17 Warning signs of spiritual abuse

The overarching reason for speaking at the For Such A Time As This Rally was to address the often secondary abuse of spiritual abuse that survivors endure from untrained and under prepared church staff and friends when an allegation of victimization is shared; be it racial, physical, sexual, verbal, financial, spiritual, withholding, or emotional abuse

Spiritual abuse is also often the secondary abuse a survivor receives from an angry and controlling spouse in an attempt to keep power over them in the relationship.

Allow me to be clear; secondary does not mean lesser trauma. Often the secondary is more maddening than the original.

Somehow we neglected to address this on our resource sheet we handed out at the rally, and I too left it out of my talk.

I appreciate a reader who brought this to my attention. All eight of us involved with the rally were passionate about this topic because of the spiritual abuse involved in headline news and in the lives of people we minister to. Spiritual abuse can be part of domestic abuse and church abuse.


1)      Manipulation and control are always at the root for achieving power over an individual.

2)      Scriptures on forgiveness are used to distort and to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.

3)      The use of religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.

4)      Wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.

5)      Innocent people are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.

6)      Church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim.

7)      A toxic person refuses to apologize and instead of understanding your distress, wants to say a prayer over you so you’ll find healing.

8)      A toxic person uses specific scriptures out of context to keep power and control over you. Angry and controlling people who read the Bible are very articulate at doing this. It does not make them more spiritual than you; it usually means there is faulty reasoning/wiring in their inner being.

9)      A person may invoke divine authority in order to manipulate people into desired behaviors which meet the needs of the abuser.

10)     A person insists you have to perform, do certain works, in your relationship with them so you can stay in God’s grace. This is anti-biblical.

11)      Sexual affairs or sexual abuse by a priest, pastor or trusted leaders, is a form of spiritual abuse in addition to sexual abuse.

12)      A parent who picks fights and unnecessarily frustrates their children while quoting scripture or praying for the children. This can damage a child’s emerging spirituality. This adds spiritual abuse to emotional abuse.

13)      A parent who sexually abuses their child while telling the child how it ties into scripture, or writes letters with scriptures, or conveys that the other parent is aware and scripturally in agreement with the abuse. This adds spiritual abuse to sexual abuse.

14)      A leader or group who depicts their unique dynamics and explains why others can’t appreciate or understand them. This eliminates internal or external accountability or help.

15)      Abusive groups foster a rigid belief system; one way – their way is the only correct way in behavior and in beliefs.

16)     Can take on acts of discipline; emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for going against, or disagreeing with the leader or group.

17)     There is often underlying deception for self-preservation or protection of an establishment.

*Added 7/10/2018 – I don’t know how I forgot this one. Financial abuse: guilting your family into giving/tithing money you don’t have to a church, mission, or organization; while making them go without. You should be able to live as people in your socio-economic class live. Or, not allowing you to be a co-decision maker in ‘faith/church’ financial decisions. This adds spiritual abuse to emotional abuse.


  • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NET)
  • “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” Acts 15:10 (NET)
  • “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. Matthew 7:15 (NET)
  • Matthew 23 – The 7 woes
  • “They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew 23:4 (NET)
  • “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel! Matthew 23:23-24 (NET)
  • “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.”  Ephesians 6:12 (NET)
  • “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.”        2 Timothy 1:7 (NET)


Published by Carolyn Deevers

Resiliency...it's my spiritual superpower for surviving crises and complicated relationships. Here is where I share stories...or at least the ones I can tell you about. ;-)

7 thoughts on “17 Warning signs of spiritual abuse

  1. Sorry you endured these things but these are the things abusers say. When I worked in a domestic violence shelter case worker I heard these things said to the victims all the time when friends and family so-called wanted to talk to them about returning home. Some were even told they were going to hell. The more conservative and so-called religious they were the more shell-shocked they arrived at the center. One of their favorite was preaching the gospel about forgiveness. Making it sound as if Jesus wanted you to take unlimited abuse off of anyone who decided to dole lit out. But if they haven’t done anything wrong what is they to be forgiven for? I used to tell the residents that a person has learn God for themselves not what other people say he is.

    1. I hope I’m always found responding with Jesus’ relational love, logic and protection over religion’s legalism. It sounds like you witnessed legalism. Thank you for helping domestic abuse survivors.

      1. I am happy you are one of those who got out and is staying out. So many do not and you are left wondering what became of her. Yes, legalism is a big problem in protecting the women once they leave. The shelter has more leeway with the local police dept than an average person but you still can’t hold an adult hostage or make them stay or make them stop talking to their abusers even if it’s for their own good. Too often they goes back. You can’t stop them from ‘talking’ to those they left behind unless she agree to go underground. Most do not agree to go underground. They don’t realized they are putting others in danger as well. Because men talk to each other more than women do and there was often someone else whom her husband or boyfriend is looking for her so when they go back home they tells everything that went on at the shelters and who else is there which put other women and even those trying to help in danger. This has made many shelters reluctant to take certain women in. Knowing from experience what she’s going to do Because no matter what you say you can’t convince them that patriarchy and the Love of Jesus are two wholly different things. I’m sure you are conducting yourself in Jesus’ love. I just hate to see something so beauty twisted and used for control and hate.

  2. Yes to all. My last church experience consisted of a bunch of male leaders who subtly shamed anyone who had problems with the church. Women gossiped about me and when I brought it up to leadership, they told me I wasn’t loving enough or serving the church enough. There was a 1000 ridiculous things they did, but it all pointed back to an abusive leadership and church. Everyone was dependent on the pastor–asking him for advice for everything from parenting to what car to buy. I’m a terrible rule follower although I did try there to fit in, but in the end, I became a paranoid weirdo and couldn’t stand it anymore. They also insisted that women were not much except baby machines and husbands were to be obeyed. Anyway, I’m glad I no longer go to church and probably never will. I can’t take the nonsense I see in most church settings along with the phony Christian care.

    1. It makes me sad, mad, and frustrated that you experienced this at church. There are good churches out there. 14 years ago I made a list (yep, I did) of questions and I asked the leadership to answer them. They did. I knew what I was and wasn’t looking for. I have trust issues and I was having a difficult time getting past pastor personalities and egos. The pastor at this church was calm, humble, gentle and kind in personality, speech and leadership; in fact, he reminded me of the kind of servant leader we saw in Mr. Rogers from the old PBS T.V. program. I love my church home! I hope you know the church you attended does not represent the heart or ministry of Jesus. If you like…read my series – For Your Consideration: A Woman’s Role – 5 parts and each is short.

      1. I’ve tried to go back and everytime I cringe! Sometimes it has less to do with the pastor and more to do with the manipulation I see (guilt trips and shaming). But I haven’t tried to go back recently. It just seems so hard. Thanks for the info. I’ll check those out.

      2. I truly understand the cringe factor. I highly recommend praying and asking Jesus to show you what He has for you, if He wants you to have a healthy church home, if there is a trustable church in your area. Then sit back and watch for answers. ~Peace

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