Spiritual Abuse

Many years ago I was a Post Graduate Researcher at the University of Derby, UK. For those who are interested in the subject of spiritual abuse, I have posted an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis. The wording is dense being academic. Please cite as you wish, but please be aware of plagiarism and clearly acknowledge your source.- Thank you


This study investigates the human experience of a phenomenon that is little researched or understood. Stories of those who have identified themselves as having been spiritually abused within the Christian tradition are explored, together with existing theories, whilst the implications for counselling practice are also briefly discussed. This study acknowledges and builds upon previous research in spiritual abuse; however, much of the research completed to date has its origins in the United States and within the Christian Fundamentalist Movement; it is also ten or more years old.

From a cultural perspective, research into spiritual abuse is generally inadequate within the United Kingdom. Furthermore, study exploring the implications for counselling practice is lacking in this context, resulting in noticeable gaps in academic work. Research into counselling spiritually abused victims who are Christians is also very limited within the United Kingdom and there is therefore a fundamental lack of awareness of spiritual abuse within the Church and the social sciences.

Spiritual abuse is often thought to be limited to a phenomenon of sects or cults and not generally viewed as a problem within the Christian community. Therefore, to raise awareness of the problem and further the research, this paper examines what constitutes spiritual abuse within Christianity, its core features and causalities, and the counselling implications that are likely to be encountered. The literature reviewed is of a qualitative design and a phenomenological analysis.

Key words:

Spiritual Abuse: Pastoral Care: Counselling Practice


Aims and purposes of this study

This study is a review of research literature into spiritual abuse and answers the questions that the literature provokes. Material is gathered from a range of literature, crossing the full spectrum of the Christian tradition and secular organisations. I have employed a phenomenological analysis and have identified from the data, links between individual pieces of work, and a cluster of meanings from significant statements, sentences, or quotes that provide an understanding of lived experiences.  Furthermore, I have identified what is meant by spiritual abuse and its key themes. A phenomenological approach is implemented in attempting to gain an understanding of human experiences and the meanings they attach.

  1. Hart, A. (2004). The body/mind/spirit connection: Is spirituality always a good thing?

Rationale and Contribution to Knowledge

The rationale for this paper is drawn from relevant literature, personal experience, and testimonies of victims of spiritual abuse. Little has been written that focuses on spiritual abuse in the cultural context of the Christian tradition and considers the implications for pastoral care or counselling practice. It is therefore important to investigate issues relating to spiritual abuse and relevant existing theories and to create a dialogue between the research in spiritual abuse, the Church, and the social sciences, 2whilst also investigating gaps in the literature.

This review explores individual experiences of spiritual abuse, their descriptions, definitions and meanings, providing a rationale for further research and knowledge for pastoral care and counselling practice. It provides a significant contribution to the Church and the social sciences and provides counsellors and clergy in particular, with a greater understanding when working with those who have been spiritually abused. The aim is to urge professionals to consider the fullest range of abuses and including spiritual abuse; by examining the very structures and processes that aid the perpetration of this form of abuse Spiritual abuse can occur within virtually any organisational structure, (Henke 1996) whether it is a family, Church, or any other authoritarian relationship that involves faith issues. As Oakley and Kinmond confirm spiritual abuse is often thought to be limited to a phenomenon of sects or cults and not generally viewed as being a problem within the Christian community.

Explaining Spiritual Abuse

Ward (2007) argues that a problem arises in the definition of the term spiritual abuse because it is somewhat new in general literature and, to date is sparingly used. ‘Abuse’ is a broad term that is generally understood, ‘spirituality’ is equally broad and however, it is less implicit.

The phrase spiritual abuse rarely appeared in literature until around ten to fifteen years ago and remained mainly within the context of Christianity. There was some earlier material that explored the dynamics of unhealthy spirituality, but it failed to specifically name this as spiritual abuse.

