When people first attend a church and then continue to attend, it is usually because of some very positive things-- the services, the people, the music, the message, the fellowship, or the atmosphere. Whatever it is, there is some positive element that makes people return and in time invest themselves in a church.

How shocking and unexpected it is when aspects of spiritual mistreatment or abuse then come into view! Spiritual abuse occurs when a person in a position of spiritual authority misuses his or her position. Instead of serving those being led and directing them towards God, they are used for some other end. This can include a wide variety of behaviors, from harshness to outright mistreatment, from subtly controlling everything to the advancement of an agenda of the leader or the leader's personal prestige without regard for the well-being of the individual.

People in a church environment have a reasonable expectation that leadership will point them to God and what is right in his eyes, not to take their honest desire to serve God and exploit it to bolster the power or control of the leader or the church system and leave them empty.

Other authors have defined spiritual abuse in these ways.

Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment. That's a broad view. Let's refine that with some functional definitions. Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person's state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. ... Power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need. (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, 20-21; italics in original)
Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds. (Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue, p. 12)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 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. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' (Matthew 23:1-7)
This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (2 Corinthians 13:10)

Further, it is important to note that spiritual abuse can happen with or without the intent to cause harm. It is the end result that matters.

Beyond the basic characteristics, there are some very real dynamics about spiritual abuse that need to be candidly discussed. I write of these, unfortunately, from personal experience.

Not Everybody May See the Abuse, But That Doesn't Mean It Isn't Real

I remember my first encounter with spiritual abuse. I was relatively new member of a congregation and the campus minister was being forced to resign. I had nothing but positive experiences with this man. He taught me the Bible, he baptized me, he gave me great advice at various times and helped me get connected in the church. There were complaints about his methods, the place where he had received his ministry training, and the program he was running. All I knew is that everything looked fine to me. To make a long story short, a church split ensued. I followed the campus minister with most of the people I knew. I thought those who forced him to resign were opposing God's work.

A year later, this minister was under fire again. This time, the accusers of mistreatment were his most loyal lieutenants that had come over from the previous church, as well as the elders who had supported him during the split. I thought, what in the world was going on? Did these people "go bad" too? I still didn't see any problems and had largely positive experiences with the minister. Another split ensued, and this time the minister left town.

Later on, I found out much of what was going on from this minister himself (who has seen the error of his ways since then) and others. It was spiritual abuse-- making sure people conformed to the system, not permitting questioning or challenging of the system, excessive regulating of various areas of member's lives, minimizing the negative effects of the system, and using various control tactics like shaming, humiliation and the like.

There are two points here:

  1. Not everybody will see abuse. Many people will not see a problem at all, all they will see is the positive things and they will not be able to understand why there is a problem. They will not believe anything could be wrong.
  2. Abuse is frequently restricted to or most acute with staff and lay leadership groups. Often, newer members will not see the problems.

As a result, I responded to these initial incidents as most people would-- defending the minister in question and his system, and denigrating those who raised the issues.

Another Example

Let me illustrate this phenomenon with another case in point. Just this week as I'm editing this article, there has been news of a prominent minister engaging in sexual immorality. Now listen to some quotes from the story the day after it broke. From church members:

The allegations stunned church members.

"It's political, right before the elections," said Brian Boals, a New Life member for 17 years.

Church member E.J. Cox, 25, called the claims "ridiculous."

"People are always saying stuff about Pastor Ted," she said. "You just sort of blow it off. He's just like anyone else in the public eye."

Now from a pastor at the church:

But a pastor at Haggard's church wrote an e-mail to congregants saying, "he confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true."

Though this event is about misconduct and not spiritual abuse, this illustrates a fact about the topic at hand. Did you notice that the members of the church were predisposed to ridicule and disregard the allegations? Even though they have been quickly acknowledged as at least somewhat true (further action was later taken that largely confirmed all of the initial allegations). Why did these members defend? Because people naturally defend leaders they know and like. This is a bias inherent in churches.

Now a more difficult question-- why didn't the members say they wanted the story investigated and facts uncovered? Or that they wanted to just know the truth? There is no simple answer to this. I'm not a psychologist nor a sociologist. But to me it is obvious that there are several possibilities.

The Two Worlds of Spiritual Abuse

The next experience that I want share about spiritual abuse I have personally experienced happened a few years after the stories I mentioned earlier. I had left my job as an electrical engineer in the defense industry and was serving on the staff of the church as an intern minister. While working for a church in a large metropolitan area, I was planting what was called a "house church" in smaller city about 60 miles to the south. We regularly commuted to the larger city for all services and the like. In the time I was doing this, I averaged 4000 miles per month on my car.

