Mind Control and Dogmatism in Spiritual Abuse

Last year, Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender dove into a four-part series wrestling with the dynamics of spiritual abuse and the particular forms of trauma that emerge in spiritually abusive contexts. The response was staggering, and this remains one of our most highly engaged series in the four years of this podcast. That outpouring of feedback made it clear: this is a crucial and pervasive topic, and it is not talked about nearly enough. So this week, Rachael and Dan return to the category of spiritual abuse, launching a new series that will explore more of the dynamics we named in 2018.

Dan: “There’s a sense in which this is just so big. When you violate someone spiritually, from our vantage, you’re dealing with some of the very core, core of who a person is.”

Rachael: “When we’re talking about spiritual abuse, we’re talking about what happens when you’re in a community—a faith community, a religious community—where there is an overarching belief system that is created in an oppressive way over you and over the community, that’s typically being curated by a few people, often maybe even only one person. And spiritual abuse is such an umbrella for so many other forms of abuse.”

“So much of what makes spiritual abuse is the reality that you are not actually authorized to connect with Jesus, to have a relationship with God, outside of this person or community or family system.”

As Dan and Rachael unpack these categories, it’s helpful to note that—even when they discuss the extreme, blatant examples they have seen in cult-like settings—these dynamics can be at play in countless forms and contexts, even when they are more discreet. These systems, no matter how blatant or subtle, are ultimately about control—structuring power and authority in such a way that spiritually abusive leaders have total control over the minds and bodies of those in their communities.

Rachael: “There is a leadership or authority in place that gets to dictate what the truth is, how to interpret scripture, how you should be living, who you are. And there’s very little room for deviating from that.”

That form of mind control—which is a fundamental part of spiritual abuse—is accomplished by isolating you from those outside the community, instilling a deep mistrust of the world around you, rather than curiosity and spaciousness. The message is clear: The world is dangerous. You can’t talk to those people. We’re the only ones who really know God, the only ones you can trust if you want to be safe and happy. What makes these messages so devastating is that they also seek to distort, undermine, and create doubt in your own ability to interact with the world or read Scripture, to the point where you are dependent upon the leader to make decisions and clarify what you believe.

Rachael: “Mind control is so linked to identity formation. When we’re talking about mind control, we’re talking about how you’re being told to make sense of yourself, how you’re being told to make sense of God, how you’re being told to make sense of the world.”

Dan: “There’s no room for truly questioning and expanding.”

In their own experiences and their work with people who have endured severe spiritual abuse, Dan and Rachael have learned that what makes this form of mind control so harmful is that it is a perversion of our very human need for attunement. Narcissistic and abusive leaders are excellent at reading the people who come into their communities; they know when you are insecure, fearful, angry, or hurt, and they know how to speak to those parts of ourselves in ways that feel deeply intimate.

“When you’re engaging a story—and the Bible is 70 percent story—it doesn’t lend itself to mastery and control. There’s so much more room for ambiguity, for a very rich explication of meaning.”

Dan: “That’s part of the allure of those worlds—you’re getting attunement.”

Rachael: “So it actually feels really good at first, because someone is seeing you in ways you most long to be seen. There is welcome, there’s a sense that you belong.”

That attunement is ultimately a form of grooming—a crucial category in any form of abuse. Through grooming, we feel that our needs are being met and our deepest desires are coming true, and that intimate attachment is eventually distorted into a demand for loyalty, a sense that you can’t get your needs met like this anywhere else, that you can’t trust anybody else—including yourself. Ultimately, this is a form of denying that we are storied beings uniquely created in the image of God, and created to participate in a story that is so much bigger than ourselves.

Rachael: “Principles tend to be more important than narrative. Story is lost. It actually needs to be lost in order to maintain control. But our text is a text of stories; we are storied people, and we are part of a story.”

Dan: “That’s so huge, so important to underline that when you’re engaging a story—and the Bible is 70 percent story—it doesn’t lend itself to mastery and control. There’s so much more room for ambiguity, for a very rich explication of meaning.”