What constitutes spiritual abuse? Is it just referring to cults? It does include cults, but it is so much more. Continue reading on below to learn more.
To read previous posts in this series, click on these links:
Remember, It’s All About Power and Control.
I have been watching Leah Rhemini’s Scientology And The Aftermath show on A&E from the beginning. It is horrifying and fascinating at the same time. If you haven’t been watching the show, Leah is a former Scientologist, as well as her co-host Mike Rindel. They are trying to expose the workings of a dangerous, and very powerful cult. So many victims come forward to tell stories of how this so called church has destroyed their lives. The bad part of it is that the church seems to be immune to the law and paying taxes to the IRS.
The Scientologists, among other cultic religious groups, share distinctive characteristics that all point to spiritual abuse. First, we will define what spiritual abuse is:
Anyone who uses God, religion, religious texts, to manipulate followers to do what they want. Spiritual abusers typically threaten victims with eternal damnation or similar punishments to gain compliance.
My husband and myself have personally experienced multiple forms of spiritual abuse, so this topic hits home for us.
It is a common thread with others who experienced abuse within religious groups. I share the stories of many people in this post. Names of people and churches are changed to protect privacy.
My husband Keith was staying with his brother and his family when he moved here to Texas until he got a job and an apartment. His brother is a pastor of a church on the west side of a small town. His brother said he would help him get back on his feet if Keith would go to his church for a year. It was obvious early on that his brother was a pastor of a cult and he didn’t want anything to do with it. His brother would tell him that he couldn’t wear sweatpants, a short sleeved shirt, or grow a beard. He couldn’t watch movies or go out and play billiards. He could help take the offering at church, but couldn’t serve in the music ministry. The girls wear skirts down to their ankles, long sleeved shirts(even in 120 degree heat), no jewelry or makeup. The strange thing is they could use all the hairspray they want, but weren’t allowed to have bangs. They piled their hair on their heads in a bun everyday. They didn’t have engagement rings in the church. They gave each other watches! That better be a Rolex! The pastor never went to bible college, and seemed unqualified to lead a church. His topics on the pulpit were about his late parents, who he insisted were not in heaven. This infuriated Keith, who knew his parents were believers for many years. The pastor would use church funds to pay for lavish dinners with other preacher friends and make racist jokes at the dinner table. He would not let his grown daughter have a ring that a friend gave her. He threw it in the trash. His brother tried to set Keith up with some ugly gal at the church against his wishes. Keith decided to leave his brother’s house as soon as he got a job. His brother demanded him to live close to the church so they could keep an eye on him. Keith wanted to live on the east side near his job instead. He told his brother he didn’t believe in anything his church teaches and that he would be moving out. It was the last time he ever saw his brother.
Examples of Spiritual Abuse:
Obviously, a person claiming he has special revelation from God that no one else has, (or that he is God) is a huge red flag. But maybe it isn’t obvious to some who falls for it every time. Jim Jones got a whole community to drink the Kool-Aid.
This sort of thing could happen in any religious group. Religious groups who think they are the only ones who have the truth are dangerous.
Most of my readers on this blog are Christians, so we are going to focus on major Christian groups for now. There are certain core beliefs that all Christians have in common. The Apostles Creed is a very familiar list of those beliefs. Some of them are the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, sinful man that needs a Savior, believers baptism, and salvation by grace.
Most cults and some Christian churches either twist and distort these truths or add some extra strange beliefs to them. Isolation is normally used to keep congregants in line so they can’t hear the truth from outsiders. The fact is, when you are cut off from other people, weird beliefs can creep in without anyone questioning them. You are prime targets for brain washing. Once you hear something over and over, you start to believe it. It is only by checks and balances of other orthodox believers that keep us from falling into these types of groups. So the key is to look for strange, out of the ordinary beliefs. Trust your intuition.
