On Spiritual Abuse

“For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.  For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”

2 Cor. 11:19-20

“For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men…  And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven…  but within they are full of extortion and excess.”

Mt. 23:4-5, 9, 23

“Neither as being lords over God’s heritage…”

1 Pet. 5:3




Cultic Characteristics



Order of Contents

Articles  18+
Books  6
Quotes  2




Challies, Tim – ‘Spiritual Abuse’  (2011)  15 paragraphs

Clark, R. Scott

‘When Pastors Abuse’  (2015)

‘A Beginner’s Guide To Addressing Spiritual Abuse In The Church’  (2021)  38 paragraphs with further resources

Murray, David

‘A Reformed “Spotlight”: Fighting Spiritual Abuse in the Reformed Church’  (2016)  16 paragraphs

‘Why do Churches Cover up Sin?’  (2018)  29 paragraphs

Murray lists as answers: Genuine belief in innocence, Management approach, Gifted offender, Personal blessing, Friendship, Lack of friendship, Loss of reputation, Financial loss, Loss of career, Stalled agenda, Ignorance of effects, ‘Weak’ accuser, The accuser’s supporters, The judges’ pasts, Dug into a hole, False view of sovereignty, Abusing grace and peace, Intimidation, Inexperience and Fear of condemning the innocent.

Allberry, Sam – ‘How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors?’  (2019)  17 paragrpahs

“What leadership virtue are we mistaking bullying for?  Which trait is such a priority that we aren’t even aware when it is deployed in an ungodly, and biblically prohibited, way?”

“There is obviously much to be learned from both successful CEOs and also great generals, but both models can quickly become toxic.  When either becomes the primary model for Christian leadership, is it any wonder that domineering pastors result?

The pastor-as-CEO approach might foster entrepreneurialism and risk-taking, but it easily becomes results-oriented.  The pastor-as-general approach might foster perseverance and grit, but it easily becomes task-oriented.  One produces swagger: Their word is law because they’re economically indispensable to the church.  The other produces presumption: Orders must be followed because the general ‘knows’ what is best for every person.  In each case we either tolerate or fail to see traits of bullying, because ministry ends justify ministry means.”

Vogan, Matthew & Alexander Nisbet – ‘Preventing Patterns of Spiritual Harm in Church Life’  (2020)  17 paragraphs

“…spiritual abuse.  It’s about the spiritual harm that comes from misuse of spiritual authority.  This may mean using spiritual motivations to manipulate and coerce behaviour…  Whatever we make of the term spiritual abuse, spiritual harm is real…  How do we prevent such patterns marring the life of the church?”

McKnight, Scot – ‘What Is ‘Spiritual’ Abuse? A Working Definition’  (2020)  7 paragraphs

Baus, Beth Ann – ‘Recognizing Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church’  (2021)  40 paragraphs

Baus gives as signs of spiritual abuse: Power positioning, Unquestioned authority, Atmosphere of secrecy, Elitist attitude.

She also addresses: What spiritual abuse isn’t, Spiritual abuse isn’t always crystal clear, and How to heal.

Strcikland, Debbie – ‘What is Spiritual Abuse in Marriage’  (2021)  41 paragraphs

Cho, Timothy Isaiah – ‘When Your Faith Becomes a Trauma Trigger’  (2021)  12 paragraphs  at Medium

Kruger, Michael J.

‘What is Spiritual Abuse?’  (2021)  14 paragraphs

“People who find themselves at odds with a spiritually abusive pastor, will often feel isolated, shamed, ostracized, silenced, and made to feel like they are unsubmissive, insubordinate, and one who undermines the church’s God-given leadership.

Spiritual Abuse Is Often Used to Achieve Godly, Biblical Goals…  abuse usually happens because a pastor is desperately trying to control his situation.  He wants to control his staff, control the vision, control the direction of the church.  Loyalty must be maintained at all costs.  Nothing can be allowed to derail the ministry.  And when people fall out of line (which tends to happen with human beings) then he cracks the whip…

…when the abuse is uncovered, people often refuse to believe it.  To allow such a possibility will wreck the tidy world they have built around that spiritual leader.  So, the abusive pastor can often provide what seems to be credible ‘explanations’ for everything, while he is backed up by supporters who don’t want to see a successful ministry come to an end.”