According to Henzel spiritual abuse has been described as the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship with the core features of legalism, authoritarianism, spiritual intimidation, manipulation, and excessive discipline.

  • Creswell, W. C. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Second edition. California. Sage.
  • Beed, C. (1998). Cultures of secrecy and abuse. Cara Beed, PO Box 2190, Hawthorn LPO, Vic 3122, Victoria Australia.
  • Oakley, L. and Kinmond, K. (2007) Spiritual abuse: raising awareness of a little understood form of abuse. Thresholds summer 2007. pp9.
  • Ward, D. (2007). Wounding the soul: the lived experience of spiritual abuse.

(Unpublished thesis) The University of Queensland. M. Phil. School of Social Work and Applied Human Services.

  • Henzel, R. (1997). The Bible and spiritual abuse: Available at:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/9575/biblespirab.html. (Accessed April 2009).

How Does it Happen?

Blue suggests that all abuse occurs when someone exerts power over another and uses that power to hurt.

Ward clearly, describes spiritual abuse as, spiritual bullying, this being the maltreatment of a person in a spiritual context. Churches with sound and solid Biblical doctrine can be considered cultic when they practice techniques of manipulation and thought reform (brainwashing). In general, spiritual abuse is acknowledged to be the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. It occurs out of a doctrinal position, or of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means.

A Spiritually Abusive System

Spiritual abuse is an issue of power and, according to Benyei, power is the ability to influence an outcome. Beed also confirms that power is a necessity of life and that humans need to exercise power to organise society.

The behaviour of persons in a community is determined by where they are placed in relation to others and  Benyei points out that this has to do with issues of power.

Religious institutions see themselves as communities because their members share commonalities of religious history or tradition. This type of community has similarities to a family system where members move within it according to their perception of explicit and implicit rules. Moreover, members of the Christian Church generally see themselves as a family of faith where the Clergy and congregation ideally function within an egalitarian partnership. However, many Churches develop into an uneven hierarchical structure, similar to a parent-child relationship. In these settings, Clergy may become very powerful and lead from the top of the hierarchal structure, accountable to no one, and congregations tend to idolise them. Unless there is the accountability of the Clergy to a higher body or peers, and/or explicit codes of conduct and ethics, there remains a potentiality to abuse within these structures.

In a spiritually abusive system, an authoritarian stance often develops where the leader or person in the system claims the right to command their followers. This system tends to be scrupulous in attempting to maintain an image of consciousness of righteousness at all costs, which gives rise to secrecy. The suppression of criticism occurs where questions cannot be allowed and, as a result, there is no place for criticism; this is seen as a direct challenge to authority.

A perfectionist philosophy in an abusive system means the person’s accomplishments come through the performance of spiritual requirements and failure is strongly condemned.

  • Blue, K. (1993). Healing spiritual abuse: How to break free from bad Church experiences.  Downers Grove Illinois.  IVP Books.
  • Ward, D. (2007). Wounding the soul: the lived experience of spiritual abuse.

(Unpublished thesis) The University of Queensland. M. Phil. School of Social Work and Applied Human Services

The Problem with Leadership

In some Christian denominations leadership is seen as a powerful symbolic authority in representing God Biblically 15 .  16Hunter argues that the responsibility of leaders within the Christian Church is to serve others in a way that represents the incarnation of Christ to humankind; serving as Christ served, laying down their lives for the sake of others.

The leader is therefore an ambassador of this relationship, leading others into association with God through Jesus Christ, and not to themselves. Ideally, the Christian leader should not govern others under a hierarchal leadership. Conversely, the leader is an overseer, an advocate, leading in order to serve and, in doing so, following the example of Christ.

Hunter points out that the philosophy of serving guards against the possibility of Clergy abusing those under their care and is ideally implemented through the structures of the Church in all its activities and teaching. However, within hierarchal structures, leadership is incredibly powerful.

