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Template:Original research Spiritual abuse occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim's spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.
Spiritual abuse is the maltreatment of a person in the name of God, faith, religion, or church, whether habitual or not, and includes any of the following:
- Psychological and emotional abuse
- Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being
- Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation
- Unreasonable control of a person's basic right to make a choice on spiritual matters
- False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or God
- Prevention from practicing faith
- Isolation or separation from family and friends due to religious affiliation
- Physical abuse that includes physical injury, deprivation of sustenance, and sexual abuse
- Exclusivity; dismissal of an outsider's criticism and labeling an outsider as of the devil
- Withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few
- Conformity to a dangerous or unnatural religious view and practice
- Hostility that includes shunning, (relational aggression, parental alienation) and persecution
The terms "church abuse" and "religious abuse" are often associated with spiritual abuse. "Church abuse" is a distinctive label for the abusive practices done inside a church. "Religious abuse" is used interchangeably with "church abuse", but it is more of an abuse related to aberration in an organized belief system and communal practice than personal conviction or personal affiliation.
The term Spiritual abuse was coined in the late twentieth century to refer to alleged misuse of authority by church leaders.
Researchers conceptualize a set of discernible characteristics of spiritual abuse.
- Authority and Power - abusive groups misuse and distort the concept of spiritual authority. Abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
- Manipulation and Control - abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt, and threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity, and stringent tests of loyalty to the leaders are demonstrated before the group. Biblical concepts of the leader-disciple relationship tend to develop into a hierarchy where the leader's decisions control and usurp the disciple's right or capacity to make choices on spiritual matters or even in daily routines of what form of employment, form of diet and clothing are permitted.
- Elitism and Persecution - abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction and reflection. Outside criticism and evaluation is dismissed as the disruptive efforts of evil people seeking to hinder or thwart.
- Life-style and Experience - abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and in belief that requires unswerving conformity to the group's ideals and social mores.
- Dissent and Discipline - abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenges and dissent concerning decisions made by leaders. Acts of discipline may involve emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for dissent and disobedience.
Agnes and John Lawless argue in The Drift into Deception that there are eight characteristics of spiritual abuse, and some of these clearly overlap with Enroth's criteria. They list the eight marks of spiritual abuse as comprising:
- charisma and pride,
- anger and intimidation,
- greed and fraud,
- Enslaving authoritarian structure,
- Demanding loyalty and honor,
- New revelation.
Although some of these points form aspects of a strong and healthy society (e.g. respect for proper authority, loyalty and honor), the basis of spiritual abuse is when these characteristics are overstretched to achieve a desired goal that is neither supported by spiritual reality nor by the human conscience.
Research and examples
Flavil Yeakley's team of researchers conducted field-tests with members of the Boston Church of Christ using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In The Discipling Dilemma Yeakley reports that the members tested "showed a high level of change in psychological type scores", with a "clear pattern of convergence in a single type". The results indicated that those tested had shifted in their personality type with the tendency that all members were evidencing the same personality type.
Yeakley's research was not isolated to the Boston Church. The same tests were conducted on five mainline denominations and with six groups that are popularly labeled as cults or manipulative sects. Yeakley's test results showed that the pattern in the Boston Church "was not found among other churches of Christ or among members of five mainline denominations, but that it was found in studies of six manipulative sects." The research did not show that the Boston Church was "attracting people with a psychological need for high levels of control", but Yeakley concluded that "they are producing conformity in psychological type" which he deemed to be "unnatural, unhealthy, and dangerous."
Both Enroth and Agnes and John Lawless indicate that spiritual abuse often occurs and goes unquestioned as high respect is vested in the leaders' knowledge and ability to interpret passages in the Bible. Evangelical authorities on cults, like James Sire (Scripture Twisting, InterVarsity Press, 1980) and H. Wayne House (Doctrine Twisting, InterVarsity Press, 2003) indicate that there are a variety of technical errors when Biblical passages are read out of context, misread, and misinterpreted. The sorts of errors in interpretation that Sire and House adduce sometimes occur in groups that are deemed by critics to be spiritually abusive. It is important to note that both of these authors are from conservative, fundamentalist backgrounds themselves; many of their conclusions are seen as read out of context, misread, or misinterpreted by many from more theologically liberal backgrounds.
With Spiritual abuse it is often very difficult to find any evidence of abuse. Victims often fail to realize what is happening due to peer pressure or the use of guilt feelings in relation to obedience towards the leaders of a church/group/fellowship or cult, etc. which can be masked as obedience towards God.
As cited by Ronald Enroth in Churches That Abuse, control-oriented leadership is at the core of all such religious groups. Additionally, as interpersonal relations in "spiritual government" environments are considered above the "worldly" need of documented accountability, rarely are conversations or spiritually abusive situations recorded for historical reference and archiving. The usual attitude of delegated or "deputy" authority in a spiritually abusive environment is such that the abusive one(s) consider their speaking to be absolute - fully expecting immediate submission and unquestioned obedience. Any reticence or hesitation is interpreted as hidden rebellion against the "deputy".
Generally, the attitude exists that if anyone has concerns or uneasy feelings about spiritually abusive activities, they are accused of not being in submission to authority and could even suffer from extreme character assassination (both privately and publicly) in order to diminish the effect of any desire of clarification that could liberate themselves and/or others from a spiritually abusive person/situation.
Leaving an Abusive Church - Is normally a process which can take a few months or even years. Children in a spiritually abusive situation may be unable to leave. For those who are able to leave, it can be extremely difficult and painful both emotionally and psychologically. In certain cases, an individual who feels spiritually abused will have to leave immediate family and friends behind and even suffer rejection by them. It is important for such a person to get help, such as counseling from "outsiders", who are not a part of the spiritually abusive group. They also need support from new peers because of the effects of spiritual abuse that will continue to affect them. This victimized person needs to learn a new way of looking at the world so this process literally turns their world up-side-down; it would be impossible to walk this path alone.
Cultural and nationalistic abuse
In some Muslim countries, it is illegal for movements or individuals to speak out in ways that are perceived to insult the Qu'ran, Islam, Mohammad, Allah, or the leaders of the country, with penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment to death.
- Abuse of rank
- Post-cult trauma
- Psychological manipulation
- Religious abuse
- Religious persecution
- Jeff VanVonderen: "Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to 'come underneath' and serve, build, equip and make God's people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God's people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own." 
- Flavil Yeakley (ed.), The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), p. 39.available online
- Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, p. 39.
- Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, pp. 44, 46-47.
- Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993). ISBN 0-8308-1660-7
- Ron & Vicki Burks, Damaged Disciples: Casualties of Authoritarian Churches and the Shepherding Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). ISBN 0-310-57611-3
- Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). ISBN 0-310-53290-6
- Ronald M. Enroth, Recovering from Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). ISBN 0-310-39877-0
- David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991). ISBN 1-55661-160-9
- Agnes C. Lawless and John W. Lawless, The Drift into Deception: The Eight Characteristics of Abusive Christianity (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995). ISBN 0-8254-3163-8
- Flavil Yeakley (ed.), The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988). ISBN 0-89225-311-8
- Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, "Toxic Faith" (Shaw Books 1st Shaw ed. 2001) ISBN 0-87788-825-6
- G. Lloyd Rediger, "Clergy Killers", (Westminster John Knox Press 1997) ISBN 0-644-2573-4