‘Key Signs of an Abusive Pastor #1: A Long Track Record of Broken Relationships’  (2021)  22 paragraphs

“…the victims of abuse usually don’t speak out for fear of reprisal. They just leave, and the abusive pastor remains.  And if the abusive pastor remains, then he gets to control the narrative…

But, there is a difference with abusive pastors.  The “relational debris field” of an abusive pastor is not only different in regard to volume of conflicts, but the depth of those conflicts.  The lives in his wake are genuinely destroyed…  On top of this, abusive pastors often have unresolved conflict.  They are typically estranged from many…

At this point, the leaders of the church just need to do the math. There is a common denominator in all these different conflicts, namely the pastor….

…the pattern of relational wreckage is often not recognized because spiritually abusive pastors don’t abuse everyone.  They are selective in who they treat this way.  In fact, there are other people whom the abusive pastor treats remarkably well.  In other words, abusive pastors almost always have two sides.  One side is domineering, heavy-handed and threatening.  The other side is charming, gracious, and even flattering.

The tragic implications of this reality is that abusive pastors will almost always have avid defenders who insist that this pastor is the greatest guy in the world.  And, to them, that pastor probably has been great.  And such defenders will inevitably use the same logic: “He’s never treated me this way.”  In other words, they form their judgment entirely on their personal experience…  not everyone is in a position to see this track record.”

‘Key Signs of An Abusive Pastor #2: Hyper Defensive About Their Own Authority’  (2021)  18 paragraphs

“The chief desire of abusive individuals and organizations is to attain or retain power…  abusive pastors often create an entire church culture that perpetually affirms and protects their authority—a culture designed to shield them from criticism, and punish anyone who dares challenge them.”

‘Why don’t Churches Stop Spiritually Abusive Pastors?’  (2021)  26 paragraphs

Reasons given and expounded on are:  Misunderstanding Total Depravity, Misunderstanding Grace and Misunderstanding Conflict.

Hansen, Collin & Michael J. Kruger – ‘Confronting Spiritual Abuse’  (2022)  72 paragraphs  at TGC

“…a big part of the problem is . . . you and me.  ‘We would rather have a leader who will beat up our enemies than one who will tenderly care for the sheep…  It’s not that different from the person who decides to buy a pit bull as a family pet.  It may be cool to have a tough dog, and it may protect you from burglars.  But eventually it may maul a member of your own family.’”

“…why churches don’t stop spiritual abuse…  there are some that I think fall into the category of unaware, just uninformed, and in doing their best to think the best of everybody…  There’s other elders out there…  that are proactively defending people that they know, have committed serious sin against other people.  And much of that is done for several reasons.

One it’s done because they think that’s protecting the church, and protecting the name of Jesus protecting the cause of Christ…  And there’s personal involvement…  they probably have a friendship with that person, and want to help that person’s ministry not go down in flames.  And so is it bad to have friends you want to do good for, No, but what’s best for that person to protect their ministry of abuse or to help them repent and recover from whatever they’re, they’re caught up in?  And so it’s a miscalculation of what friendship entails.”

“…your book talks a lot about how they don’t know that it’s happening because a spiritual abuser does not abuse everybody…  And doesn’t abuse everybody all the time.  So we know many examples where an elder might say, ‘that’s not what he does with me.’…  But that’s the most common thing we hear…  Well, of course, he doesn’t do this to everybody. You might not be the profile of the person that he would be picking on that he would be marking for this.”

“…when you have an elder looking for an exit, and the problem of spiritual abuse, he wants there to be another explanation, right?  Because who wants the guy to be abusive?  They’re going to take any port in the storm here.”

“…how we, as human beings are actually really bad at spotting bad people.  And we’re not only bad at it, but we actually think we’re good at it…  And so that combination creates a number of really bad scenarios…  Larry Nasser right with the gymnasts, which is sad that Jerry Sandusky case…  these instances had piles and piles of evidence of the guilt of these people.  And people still turned a blind eye to it…

And the heart behind it was what he calls truth default theory, which is the idea that you always assume the person in front of us telling the truth.  And it’s just an innate starting point for all of us…  But unless you have a truth teller, someone from outside that social network that can see things fresh, you’re going to end up with, you know, sort of a club, policing themselves, and it never ends up actually working.”

