*deep breath*  This one’s a biggy.  Please be aware that a section in this blog article may be very sensitive and triggering to some victims/survivors. If you have had sexual trauma and/or PTSD, read with caution, as I mention marital rape in this article.   A trigger warning is labeled before and after this section. 

This article was originally one post, but it got really long so I’ve broken it down into two parts.  Spiritual Abuse Is A Thing, and The Aftermath of Spiritual Abuse.  If you’d like to read more about recovering from spiritual abuse, check out Part 2.

Even for those who aren’t “religious”, a large majority of people recognize that we are designed with “mind, body, and spirit.”  Your spirit is one of the cornerstones of your entire life, whether you acknowledge it or not.  Your spiritual wellness affects how you view and feel about the world, life, yourself, and your relationships.  It can either drive you or it can weigh you down.  As someone with faith in God, it’s even heavier.  Regardless of your “religious background” – if you identify to a particular religion, your spiritual wellness has an extra component and vulnerability. 

In my practice, because of my beliefs, I openly speak to the Christian faith, however these concepts apply to any and all spiritual beliefs.  The tactics of spiritual abuse are the same no matter what you believe and equally detrimental to your life.  So let’s dive in.

Where do I even begin? Let’s start with the definition of Spiritual/Religious Abuse.  Wikipedia identifies spiritual (or religious) abuse as: abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, which may result in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the abuse of a clerical position.

Ok, so what does that mean? Well – let’s break it down by outlining some of the actual signs of spiritual abuse. 

  • Placing dominance over another person or group of people using religion to justify the position and power
  • Using an individual’s or group’s religious beliefs against them to coerce, manipulate, belittle and shame, or force them to do something or believe something – i.e. convincing them that they are in sin if they don’t comply
  • Citing references from religious texts in a way that is used for personal gain, nullifying the rights of another person or group
  • Intentionally staging these references from religious texts to leave out other texts that would otherwise condemn the abuser
  • Accusing another person or group of wrong doing or demon possession because it does not fit with the abuser’s beliefs
  • Preventing an individual from practicing or expressing their own beliefs, or shaming them for having the beliefs that they do
  • Using religion or religious texts to justify abusive behavior 
  • Burying nuggets of truth within false doctrine.
  • Burying false doctrine within truth.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes spiritual abuse as just as harmful and dangerous as any other form of abuse.  They have another list very similar to mine in their article “What is Spiritual Abuse?”

Intimate partner violence (aka domestic abuse) is more prevalent within religious communities than those communities want to admit.  It is so heartbreaking and devastating to the victim because for those who are genuinely devoted to what they believe, it is their most vulnerable spot in their life.  Why?  Because so many people will die for their religions.  Consider Jesus’ disciples and apostles.  Martyrs, missionaries, etc, dying for their beliefs. What’s more is that the church often brushes it under the rug, denies it, or tries to make it something that it’s not which only continues the abuse.  That’s for another article though.

  I’ll give you a few scenarios to further explain what some domestic spiritual abuse may look like.

(Trigger Warning!!!)

Man and woman.. married.. both professing Christians.  They seem so happy and in love and their marriage is “dedicated to Christ.”  Seems like a picture perfect marriage.  Yet, behind closed doors, she has no choice and no rights to her own body.  He dominates her by telling her that if she doesn’t perform to his standards and expectations sexually that she is depriving him, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:5  “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”  He’s memorized this verse and uses it to coerce you to have sex when you don’t want to or even can’t.  Perhaps there’s no time, or you’re sick, you’re injured, you just had a baby, there are people in the house and you’re uncomfortable, you’re in public, you just had sex 4 hours ago, you’re having PMS cramps, or it could just be that you’re not interested because he just made you feel like dirt because you didn’t clean the bathroom right — WHO KNOWS why it’s not good for you right then..   He makes you believe – based on this verse – that if you don’t have sex with him when he “needs” it, that you are depriving him, thus disobeying the Word of God, and causing him to fall into the sin of lusting after other women – perhaps even committing adultery – or becoming addicted to pornography.  His sin then becomes your fault because you disobeyed God by not having sex with him.  You so deeply desire to please God and obey His Word that you give in – not because of your husband, but because you now see how it could be disobedient which is a sin for you.  This now pins you to his coercion any time he asks for it or any other sexual desire.  Even if he doesn’t ask for it and just takes it – because in that same text, it talks about conjugal rights and states that each party does not have authority over their own bodies.  This concept removes the right of the wife to deny sex at that time – or ever.  The twist is presented by the abuser that since she has authority over his body, she gets to do the same thing to him – but the problem is that she never wants to because now their sex life is no longer a free flow expression of love between two free people – it is perpetual marital rape.  It is a duty and obligation and becomes slavery.  Emotional abuse follows behind spiritual abuse if she were to effectively deny him.  So no matter which way she turns, either she endures the rape, or she endures the consequences. 

