SPIRITUAL ABUSE: Definitions, Signs & How To Deal With It

Spiritual Abuse

There are many different types of abuse, but spiritual (or religious) abuse is one you may not be aware of. Most examples of spiritual abuse, if it’s recognized at all, involve a church elder or faith leader inflicting abuse on congregation members, often by creating a toxic culture within the church or group by shaming or dominating people through the power of their position. Spiritual abuse also can occur inside an intimate partner relationship. So, in this post, we’ll see the definition of spiritual abuse, the signs or checklists, and how to deal with it.

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse can be defined as any attempt to utilize religion, faith, or beliefs to impose authority and control over another person. Spiritual abuse can occur in a religious setting or a personal connection.

It’s not exclusive to a single faith, denomination, or group of individuals. It can occur in any religious organization as part of child abuse, elder abuse, or domestic violence. Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, can affect people of various ages, genders, social classes, ethnic groups, and places.

Abuse is a pattern in which one person (whether an intimate partner or a person in authority) uses fear, intimidation, violence, or other harm to exert control over another. Abuse can cause severe distress and have a negative influence on your mental health. It is critical to understand that abuse is never your fault.

Types of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can occur in a variety of contexts. To spiritually abuse you, a person does not have to be a member of your family or a spiritual leader.

#1. Religious Intolerance

Religious abuse is a type of spiritual abuse that occurs within a religious organization. A religious leader utilizing scripture or beliefs to coerce or control the behavior of members of the organization is an example of religious abuse. If a religious leader has done any of the following, you may be suffering from religious or spiritual abuse.

  • You have used religion or beliefs to disgrace or degrade yourself.
  • You were coerced into providing money or other resources you did not wish to give.
  • Forced you to be intimate or have sex with someone you didn’t want to have.
  • Made you feel pressed or compelled to do things you didn’t want to do
  • Stopping you from practicing your religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • Forcing you to raise your children based on beliefs you disagree with, or
  • Forcing you to engage in religious practices you do not want to perform.

We can see these abusive practices in both large, well-known faith groups and cults. Leaders of pseudo-religious groups often use spirituality to maintain control over their adherents. This can have major ramifications for both adults and children.

#2. Domestic Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse does not have to be committed by a religious leader; it can also be a manifestation of domestic violence. Domestic violence is much more than just striking, kicking, and slapping. It also contains numerous psychological and emotional components that inflict significant harm and distress.

  • An abusive partner who employs spiritual abuse may:
  • Make light of, mock, or ridicule your religious views or practices.
  • Prevent you from practising your religion the way you want to.
  • Manipulate or bully you based on your beliefs.
  • Demand that you raise your children religiously or non-religiously.
  • Use religious scriptures or ideas to excuse different types of abuse (physical, sexual, financial, etc.)

Using religious or spiritual leaders or teachings to:

  • Force you to stay in relationship or marriage
  • Excuse violence and abuse
  • Blame you for violence and abuse
  • Encourage you to accept violence and abuse
  • Stop you or your children from getting medical or health care
  • Force or pressure you into a marriage you don’t want
  • Stopping you from returning home to Country
  • Shaming or insulting your religious or spiritual beliefs.

People who have been abused may feel ashamed or alienated, and they may wonder if they deserve to be mistreated. Abuse is never the victim’s responsibility. Abuse, whether at home or within a religious organization, is always the perpetrator’s fault. Let’s see the signs of this spiritual abuse in the next section.

Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Religion and spirituality should bring you comfort, tranquillity, intimacy, and inspiration. If this is not the case, you may be the victim of spiritual abuse.

If your religious leader or personal partner uses scriptures or religious beliefs to dominate you in the following ways, you may be experiencing spiritual abuse.

  • Clothing
  • Behavior
  • Sexuality
  • Making a decision
  • Choosing whether or not to have children
  • Finances
Read Also: Power Struggle: How to deal with it in Relationships

What Does Spiritual Abuse Look Like

#1. Spiritual Abuse Makes Use of Gossip Tactics

I recall a chat I had with a well-known minister in which he began to say, “Some people in the church are saying X, Y, and Z about you.” He then began to prod at the vulnerable place of my personal reputation in an attempt to quiet my disagreeing ideas about a poor set of leadership decisions made by him and others. He wanted me to know that anonymous individuals were speaking ill of me so that I wouldn’t say anything else about the leadership’s blunders.

Spiritual abusers profit from spreading rumours, defamation, and hearsay, and causing reputational harm to their victims. Instead of encouraging people to follow Christ’s command to come before a brother or sister privately about any (perceived) wrongdoings, spiritual abusers save these accusations, half-truths, and exaggerations for a rainy day when they can use them to beat unwanted sheep into submission or expulsion.

#2. Spiritual Abusers Are Often Very Likeable

I have yet to meet a spiritual abuser who was widely despised by other Christians. In reality, many of these spiritual abusers have had some of the most endearing smiles and public personalities that would entice anyone to believe them. But, behind closed doors — or, more accurately, in our social media age, behind private messaging — spiritual abusers reveal a side of themselves that the rest of the world never sees.

