In my late teens I joined a conservative Adventist ministry, where over the next decade I experienced—along with many blessings—spiritual, sexual, and psychological abuse. The directors of the ministry held very strict rules about dress, diet, and lifestyle—spoken and unspoken. For instance, the spoken rules required women to wear long dresses at all times. The unspoken rules required them to wear long sleeves at all times, too. Elbow-length sleeves would elicit a lecture from the director, who, ironically enough, sexually preyed upon almost every woman in the ministry.
When I refused the leader’s advances, he began a campaign of psychological abuse through public humiliation. I recall him pretending not to hear me when I asked for something mundane like, “Where are the car keys?” He would engage in spiritual abuse by then preaching sermons that twisted Bible stories to fit his narcissistic narrative. In his warped mind, he was Moses and those who resisted him, the murmuring Israelites.
The ministry would have snowballed into a dangerous cult had it not been for the detractors. True Protestants, we protested the abuse until the ministry came apart at the seams and most of us moved on with our lives.
Some in my circles have been voicing a similar protest lately. They have labeled what they experienced, “spiritual abuse.” As a survivor and a counselor, I want to offer an explanation of spiritual abuse that may hopefully settle the hearts of those wondering. Please help me develop this inventory by taking the existing one and giving me feedback about how I can make it better. I offer this opportunity to both individuals who feel they have been abused, and those who have been accused of abusing.
In wrestling with the spiritual abuse question, there are two main dangers:
#1- Denial- We often overlook intangible things and in so doing deny their power; This can lead to #2:
#2- Exaggeration- Too broad a definition of spiritual abuse renders it almost meaningless and drives us back to #1.
Don’t Deny It
Ellen White wrote the book Testimonies to Ministersto confront spiritually abusive spiritual leaders. Any and everyone involved in ministry should read it. Check out this statement, which is just one among many:
“The indulgence of a quick temper, a harsh, overbearing spirit, reveals that its possessor should not be placed where he will be called to decide weighty questions that affect God’s heritage. . . If he undertakes to manage men, he will hurt and bruise their souls; for he has not the fine touch, the delicate sensibility, which the grace of Christ imparts. His own heart needs to be softened, subdued by the Spirit of God; the heart of stone has not become a heart of flesh.” Testimonies to Ministers, 216.
Spiritual abuse leads to bruises. Lest we be tempted to deny it, God’s prophet chose a physiologic metaphor to describe the effects of spiritual abuse—broken blood vessel contusions that form as the result of brute force. If we minimize these “bruises,” failing to make appropriate repairs, we leave people in a wounded state. Now we have added the pain of invalidation to the already existing wound of spiritual abuse.
Don’t Exaggerate It
We’re throwing the term “abuse” around very freely these days—so much so that it could create a boy-who-cried-wolf backlash if we’re not careful. It’s possible to exaggerate an unpleasant encounter with a spiritual leader into “spiritual abuse.” This can happen for a few reasons.
Some individuals have already been wounded so deeply that their raw nerves tend toward a heightened response. Oh, I have to be so careful here not to invalidate real harm by saying “You’re too sensitive!” But the fact is that some personalities experience pain very readily because they misinterpret the words and actions of others, twisting innocuousness into harm. And they mean no harm by this. They simply need patient care and tenderness to coax their hearts back toward trusting.
More maliciously, others have a bent toward resentment and revenge. These individuals obtain some kind of secondary benefit, a lift for a hungry ego, from putting another down. These individuals tend to enlarge small offenses, or even turn non-offenses into a crime against humanity. They are quick to resent, painting human error in the darkest dye. We must not forget that exaggeration is a form of lying, and false accusation a form of abuse in itself.
Another exaggerated reaction to certain conservative ministries occurs when individuals aren’t fully aware of the requirements upon joining, only to be shocked when presented with them. To be told one has fallen short brings a sense of shame, regardless of how the message is delivered. How important that leaders convey the standards and requirements clearly beforehand!
So, What Is It?
To prevent either denial or exaggeration of spiritual abuse, let’s try to pin it down. After all, spiritual people should be the most spiritually discerning, right? “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12). We should be experts on what spiritual abuse is, and isn’t.
Abuse by definition is to “use to bad effect,” to treat someone with “cruelty or violence, especially repeatedly.” That’s the outward fruit, but I want to go deep with this phenomenon of abuse, and expose its roots.
The original abuser was, of course, Lucifer himself, who through abuse of the extraordinary power and position God had given him, became the devil and Satan. Lucifer’s core motivation of self-exaltation drove him to wreak havoc in the heavenly courts, effectively abusing the angels and God Himself.
If pride occupies the motivational center of a spiritual leader, he will follow in the footsteps of Lucifer. The preventative and cure-all for pride is a true conversion, true humility at the foot of the Cross. Those tasked with leading people—and especially young people—need great humility, a gift of the Holy Spirit. If their hearts are stone rather than flesh, the position they hold will amplify the harmfulness of their actions. Spiritual abuse will be the sure result.
What were some of the tactics that flowed from Lucifer’s prideful leadership? He began with subtle things, which escalated to more outrageous and bold things as his rebellion spiraled. Let me try to show how they looked:
Lucifer worked hard to form an army of followers. He conducted a political smear campaign against God designed to draw followers into his net. Similarly, consider the mendicant friars of John Wycliff’s time, who, “swarmed in England, casting a blight upon the greatness and prosperity of the nation.” Like Lucifer brainwashing the angels, these friars drew young, impressionable minds, through false promises and partial information, into the monastic life. Through creating a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives, then offering a false solution, abusive leaders recruit followers.
