of 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
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
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
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.
Authoritarianism. Rather 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 provide accountability.
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’
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 congregation.
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.
Conformity. Abusive 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 leave.
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 intent.
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
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
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 redeeming.
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 cost.
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 abusive churches.
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 16:6).
Assessment is simpler when clients
already define their religious
experiences as abusive. When clients do not recognize their possibly
abusive experiences, cautions apply:
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.
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.
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.
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
of worthlessness as opposed
to dignity and self-respect
• Efforts at control as opposed to an ability to surrender trustingly
• 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 skills
• Confusion vs. clear understanding of the Gospel and nature of God
• 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 recommended.
It may be necessary to guide clients
toward finding a healthy faith
community. The four F’s suggest that healthy faith communities offer:
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)
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 spiritual abuse.
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Faith That Hurts/Faith That Heals.
(Reissue ed). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
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Martin, S. D. (2000). Twisted
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People Let You Down/How to Rise
Above Hurts That Often Occur. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House
the editor concerning this article