Spiritual Abuse

Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’
John 21:15-17

At the time of writing there have been a series of allegations of spiritual abuse made across the wider Church.

South West London Vineyard is committed to being open, honest, and accountable before the Lord, and we are wanting to actively encourage healthy and transparent relationships across the church – whether between members of the congregation, teams, staff, trustees or leaders

Tackling problems, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is vitally important to maintaining the overall health & well-being of the church and all who are part of it.

The material below has been sourced from the very helpful CofE Safeguarding E-Manual Section 4.2 Spiritual Abuse and the work of Prof Lisa Oakley

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse, whilst a relatively new term, is a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context.

It is important to recognise that spiritual abuse can be experienced by anyone irrespective of position. It can be perpetrated by someone in a leadership position to a member of a congregation, but also from the congregation to someone in a leadership position as well as by people in equal positions of power.

Spiritual abuse can lead to severe and lasting damage, which can often seriously impact our ability to trust our relationships with others. This betrayal of trust can lead to feel fearful and unsafe and the depth of its impact should not be underestimated.

The Church has a duty of responsibility to guard against the dangers of spiritual abuse and the harm it can bring to individuals and communities.

Spiritual abuse may occur on its own, or alongside other forms of abuse, such as physical, sexual or domestic abuse. It may be used to ‘legitimise’ or facilitate other forms of abuse.

It is often an integral element of other experiences of abuse within the Christian Church and other faith contexts and it is important that when investigating disclosures of other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse is also considered.

How to Recognise Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse shares some of the hallmarks of bullying and harassment, including intimidation, manipulation and inducing fear. However, what makes spiritual abuse distinct are the elements associated with religious belief including; coercion through religious position; membership of the religious community; scripture; biblical discourse and spiritual threats.

The key aspect of spiritual abuse is the religious context in which the abuse occurs and the ways in which people are controlled through the misuse of scripture, divine position, spiritual threats and fear of spiritual consequences and the suggestion of God as complicit. All or some of these features can be used to control or coerce.

It is important to situate spiritual abuse in the spectrum of behaviour we experience within Christian contexts. The diagram above may be helpful in understanding this spectrum.

  • At one end there is good, healthy, nurturing behaviour in which people flourish and grow, and there are many examples of this across church communities.
  • Then, as we move along the spectrum, we reach unhelpful behaviour. This is where someone’s reaction or behaviour is not harmful, but not helpful and we all behave in this way at times.
  • If we continue along the spectrum and if, in the context of spiritual abuse, we start to see a consistent pattern of behaviour that is negative; where we check ourselves before approaching that person; where they are not open to question etc., it starts to become unhealthy and much of the behaviour that concerns us sits here. This type of behaviour should always be challenged and addressed at this stage.
  • If it becomes a persistent pattern of coercive controlling behaviour that reflects the definition of psychological abuse with a religious rationale, there is a strong likelihood that it has crossed the threshold into spiritual abuse.

As with other forms of psychological abuse, it is anticipated the number of cases that cross this threshold will be small. However, where they do, they should always be referred onwards as with other cases of psychological abuse.

It is also important to note that people can move up and down this spectrum of behaviour.

If behaviour is identified and responded to effectively, it can be addressed and not escalate into unhealthy or spiritually abusive behaviour. In addressing and reflecting on behaviours in this way it provides an opportunity for early intervention and support through a variety of pathways. These pathways may include pastoral support, supervision, training and learning to ‘disagree well’ amongst other things.

As spiritual abuse is a relatively new and emerging area of understanding, the diagram below shows examples of the spectrum of behaviour to show where something can be considered to cross the threshold into spiritual abuse. It also details some of the responses and referrals that may be appropriate at each stage.

Spectrum of Behaviour Examples & Responses

Our prayer at South West London Vineyard is that together we grow a healthy Christian culture whereby:

  • there is a genuinely open dialogue and positive encouragement to welcome different perspectives and views
  • everyone is valued, respected and nurtured and no one feels isolated or excluded
  • harmful behaviour, e.g., bullying, can be (and should be) challenged by anyone
  • power is distributed, not vested in one or two individuals or groups
  • self-reflection in each member is promoted
  • safeguarding is foundational and actively promoted with both preventative and responsive processes in place
  • victims & survivors are heard, supported and responded to

What are some of the key characteristics of Spiritual Abuse?

