Help Me Understand: Spiritual Abuse

  • Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual Abuse

Every day I try my best to be a good Christian and show my gratefulness to the Lord for my salvation by giving my all to the church. I volunteer on four committees and teach Sunday school, but I can tell it's not enough. In fact my pastor has said as much. I feel guilty for not doing more to serve the kingdom but also don't know what more I can do. Already my days are long and I have difficulty finding time for my family.

I know I should never question those God placed in authority of the church, but I'm starting to feel exhausted always trying to measure up to their standards. It never seems like I can do enough or be enough. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about calling in sick or simply not showing up. But then I feel guilty for thinking those things and end up putting in extra hours as penance. The Bible says I'm saved by grace, but is it really enough?


Sinful self-centredness expresses itself in spiritual leaders who take advantage of the power of their positions to teach legalistic error, manipulate others for personal gain, and use fear and intimidation to keep followers compliant. People may be perpetrators of spiritual abuse or victims. Abuse may occur only once or over a long period of time. It includes things people do and neglect to do.


  1. Spiritual abusers are nothing new. Jesus faced the Pharisees and Paul had the Judaizers. Scripture warns us about them (Ezekiel 34:4-10; 3 John 1:8-10).
  2. Rather than lording it over others as spiritual abusers do, God's design is that spiritual leadership is servant-oriented (Mark 10:42-44).
  3. Spiritual abusers are self-centred and act for personal gain. True spiritual leadership has nothing to prove and puts the needs of others first (1 Peter 5:2,3).
  4. True spiritual leadership understands and teaches grace, not performance as the basis of acceptance with God (Galatians 3:2,3). Spiritual abusers often major on legalism and minor on grace and mercy.
  5. Following Jesus does not leave us feeling beaten up and ashamed (Matthew 11:28-30). His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Following spiritual abusers leaves us fearful, guilty, and condemned.
  6. God accepts the sinner in Christ, just as he is and forgives him for all he has done and hasn't done. He doesn't require performance for acceptance. We are accepted because of what Christ has done, not what we have done.


  1. Be on guard against spiritual abuse. Watch for: a lack of servant attitude and grace, lists of dos and don'ts, paranoia and suspicion of other believers, sexual looseness, financial manipulation, no accountability, Scripture-twisting, and defensiveness.
  2. Call attention to spiritual abuse when you see it. “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing…” (3 John 1:8-10).
  3. Resist legalism by deepening your understanding of God's grace—His unmerited favour. Although undeserving we are blessed because of God's love for us.
  4. If you are a spiritual abuser:
    • Recognize and identify the characteristics of an abuser in your behaviour.
    • Study Scriptures like Titus 3:5 that show God's grace and mercy.
    • Repent of your self-centredness and abusive behaviour.
    • Deepen your understanding of God's grace. Cultivate a servant's heart. Become accountable.
    • Practice your spiritual disciplines out of a desire to connect with the Lord, not out of need to earn His favour.
  5. If you have been spiritually abused:
    • Understand that grace means you have nothing to give, nothing to earn, and nothing to pay.
    • Reaffirm your identity and sufficiency in Christ. Find release from your shame and renewal for your mind with Scripture such as Romans 6:14; 8:35-39; Ephesians 2:8 and Galatians 5:1.
    • Rest in Christ's performance, not your own.