Defining Spiritual Abuse

Today Dan and Rachael revisit one of the most listened-to topics on the podcast: spiritual abuse. However, before we dive into the conversation, we recognize that we cannot address the reality of spiritual abuse without taking into account that many, many people have encountered violations of various kinds within spiritual contexts. Over the course of their conversation today, you’ll hear more about how to define spiritual abuse in Christian contexts, tools used by spiritually abusive leaders to maintain power and control, and the insidious nature of spiritual abuse.

Listener Resources

Episode Transcript

Dan: Well, Rachael. We have often honestly begun a podcast by saying what’s going on and I need to do that today because I’m about to lose my mind if I could have legitimately put my fist through this freaking computer. Yeah, it would have done it five times. And again, just between the two of us, like we’ve done this what feels like hundreds of times, and somehow the intersection of our technology just to be able literally to hear one another through Zoom and Zencaster. It sucks! and it’s been a bad at least 30 minutes.

Rachael: Try 45. [laughs]

D: Okay, Whatever. I don’t even have time anymore. But you know, as we engage this just to underscore, we’ve done this without a lot of complications, but not a lot. Why today? Why today? Oh, it could just be happenstance. It also might be the topic and we’re going to return to the reality of spiritual abuse. And I’ll just say as we enter this, our focus isn’t on evil, but you cannot address the reality of spiritual abuse without also acknowledging: Evil gains so much power and joy through the violation that comes in any form of spiritual abuse. So we know this is not a small topic. It’s something we’ve covered and talked about before. And I will say, we are, well you are presenting a fabulous conference on June 5. We’ll come back to that. But just to say these matters aren’t incidental. We need to take into account the reality that more than a few people have encountered violations within spiritual contact, so, let’s get into this as to what’s the nature of spiritual abuse?

R: Yeah. Gosh, it is just such a great question that obviously we’ve spent a lot of time talking about and I think a lot of people right now are also talking about it and trying to find a way to tangibly define what we say when we say something like spiritual abuse. And I think what’s hard talking about any reality of abuse, and I know we experience this when we’re talking about emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, there is that sense of: how do you demarcate and understand something on a spectrum? And when we’re human, and definitely in some ways in this already not yet season of being followers of Jesus who we know something has metaphysically shifted, we know we are not bound to the power of sin and death and yet we’re still so often it feels like at its mercy. So I understand how this is a hard concept because I don’t know if you’re going to find any spiritual context, any faith context that you’re not engaging human beings and human imaginations and human teaching, human pastoring, human parenting. So, one, that’s just one caveat that I’m aware it’s a realm or we have to do some unpacking. And then the other piece just around how do you delineate what is abuse? And then the other thing that’s hard is this word spiritual. Because we’ve been so trained to think of spiritual as being ephemeral or somehow without a body or some realm that’s not material. But we know that’s not actually in any way how God wired us and made us. We know that our spirituality is intrinsically a part of our body, part of our imagination and our brain and our relationships and this very embodied lived reality, both in our personal bodies and in our larger body as community, in our primary relationships, in our spiritual and religious relationships. And so I think it can be a really hard thing to define for people because it starts to move out of the realm of the material, but we’re talking about abuse that happens, that is in some ways wedded to spirituality and the misuse, I would say ultimately, the misuse of spiritual authority, whether that’s from a parent, a spouse, a ministry or nonprofit leader or school leader, or a whole spiritually abusive system that maybe has the whole community, the whole nature of the beast, which we do know, some people are coming out of context that are more on that extreme edge of spiritual abuse where there’s mind control and body control and cult like communities, and so that’s what it can be a little challenging and trying to define it. And I think you actually start, you have to start getting down into particularity.

D: Yes, yes. Well in some ways, in a book Bold Love, I tried to put words to the fact that all of us are normal sinners, the intersection of lust and anger always creates harm. So there’s no way in any setting, you put it brilliantly to escape the reality that we will harm one another. But in most occasions we’re not dealing with fools who at their core are functioning with a kind of narcissistic base. Whenever you’ve got a narcissist in spiritual or other forms of authority, you will have more than harm. I believe it will be inevitable, to some degree on the spectrum of abuse, but when you go into that notion of a mocker, somebody who really does say there is no god and I am God, I have power. Then you’re talking about predatory. So cult leaders, I would say are not normal sinners, I wouldn’t even say they’re, they may be narcissists but they’ve gone into another realm. So just that quick delineation allows us to say, look, even normal harm has a form of abuse that needs to be tended to, So don’t miss hear me saying, only the more severe forms of spiritual abuse, all forms of harm need to be tended to, but we do say it is on a spectrum.

