Spiritual Abuse, Part One

This week on the podcast, Dan and Rachael Clinton, Assistant Director of Program Development and Admissions, begin a three-part conversation about a difficult topic that will be painfully familiar for many listeners: spiritual abuse. Over the last few years, a number of people have requested that we engage this category, wrestling with how the human heart is impacted by those who use God to exert power and control in ways that extort and divide.

Rachael: “It’s a huge topic, and it’s a really painful topic. And it’s a topic that actually sets up and maintains other systems of abuse. […] These are dark waters.”

Dan: “I see spiritual abuse as a kind of umbrella over all the other forms.”

In this first episode, Dan and Rachael discuss the spectrum of spiritual abuse, from authoritarian, cult-like systems to communities that are more subtly complicit in allowing abusive people to hold power. Across the spectrum, spiritually abusive systems are often rigidly dogmatic, with an in-house language and a very rigid sense of who is “in” and who is “out.”

Rachael: “We’re in that realm where someone is speaking for God, almost like a direct mouthpiece.”

Dan: “It’s a system that is more than hierarchical. The top dog does control, manipulate, have power over everyone else, and there is an immense amount of shame and fear that goes on in that organization. […] And that kind of power and authority is always misused.”

Rachael: “Spiritual abuse permeates every crevice of the community.”

Jesus speaks very, very boldly to religious people who use their power to oppress.

In spiritually abusive situations, truth is perverted in order to bind people and keep them under control. The reality of brokenness in the world is amplified into a distrust of anyone on the outside, and community members are led to believe that questioning or challenging their leaders is a form of betrayal. This has deep and crucial intersections with the category of narcissism, and Dan and Rachael explore the dynamics of fragile narcissists that are often hallmarks of spiritual abuse.

Rachael: “When you’re in the good graces of a narcissist, you will feel like a million bucks. When you have done something to threaten a narcissist, the move towards annihilation is so violent and profound.”

Dan: “There can be a kind of posturing of empathy and care, but you feel like you can scratch it and there’s nothing underneath.”

Acknowledging her own story, Rachael reflects on how these categories will feel frighteningly real for many people listening. This conversation may evoke feelings of shame, despair, contempt, and lack of safety that are the fallout of spiritual abuse. If that is you, may you engage this topic with tenderness and wisdom, and with the care of those you love and trust. And may we all remember, as Dan and Rachael will discuss more in future episodes, that the perversion of spiritual abuse is so very far from what God intends for communities that bear His name.