On staff, I routinely saw others treated meanly and harshly by the lead minister and others in his good graces. For example, I saw staff members blamed if the attendance and baptism statistics for their group were judged to be inadequate. These were evaluated every week, so this was a regular part of staff meetings. Normally, no help was offered to improve the situation, they were just blamed and shamed for the stats and told to make them better.

I saw people prohibited from coming to staff meetings unless they brought a "personal visitor" to Sunday church services the previous week.

Staff members were often pitted against another, creating jealousy and unhealthy competition instead of unity, teamwork and brotherhood. It was a way to keep everybody off-balance, insecure and striving to avoid getting on the lead minister's "bad list." People were mostly motivated out of fear.

In general, nothing that any staff member did could ever be good enough. No matter what good things might have been done, staff members were frequently told how it could have been better.

I saw people routinely berated and humiliated to the point of tears over these or other things, often quite minor, in efforts to gain their submission or "brokenness." And if there weren't tears, they would be further rebuked for being "hard-hearted." It was taught that if somebody was penitent for something, there would be tears.

During the time I was on staff (less than a year), I saw a dozen or more people removed from the staff for financial reasons (so was said) or for "spiritual reasons" which looked mostly like a failure to be adequately "broken." I'll talk more about being "broken" later, but enforcing unquestioning control and creating an atmosphere of fear was the standard operating procedure on the staff.

What did I do when I initially saw abuse on the staff?

Worse, I started to imitate this behavior. Let me share a few examples of some of the harsh and abusive things I did during that time.

Once, our house church group was playing volleyball at an apartment complex. I let one of the guys borrow my sunglasses. After it got dark, he had put them down somewhere and couldn't find them anymore. He came and told me, and though it was pitch dark out and late on a weeknight, I harshly told him, "Go find them."

Another time, our group had a picnic. One of the young women in the group playfully tossed some ice down my back, and I took it as evidence that she wasn't giving me the respect I was due as the leader. So I scolded and belittled her in front of everybody present.

Another time, I was going over the list of people who were studying the Bible to become Christians. As the leader, I was under tremendous pressure to convert and baptize people. Quite of few of these people studying were not as eager to move forward in studying as we expected, and I started calling them "weenies" to the lay leaders in my group as we crossed them off of the list of current studies. One of these other leaders later shared with a group of 100-200 lay leaders in the main church that we had a "weenie roast" and whittled down our number of studies.

In addition, my whole leadership was about getting people to perform, to make the stats better, to do what was expected. It was not primarily about drawing people closer to God or enriching the fellowship. I was on the hook for certain things, and my leadership became about getting those people to do the things I was on the hook for. I also maintained and enhanced my control by regularly finding and addressing people's faults and putting them down. I wasn't looking out for them anymore.

I remember once trying to get a neighbor to come to a church event (bring visitors to events was one of the primary ways that people were judged in this church). After showing some interest, he decided not to go. My first thought was, "It's people like you that get me yelled at on staff." Where was my concern for this individual? There wasn't much. I went on staff because I wanted to help people, but after being in this environment my concern was now limited to whether or not he would come to an event and join this church. Though I thought those would be the best things for him, I didn't really care about what he wanted or thought he needed. I didn't consider myself a mean person, but I was practicing spiritual abuse.

I'm not blaming others for what I did, but the culture of abuse just has a way of expanding. I learned it, I practiced it, and then I passed it on to others.

Do you see what was happening? People getting more involved in the church were becoming more worldly, not more godly. If not confronted and uncorrected, this becomes the normal culture of the church. And that is exactly what happened at this particular church.

Jesus talked about the principle of imitation.

He also told them this parable: "Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

Something not normally discussed when this text is brought up is the context. In context, Jesus is telling us that people following those doing bad things will also do bad things.

Paul also cited this phenomenon:

Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character." (1 Corinthians 15:33)

But who would have thought that the "bad company" could be the leadership of the church?

My Turn

Little did I realize that one day, the harshness and abuse would be amplified and visited upon me in a very direct and personal way. Shortly after these events, I wanted to get some help in my spiritual life-- mostly because my house church was not baptizing people as many people as was expected by the lead minister, and it was "my fault." I had asked to get with the lead minister and some trusted friends (all of whom were also on the staff) to talk. This was the expected behavior on my part, and several other interns on the staff had already had similar discussions. They were called "reconstructions." The meeting was scheduled for midnight. Later I found out this was so my resistance would be low, not just because of scheduling difficulties as I was led to believe.This was a manipulative technique, pure and simple.