R: Mhm yeah, so to me, I think a really simple understanding of spiritual abuse again is a misuse and abuse of power that is connected to spiritual authority. So where someone is claiming to have knowledge, insight, expertise, some kind of authority to lead spiritually, to speak on behalf of God, to have power and authority to bring forth theological ideas, power and authority to have, you know, the right doctrine, the right interpretation of scripture. So when those realities of what God thinks, feels, believes, how God relates, are being dictated through a human being in a way that is misusing power, using power to control, to manipulate, to keep in line. I often think sometimes people go like “I don’t feel like I was being controlled,” but you could say, I felt like the boundary lines were very rigid in who’s in and who’s out what’s right and what’s wrong. And I think often some of the symptoms of spiritual abuse that, you know, maybe go and I wouldn’t say unnoticed but get forgiven is when the leader or group of leaders or the culture, it’s kind of like, however, the behavior is being dictated, it’s totally fine for that person to break the boundaries. Like somehow they can be godlike and make decisions about what’s okay and what’s not okay that are different from what’s being kind of issued to the community. And I think another reality is spiritual abuse is inherently bodily. It always, in some ways, has something to do with our bodies. And the biggest thing is this kind of built in, you can’t trust your body. Your body is deceitful, your body is sinful, your body is a liar, I’m your spiritual authority, you can’t trust, you know, your doubts, your questions, where anything that you actually feel and in some ways where your body is actually being a good truth teller, is being reinterpreted to you as something wrong with you. Something out of line with you, something that’s actually threatening the powers.

D: Well, and that sense of: I have something you don’t have. And you know, in, in the early Church, there was such a war with what was called gnosticism. That idea, there is a special knowledge, a special training, a special wisdom that gives me the authority and power to tell your body what you can and cannot do. In that sense, the movement of dogmatism into the structuring of what you are or aren’t to do, now we’ve got a realm in which especially what you added: Oftentimes that leader precludes himself or herself from having to actually follow the dictates they set for others. Now you have not only control and power, but hypocrisy. A kind of elitism, it creates a “we’re not together in this.”

R: Yeah. And I think when we, when we’re talking about, because some people will be like, all right, yeah I’ve been in context where maybe there’s some really bad theology that people have good intentions but have really, you know, just missed the mark on what God’s heart actually is and there’s a lot of room for that and we can talk more about the nuances of that, but when you’re in the realm of spiritual abuse, there are going to be some tools that are utilized to maintain power and to control. And I would say, you know, those tools are primarily the use of fear and the use of shame. And so where you feel like the ways in which your spiritual imagination is being formed is to primarily be afraid of either the enemy, be afraid of failing, be afraid of people who are different than you because they will surely pull you into the fiery lakes of hell with them if you even engage with them, fear that you will be cut off from community, fear that you will be out of the good graces of care, that care will be withheld. That love has like really short limits, and then I think that sense of where again the use of fear and the use of threat and the use of control, that only amplifies shame, where shame is being exacerbated like where I hear this a lot from people like “I got exiled,” you know, I was too full of doubt, I wasn’t faithful enough, or you know, I just could never really live by the rules, I didn’t have enough discipline, I didn’t have enough self control and where that sense of just taking in shame and shame being and you and I have talked about this like you can’t experience profound amounts of shame without experiencing trauma, without experiencing fragmentation, without taking an internalizing things is there’s something wrong with me. And so I often think of spiritual abuse functioning as a way to actually in our bodies, in our imaginations make us feel like somehow we are outside of the love of God. And to me, any theology, any spiritual practice, any interpretation of the text that a human being leverages to say you are outside of the love of God is inherently spiritually abusive.

D: Preach it! I mean, we’re talking about the core of what we are made to– what our journey is. Look, we’re meant to grow an intimacy, but we’re meant to become who you and I are uniquely meant to be. So, in that sense, the classic term is individualization. So the threat against exclusion is an issue of: of course there’s fear. Fear of loss of intimacy and yet evil, particularly through any form of spiritual abuse is trying to mold you into a conformity where you cannot be you, you must be someone else. And I’ll define for you who to be and you be that person because that’s who you really are. Well, that’s a lie from the bowels of hell. So you can see where this interplay of fear and shame, of the assault of intimacy, the fault and assault against you becoming the individual that you were meant to be. And that play between the two, fear and shame, you know, the more crafty and the more brilliant of a spiritual abuser, the more they are able to weave that sense of you will not be with me and you will not be you. And that it literally is a form of hell.

