Spiritual Abuse – Common Characteristics

"Spiritual abuse is as old as false religion itself.  While the practice is old, the term "spiritual abuse" may have been coined first by Jeff VanVonderen."   David Henke 


My heart breaks for those who have been spiritually abused.  I praise God that there are excellent resources on the internet that can help victims of spiritual abuse become survivors


One such resource is provided by Watchman Fellowship, which we highly recommend.  David Henke has written an excellent article that will help Christians identify spiritually abusive organizations.  Henke makes an extremely important point regarding their organizational structure.  He explains that often spiritually abusive ministries will have "top down" hierarchical structures.   This cannot be over-emphasized!  It's the primary reason why spiritual abuse persists.


Henke has compiled a list of common characteristics of spiritual abusive ministries, which we believe are excellent!  Although we shared similar characteristics in yesterday's post, we believe they bear repeating.  


#1) Authoritarian

The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.

This authority supposedly comes from the position they occupy. In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees "sit in Moses' seat," a position of spiritual authority. Many names are used but in the abusive system this is a position of power, not moral authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or "chain of command." In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a "covering," or "umbrella of protection" which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the leadship is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership – God will see to that.

#2) Image Conscious

The abusive religious system is scrupulous to maintain an image of righteousness. The organization's history is often misrepresented in the effort to demonstrate the organization's special relationship to God. The mistaken judgements and character flaws of its leaders are denied or covered up in order to validate their authority. Impossibly high legalistic standards of thought and behavior may be imposed on the members. Their failure to live up to these standards is a constant reminder of the follower's inferiority to his leaders, and the necessity of submission to them. Abusive religion is, at heart, legalism.

Abusive religion is also paranoid. Because the truth about the abusive religious system would be quickly rejected if recognized, outsiders are shown only a positive image of the group. This is rationalized by assuming that the religion would not be understood by "worldly" people; therefore they have no right to know. This attitude leads to members being secretive about some doctrines and the inner policies and proceedures of the group. Leaders, especially, will keep secrets from their members. This secrecy is rooted in a basic distrust of others because the belief system is false and can not stand scrutiny.


#3) Suppresses Criticism

Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. Thinking for oneself is suppressed by pointing out that it leads to doubts. This is portrayed as unbelief in God and His anointed leaders. Thus the follower controls his own thoughts by fear of doubting God.


#4) Perfectionistic

A most natural assumption is that a person does not get something for nothing. Apart from the express declarations of salvation by grace through faith God has given in the scriptures, it would be natural to think that one must earn salvation, or at least work to keep it. Thus, in abusive religions all blessings come through performance of spiritual requirements. Failure is strongly condemned so there is only one alternative, perfection. So long as he thinks he is succeeding in his observation of the rules, the follower typically exhibits pride, elitism, and arrogance. However, when reality and failure eventually set in, the result is the person experiences spiritual burnout, or even shipwreck of his faith. Those who fail in their efforts are labeled as apostates, weak, or some other such term so that they can be discarded by the system.


#5) Unbalanced

Abusive religions must distinguish themselves from all other religions so they can claim to be distinctive and therefore special to God. This is usually done by majoring on minor issues such as prophecy, carrying biblical law to extremes, or using strange methods of biblical interpretation. The imbalanced spiritual hobby-horse thus produced represents unique knowledge or practices which seem to validate the group's claim to special status with God.


Thank you, David Henke, for explaining these characteristics in such an understandable way!  


Our purpose in focusing on spiritual abuse is first to help those who have been hurt to recognize that they have been abused and second to help them heal from these devastating experiences.  


In our upcoming post, I will be reviewing an important book called Toxic Faith, written by Dr. Stephen Arterburn.  Until then, here is Dr. Arterburn addressing spiritual abuse, which he calls "Toxic Faith". 


TOXIC FAITH – Surviving SPIRITUAL Abuse (Part 1)


TOXIC FAITH – Surviving SPIRITUAL Abuse (Part 2)


Spiritual Abuse – Common Characteristics — 7 Comments

  1. The Everson’s, their disciples, and those within the Baptist Mafia could care less.

    As long as there are ignorant followers, there will always be spiritual abusers.

    Some are lucky, some are good, but all are counterfeit and destructive to those who want to believe in eternity. Abuse is all many of these Pharisees know much about – until the Internet and articles like this turned the lights on…as my friend Doug said……”The Internet, the Great Equalizer!”

    Thanks for this reminder ladies 🙂

  2. Of the 210 verses that refer to false prophets, priests, elders and Pharisees, here is a summary of their content:

    99 verses (47%) concern Behavior
    66 verses (31%) concern Fruit
    24 verses (12%) concern Motives
    21 verses (10%) concern Doctrine

    Dr. Paul Martin

  3. Walter Martin in “Rise of the Cults,” a 1979 lecture at Lee College Chapel:

    “You will be able to identify them by their fruits…”

    Be careful, there are two kinds of fruit: there is the fruit of the life lived and the fruit of the doctrine taught. The Pharisees taught purity of doctrine, but Jesus said that they were whitewashed sepluchres. If you have pure doctrine and a corrupt life, you are condemned for it. If you have a pure life and a corrupt doctrine, you are condemned for it.

    Because salvation does not come from the efforts of purity but by the gift of God…

    But according to Christ, it is possible to look, act and sound like a believer and not be one.”

    4 things that they do (deceiving even the elect):
    1. They can say “Lord,” but they don’t mean “Savior.”
    2. They can say that they speak for God and are prophesying in His Name.
    3. They can even use the Name of Jesus to cast out demons.
    4. They can use the Name of Jesus to work miracles.

    And their sin is, having used the Name of Christ for their own purposes, they themselves have not believed.

  4. Lydia,

    I have Walter Martin’s book Kingdom of the Cults, and it is an excellent resource. When we think of cults, usually Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses are the first to come to mind; however, there are Christian churches that exhibit cult-like behavior. That’s why those 210 Bible verses you mentioned exist.

    I am passionate about waking people up and helping them realize they are being spiritually abused in cultish churches. Thanks for helping so much in that endeavor!

  5. My husband and I were in a Bible-based cult. After experiencing cultic/spiritual abuse it was difficult to reconnect with God. But we did and now we facilitate a support group for individuals who have been involved in cultic or spiritually abusive groups. The support group is free – for more info, see http://www.dallascult.com

    Wendy J. Duncan
    Author: I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult

  6. Wendy,

    Dee, my blogging partner, lived in Dallas for over 10 years, and it seems like she may have mentioned your book to me in the past.

    Thanks for offering to help those who have been spiritually abused. You are a blessing to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been hurt. Keep up the great work, and I hope you’ll share your insights with our readers here at TWW.

  7. Wendy
    I read your book in May and plan to review it on this blog in the near future. I used to live in Dallas and was impressed at the work Ole Anthoy did in exposing Tilton. I was startled to find that he led a cult of his own. I thought he was just a cult watchdog. Your book was riveting and I couldn’t put it down. Thanks for commenting on this site.