“The abusive leader ‘speaks for God’, and since no one wants to speak against God, the leader has ultimate power”.
We were expected to agree with him on everything, or else we were accused of being rebellious and having “a jezebel spirit” to try to control him. In reality, a healthy ministry and/or ministry leader will be open to and welcome accountability and feedback from those serving with them in ministry. A dictatorship style of leading is never God’s way.
I was saved at 13 years old and had already established a firm relationship with God when I met my ex. The way he would undermine my relationship with God was by causing me to doubt that I could really hear his voice for myself, and needed him to confirm it. Another way was to make me feel like I was somehow being used by demonic spirits to cause him harm. I felt like I was carrying a spiritual disease, and was constantly fasting and praying to “be free” from whatever demonic spirits I had. After all, I didn’t want to be used by the enemy to destroy a ministry. Little by little, my faith and assurance that I could hear God and be led by him was diminished and undermined, until I was caught in a whirlwind of confusion and despair. And I know others in the ministry were going through the same thing.
Spiritual abuse happens in marriages/relationships when scripture verses are used to control and manipulate. The context of scripture is twisted, and you are left feeling if you don’t obey, you will be at odds with God. Having your faith used against you is such an insidious form of abuse – it happens gradually and causes you to lose your step. The ground becomes shakier and more unstable beneath you.
So what are some red flags of spiritual abuse to be aware of when looking for a church, following a ministry, or getting into a relationship?
1. Unbalanced views on “submission”.
Whether you are entering into a romantic relationship, or are looking for a church to join, if unchecked and unquestioned “submission” to authority is a focus, this is a bright red waving flag. In many Christian communities, “submission” is expected to look more like “subjugation”, which means to be dominated and controlled. Anytime a person expects unconditional submission to what they say, they are placing themselves in the place of God, and God himself doesn’t even operate this way. God doesn’t force anyone to follow Him or submit to His leading. It is a free will choice we all have. In spiritually abusive churches, ministries, or relationships, it is an expectation and demand to submit to their authority, or you are labeled as rebellious. In reality, in healthy relationships of any kind, there is mutuality. Both views are considered. Both parties have a voice and a say. If you can’t voice your opinion to a romantic partner or a spiritual leader, without being lambasted and shut down, this is a serious sign that further abuse is to come.
2. Can’t take constructive criticism.
This ties into point number one. Spiritual abusers expect unconditional submission AND they expect unconditional agreement. They simply can not take feedback and constructive criticism. They believe their opinion, their view, their position is the only valid and right one. They use scripture verses such as “touch not my anointed” and “wives submit to your husbands” completely out of context and bully and coerce their victims into acquiescing to their demands. They use the Bible as a weapon to control and dominate. Bringing up valid concerns and different viewpoints is seen being divisive and unruly. In reality, it takes much courage and love to bring up concerns to a pastor or romantic partner. Healthy communication is an integral part of all relationships, and unfortunately spiritual abusers shut down healthy communication in the name of “obedience to authority”.
Another trait of spiritual abuse, is isolation. This is something that happens gradually, and is done with the purpose of undermining the victims safety and support systems. Seeds of doubt are planting in the victim’s ear – your family is toxic, other ministries don’t hear God like mine, we have something special and others want to take that away. Abusers love isolation, because it becomes that much easier to control and manipulate their victims. One scripture my ex used to cause us to be isolated, was that we were supposed to “be seperate from the world”. In the spiritual abuser’s mind, everyone who is not on their side is the enemy. They have the special connection with God and others are just being used by the enemy to attack and undermine their calling. In romantic relationships, spiritual abusers isolate their victims by using toxic teachings that the husband is the wife’s covering, therefore she is not allowed to do anything unless he approves. She can’t have friends because they will take away from her duties at home. She can’t join clubs or groups, because they are “worldly”.
4. Double standards.
Do as I say, not as I do. Spiritual abusers love to hold others to the highest and strictest standards, while they themselves are exempt from meeting those very same standards. It’s not uncommon for spiritual abusers to be alcoholics, porn addicts, gamblers, or anything of the like. The show up to church on Sunday and put on the front of a godly man, while being verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive to their wives and family at home. They have a form of godliness, but deny the power of God to actually change them into truly godly men of character. It is a front and a charade, a mask well worn, to promote themselves as a pillar of faith. In reality, they are like the pharisees – white washed tombs that are shiny on the outside, while the insides are decaying. It’s no wonder that some of the most harsh words Jesus spoke was for the pharisees. There’s something especially wicked to portray good, with evil and abusive intentions behind the mask.
If you have ever been a victim of spiritual abuse, whether in a church setting or in a relationship, I want to validate your experience. To have your faith in God and the word of God used against you is a travesty, and the Lord is grieved over your pain.
God is for you!
One of my favorite passages since I became a Christian, is 1 Corinthians 13. Since God is love, I find it helpful to insert “God” in these verses.
God is patient. God is kind. God does not envy. God does not boast. God does not dishonor others. God is not self seeking. God is not easily angered. God keeps no records of wrongs. God does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.
These are the exact opposite attributes of spiritual abuse. Keep these words close to your heart, as you are close to His heart. He loves you!