The friars accomplished this in a way that led the young people to disparage the authority and love of their parents. One monk said to “trample them underfoot, and go onward straightaway to Christ.” Through this “monstrous inhumanity” as Martin Luther styled it, “were the hearts of the children steeled against their parents.” The parallel to the fallen angels’ rejection of their Father, God, is unmistakable. When spiritual leaders, not having made parental sacrifices, nevertheless disparage parents and usurp the parental role, they steal what does not belong to them.
Young people have strong passions that can be harnessed for good or bad. They tend toward idealism. What kept me in my own abusive circumstances was the sense of exceptionality. I’d been trained to believe that we were the spiritual elite, the crème de la crème of Adventism, with a special message to bear to the church and the world. Grandiosity feels pretty good to the human heart. The payoff of feeling exceptional led me to minimize the evidences that something was very wrong.
Once the followers have drunk the Kool-aid, an abusive spiritual leader knows he or she has control. Then the abuse kicks itself up a notch. For the sake of the ministry or church, and ultimately for the glory of the leader, workers are manipulated into an outward compliance to rules that serve no purpose but to establish the power of the leader. How contrary to the servant leadership of Jesus, who made the Sabbath for man, and who laid down His life to save the lives of His people. He is the true Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10-11). Shame tactics become commonplace, as abusive leadership conflates their own selfish agenda with “the will of God” and threatens vulnerable, frightened believers with divine displeasure. Because the leader used Scripture and Ellen White to support everything, everyone feared raising questions.
Once the ministry, program, or church, and by extension the leader, becomes all-important, an end in itself, the constituency have been reduced to instrumentalities. “The kingdom of Satan is a kingdom of force; every individual regards every other as an obstacle in the way of his own advancement, or a steppingstone on which he himself may climb to a higher place.” Once an abusive leader sees individuals as a means to the all-encompassing end of his or her own exaltation, they divide their underlings into obstacles—the “bad kids”—and steppingstones—the favorites. This creates competition and division among the underlings themselves, making mutual support, and any meaningful joint protest, impossible.
Once they have effectively destroyed accountability, spiritually abusive leaders can go to even greater lengths in achieving their grandiose goals, depriving their people of even the basic necessities of life such as good food, safe sleeping quarters, clean water, and proper rest. All of this is done “for the cause.” But individuals make these sacrifices from a fear of being shamed rather than overflowing gratitude for God’s goodness. Deprivation can even occur on a purely emotional level when the basic human needs for self-respect, friendship, kindness and camaraderie are stolen. All cults use deprivation tactics to wear down the defenses of recruits. Then it becomes possible for abusive leaders to, by sometimes providing those same necessities, present oneself as the savior. Some recruits even develop what’s called a “betrayal bond” with perpetrators who alternately deprive and then provide for them.
I could say more, and will say more as the conversation continues. But I want to end with a challenge. First and foremost, I want to challenge leaders. Have you failed to reflect the servant leadership of Jesus? If so, how? Have you harmed people? Ask God for the gift of repentance and then do all you can to make amends.
I want to also challenge those led by abusive leaders. Get counseling to help you process constructively. Never let your wounds fester into bitterness. At the right time, forgive and go forward. Sometimes this will mean confrontation, or even filing a report with appropriate authorities. Do so with an eye single to the glory of God, for the purpose of sparing others the pain you’ve suffered, praying that God uses even this for His glory.
Give yourself one point for each “yes” answer. Even one “yes” answer is a concern, but many of them may indicate a pattern of spiritual abuse.
- Did recruiters tell you that your existing life and plans, though reasonable and well thought-out, fell short of God’s will for you?
- Did recruiters tell you that God couldn’t bless you unless you joined?
- Did recruiters appeal to your sense of grandiosity, claiming that you’d be special and exceptional if you joined?
- Did recruiters give you false promises and partial information to make the program seem too good to be true?
- Did leaders belittle your parents’ spirituality, implying they were “bad for you” when in fact they were decent people?
- Did leaders claim your parents and family did not have your best good in mind, but that they and the program did?
- Did leaders encourage you to disrespect your parents’ wishes and ignore their requests because they weren’t as “spiritual”?
- Did leaders often teach that the ministry was the “cutting edge,” and that it would “finish the work” because previous generations have failed?
- Did you yourself at any time feel an inflated sense of being exceptional because you were part of the ministry?
- Did leaders demand compliance to rules that served no practical purpose except the establishment of their own dominance?
- Did leaders use shaming expressions to motivate you and others?
- Did leaders claim they knew the will of God for you, rather than encouraging you to hear God’s voice for yourself?
- Did leaders tell you that exercising your own will, even in legitimate and appropriate ways, would displease God?
- Did leaders often tell you what pleased and displeased God regarding your personal choices rather than encourage you to discern that for yourself?
- Did leaders use inspired statements taken out of context to motivate you to choose what they wanted you to choose?
- Did leaders create an environment that made it impossible for others to ask questions, even in respectful, appropriate ways?
- Did members tend to form into groups of “favorites” and “the bad kids” because of leaders’ attitudes toward them?
- Did the environment of competition set the members at odds with one another, creating division?
- Did leaders deprive you and/or others of basic physical needs when those needs were actually available?
- Did leaders deprive you and/or others of basic emotional needs such as respect, decency, and kindness?
 GreatControversy, 82.
 Desire of Ages, 436.