One of the major tell tale signs of a cult is that they change who God is. Saying that Jesus and Satan are related or is equal to each other is heresay. Changing God into something like “The Force” in Star Wars is not right. God doesn’t hate anyone, no matter what some groups may say. God is love. And he wants all of his creation to be saved.
Thinking Their Way Of Doing Something Is The Only Way.
Obviously, as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation and eternal life. Yet, there are many denominations of Christianity, some with different practices, traditions, and governing styles, and worship music. They all believe Jesus to be the Savior. It would be wrong for the Pastor at Blue River Christian Church to say that the church across the street, Tree Grove Christian Church, is going to hell because Tree Grove doesn’t do things exactly the way Blue River does it.
Do you think this an exaggeration? Well, it’s not. My previous church denomination has multiple churches in every city. Sometimes within walking distance of each other. The basic doctrines are the same. Yet, one church wouldn’t fellowship with another church because the other church lets women wear pants, and has contemporary worship music. Yes, it’s that insane.
As Christians, we have to focus on the person and relationship with Jesus Christ rather than focusing on various man made rules that don’t matter a hill of beans in eternity.
But what about “standards”?!
Let me tell you that more people have been damaged in the cause of Christ over “standards” than anything else. Do you know why unbelievers don’t want anything to do with Christianity or why believers leave the church? It certainly not because of Jesus. It’s usually the church leaders and church members who scare them away or disgust them with so many frivolous man made rules. Jesus never talked about dress code, hair styles, worship music, or a host of other useless things.
They Take Away Your Personal Choices.
God in his wisdom gave us free will to choose. Sometimes we make good choices and a lot of times we make poor choices. But God does not force himself on us to accept him. We must make the choice ourselves.
Spiritual abuse occurs in those churches who tell you who to marry, what kind of birth control to use (or not to use), what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of music to listen to, where to go to college, what career to follow, what neighborhood to live in, and how to spend your money. And they leverage eternity or peer pressure to get compliance.
I’m not talking about the pastor preaching against being unequally yoked, like marrying a non-Christian. We all know we shouldn’t be marrying unbelievers. But how about someone who is poor and your family is rich? Or your beloved is another race? Here is one story:
I was engaged to a Peruvian fellow in college. When I told my pastor that we were engaged, he wouldn’t shake my hand or congratulate me. He said, “Thanks for telling me.” He didn’t believe the Spanish speaking church members should be marrying English speaking church members. What?! I slinked away from that conversation real fast.
Yeah, that’s racism. The same thing happened to another couple, a black woman and a white man who wanted to get married in the church. They had to get married in another denomination. Well, guess what? God said not to marry heathen nations, but no mention is made about skin color.
Don’t get me started on child brides and arranged marriages. This happens a lot in foreign countries, but most people don’t know that it also happens here in the States. The Fundamentalist Mormons aren’t the only ones who have forced marriages between young girls to older men. You should be able to choose who you want to marry. No one else. I personally know a Christian white couple who had an arranged marriage by their preacher parents. A 16 year old girl. Who does that to their children? They looked like the perfect couple on the outside for a long time. (They are divorced today, BTW.) The thing is, our American culture doesn’t have arranged marriages. Yes, India and Middle East cultures, and some Asian countries do. Although that is part of their culture, I believe everyone should be able to choose who they spend his/her life with.
I don’t know how the religious leaders would know you are using birth control unless you TOLD them, but many people are being intimidated into using a particular kind of birth control the church allows them to use.(For example, the calendar method vs. other methods like the pill). Folks are told how many children to have or asking why they don’t have any children. Religious leaders tell you you are going to hell if you prevent a pregnancy or refuse to have any more children.
Incorrect medical information is given to believers in order to scare them. Birth control is NOT the same as abortion. If you are pregnant, the pill will not end the pregnancy. The morning after pill (Plan B) is just a heavy batch of the same hormones used in birth control pills. (Only RU486 is the actual abortion pill.) The pill and Plan B don’t work if you are already pregnant! Trust me, I am a pharmacy professional. It is between you and God and your spouse decide how many children to have, not the church. And threatening eternal damnation in order to get compliance is wrong!