Misusing scripture to coerce behaviour
Behaviour may be coerced through the use of scripture in order to meet the abuser’s personal agenda. Biblical messages of submission, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness can be used to manipulate, control and coerce. These discourses will be recognised by many in the Christian faith and can be healthy and helpful. However, when distorted they can be difficult to challenge.

Coercing through censorship
This may include pressuring people into secrecy and silence. People may feel unable to ask questions, disagree or raise issues and this can be associated with the need to keep unity or protect the individual, church or God.

Requiring unquestioning obedience
This may include requiring obedience to the abuser, with an implicit or explicit suggestion that this equates to obedience to God. People may feel unable to make their own choices and can feel pressured into providing financial, emotional and psychological support, service or even sexual activity in order to please their abuser and, it may be implied, to please God.

Using a sense of divine position to exert pressure to conform and suggesting this position is unchallengeable
A spiritually abusive culture or relationship can be characterised by a pattern of coercion and control, in which an individual’s fear of disobeying God is used to require them to act or adopt a pattern of behaviour without there being free consent.

Enforced accountability
This may include being required to be accountable to another without consent, and without choice and control over boundary setting in the relationship. It should be noted that there are times when accountability is required (for example, where there is a safeguarding agreement), but these are enacted in accordance with our Safeguarding Policies and never as a punishment.

Exclusion or isolation of individuals as a punishment for non-compliance
An individual may be isolated from others due to perceived non-conformity or disobedience.

Coercing behaviour through exploitation and manipulation
This may include extreme pressure to conform, for example requiring a degree of commitment to the church or the abuser that exceeds what is required of others in the church. The level of commitment may be equated to an individual’s loyalty to the abuser or to God.

Publicly shaming and humiliating individuals in order to control their behaviour
Individuals may experience public shaming and humiliation because of a perceived lack of obedience or conformity.

Threats of spiritual consequences
This may include exercising control through threats of spiritual consequences for non-compliance with personal directives.

Inappropriate mentoring relationships
The misuse of the pastoral relationship in such a way that the mentor does not hold appropriate boundaries, and justifies this by theology, scripture or by claiming special spiritual insight or divine sanction.

Reporting Concerns of Spiritual Abuse

Hearing about and listening to disclosures of spiritual abuse can be particularly challenging on a personal level, particularly as they touch on individual faith beliefs. However, here at South West London Vineyard, we want to do all we can to ensure our church community remains a safe place for all.

For that reason, we would encourage anyone who has any concerns about any behaviours or patterns of behaviours they may have witnessed or experienced to find a safe way to talk about these matters with somebody that you trust and feel safe with.

The Trustees are available should you wish to raise any concerns you may have – no matter how small -and can be spoken to in-person or via email here: trustees@swlv.org.uk

If you concern relates to a safeguarding issue contact:

If you would prefer to talk with someone beyond South West London Vineyard, we would encourage you to do so, and you may find the following contact details helpful:

Whatever your concern – recent or non-recent, if it relates to safeguarding or concerns of spiritual abuse – or even if you’re not sure – call us on 0303 003 1111.

In an emergency, especially if someone is in immediate danger of harm, you should always call 999 straight away and ask for the police.

The Thirtyone:eight Safeguarding Helpline is staffed by trained professionals who provide safeguarding advice and guidance and operate an out of hours service for urgent calls.

Helpline: 0303 003 1111

Safe Spaces (for those abused within the church)
Call 0300 303 1056

Minister & Clergy Sexual Abuse Service (MACSAS)
MACSAS supports women and men who have been sexually abused, as children or adults, by ministers, clergy or others under the guise of the Church.
Helpline: 08088 010340

Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC)
Facilitate provision by Christians of quality counselling, psychotherapy and pastoral care.

British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP)
Telephone: 01455 83300

Reviewed: February 2024