R: And I think even in that language of becoming the individual, I think we see spiritual abusive collectives and spiritual abuse that plays out against collective because if we go back to its about the body, then where are there places where certain bodies don’t get to belong or only get to belong through a kind of conformity to a certain, I would say very religious ideal that actually has very little to do with the gospel of Jesus. And so, I mean, absolutely, that kind of harm, I mean, if you don’t get to trust your body, if you don’t get to trust your personhood, if you don’t get to trust your humanity and your identity as somehow being capable of being loved by God or even experiencing God, having relationship with God, then right there, you’re cut off from the actual, at least as Christians, we claim like the source of life. The source of, of actually the one who created us to be and not just created us to be in isolation, but created us to be in community and not just in community, but in a community that’s reflecting the very kingdom and created desire of God. So not only does it cut you off from a deep sense of personhood and relationship with your body, relationship with God, but that source of life that helps us be those who pursue mercy and justice and imagine the world as it should be and are kind of pulling that sense of eternity into the now. So it makes sense. I mean, we talk a lot about how effective, you know, five seconds of being abused can be in whatever form of abuse in dramatically impacting our bodies, our sense of self, our relationships, our capacity for love and our imagination and our spiritual formation of who God is. So when you compound that in the realm of spirituality, I think that severing, that fragmentation, that isolation and cutting off from the body is just so much more profound. And we also know historically that when spiritual abusive systems or people are in positions of power that that is often serving as an umbrella for multiple compounding forms of abuse. And this to me is why I just, there’s something in me like this is my Hell No. Like, no. No human being gets to sever and in prison and exile the children of God.

D: Well, you– you speak as you should, with much heart and ferocity. And that we’ve addressed some of this before and I know that you will dress more in the conference, but from whence does this come?

R: You know Dan, it’s really funny because when you ask me, I think it was, what four or five years ago do you want to maybe four years ago? Do you want to do this podcast with me on spiritual abuse? I was like, huh, interesting. Like that sounds interesting. I mean I thought a little bit about that and I think I kind of know something of what that is, but like sure, let’s talk about it. You know, I have a heart for the church. I have an MDiv. I’m in some ways, in so many ways a pastor by orientation. I love creating context for the flourishing of spiritual imagination and discipleship and development. And so I was like, yeah, let’s, let’s talk about it. I’ll talk about this thing that other people experience. But the reality is in the midst of that podcast, which I remember, we didn’t have the battery pack for the little recorder. We had to get in L. A. Traffic.

D: Here’s a freaking pattern!

R: –to Best Buy. It was great.

D: I did videotape your driving because–

R: Oh right, that’s right.

D: For a small donation, I’d be willing to pass it on–

R: I don’t know if our listeners are quite ready for road rage Rachael. So maybe another day. [laughs] All that to say: And I remember in the midst of that podcast, it felt a little bit like an anointing, in the sense of maybe more a baptism even of waking up to like… I care deeply about this because this is my story. And I think like most of us called to the places were called to that inevitably comes out of our story and out of the places where we’ve needed to encounter rescue, where we’ve needed to encounter those who speak truth to power and who disarm powers and principalities on our behalf and who who makes space and make room and point the way to the good shepherd and who tend to our bodies and tend to our stories. And so though I’ve had many different types of church experiences and I’m grateful for that so that I have something to compare to. I did spend a significant amount of very primary developmental years in my adolescence in the midst of an incredibly spiritually abusive community. And there were very rigid ideas of the role of women. There was a lot of spiritual authority to very few men. And there was just a lot of manipulation and control and a lot of power dynamics that were very abusive. And what’s really tricky is there was also a lot of promise of belonging, and if you were “in”, the belonging was so sweet and so powerful. But the minute you started to kind of rock the system or step outside of the system, then the exile and the shame and the fear, it was pretty profound. And I think that’s the, that can be some of the really painful realities of spiritual abuse is often what draws us to spiritually abusive people and communities is a sense of attunement and belonging. That there will be care for us. There will be a place to be called home, there will be community and there will be safety. Because even the use of fear to say, “we’re safe, they’re not,” promises something. And so there has to be a lot of mercy and grace when we step into these waters because um, and we’ve said this before, even when we’ve talked about spiritual abuse often to participate in the community, you almost have to become complicit in the spiritual abuse of others or your become an evangelist for some of the ideas and the theologies and the ways of kind of policing behavior. And so it is a long process of disentangling and tending and healing and I don’t know, I don’t know how I came out of that because part of what came out of that was being set up in a relationship with one of my youth leaders as a young teenager, who was in his twenties and graduating from college. And that was a longer process of getting out of that, but was birthed in that community and actually sustained in that community, even though I was not wanting to be in that relationship, but feeling as though God wanted me to be in that relationship and I could almost bare losing community, I could bear, you know, losing a sense of standing or sense of respect, I just could not bear losing God. And so I stayed much longer than I think my body could really tolerate. And I think that I don’t know how, I don’t know why coming out of that, I still was able to like enter some of the, I mean, I studied Biblical studies on the back end of that, I went on to seminary and I think so much of that is this weird place of grace where there was, the spirit kept calling me deeper into my questions, deeper into healing, deeper into call to a ministry. That in some ways I’ve gotten to be in communities that are helping me think through what is a life giving way of bringing pastoral care? How do we hold the tension of joy and sorrow together? How do we make space for people to be really human size in their wrestling with God? And how do we honor fear and terror without capitalizing on it? How do we honor and understand the role of shame without exploiting it? And so for me, those pathways have almost been like a parallel that just feels. I know, so I guess what I’m saying is I know so many people have experienced spiritual abuse that the only way they could find comfort or safety or healing was to almost completely leave their spirituality because they could never find a way to live into the spiritual practices without the abuse reverberating. And I think sometimes it’s because no one’s named, hey, what you experienced was abusive. Not like the, you know, not every experience of Christianity or any other religion for that matter. Not every experience has to be abusive or is abusive, but what you experience was abusive. Of course these practices remind you of a god who is not god at all, but a god made in the image of very broken human beings… it just really makes me angry and is a really heartbreaking reality of spiritual abuse.