Dress code was going to come up eventually, right? I mean everyone knows that you should dress in your Sunday best for church, right? Well, in the United States, that is only the case in certain areas. The tradition is a dress for the ladies and a suit and tie for the men. But it is a tradition, and that’s all it is. Some churches use shaming tactics to manipulate people to conform to their preferences. They make it seem that someone in a suit or tie is more spiritual that a person in jeans and a T-shirt. They make it seem that we get extra credit from God by wearing a particular outfit!
Guess what? You won’t find a dress code for church in the Bible because there wasn’t one. People had one outfit. Period. You would think some Christians believe Jesus and the Apostles wore suits and ties and had Baptist haircuts by the way they talk.
The Bible talks about modesty, yes. But that word “modesty” means different things to different people. In the middle east, it’s a burka or a veil. In California, pants and a polo are modest. My church I attend now doesn’t have a dress code. I’m in Arizona and it is hot(up to 118 degrees) here 9 months of the year. Wearing a suit here is uncomfortable to say the least. People wear shorts, tank tops, sandals, jeans, t-shirts. I have never seen our pastor in a suit. He wears khakis and a polo most of the time, or a button down shirt. Some of the pastors on staff wear flip flops and jeans and a t-shirt. And do you know what? The world doesn’t come to an end. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man sees the outside, but God sees the heart.” People still get saved. We still have regular baptisms and visitors coming to the church. You can still love Jesus no matter what you wear.
The Old Tired Christian Music Debate.
Well, I am not going to mention the music during church services. I am talking about the music you listen to in your personal time. There are those churches that don’t believe in listening to secular music of any kind. That’s fine, but they don’t want anyone else listening to secular music either. And they will judge you for it. No one goes to hell because they dance to some Lionel Richie. No one stops reading their bible or going to church because of a few Usher songs. Sin and back sliding goes much deeper than the music you listen to. My husband and I are musicians who play and enjoy a variety of music genres and we still love and serve Jesus. It’s nothing but pure legalism.
Shaming You Or Looking Down On Secular Careers As Not Serving God.
Missionaries and pastors are like rock stars in some churches. If you want to go to school for engineering, for example, you’re not perceived as spiritual or as dedicated. A lot of pressure is put on college aged kids to go into ministry, whether they are called by God or not.
Trust me, I am not minimizing the call of God on our wonderful missionaries. I was one for 13 years. Friend, there is honor in all work that you do in God’s strength. We need Christian mechanics, salesman, doctors, lawyers and business owners. You are still a missionary at your work every day. No one should shame you or manipulate you into doing something you don’t want.
Do you have to send your kid to a Christian school? God can use Christians in secular colleges also. It comes down to the spiritual maturity of the believer and having a firm biblical foundation to begin with. Here someone’s thoughts about choosing a college:
I used to have the view that Christians should only go to Christian colleges. I myself went to a Christian college. They are great if you want to go into full time ministry, like I did. But if you want to do any other career, then Christian colleges don’t measure up to secular universities for math, sciences, and medical. When I was no longer in full time church ministry, my ministry degree was not useful for obtaining a job outside. Even though most of the courses were the same, employers don’t look at it the same way. Even if you transfer to a state college, many of your courses won’t transfer. I wished that I had gone to another school looking back.
Here is a story of another family being shamed in another way:
I was in ministry at a church in New Jersey and my pastor would tell staff members they had to live in town near the church. One of the youth leaders lived in the suburbs outside of the city. The pastor would humiliate this family from the pulpit, criticizing the choice the family made to live in the country instead of the city. I don’t blame them. The city we were in was very dangerous. That family left the church instead of dealing with the ridicule.
They Distort God’s Gift Of Sex In Some Way.
