the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors
By Edward J. Cumella, Ph. D.
Spiritual abuse began in the Garden of Eden: Satan manipulated
God’s words and convinced our earliest parents to follow him
instead of God. This event epitomizes all spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse occurs across denominations, in non-denominational
churches, and across faiths—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, et al.
It usually has little to do with the theologies of major religious
groups and more to do with the personality of individual leaders.
Spiritual leaders with personality pathology—especially
narcissistic, antisocial, obsessive-compulsive, borderline, and
histrionic traits—may become spiritually abusive. Because of
emotional, relational, and cognitive problems characterizing these
personalities, the Bible, theology, and church relationships can
be distorted by such leaders to the point of serious harm.
Christians believe that human beings have a spirit that connects
us to God. As such, spiritual abuse consists of actions that
distort or sever our relationship with God. Since identity derives
from knowing who we are in relation to God, spiritual abuse harms
self-concept and self-worth. Spiritual abuse also causes mental
and emotional distress, and is therefore a form of
mental/emotional abuse. In extreme cases, it includes physical and
sexual abuse justified by the abuser as God’s will through the
twisting of scriptures.
Spiritual abuse has debilitating effects and is thus a legitimate
focus in counseling or pastoral care. Depending on its
manifestation, spiritual abuse may involve actions—such as severe
mental/emotional abuse or physical/sexual abuse of children—that
professionals are legally required to report to state child
protection agencies. When perpetrators of spiritual abuse are
licensed or certified counselors/pastors, ethics compel reporting
the perpetrator’s behavior to licensing boards or
church/denominational oversight authorities.
Spiritual abuse is usually more severe in church than in
counseling settings. Pastors are often accorded great respect and
authority in critical life domains— marriage, sexuality,
relationships, and finances. They lead communities that exert
social pressures and offer belonging and fellowship. Abuse in
these contexts affects most aspects of life.
Spiritual abuse occurs on a continuum. Some churches are virtually
free of it; others are occasionally and mildly abusive; still
others abuse frequently and with great intensity. Experiences of
spiritual abuse are also unique to the individual. Some—such as
those inclined to perfectionism, obsessions, anxiety, or
self-derision—are more likely to hear messages as inflexible rules
or condemnations. Others in the same environment and exposed to
the same messages might not experience trauma.
Spiritual abuse can arise in counseling offices, but is usually
less severe than in churches, for several reasons. Counselors are
rigorously trained to be person-centered, to listen, and to
respect the beliefs and choices of their clients. Counselors are
less commonly accorded the same authority as pastors, nor is
counseling typically imbued with the authority of God. Counseling
is temporary; counseling is commonly and easily terminated. But
church membership can be seen as a lifetime commitment. Leaving
counseling does not mean separation from family and friends, but
leaving one’s church may.
Scripture addresses spiritual abuse best through Christ’s scathing
words to the Pharisees (Matthew 23), who are perfect examples of
spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse has 12 features.
than modeling and teaching obedience to God, abusive leaders
expect believers to obey them. Councils of elders, deacons, etc.,
are expected to rubber stamp leaders’ intentions rather than
Coercion. Rather than
respecting freedom and conscience, as God does, and offering
messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason,
abusive leaders use strong-arm tactics to coerce believers into
overruling better judgment and following their demands.
Intimidation. Rather than
building up the Body in the bonds of love, abusive leaders use
threats of punishment, excommunication, and condemnation to force
people into submission and continued church membership.
Terrorism. Rather than
inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and
forgiveness, abusive leaders intensify believers’ fear, shame, and
false guilt, teaching that problems in believers’ lives are due to
the believers’ personal sins.
Condemnation. Rather than
refraining from judgment lest they be judged, an abusive leader
liberally condemns those who leave his church, outsiders, and
those whom he defines as sinners. The message is that believers
will join the ranks of the condemned should they deviate from the
leader’s teachings or leave his church/denomination. Individual
members become the scapegoat when something goes awry in the
Classism. Christ was no
respecter of persons. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with power,
promoting church hierarchy, referring to and treating people
according to their titles and roles. Those lower on the hierarchy
are taught that their needs don’t matter.
leaders have the greatest hold over inexperienced, naïve, and
dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. These
individuals suppress their objections to the leaders’ teachings
for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Hence, abusive churches
often appear unified, but beneath the surface there is discontent,
anguish, whispers, rumors, secrets, and a desire among many to
Manipulation. Rather than
taking scripture in context, interpreting the Bible with the Bible
and according to long-held Christian beliefs, abusive leaders
twist scripture to convey their personal opinion rather than God’s
scripture is manipulated, one interpretation may contradict
another. Interpretations may contradict reason and obvious
reality. This requires suspension of critical thinking. Some
abusive leaders claim to receive direct messages from God about
their church or individual members, but these messages typically
deviate from Scripture and reality.
Legalism. Rather than
treating others with love, grace, and forgiveness, as Christ
commanded, abusive leaders offer little grace. They communicate
instead that one’s worth and the amount of love one deserves
depend on performance and status in their church. Abusive leaders
expect believers to make heroic financial, time, and emotional
sacrifices for their church and its members.
