Spiritual Abuse - An Unsafe Safe Place

Written by Tim & Lisa Oakley

Tim & Lisa are the founders of SAFE, a UK based group created to offer support and information to those who have experienced spiritual abuse. In this article Tim & Lisa explore the key elements of spiritual abuse and its far-reaching effects on both adults and children.

'Spiritual Abuse' was a term that we had never encountered until three years ago and one that we only discovered after having left a church due to a very difficult experience. Spiritual abuse is arguably less recognised and researched than other forms of abuse but can be defined as 'the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment, or someone using their power within a framework of spiritual belief or practise to satisfy their needs at the expense of others. These definitions show that spiritual abuse is like any other form of abuse and is about the misuse of power. However, what the definitions do not show is the personal pain and difficulties that people who have been spiritually abused experience.

The phenomenon of spiritual abuse may be thought to be associated commonly with cults. However, it has been argued that spiritually abusive practices are present in some mainstream religious churches and groups. The fact that people are in ignorance of it, or fail to acknowledge its existence, makes it very problematic for individuals who have experienced spiritual abuse first hand because they are unable to share their experiences with any degree of acceptance or understanding. For this reason it can be extremely difficult to identify abusive practices.

However, listed below are some key characteristics that can be found in abusive (unsafe) churches1:

Characteristics of An Unsafe Church

  • Inability to ask questions or raise issues- If an individual raises a problem they become the problem.
  • Lack of accountability - accountability suggested but not there in reality
  • Increasing expectation of commitment
  • Emphasis on external image- even if it is not reality
  • Manipulation, dominance and control
  • Social isolation of members from individuals outside of the church
  • Obedience to authority in all circumstances
  • Secrecy - over finance, decisions etc
  • Emphasis on finance
  • Misuse of scripture/pulpit
  • The belief that the minister always knows best
  • Fear of leaving
  • Personal slander and subsequent isolation on leaving
  • Loss of personal identity
  • Elitism - there is no other church like this.

It should be noted that this list is not conclusive and each individual's experience will be unique. It should not therefore be used as a checklist to establish if someone has genuinely been spiritually abused.

Effects Of Spiritual Abuse

As stated at the beginning, identifying the characteristics of spiritual abuse does not convey the devastating effect it may have on the individual(s) involved. Both adults and children who have experienced abuse, in whatever form, will often be profoundly affected by it. It is difficult to adequately describe the depth of feeling associated with such an experience but it may well result in questions at both a spiritual and personal level. Individuals will often question what they now believe and who they are. They may feel a sense of guilt or confusion that they were part of an abusive church environment and question why they were not able to see the problems from the beginning. This can be disturbing to an individual, raising issues of trust and making judgements in the future about individuals or churches, particularly as the factors which make an experience abusive are often not evident for some time.

Appleton says that those who have been spiritually abused often experience a sense of loss, equivalent to a bereavement, feelings of disappointment with God and even a crisis of faith. One of the most worrying realities emphasised by Appleton and others is that many people, having experienced abusive leadership, will not return to church. Many others will find it difficult to ever fully participate in church life again. Chrnalogar (2001) supports the claims made by Appleton and suggests that when an individual places their faith in a pastor, if the pastor fails them, they can give up on their faith altogether. We can argue that our faith should be in God and not in man, but it is the responsibility of those in leadership to make sure this is taught and emphasised. If individuals are taught to focus on the pastor then they may experience a crisis or loss of faith when they leave a church.

Quotes from survivors of spiritual abuse express more clearly the effect of the experience.

  • "I cannot express the deep anger this has left me with."
  • "This place is like a huge machine that sucks people in, chews them up and spits them out again."
  • "My husband finds 'church' impossible and has not been a regular attendee since last summer."
  • "This experience can damage the way we see God so that we distrust him as much as we distrust our pastors."
  • "I'm very cynical. But now, you see, I see a different side to people. I don't trust people, I don't trust people in authority."

The long-term effects of spiritual abuse should not be minimised. In our experience the process of an individual coming to terms with what has happened can take years and there does seem to be a process to work through to come to some acceptance. It must be noted that for many individuals this does not happen and they remain angry. Their experiences invariably raise serious questions about God and the church. Many of these individuals will never attend church again.

Spiritual Abuse and Children

It is interesting to note that there is a growing understanding of spiritual abuse within the church. However, the focus of writing and discussion is based almost entirely upon its effect on adults. There is little consideration about the impact spiritual abuse has upon children. Children will observe their parents or carers in extreme distress after an experience of spiritual abuse and this is often deeply upsetting for the child. Older children sometimes respond with anger. This can be compounded by their feelings of powerlessness in the situation particularly when parents/carers are publicly discredited.

It is the case that when a spiritually abusive situation comes to a head the result is often that the family will leave the church. It is usually the parents that make this decision and the children may play little or no part in the decision-making process. As already stated when people leave an abusive church situation, it is not uncommon to be ostracised by and become isolated from church members. The reality is that their children will often share in this experience. It is likely that they will lose friends and relationships, and stop attending other social activities, which may have been a core part of their lives. They may have little understanding of the reasons for this seemingly sudden isolation. Loss of friendship, even at a young age has been associated with depression and anxiety in children. The impact is magnified because often the family will have become isolated from others outside the church due to their increased involvement and commitment, and friendships within the church having grown in importance over time to the exclusion of other relationships.

One important consideration is the child's view of God when they have experienced spiritual abuse. Even young children are likely to be confused, but older children may well equate what has happened to them and their parent(s) with God's treatment of them. Indeed adults are often left with many questions about faith as a result of the experience - "Wounds are so deep and pain is so intense that large numbers have left the church altogether. It is not simply those who have been abused who have left, but also those who have seen friends and loved ones abused". Our personal experience has illustrated that older children are often left questioning their faith when they have been in a spiritually abusive situation.

As well as the impact on parents/carers, children themselves may have had direct experience of spiritual abuse e.g. not being allowed to ask questions and heavy restrictions on behaviour etc. I have read of a father whose children, after leaving a spiritually abusive church situation, experienced terrible nightmares. Any child in this situation will need time and space to work through their experiences after leaving the church.

It is vitally important that as our understanding grows we do not exclude or devalue the impact spiritual abuse has on children and young people. If we are to fully support people after such an experience this support must extend to everyone involved.

This article can be found here on the CCPAS website and has been copied with permission.


1 Johnson, D & VanVonderen, J (1977) 'The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse': The Lockman Foundation.

2 Hall, S (2003) 'Spiritual Abuse': Youthwork March 2003 pp32-35

3 Okeyan, PY (2000) 'Manipulation, Domination and Control': Kingsway

4 Fehlauer, M (2001) 'Exposing Spiritual Abuse': Charisma House Florida

5 Arteburn, S & Felton, J (2003) 'Toxic Faith Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse': Waterbrook Springs, Colorado

6 Blue, K (1993) 'Healing Spiritual Abuse-How to Break Free From Bad Church Experiences': Intervasity Press, Illinois

7 Enroth, R (1992) 'Churches that Abuse': Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan

8 Appleton, J (2003) 'Spiritual Abuse': Christianity and Renewal June 2003

9 Chrnalogar, M.A. (2000) 'Twisted Scriptures': Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ohio

10 Parsons, K (2000) 'UnGodly Fear': Lion

11 Beasley-Murray, (1998) 'Power for God's Sake': Paternoster Press