It is preached in a lot of churches that women exist to meet the man’s sexual needs. The women get married and are told they cannot refuse to give their husband sex for any reason. Did you know that in the law of Moses, women were not to be touched during her period or after childbirth? Why? Because it was a time for the woman to rest and heal during those times. In churches today, women’s needs, feelings, or health issues are never acknowledged. Women are receptacles and baby makers and that’s it. Not only is that spiritual abuse, it is sexual abuse. I personally know a wife who was forced to have sex 7 times a day. When she refused, he would quote Bible verses at her to make her comply. Folks, that is rape. Yes, you can be married and still be raped. Because rape is defined as sexual activity without consent. Religious leaders keep condoning this stuff and teaching it from the pulpit. Sex is supposed to be mutually satisfying expression of love.
The other is this purity culture that focuses so much on virginity. Sometimes it seems like virginity is worshipped as much as Jesus. “If you save yourself for marriage and marry a Christian, you will be happily married.” That just isn’t true. Those who make a mistake get treated as outcasts. They are not taught of God’s grace and mercy, that they can still be forgiven and have a good marriage in the future. People sin, people make mistakes. Sexual sin is not the unpardonable sin.
They Pressure You To Give Money Or There Is Financial Distortion Going On.
We all poke fun at the televangelists who ask you for money on the TV, promising you blessings if you would just give. There are plenty of people who send in the money! YES, The red flag should go up if the church’s leaders live in the lap of luxury.
There are other considerations. Some churches make you tell them what you are tithing or if you are tithing. It was never a secret. You couldn’t serve in the church unless you were giving your 10%. Some churches will even ask for paystubs.
My church had “Give It All Sunday” a couple times a year. Church members were pressured into giving their entire paycheck to the church. We were supposed to have “faith” that God would supply our needs until the next paycheck. This church community was dirt poor. How would we pay our rent or mortgage or pay our power bill with no money?
Well, God does provide our needs by giving us a job with a paycheck. God never demands us to give all our money away to the church. That’s stupidity, not faith.
Here’s another example:
There was this young preacher boy in my church. He had a couple hundred bucks to spend on a used car, so get could get a good job. The church pressured him into him buying a suit and tie instead of a car so he would “look” like a preacher boy. That doesn’t make a lick of sense in so many ways. If he had a car and got a job, then he could buy a suit later.
Jesus was poor and had one item of clothing, like a lot of people in those days. Jesus doesn’t care about your clothes. What he care about is people.
They Promote Hatred Towards Other People.
I don’t care what you believe, but if your religion tells you to hate people, then that isn’t a God worth following. Any people group that is different than you in any way should be given the same respect and courtesy as the next person. For example, the gay community is the hot topic right now. Many horrible things have been done in the name of God against the LGBT community. Jesus never said to go out into the world and convert the gays into straight people. He said to love your neighbor as yourself. He said to go into ALL the world and preach the Gospel to EVERYONE. They need Jesus as much as everyone else, and they aren’t going to hear the Gospel and love of Jesus if we show hatred towards them, or throw them out of our churches. You don’t have to condone behavior you don’t believe in. But if a church makes you choose between being kind and loving or hateful, you should always choose to love. (But what what about God calling it an abomination?) Good question. The answer is that God calls many things an abomination. Proverbs 6:16,17 says:
16 There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: 17 Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, 18 A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, 19 A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.
All sin is the same in God’s eyes.
Church Is More Important Than Family Or Work.
Of course we all know about the commandment that says to keep holy the Sabbath Day. Gathering together and fellowship with other believers is an important part of our spiritual walk. But at times it can get out of balance. It can turn into spiritual abuse if you are not mindful of a few important things.