D: Well, I heard you say it before and I’ll repeat it that in some ways you had to give up God. Oh yeah. But to put it in a more particular form, you had to give up a god that had been woven into your sensibility as a young woman who in order to in one sense, take the risk that maybe there was a god and in this case, from my standpoint god of the scriptures that God revealed in the presence of the love of Jesus. So, you know, before we end and I know you cannot comprehensively cover. Nonetheless, I would love for you to put a few words to what you’re going to cover in the context of this conference coming up on June 5.

R: It’s on June 5th from 9:00a.m. to 2:00p.m. PT. There’s a lunch break in there, there will be some bathroom breaks, it’s not like, what is that? Five hours of teaching straight without stopping, you know, there will be some breaks, but I wanted to be able to take more time to really get into the dirt of nuancing. What are some of the tangible definitions? What can we actually build some scaffolding around? Like what is spiritual abuse? How does it, what does it look like? And maybe some different iterations. What are some of the realities of our lives that might set us up to be more susceptible to spiritual abuse. But I want to spend a majority of the time actually talking about what does healing from spiritual abuse begin to look like? Because healing is a healing of any abuse. Healing of any heartache, healing of any trauma is a slow process. And it needs to be because that’s what’s honoring and dignifying because we are, we are full complex people. And so I want to really try to take some time exploring together what are some of the starting points of the healing journey from spiritual abuse. In no way prescriptive because every person is different. Every person’s story is different. But what are some of the common realities of healing that I think any person who’s experienced spiritual abuse will have to contend with at some point? So a little bit of defining, a little bit of exploring some of the nuances and the way spiritual abuse both manifests and the nature of its impact on our personhood, on our development, on our spirituality, and then spending some time together exploring what is some of the healing journey.

D: Well, I can tell you one thing, I will be there! A conversation after one of our, I don’t know, I can’t remember dates anymore, but when we did want our first series or second series and Becky and I were listening to it, and at one point she goes, you know, have you ever thought about, And she named an event in the context of some of our beginning years of marriage in the context of the church. And she said, have you ever named that as spiritual abuse? And I went, no, no, it wasn’t. And she’s like, mhm. Kind of that, I wish I could do the look, but it was this look of really? Are we going to do this again? Do I really have to say to you, are you kidding? And she–and I know the look, and and I said, what, do you think it’s abuse? She goes, Rachael just covered dot dot dot, and I’m like again, here’s the two plus two that I don’t have, sometimes the ability to add up to a very clear four. So I think it is one of those realities, as much as I’ve dealt with the complexities of my family, the reality of sexual abuse, somehow, spiritual abuse, even with us covering it, I’ve tended to want to cover it, talk about it, and then let’s get on to something else. There’s something here that, if you’ve been in the context of almost any world where it goes beyond mere normal sin, we’ve got to deal with these issues, so I’m so grateful and I invite our audience not only to be there, but to be praying on your behalf. Thank you. When you take this on, you’re taking on those, not only who can be seen, but the unseen world, So look forward to that time.

R: Yeah, and I would just say thank you, I welcome those prayers. You know, it’s been a long season of… not avoiding, but being hesitant to step into these waters with clarity and and with the power of the spirit. But I would just say for those who are interested in joining, you can find out more information at There’s a little event link and it’s the top event, it is $69, June 5. It will be recorded and available through the beginning of September for those of you who just aren’t able to make that date would be interested and also for those of you who might want to come, but know your body might need a break and you might only be able to take in so much. And I think one of my greatest hopes in this is to start creating gathering spaces for those who would say I’ve either experienced something of this, or I’m working in communities who have experienced this or I love someone or I’m in relationship with someone who’s experienced this, that there would be a space to come together and feel so much less alone. And though that can be overwhelming just to know something of the pervasiveness of a reality, it can also be really empowering to know that you are not on this path alone and that you have sojourners and those who are willing to be on this journey with you.