Isolation. Rather than
respecting family ties, community obligations, and friendships,
abusive leaders are concerned that such influences will interfere
with their control over believers, so they encourage
isolation from family, friends, and the outside world, and wage
war against the outside world as a sewer of sin devoid of anything
Elitism. Rather than
modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false
pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of,
“We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially
compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel
because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader
instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any
Ensnarement. Rather than
promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably
promote self-doubt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers
struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and
reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence,
coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and
fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave
Think about a cult, for at its most severe, a spiritually abusive
church is a cult. It has so diverged from solid Biblical teaching
and grown so warped in the authoritarian rule of one man, that it
has become a place of idolatry where God is no longer worshipped.
“Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind
of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little
yeast works through the whole batch of dough… Be on your guard
against the yeast of the Pharisees…” (Galatians 5:7-10, Matthew
Assessing Religious Abuse
Assessment is simpler when clients already define their religious
experiences as abusive. When clients do not recognize their
possibly abusive experiences, cautions apply:
Respect adult clients’ religious
choices. Labeling religious experiences as abusive may
interfere with religious autonomy. However, therapist
authenticity, integrity, and responsibility require that possible
religious abuse be addressed openly. It may be useful to assist
clients in articulating the issues to arrive at their own
conclusions about abuse. Remember, not everyone experiences the
same events in the same manner; seemingly harsh religious
experiences may not traumatize everyone.
Regarding children, utilize an
objective standard of abuse. Most authorities agree that
religious abuse has definitively occurred when the experience has
led to serious and diagnosable behavioral, cognitive, emotional,
or mental disorders. Short of this, it is inadvisable to use the
word “abuse” to describe religious experiences.
A psychometrically valid and
reliable questionnaire may be useful in this assessment,
such as the Remuda Spiritual Assessment Questionnaire (www.remudaranch.com),
which contains a factor score measuring spiritual abuse. It is
short, easy to use, with either paper and pencil or computerized
administration, and free of charge to healthcare professionals.
Treating Religious Abuse
It is not possible in this overview to detail treatment for
spiritual abuse. Detailed treatment resources appear in the
bibliography. However, there are some basics. Common issues
arising among clients in recovery from spiritual abuse include
betrayal of trust, learning anew whom to trust, fallout with and
forgiveness of God and family, grief over lost years, and
understanding grace and God’s loving nature. Those who have
experienced spiritual abuse often evidence the following
Feelings of worthlessness as opposed to dignity and self-respect
• Efforts at control as opposed to an ability to surrender
trustingly to God
• Shame vs. self-acceptance
• Guilt about vs. recognition that past sins have been forgiven
• Anxiety about performance and punishment vs. peace
• Moral rigidity vs. grace and unconditional love
• Isolation and secrecy vs. a sense of belonging and ability to
be authentic with others
• Addictions/compulsions vs. healthy boundaries and coping
• Confusion vs. clear understanding of the Gospel and nature of
• Hopelessness vs. a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction
Regardless of spiritual abuse history, spiritual interventions are
contraindicated when clients don’t want them, are psychotic or
delusional. If spiritual interventions are warranted, inform
clients at treatment inception that you may use spiritual
interventions and obtain informed consent. Spiritual interventions
are most effective once trusting therapeutic relationships have
developed. However, Christian counselors should express a commonly
understood Gospel truth, including Christ’s atoning sacrifice,
forgiveness rather than punishment, and God’s unconditional,
unmerited grace and love rather than legalism, performance, or the
need for perfection.
Primary spiritual interventions include: teaching spiritual
concepts; bibliotherapy; prayer; spiritual imagery and meditation;
forgiveness; counsel from pastors or spiritual directors;
encouraging involvement in a healthy faith community; cognitive
restructuring focusing on the nature of God; a mature
understanding of suffering, self hatred and perfectionism as
obstacles to receiving God’s love; and an application of clients’
values to their own lives to reduce cognitive dissonance.
Self-help groups, such as Christian Recovery International, may be
It may be necessary to guide clients toward finding a healthy
faith community. The four F’s suggest that healthy faith
sound Biblical messages promoting personal growth and maturity
• Fellowship: supportive relationships
• Fit: commonality with other members
• Fruit: service to community and one another
It is a sad commentary about the modern church that abusive
Christian leaders are so pervasive that we must write articles
like this and give them prominence in order to warn the faithful.
Yet it is also true that perverted pastors, false prophets, and
evil leaders have always existed in the history of Israel and the
Church. And most importantly, if we cling to God and stay
vigilant, He promises to make the way straight for us.
Copyright © 2006 Christian Counseling Today. (Originally Published in Christian Counseling Today 2005
Vol. 13 No. 1:35)
Edward J. Cumella, Ph.D., a
Licensed Psychologist, is Director of Research and Education at
Remuda Ranch Programs for Anorexia and Bulimia, Inc., the
nation’s largest inpatient eating disorder facility. He presents
frequently at national and international conferences and has
published at least 50 papers on mental health topics, including
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