There are churches that meet Sunday mornings once a week. Then there is the other side of the pendelum where they meet for Sunday school, morning service, evening service, and a mid week service. Then you have a churches with too much going on:
During college, I was exhausted from “serving the Lord”. I picked up kids Sunday morning on the buses for church. We attended Sunday school, and then Children’s church. After morning services, we’d get back on the buses and take the kids home. I’d have lunch and maybe a nap if I was lucky. Then we went to choir practice and then the evening service. After the evening church, there was usually an afterglow fellowship for the singles. When I got home, I had to do homework until about midnight. I worked during the day and went to school at night. Wednesday nights we were at church for the mid week service and prayer. Thursdays were for soulwinning and visitation. Saturdays were for bus visitation. It would all start over again next week. I can’t imagine a family with kids doing all this, but I had classmates with a spouse and kids that did all that and more. It was insane.
Don’t forget vacation bible school, women’s retreats, revivals and missions conferences. These services were not optional. You were expected to be there if you were a member of the church. They didn’t care if you had to work or if you had a family with responsibilities. Church services were elevated above everything else. It really is exhausting.
Listen to this one truth friend: God instituted the family first long before He instituted the church. God also instituted work long before church. Don’t ever neglect your family or providing for your family over church services and activities! You can serve God with the resources and talents God gives you, without destroying your family or losing your job. Personal Bible reading, prayer, and worship with your family honors God. Running yourself ragged for the church while your family goes to pot does not glorify God. Here are some stories of spiritual abuse like this:
I wanted to serve as a choir member, but the Pastor wouldn’t let me because I wasn’t at church on Wednesday nights. I had to work. He wouldn’t make an exception for my situation.
I stood up during testimony time and praised God that I got a new job. The silence was deafening. They didn’t believe in women working outside the home even though I didn’t have kids.
I worked a paper route at 3-6AM so I wouldn’t have to work on Sundays. They expected me to show up to soulwinning group Tuesday mornings at 8AM instead of getting my proper sleep.
Some professions require working around the clock which includes the Sabbath. Nurses, doctors, pharmacies, security guards, and hospital staff should not be penalized for having to work an occassional Sunday or rotating Sunday. Sometimes employers not in these fields require it of their employees and the employee is not able to quit because of financial struggles. Sometimes God provides a better job, sometimes it takes longer. Either way God knows our hearts and understands our want to worship with a congregation and not able to. Sometimes those additional services mid week or Sunday nights can help bridge the gap. Personal bible study and prayer on your own is always possible to keep your relationship with God strong until he provides a better job. Don’t ever tell someone to quit their job because of working on Sundays out of “faith”. Maybe give them some leads on other good jobs instead.
The Church Hides Abuse Or Criminal Behavior.
This seems like a no brainer, but I see it all the time. A church leader tolerates a pedophile, covers it up, backs up the abuser, and lets it continue to happen. Sometimes it is the church leader who is the culprit. I’ve seen financial shenanigans going on with the church’s money and no one stops it. I have seen staff members addicted to porn or fornicating within the church. Everyone knows it is going on and gossips about it, but no church discipline takes place. Run away from this kind of church. Nothing good comes out of it.
God gave us the Holy Spirit in order that He would speak to us about what is the right path is for us.
He also speaks to us in His Word. Sometimes God can speak through someone prominent in our lives, who gives us advice and counsel. But in the end, you and no one else is responsible for your life choices. It may be a bad choice, but that is how we learn and grow. But no one has the right to be the Holy Spirit for you, including religious leaders.
Spiritual Abuse Has Long Term Effects For Its Victims
Spirituality and religion are supposed to be a blessing, a comfort, and a guide for our lives. When it is abused or twisted into something it is not, then it causes so much damage. It is one of the worst kind of abuses because it changes our perception of God. It has an impact on us in our eternal choices because of distorted facts, anger directed against God and unnecessary fear.
There are many more examples and stories of spiritual abuse that I can share. Have you experienced any of these? Do you have any stories to share?
If you have been a victim of spiritual abuse, there is hope that you can have a genuine, loving relationship with God without being manipulated, coerced or shamed. Jesus is separate from religious power. Please contact MendingtheSoul.org for help and support for spiritual abuse.