“But the truth teller is the very person that’s pushed aside when scandal happens, we saw it in the Ravi Zacharias thing…  there were whistleblowers and they were silenced, pushed down and kicked out…  we have an infrastructure that prosecutes the truth teller rather than prosecutes the abuser.”

“…you need to be prepared.  If you’re going to come forward, you’re going to probably lose your job, you’re probably going to have your reputation tarnished, and you’re probably going to be on the outs…  Even in the best case scenario, if the verdict comes out on your side, you’re still gonna get really, really hurt by this.  And oftentimes, the best case scenario doesn’t happen with these these whistleblowers, usually the truth never comes out.  And people just assume they’re lying.”

Langberg, Diane – ‘When the Sheep are Preyed Upon: Acknowledging the Tragic Reality of the Church’s Spiritual Abuse Problem’  (n.d.)  19 paragraphs  at Southern Baptist Convention


At Gentle Reformation

Borg, Kyle

‘Peeking Past the Blindfold’  (2020)  8 paragraphs  on Impartiality

‘Spiritual Abuse: Seeing What We Don’t Want to See’  (2022)  19 paragraphs

‘A Band of Brothers’  (2023)  13 paragraphs

“…the same brotherhood that inspired valiant acts of bravery, self-sacrifice, and loyalty was subtly turned to promote silence and the heinous ends of self-preservation and protection. The brotherhood demanded unswerving allegiance…

Impartiality is one of the most needed and maybe one of the most neglected aspects of faithful ministry.  The closer our relational bonds are the more easily we can be tempted by line drawing, blind loyalty, party spirit, or clouded judgment…

Sacrificing friendship for the sake of Christ isn’t easy. But sometimes it’s necessary.”

Evans, Keith

‘The Many Odd Uses & Abuses of Matthew 18’  (2023)  16 paragraphs

“Jesus [in Mt. 18] is not addressing public sins or scandalous matters that the whole church would already be aware of.  If that were the case, gross and explicit sins would then be drug into secrecy, to be resolved in secret.  May it never be!  And yet, sadly, it often is.  The church frequently colludes to protect the group, and scandalous sin is quickly covered up and dealt with secretly…

Jesus addresses public persons publicly.  Recall his scathing condemnation of Herod (Luke 13:32), or his many public “woes” (i.e. “curses”) pronounced upon the pharisees (cf. Matt 23:13-39).  We can almost hear the modern Christian retort: “Yes, Jesus, but did you confront all of them privately first?!…

Matthew 18 is not speaking of abusers and oppressors.  Jesus is speaking of “brothers”, not wolves.  Would we ask Christ’s most tender and trodden upon lambs to go alone, and speak alone, with her predator before we can properly confront his sin?!  Again, may it never be!”

‘Coerced Confession’  (2023)  7 paragraphs

‘Philemon & the Opposite of Abusive Leadership’  (2023)

“Instead of making demands, and without appeal to his apostolic authority, this letter reads as a gentle entreaty to a friend and brother to exhibit the grace of our infinitely forgiving Father in Heaven…  What a gentle letter.  What loving reasoning and tender argumentation!”





Johnson, David & Jeff VanVonderen – The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse  (Bethany House, 1991)  244 pp.  ToC

Johnson & VanVonderen list as characteristics of the spiritually abusive system: Power posturing, Performance / Preoccupation, Unspoken Rules, Lack of Balance, Paranoia, Misplaced Loyalty, Code of Silence (pp. 187-88).

“…people learn unhealthy living skills in unhealthy relationships that actually predispose them for future abuse…  for adults…  their lack of power is what we call ‘learned powerlessness’.” – p. 54

“First, a good trap makes it easy for the prey to get in, but hard to get out…  Second, there needs to be attractive bait.  Really good bait will occupy the attention of the prey so thoroughly that the danger will go unnoticed.  Third, once in the trap, the more the prey struggles, the more tired and trapped it becomes…  the deeper the teeth bite…

The leaders assume power and demand obedience.  They foster loyalty to the organization with implied or overt scare tactics and threats.  Leaving the system is equal to leaving God and his protection.  Paranoia about the evils outside the system makes people afraid to leave…