17 Henke argues that organised hierarchical structures are especially well suited to the perpetration of systemic spiritual abuse. 18 Shupe echoes the declarations of 19 Henzel,

20 Johnson and Van Vonderen, add that leadership that hides its true management plans, and promises empowerment to its followers, is making its authority absolute.

21 Shupe refers to the phenomenon of the abuse of religious followers by its leaders as Clergy malfeasance.

Clergy Malfeasance

Irrespective of whether or not the abuse is perpetrated intentionally or unintentionally, the issue remains that spiritual abuse is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honour in society, by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority 22. 23 Shupe states that Clergy malfeasance is a core feature of a spiritually abusive system. It is the misconduct of a religious leader abusing his/her position and in doing so, perpetrating harm to others which occurs within a unique type of altruistic institution where power is equitably distributed. A Christian organisation is a trusted hierarchy where followers believe in, or are encouraged or instructed to believe in, the good intentions, sincerity, and wisdom of the leadership.

  1.  (Ward 2007 p51).
  2. (Hunter 1990 p599 &  p636).
  3. Henke (1996)
  4. Shupe (1998)
  5. Henzel, R. (1997). The Bible and spiritual abuse: Available at:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/9575/biblespirab.html.  (Accessed April 2009).

  • Johnson and Van Vonderen (1991),
  • Shupe (1998)
  • (Enroth 1992).
  • (Shupe 1998).

Power Play

Historically, Clergy has been the professionals who sought to help guide communities through the difficulties of life. They offered spiritual guidance and direction with emotional and family issues and with everyday life. Although spiritually orientated, these leaders are comparable to the contemporary psychotherapist, although they lacked the title and specialised training available today 24 .

In western culture, Christian Clergy/leadership is considered to be in a prominent position to provide human services on a spiritual level. However, this vocation has rarely been the focus of psychological research, assessing work-related stressors they experience, or their health and coping responses.

Using qualitative methodology, 25 Rhoads-Meek et al investigated clergy malfeasance by a studying 874 Clergy in 45 states of the United States of America by way of a survey, and 398 provided responses. This represented a response rate of 45% and findings indicated that, because of the nature of their work, an advocate was needed who would listen and understand, and who would be beside them in assessing and solving the problems they faced. It is not the remit of this paper to discuss the difficulties with which Clergy cope; however, it is useful to consider that, without support, regular reviews or assessments of any nature, there is a possibility that the pressures of leadership may lead to intentional or unintentional Clergy malfeasance of any type. This important issue could possibly provide a subject for future research.

The process of this kind of abuse is subtle, thus explaining why many respectable, well-thinking people are ensnared in abusive systems.

Christians are asked to give their loyalty to an organisation, Church, or leader and in doing so they believe they are obeying God. This enables the abuse to be accepted by reasonable Christians and permits it to continue long-term. Because leaders within abusive systems actually believe they are representing God, they consider themselves to be beyond support or assessment of any kind. As a consequence, these systems become abusive and therefore create an environment for the perpetuation of spiritual abuse. 26 Ward confirms particular structures and modalities of leadership are used as a means (intentionally or intentionally) to initiate abuse.

Any form of review or assessment of the leader or system may prove to be difficult because it challenges loyalty and faith issues. Similarly, 27 Shupe argues that a long-standing hierarchical Church structure and its polity provide opportunities to abuse. 28 Anson examines pedophilia within the Catholic Church and concludes that the avoidance of Church structures to review its polity establishes abuse in the long term.

  • (Rhoads-Meek et al 2003 p1).
  • (Rhoads-Meek et al 2003 p1).
  • Ward (2007 p85)
  • Shupe (1998)
  • Anson (1998)

Thank you for reading this article. Let me know if you want more about spiritual abuse and I will post more articles from my thesis. Spiritual abuse is a worldwide problem in all church denominations. It’s not God’s fault but the fault of unscrupulous people disguising themselves as believers. (the book of Jude)

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