End Triggering Area

This is just one example of how God’s holy word has been twisted and distorted to meet a selfish motive – removing the rights of the other party.

Another example can be found in their marital roles. Ah yes… the infamous “Wives submit to your husbands” verse.  Ephesians 5:22-24.  “Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”  Spiritually abusive men LOVE this verse.  What they fail to include is the subsequent verses that level the playing fields – Verse 25 “Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her“… It goes on to say in verse 28 “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” – This is parallel to the commandment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”(Matthew 7:12)  “Consider others as more important than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)  However, abusers are tactful and manipulative, and usually very good at what they do.  They target certain people who are easily manipulated – they know they are leaving out the other texts, but they are so convincing with their argument that the victim just looks right past it – they are confused by the gas-lighting, shame, and guilt.  So by putting these verses together with Titus 2:4 “and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” and 1 Corinthians 11:8-10 “For man was not made from woman but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man, That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” among others — they create a case that is almost bullet proof to the wife, because if she has different plans from him and wants to follow her own path, she’s not submissive.  Not to mention that if she were to try a rebuttal, he is likely to crack down even harder and accuse her of listening to Satan. So in all things she learns that he is the head, the authority, the end-all-be-all in the relationship, and that his authority comes from God and whatever he says goes.  From thence, she loses her identity and is slowly chipped away in her identity in Christ.

Some other examples of spiritual abuse, not necessarily specific to domestic abuse because these abusers will extend it to everyone they come in contact with include not allowing women to pray, or correcting her when she prays. Telling others that their prayers are not hitting any higher than the ceiling because they haven’t repented every area of their life yet – even when the prayer is for help in that repentance. Randomly preaching at others then accusing them of rebellion or hard hearts when they have had enough of the same sermon that lasts for an hour or more that they’ve heard repeatedly before without being allowed to look away. (This, btw is cult indoctrination if you didn’t know. See How Stuff Works).

So… the big question is – what do we do with this?  Go back to the beginning and look at all of the examples of God protecting women, exalting women, and using them as integral parts of His plan. God loves women as His children no less than men and placed them in major positions all throughout the bible.  He created woman to be a helpmate, not a slave.  Genesis 1:27 says God created man in His own image – male and female.  In this proclamation, there is equality among them.  Then in Genesis 2:18 he goes even further to say that it’s not good that man be alone, so he made a helper.  This is after Adam had observed that all the animals had male and female counterparts, but he didn’t have a female to be his. Perhaps this was so that Adam would appreciate her and recognize her worth. (? – Or maybe so he would see how helpless he is with out her! hahah) Anyhow, she was a blessing to him.  God gave dominion of the Earth to both man and woman (Genesis 1:28).  Throughout the Bible, women were given great positions of authority and blessing.  Women – even very sinful ones – were positioned for kairotic moments throughout history.  Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Sarah, Mary, Hannah, Rachel, Rahab, Jochebed & Miriam – the list goes on.  These women were named and they were given extremely important roles in God’s salvation plan.

But God is a God of order and not chaos.  This is why He established the order of life.  God established government and institutions such as marriage with a hierarchy of roles to create order.  Not so that one rules over the other.  It’s checks and balances.  Women were created with a specific set of traits, talents, characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses just as much as men were.  We are to use them in compliment with one another to form a balanced partnership, with the male being the head due to the particular strengths God gave him.  It’s unfortunate that pride and selfishness has distorted this truth. 

So that’s what spiritual abuse looks like, and certainly not all of it.  But if you have suspect of spiritual abuse, please reach out to your church (unless it your church dishing it out!) and ask for support.  If the church won’t help you, reach out to the Domestic Violence Hotline or your local domestic violence shelter for help.    See Part 2 – The Aftermath of Spiritual Abuse for more on recovering from it.

Also, if you haven’t read Unholy Charade by Jeff Crippen – YOU NEED TO.  Find it on amazon for less than $12.  If you’ve been a victim of Spiritual Abuse this book will knock your socks off.  If you’re a leader in a church, this book is written directly to you on how to handle not only spiritual abuse but all abusers in your church.


References:

  1. Wikipedia – Religious Abuse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_abuse
  2. The National Domestic Violence Hotline – What is Spiritual Abuse? https://www.thehotline.org/2015/11/12/what-is-spiritual-abuse/
  3. How Stuff Works – https://people.howstuffworks.com/cult4.htm
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