We can’t view spiritual abusers as apparent suspects in a bad crime detective film. They are usually more sophisticated and devious than that.

#3. Spiritual Abuse Proliferates in the Private Sector

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been subjected to spiritual abuse via private phone calls, secret talks, private messages on social media, and so on. Spiritual abusers frequently present ostensibly devout motives for bringing a public conversation into private quarters. But don’t be fooled by the look of sanctity; spiritual abuse thrives in the darkness of privacy.

Spiritual abusers can get away with unrestricted verbal abuse with no witnesses within the limits of a private phone call. Even if you do manage to record the call, it has no actual value in the eyes of any court because it’s without consent. Spiritual abusers can say things in a private message on social media that they would never say in a public thread and get away with convincing others in the church that you falsified a transcript of the exchange.

When someone in power attempts to move a conversation away from the public view and into private quarters, proceed with extreme caution.

#4. Spiritual Abuse Twists the Truth in Order to Maintain Power

Another interaction I recall vividly was when a minister from a church I had previously attended informed me that it was particularly Presbyterian to agree wholeheartedly with what the church’s presbyters (elders) said without doubt. Knowing that many members of theologically conservative churches want to be labelled as “conservative,” “Reformed,” and “Presbyterian,” this preacher attempted to distort Presbyterianism in order to maintain his power and authority and stifle all dissident voices. Thank God, my own Presbyterianism study at the time caused me to entirely ignore his fact-twisting, but many other sheep are not that fortunate. Be wary of spiritual abusers who manipulate the facts in order to maintain their control and dominance.

#5. Spiritual Abusers Always Speaks Before Asking

Spiritual abusers will make assumptions about you, act on those assumptions, and treat you accordingly without ever hearing your side of the story. And, if you do get to express your perspective and defence, they dismiss, denigrate, and twist it to harm your reputation, lower your credibility in front of the rest of the church, and portray themselves as the hero.

We can see spiritual abuse signs in intimate relationships when an abusive partner:

  • ridicules or criticizes the religious or spiritual beliefs of another
  • restricts the other partner’s religious or spiritual beliefs
  • manipulates or shames their partner because of their religious or spiritual beliefs
  • requires the children to be raised in a faith that the other partner does not share
  • uses religious scriptures or beliefs to justify or diminish abusive behavior (e.g., physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse/marital rape)

What Factors Contribute to the Prevention of Spiritual Abuse?

It is difficult to prevent spiritual abuse, as it is with all forms of abuse, but there are some tips that may be helpful.

#1. Empowerment

It is critical that we allow individuals to develop autonomy within spiritual situations. That is, good spiritual environments empower people to develop as individuals capable of thinking for themselves and expressing disagreement or concern.

#2. Supervision

Many places of worship lack frequent supervision or assistance for those in paid or unpaid leadership positions. Supervision should be a healthy activity within spiritual contexts where beneficial and problematic behaviors can be discussed.

#3. Support

It is critical to create support for persons who have been subjected to spiritual abuse. As people have a greater understanding of spiritual abuse, this may assist in preventing additional abuse.

#4. Training

Training is essential to ensuring that individuals continue to develop and implement safer behaviors. Healthy teamwork should be emphasized in training since team leadership appears to be a protective factor against spiritual abuse.

#5. Awareness

Because spiritual abuse is still little understood, there is a need to raise awareness about it. Individuals may be oblivious to the consequences of their actions on others or of other ways of behaving. Furthermore, there is a need to improve understanding of scripture and sacred writings so that people are more aware of when these are twisted.

Dealing With Spiritual Abuse

If you believe you are the victim of spiritual abuse, whether from a religious organization or as a result of intimate partner violence, there is help available. You do not have to go through this ordeal alone. You have earned the right to feel secure.

Here are some options for dealing with spiritual abuse:

  • Leaving a company or a relationship
  • Consultation with a reliable friend or family member
  • Speaking with a helpline or shelter advocate

Help and Resources

If you are being spiritually abused, there are a lot of options available to help you.

On its website, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides a toll-free number (1-800-799-SAFE) as well as a chat option.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence also provides a number of resources for anyone who is afraid that they are under abuse.

Furthermore, many cities have domestic violence shelters with advocates and resources for those who are under abuse in any way.

How Do You Address Spiritual Abuse?

When dealing with spiritual abuse in your context, start with a grace-filled answer. When your leadership is called into question or criticized, take a step back and evaluate the purpose behind what is being stated, even if this seems paradoxical.

What Is Spiritual Trauma?

Spiritual trauma is the result of a person’s reaction to a belief system that belittles and degrades them on behalf of a deity or a group that worships a deity. More information is available here. Christians are frequently encouraged to recruit for their religion, and losing someone from the Christian faith can be devastating.

What Is Considered Religious Abuse?

Religious abuse is defined as abuse perpetrated in the name of religion, such as harassment or humiliation, which can result in psychological distress. Religious abuse can also refer to the use of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological purposes, such as the abuse of a clergy position.

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