Spiritual Abuse is…

My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly does the Christian part of my business really mean. People wonder, and more often worry, that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word Christian in the business name.  One of the best compliments I get is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and never, not once, felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.

Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful character qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have been in the culture of Christiandom for twenty-one years and I have seen a lot. A lot.

I have been on church staff, I have been on ministry staff, I have been a member of churches and I have been a member of ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.

Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.

What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question!  I recently did a five day series on social media highlighting some of the major forms of abuse that are happening:

1) Spiritual Abuse: When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.

Boy, isn’t this a doozy of a one. I see more clients, men and women, who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding an abusive/toxic relationship and instead, the survivor was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Ultimately, will any survivor have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, that when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do NOT need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when instead of teaching boundaries, the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse but under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace.

2) Spiritual Abuse: Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.

Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: Let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital “counseling.” By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor not trained in dentistry to perform a root canal right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.

Anyway, back to the couple and the pastor/leader offering marital help. When one spouse isn’t really interested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility and they might also be highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, then not much authentic change will come from that person. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus their attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make an abusive relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.

3) Spiritual Abuse: When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.

Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly be turning the other cheek and endure abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Oh sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas to improve. But no actually repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur in the husband. Yet the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, she starts to speak about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.

4) Spiritual Abuse: When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.

When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive physical contact. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and rather, many will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all cost and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for himself and his children. Sometimes getting away from an abuser is the only way to be safe physically and emotionally.

5) Spiritual Abuse: When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim. 

Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. We have the education and spiritual discernment to help us and it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the true core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a party to the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.

Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse comes in forms other than physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do extensive amounts of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused at home or from an extended relative and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed both?

Whew.  That’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that as a counselor I see from my specific perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share at least the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.

What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening both in the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). That simply must stop.

Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries doing really excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strengthened and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, folks like myself and others will continue to shed a spotlight on an area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.

– Shannon Thomas, LCSW-S