The lead minister-- the same one who was conducting the staff meetings I spoke of earlier-- asked me to confess all of my past sins. The sin list in Galatians 5:19ff was gone through like a shopping list, with every permutation you can imagine and some you couldn't possibly imagine. I poured out my heart to the minister and other friends that I trusted. When I was finished with this, the lead minister yelled at me like I was a bad dog-- no, worse than that. I would never yell at a dog the way he yelled at me. He said I was not a Christian, and I was never a Christian. I was told I needed to "get right with God" or else. As he berated me, I was told I was hard-hearted and I was going to "have to do it the hard way." The session lasted several hours and ended up with me leaving as a bad dog who needed to "repent."

At the next staff meeting, I was explicitly called out and reminded of others who had also received this same treatment and had just been fired from staff. I was warned that if I didn't "repent" I would be gone too. I was told I couldn't stay after the business part of the meeting because they were going to do something fun and it "wasn't appropriate for me" (because I wasn't being "penitent").

I was told to fast and pray, which I did. I was told to apologize to the people I led in the house church group I had started, which I had been removed from leading about a month earlier. I did this also. I considered this reasonable.

However, I was also directed to wash the feet of certain individuals in that group, which I did. Later on, I was sitting in a meeting of about 100 or more other small group leaders, and the sins I had confessed privately were told to that group for the deliberate, specific purpose of denigrating and humiliating me. Were they forgiven, or weren't they?

Since the lead minister had decreed that I wasn't a Christian, the culmination of my repentance was being baptized "as a disciple." I had already been baptized into Christ several years before, but that was invalidated according to the decree of the lead minister and the distorted doctrine of baptism in the church. Consenting to getting re-baptized was the only way to end the extreme pressure that was on me, and that had been made abundantly clear to me as in the threats in the staff meeting and the like. This being baptized "as a disciple" was code language for someone who had been "broken" (or "reconstructed" as they also called it) in the manner I have described. One might think I would have felt relieved after getting baptized. Instead, I felt absolutely terrible after consenting to this because it had violated my conscience so deeply.

A month later, I was introduced to the lead minister's supervisor (one of the elite "world sector leaders" in that group of churches) with the phrase, "He asked for a reconstruction, and he got a reconstruction." The way the lead minister said this, it sounded like a conquest or a spiritual rape. I don't mean any disrespect to rape victims, but the experience was that severe. That's what it felt like. It was an extreme exercise in domination, control and violation of my spirit.

My personality type had even been changed by the experience. I had formerly tested as a C-D on the DISC scale; after this experience I was a straight C. The D (the outgoing, determined part of my personality) had been beaten out of me.

I had seen this done to others, and now it was happening to me. It was a living nightmare. I came looking for spiritual help and this is what I got instead.

Why Was This Accepted?

I wasn't the first or last one to be treated this way. We all on staff sat there and let this abusive minister abuse us, one by one. Some were treated slightly better, others much worse. Why did I tolerate it?

This "divide and conquer" pattern of abuse was specifically designed to break down and control the staff of the church. Period. It had nothing to do with making people more godly, love God more, understand God's love for us more, be more effective ministers. None of that. This church had a warped view of discipleship and Christianity, and being humiliated and broken down beyond comprehension was part of the deal.

In "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" the author discusses harsh initiation ceremonies that various groups have-- sports teams, fraternities, the Marines, etc. These groups retain these practices because those who have been through them are now "in the club." Indeed, those of us in this particular church movement that had been treated in this way were "in the club." Some club! Is that the church I read about in the Bible? No, not even close.

But there were others on the staff who never got this treatment. Why? Were they already more godly than the rest? Not likely. Was the leader saving the "treatment" for a more opportune time? In most cases, yes. In other cases, they were already loyal and under control. The mistreatment was about control.

However, even senior staff members got some of the harsh treatment from time to time. For example, once this lead minister admitted he deliberately did not return the phone calls of one of these senior ministers trying to get help leading his ministry because he was testing him to see how many times he'd call to "get advice." Many other times, another senior minister in the group would be berated in front of the group for the behavior of his son, who was about seven at the time. Still another senior minister was berated for not having sex with his wife on Mondays, the decreed "family day" for staff members (at least this was in a men-only group discussion). I was stunned at the thought that this staff of bruised and beaten-up people was then expected to minister the gospel to others.

All of this was happening behind the closed doors of staff meetings. The membership knew nothing of it.

Now this lead minister was an abusive bully and being on staff (and its aftermath) was the closest thing to a living hell that I have ever experienced. However, the rest of the church admired him and looked up to him. He was their hero. After services, there would be lines of people waiting to speak to him. They thought he was wonderful. People have a natural desire to love and respect their leaders. And he played that part oh so well.

