accusations. Phrases like “spiritual abuse,” “Christian cults” and “controlling
ministries” can be very harmful. I wouldn’t want to stand before Jesus and give account for
misspoken words that carry the potential to tear down what He is
On the other hand, it’s also irresponsible to turn a blind eye to
spiritual abuse, Christian cults and controlling ministries. I wouldn’t
want to stand before Jesus and give account for supporting ministries
that are tearing down what He is building.
When spiritual leaders are caught in sex abuse scandals, the secular
and Christian media alike pen stories that offer the detestable details
and dogged denials. But spiritual abuse, cultish churches and
controlling ministries are less often exposed than pastors who coerce
teenaged boys and unsuspecting church secretaries to have sexual
That’s because victims of abusive church authority structures may not
even realize what they are enduring until they escape its grip.
Spiritual abuse is often subtle. Christian cult leaders don’t always
operate like Jim Jones. Controlling ministries tend to hide behind the
guise of spiritual coverings. And far too many outsiders are not willing
to even question the messages and practices of such churches. It takes
lovers of truth with spiritual discernment to recognize the
sometimes-subtle signs of abusive churches. And it takes courage to
What exactly is spiritual abuse? Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of the classic book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse,
explains it this way: “Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a
position of spiritual authority … misuses that authority placing
themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for
seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”
Spiritual abuse is hardly a new phenomenon. You can find instances in
the Bible of spiritual leaders exploiting people to build their
kingdoms. In Jeremiah 8, the Lord called out the abuse of prophets and
priests, saying, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were
not serious” (Jer. 8:11 NIV). The root problems of people in the
“church” were treated superficially. In other words, the pastor put a
Band-Aid on the problem so things looked good from the outside but the
wound was festering on the inside. The pastor’s prominence was more
important than the legitimate needs of the congregation.
Today, this manifests as spiritual leaders recruiting volunteers to
build their ministries while neglecting to minister to the real needs of
hurting people. In such cases, churches become like businesses. The
pastor is more like a CEO than a spiritual leader. Staff meetings center
on marketing initiatives that will bring more people—who will bring
more tithes and offerings—into the sanctuary. Church services becomes
about external appearances, but the white washed tombs are full of dead
Jesus addressed spiritual abuse in His day. Beyond His warnings about
the Pharisees, Jesus also pointed out ravenous wolves. These ravenous
wolves look much like anointed prophets, but their motives are
dastardly. Today, the spiritually abusive Pharisaical pastor has a long
list of rules and demands and little grace for those who don’t rise to
Entire books have been written on spiritual abuse. Those books will
help you see spiritual abuse for what it is, how you got sucked into the
cycle, how to break free from spiritual abuse, and how to recover from
spiritual abuse once you’ve escaped its clutches. But for now, I want to
leave you with some nuggets from Dave Johnson and VanVonderen’s book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
Power-posturing is a telltale sign of spiritual abuse.
Power-posturing leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own
authority and reminding others of it. Johnson and VanVonderen say this
is necessary because their spiritual authority isn’t real—based on
genuine godly character—it is postured.
In practical terms, this might manifest as a leader who likes to
remind the congregation that he can excommunicate people or that any
anointing you are flowing in comes from the head (him). This leader can
never be questioned, and is usually not accountable to anyone. Those
around him are usually mere ‘yes men’ who do his bidding in exchange for
delegated authority to lord over others.
Performance preoccupation is a sign of spiritual abuse. Johnson and VanVonderen note that obedience and submission are two important words often used in abusive church structures.
Don’t get me wrong. Obedience and submission are important. But
spiritual abuse often shames or scares people into obedience and
submission. True obedience is a matter of the heart. Spiritual abusers
apply undue pressure that is not from God. That pressure is usually
applied to get you to do the leader’s will, not God’s will.
Unspoken rules are common in instances of spiritual abuse.
In abusive spiritual systems, Johnson and VanVonderen offer, people’s
lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken.
“Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches of families
but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don’t
find out that they’re there until you break them,” Johnson and
VanVonderen write. It often seems these “rules” hold more power than
The “Can’t Talk” rule is seen where spiritual abuse is present.
Johnson and VanVonderen explain that the “can’t talk” rule blames the
person who talks, and the ensuing punishments pressure questioners into
If you voice a problem you become the problem. If you question why
the church no longer picks up the poor kids in the ministry van but has
shifted its focus to more affluent neighborhoods, you are removed from
your role as a volunteer driver. Others see your fate and decide they’d
better not rock the boat. It’s a form of intimidation.
Lack of balance and extremism is often present where spiritual abuse lives.
This manifests as an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the
Christian life. Johnson and VanVonderen explain that in these systems
it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who has “a
word” for you than to act according to what you know to be true from
scripture, or simply from your spiritual-growth history.
The truth is prophetic words don’t carry the same weight as
Scripture, and you can hear from God for yourself. When you rely on
other people to tell you what God is saying, you open the door to
control and manipulation.
It’s not possible to fully expose the inner workings of spiritual
abuse, Christian cults and controlling churches in a single article. My
goal is to raise awareness of a troubling issue and get you thinking—not
to send you on a witch hunt for spiritual abusers.
If you think you are part of a spiritually abusive cult-like or
controlling church, ask the Lord to break any deception off your mind
and show you the truth. The truth could be that you are in a healthy
church and you just need to die to self. But it could be that you are in
an abusive system and you need to break free. If your heart is purely
seeking the truth, the Holy Spirit will surely guide you there (John
Jennifer LeClaire is news editor at Charisma. She is also the author of several books, including The Heart of the Prophetic. You can e-mail Jennifer at