

    Dr. Barb Orlowski

  4. Rewards your obedience with inclusion, and punishes your questioning or resistance with withdrawal. (Compliance gets stroked, resistance gets struck!)

    Lavishes you with praise, acceptance, and understanding when you are “good” and “pushes” you away when you are “bad.”

    I am stunned because the above sounds exactly what the church I was attending was like. I thought it was me being over sensitive. I felt pushed out and rejected at times, also there was a lot of favouritism. I have left attending church now and I will concentrate on having my own personal relationship with God. Y

    You do not have to belong to a church to have a relationship with God

  5. Wow – I don’t know where you got this list but it sounds like an instruction manual for the cult I was in! I have posted the link to a recovery website I am a member of.


  6. GREAT post Rod!

    I read a post recently where the author stated that it wasn’t personal when a leader spiritually abuses others. Meaning that they weren’t abusing you because they were against you, they do these things to everybody. While I can agree to that on one level, it still HURTS so very much!! I know having gone through many of the same things as J, including getting kicked off of a base.

    THANK YOU for exposing the traits of those who abuse others in the name of God!

    THANK YOU for living your life in the way that you do! It demonstrates the love of the Father to so many of us!

  7. This happened to me. It nearly destroyed me. The subtleness was so gentle, and then when my true nature of compliance was stroked, oh so beautifully, I thought it was God. But then when my intuition told me otherwise and I became resistant, I was struck oh so cruelly. Honesty was demanded of me, without any sharing of the other. Fundamentalism began rearing its ugly head.. I see now I was one of many “specials” left in a trail of disposable relationships, so that she could go on to “save” the next soul for her Very Punishing God.And thereby gain credit dor herself. I am lucky and grateful cos I know that the God of My Understanding Loves me No Matter What. This coloumn has clarified it all greatly. Thanks Rod.

  8. These are good and very interesting. You should consider putting some Scriptures alongside these… also it might be really helpful to put down alongside this a list of traits for a rebellious person. In my experience many people, particularly in western culture, are rebellious and actually see even good, caring and godly authority as “controlling.”

    When we put lists like this up it is important for us to also consider both sides of the coin, otherwise our words (even true ones- and i agree with all that you’ve written here) may be used against some very godly and loving leaders in the Body of Christ and cause them serious pain and damage when people with a rebellious heart use and manipulate points like these to tear down leadership.

    Just a thought to consider. Thanks very much.

  9. I am so thankful for this article. I married this type of person at a vulnerable moment of my life and saw the signs prior to saying “I do,” just ignored them because I REALLY wanted a Godly man. Thought nothing that his family, especially parents are extremely distant from him. I even tried for the sake of peace and obedience to go against my moral convictions and perform my devout allegiance and loyalty to every word he commanded, just because he would say…”GOD SAID!” This was the way it was, I had NO VOICE over my own thoughts or contributions to our marriage. I’m the third wife of a seemingly Godly person, full of works! People think I am the cause of our troubles…I have moved out, but still married. I am unfortunately preparing for divorce – because he shows no signs of accountability or turning away from the behavior. I have gone to counseling, but there is sooooo much damage done on my behalf. I WISH CHURCHES WOULD TEACH THIS DURING WHOLENESS SEMINARS….it would REALLY HELP!

  10. Wow wow…this is so true. Having just ended a relationship that has stopped and started over and over again for the past three years I can totally agree with this article. The numbers that apply to me are #1, #5 and #10. I was almost completely destroyed by this relationship, especially because she truly is a wonderful and Godly lady. I don’t think she even realizes she is operating in spiritual manipulation. And by the way, it began as an internet dating relationship…which I will NEVER do again. Hopefully I have learned my lesson and will allow the Lord to bring the right person to me in His time and place. I feel as if I have lost years of my life and seen much damage to my emotions because of my experience. RUN RUN far away from anyone that uses “confirmations” and scriptures they have received to try and make you do something that in your heart you just don’t have peace about! It is an indirect use of guilt through spiritual manipulation which basically leaves you with no free will.

  11. Hello. This is probably the most accurate depiction that I have read that describes my experience. Don’t get me wrong….I have read some terrific articles, that I’m sure apply to a lot of other people. Although I am a victim of spiritual abuse, my experience wasn’t as “dramatic” as most articles describe. This article, however, hit the nail on the head for me. Thank you very much for your wisdom! God bless you.

  12. This has helped me, and I will be looking to purchase this book. For just shy of two years I’ve been recovering from everything you have mentioned here. I was one that was “good”, but everything went down hill from the time I decided to use the faith and simple common sense God gave me. Autonomy and independence is a no no. In addition to the false humility which manifest as dressing down and all the others points the previous person mentioned, is the creation of jargon and a language of sorts that all “good” people and “bad people” should aim at adopting.

    Christ will build his church. May God keep us from fuelling this behaviour and its side affects.


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