And the church was growing. About 300-400 people were baptized in this congregation during the year I was on staff. Things sure looked wonderful... on the outside.

I lived in a surreal world-- the public world of "isn't this church great" and the private world of terror from abusive behavior hanging over my head. This abuse could be unleashed on a mere whim of the lead minister.

Diverting Attention

It's one thing for members to be reluctant about investigating spiritual abuse, mistreatment or misconduct on the part of ministers. It's another thing that these perpetrators and their defenders engage in numerous tactics to obscure the facts. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes unconscious, but either way it is pathological.

After all of these experiences I described above, I spent many years defending this movement. It's quite natural to defend something of which you are a part and with which you identify. However, the more I tried to defend it, the more I realized how much it needed to change. I then spent many more years trying to change it. For me, some minor changes had been made and I honestly thought that if other things were just brought up "the right way" the necessary changes would take place. I then tried to communicate these things in "just the right way." In fact, this website was originally started for the purpose of helping those who had been deeply hurt and trying to address areas of needed change in "just the right way." In time, I saw for myself that there were some sacred cows that were never, ever going to be given up.

Having spent years defending and addressing mistreatment and abuse, I've been around the block a few times on diversions. There are so many ways I've seen these diversions done, and I am sure there are more variations. Some of these are actually quite sophisticated. These seem to fit into 3 main categories- minimizing, blaming the victim and creating confusion.

Blame the Victim
Creating Confusion

What Really Matters

Of course-- what matters is not all of these diversions, but what actually happened. Do not let diversions obscure the facts.

Recently, a teacher from my daughter's high school was arrested for assault. He is alleged to have struck a student with a meter stick (that's a metric yardstick). Now this teacher has taught thousands of students over his career. Many probably found him helpful and inspiring, and there are probably thousands of students that he didn't hit with a meter stick. But that doesn't mean this particular incident didn't happen or that there shouldn't be consequences for the action.

It is sad, but sometimes the world has a better sense of justice and righteousness than the church. Can you imagine hearing some of these excuses mentioned above in a court of law? "Yes, your honor, the defendant is accused of murdering the victim. But there were hundreds of people that he clearly did not murder. So how could he have committed this murder? Therefore, we move for a dismissal of the charges." This might sound absurd, but this kind of thing happens in unhealthy and abusive church situations all the time.

Does God Sometimes Use Abuse for Good?

This is a hard section to write. I'm not condoning abuse, and I don't believe God condones it in the least. But God sometimes uses abusive people or situations for good. The story of Joseph in Genesis is a primary example from the Scriptures. Romans 8:28 also comes to mind-- God works all things for the good of those who love him.

Personally, I was baptized in an abusive church, though I didn't see the abuse. Later on, God used abusive treatment directed towards me to break me of my abusive approach to ministry and leadership. One might also say I simply reaped what I'd sown and came to my senses.

Abusive churches or individuals may do many good things. However, we must be very careful to attribute good results from abusive situations or behavior to God and not the abuse. That is-- "God used an abusive church to reach me," not "an abusive church reached me for God." Don't give abuse credit for God's work. Doing evil so that good may result is not of God.

Why not say--as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say--"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved. (Romans 3:8)

The Church Must "Wise Up" About Abuse and Deal With it Righteously

I've only briefly touched on my personal experiences with abuse. I've been the naive one, the abuser, the abused, the defender, the one trying to bring about change in the "right way" and the advocate for the abused-- and finally the one who left because the things that needed to change didn't change. I've participated in this abuse thing from just about every possible angle. Now, I seek to help the church address this problem. One of the goals of The Barnabas Ministry is to educate people about this phenomenon and give them tools to recover from it and address it.

So here's some straight talk about what to do about abuse:

For the church or its leadership to look the other way on matters of abuse and mistreatment is utterly, unbelievably unconscionable. The weak among God's people cry out to leaders and the church for justice and protection. It is their obligation to act on behalf of the mistreated.

Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. (Psalm 82:3)

You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. (Ezekiel 34:4)

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

The Lord answered, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, `My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. (Luke 12:42-46)

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. (Romans 14:13)

... so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)

We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. (2 Corinthians 6:3)

Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:29)

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)


Spiritual abuse is far more prevalent and damaging than the average Christian can imagine. This goes beyond the mere "human's make mistakes" type of problems in a church. Spiritual abuse consists of deliberate, calculated, and sophisticated techniques for controlling and dominating people-- and for hiding the problem from others and protecting the system that allows it to flourish.

It is a leading factor in people leaving churches, and in seeking to find a "churchless Christianity" option in their lives.

It is my hope that wherever you are in relation to spiritual mistreatment and abuse you will find this useful in broadening your understanding of this topic.