Abuse in the church

UK evangelist Andy Economides says spiritual abuse is wreaking havoc in some churches - and suggests how sufferers can get free.

Mary is a bubbly, friendly Christian... now. But for years she suffered a terrible, insidious abuse that virtually robbed her of her faith and certainly her happiness and confidence. Her church leaders had abused her. Not sexually, or anything like that. But over a period of time its leaders demanded such control and manipulation of her life that they drove her to despair.

Abuse is on the increase and it takes on a lot of different forms... physical, emotional, sexual, verbal and spiritual. It's all wrong, and it's all sinful.

Some Christians do not (or will not) believe that spiritual abuse exists, while others belittle it and think that it is not a serious matter. But believe me, it is thriving in British Churches and untold numbers of Christians are being damaged today as a result. Spiritual abuse can do enormous harm to its victims, but the good news is that Jesus can work miracles to set people free from its effects and we have seen the transforming power of God.

What is it?

Overriding people's feelings is a one of the clear characteristics. Abusers do not mind abusing, as long as they get what they want or need for themselves. As a speaker I visit many people and places and I see individuals in leadership positions of churches that abuse the very people they are supposed to be caring for.

Marc Dupont defines abuse as the misuse of power. 'Whether emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual, it is always about the wrongful use of power and authority... to compensate for their fears, hurts and insecurities. Power is used by an individual to control, manipulate, or use another'.

Don't talk

Now, hurtful behaviours will happen in all sorts of churches, but in an abusive church it is not permissible to talk about the problems, hurts and abuses. So there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.

In an abusive situation, speaking out against abusive behaviour will get you into trouble, even though you are innocent. People need wisdom to know how and when it is time to act.


One of the difficulties for anyone who has been abused is to be able to trust again. This is understandable, but remember, it is possible to make a recovery and to be able to trust others. This does take time and you have good reason to be cautious.

There are those who dominate and control who say: 'You can trust me', but trust is not something that can be demanded. Trust is gained or lost on the basis of integrity and honesty. Sadly I do not trust all Christians. Some lie and some are dishonest. There are spiritual leaders who lead a double life. Jesus warned us about them: '... but do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach' (Matthew 23 v 3).

The signs

By recognising the signs or characteristics of a spiritual abusive church or organisation, you can avoid getting hurt.

Marc Dupont lists eight classic warning signs:

1. Attitudes of elitism and/or isolation
2. Leaders practising 'cursing' or judging.
3. Denial of freewill and invasion of privacy
4. Leadership without accountability
5. Hazy boundaries between serving God and leaders
6. Legalism and condemnation
7. Scapegoating and denial syndromes
8. A continuous turnover of leaders and staff

Leaders in positions of spiritual power and authority need to be very careful about themselves; they need to be careful about wrong desires, especially the desire to dominate, which can easily arise from a poor and insecure self image and fear of failure. There can be enormous satisfaction from knowing you can control others, but this stems comes from pride, not humility. Leaders must recognise and respect that each individual has an opinion. But manipulators and controllers cannot, will not, accept differences of opinion.

How can it be avoided?

Whoever is the overall leader of the church - priest, pastor, minister or clergyman, they must be accountable to others within the church. Accountability that actually works. In theory the pastor may be accountable, but in practise it does not always work out. Some pastors do what they want to anyway, whether it is right or wrong.

When the pastor is not submitting to authority, things can and do go wrong. People in the congregation can get seriously hurt. If leaders cannot submit to authority, they should not expect others to submit to them. Someone needs to pastor the pastors.

It's Bad To Talk

Unspoken rules exist in spiritual abusive systems. It is only when you speak out that you find out that you have broken an unspoken rule. A church where unspoken rules exist is not concerned about honesty and truth. It is concerned about 'looking the part' and looking good. Some abusive leaders are more concerned in being perceived as good and upright than being truthful.

Disagreeing openly or publicly would break the silence - and would quite likely result in 'punishment'; either by being shunned or by aggressive questioning or being asked to leave. The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the spiritual abusive system or church is the 'can't-talk' rule. If people talk about the problem out loud, they become the problem.


Ever been 'cursed' by a church leader? Sadly, this is one of the signs of elitism often seen in abusive churches, and involves 'cursing' someone who either decides to leave the church, or who refuses to submit in questionable areas. Abusive leaders will judge such a person to be 'disobedient'. The curses will not be obvious, but often cloaked in spiritual jargon.

The way out

Those that find themselves in a spiritual abusive system will ask themselves questions about leaving. What should we do? Leave or stay? Fight by speaking out? In most cases like this, it is better to move on. Walk out. Let me ask you a question 'Should a mother or father allow their child access to a person who had sexually abused their child?' There is only one answer: 'No'.

You may disagree with me on the point of leaving. Those who have been abused or who have known people who have been abused, will understand and see the sense of leaving. I think spiritual abuse can be as damaging as sexual abuse. We must not underestimate the havoc and damage.


Jesus brought freedom and liberty in His teaching and by His actions. The message of Jesus is one of joy and freedom. He said: 'Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8 v 32 & 36).

Paul enjoyed freedom, not to do whatever he pleased, but a freedom that brought health, life and blessing to those he came into contact with. He encouraged Christians: 'It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery'(Galatians 5 v1).

And to the Christians at the church in Corinth, he warned: 'You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men' (1 Corinthians 7 v 23).

Are you suffering spiritual abuse? If so, you will know it. Do not allow a church, group or an individual to dominate, control or intimidate you. Walk away and help yourself. Often it takes more courage to walk away than stay. Walk out of spiritual abuse. Enjoy your freedom in Christ.

Remember, if you have been abused, Jesus, who was himself abused on the cross, can heal and restore you.

If you are in a spiritually abusive church or are personally suffering from spiritual abuse, here's what you can do:

1. Look after yourself. Spend time with Christian friends that you can trust. If you have been abused in any way trusting is difficult. Only put your life in the hands of those you feel comfortable with and who are trustworthy.

2. Attend a church that is safe, not one that is abusive in nature. Be discerning. At first keep your distance.

3. Don't allow your experience to make you bitter or keep you down. You can receive help from Christ, the Good Shepherd. You can be helped and encouraged by friends that you can trust.

4. You may know of someone else who has suffered from spiritual abuse, who has made good progress and has recovered. Talk with them. They will understand and can help you because of their experience.

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