‘Right standing with God’ is probably the most common bait…  The abusive system gives people an opportunity to earn God’s approval with their own positive self-effort…  they learn to ignore others around them who point out that they are being neglected or mistreated…  they overlook the fact that their goal keeps moving out of reach…

‘Equity rescuing’ occurs in abusive relationships…  You end up far away from normal.  You may even be well aware that the situation is abusive and abnormal.  So you set up a ‘boundary’…  It happens again, but for you to walk away from the situation at this point will feel as if you have been abused for nothing.  So you try a little bit harder, and invest a little more of yourself.  More serious abuse occurs, so you set up another boundary…  The problem is that most victims assess their present situation only by comparing it to the last adjustment.  Compared to all they have invested, this latest violation just isn’t that big of a compromise.  They don’t compare it to normal…  Its ironic that the fact that we care so much about our faith is what contributes to our being trapped in unhealthy systems.” – pp. 183-87

“In a very real sense, people trapped in spiritually abusive systems have had their minds led astray…  Conscious denial has to exist in a spiritual abuse situation in order to convince others that everything is fine…  it is a warp in the thinking process that filters out or twists information coming in from the outside.” – p. 189

“…thus reinforcing the mindset that in our present condition we are defective.  Spiritually abusive relationships demand performance and shame us for not measuring up.  The message of condemnation is not limited to our actions or appearance…  ‘You are the problem.’…  This attacks the very core of our identity.” – p. 197

Enroth, Ronald – Recovering from Churches that Abuse  (Zondervan, 1994)  75 pp.

Dupont, Marc – Walking out of Spiritual Abuse  (Sovereign World, 1997)  185 pp.  ToC



Oakley, Lisa & Kathryn Kinmond – Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse  Pre  (Palgrave, 2013)  ToC

Oakley, Lisa – Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures  Pre  (SPCK, 2019)  192 pp.  ToC

“Every time he wanted me to do something, he would quote scripture… I couldn’t argue with scripture, it was like arguing with God.”

Mullen, Wade – Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse & Freeing Yourself from its Power  Pre  (Tyndale, 2020)  220 pp.  ToC

DeGroat, Chuck – When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing your Community from Emotional & Spiritual Abuse  Pre  (IVP, 2020)  195 pp.  ToC

Kruger, Michael J. – Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church  Pre  (2022)  ToC

“…Abuse survivors routinely testify that the most devastating part of their experience is the way the abusive pastor used Scripture against them.  Passages from the Bible are used to attack, demean, and control them…” (p. 27)

“The rich irony here is that the pastor who is unable to take criticism is often highly critical of everyone else” (p. 32)

“Bully pastors don’t bully everyone…  they almost always bully down.  Thus, often the pastor has treated the people evaluating him – his peers – remarkably well” (p. 66)

“If a pastor is accused of abusive behavior, be wary if procedural issues become the biggest concern of all those involved” (p. 84)




Kevin Reed

Imperious Presbyterianism  (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2008), p. 18

“Some Imperious Presbyterians are known for high-handed and arbitrary uses of church discipline.  What is the status of a congregation that doles out ecclesiastical discipline in a tyrannical manner?  Such an assembly is unhealthy or corrupt, regardless of whether it has an outward form of Presbyterian polity.”


Pastor Benjamin Cremer  2023

“Unless you’ve experienced religious trauma, you can’t know the mental, social, spiritual, and physical toll it takes on a person.

Yet, for many of us who have gone through religious trauma, it is something we have had to travel virtually alone, because so often, the religious community that caused the trauma is either unwilling or unable to hear how it hurt us.  So many have tried to bring up their wounds only to have them minimized or criticized.  Or worse, silenced and pushed out.  Even pastors like myself have been treated in this way by the churches they have served.  This results in loss of community, friends, family, and entire support systems.

This is the opposite way Jesus treated those who were hurt in his ministry.  He listened and pursued reconciliation and justice with those who the religious community rejected.

A church that refuses to listen to those it has wounded and abused is a church that refuses to follow the way of Jesus.

As someone who is both a pastor and someone who has been deeply wounded by the church, it is my hope, and commitment of my local church, that we Christians continue to work towards responding in much more loving and healing ways to those who’ve been hurt so deeply by the church.

May they experience Jesus from us.”




Related Pages

On Fleeing from Danger

On the 6th Commandment

On Cultic Characteristics