Just as much as we are physical beings, we are also spiritual beings. Our ability to reach out to God and walk in communion with Him is such a privilege and an honor. Being part of a believing community is essential for our well-being as we find family, connection, and support. This is the way it should be.

It is then heartbreaking to know that some people experience abuse at the very place that is supposed to bring peace and joy. Spiritual abuse is rarely talked about, but it is prevalent. In this article, we will look at what it is, how it manifests, and how to heal from the trauma of it all.

What is spiritual abuse?

Spiritual abuse can be defined as the use of someone’s spirituality, religion, faith, and belief to abuse them. This is the excision of power and control using religion. Spiritual abuse can occur in many different settings.

For example, it can occur in a church, a faith-based institution like a school or orphanage, in marriage, in romantic relationships, and parenting situations. It is not limited to any religious order but can be found in all forms of religion and spiritual beliefs. The abuse can be sexual, physical, emotional, psychological, and financial.

The reason for this is that there is usually a hierarchical structure that gives other people more power than others. Under normal circumstances, it is not a problem at all as people rely on the leadership of their elders and those ordained to take up certain roles. The only problem comes when these same people use their power to manipulate, coerce, force, ridicule, and bully members.

Characteristics of spiritual abuse in the church.

Manipulation and control.

Religious leaders may use manipulation and control to get what they want from their members. They will use scare tactics, give favors, and ex-communicate those that disagree to make their members adhere to their commands.


This is a situation where the church or institution is ruled by an iron fist. The leader uses his or her position to bully people into conformity. This can be in the form of shouting, ridiculing, beating, or imposing hard punishments on those that do not comply.

Lack of accountability.

A church or institution without accountability to its members means that they cannot be questioned about any of the actions in which they partake. If no one is held accountable for abuses and mismanagement of funds, there is room for them to continue.

Institutions caught with issues of child sexual abuse will not allow these perpetrators to be sent to jail but will instead transfer them and tell the public they handle issues internally. This is re-traumatizing to victims.

Using religion to justify abuse.

Most religious leaders can continue abusing members because they do it using scripture to justify their actions. This means that those that are being abused might not know that they are being abused until much later. This can be confusing to victims as they trust their religious leaders to be without fault.

Exploitation and financial abuse.

For most religions, a financial commitment is expected. The reason for this is that it costs money to run churches and religious institutions, so each member takes it upon themselves to contribute. There is nothing wrong with that.

It only gets to be exploitation when that becomes the sole focus of that church or religious organization. This exploitation can even get to the extent of asking people to sell their homes and cars or get into debt so that they give to the church.

Public shaming.

Public shaming is a technique that is used to bully people into conforming. The aim of doing this is to showcase their power and use it as an example for those that might also not want to conform. It is normal to have disagreements. However, how those disagreements are handled is what constitutes abuse.

Sexual abuse.

Sad to say, sexual abuse exists in religious institutions. When you put together the lack of accountability, scare tactics of those in power, and their unchecked behavior, they can do anything and get away with it. People have suffered sexual abuse and have been too afraid to report it due to that leader’s influence and power.

Self-imposed divinity.

Self-imposed divinity is used for abuse in that it means the leaders and those in power cannot be questioned. If you question them or their actions, you are questioning God Himself. This makes it easy for them to live an unchecked life that takes liberties and leaves victims behind.

Spiritual abuse in the home.

As discussed earlier, spiritual abuse does not only happen in churches or religious organizations. It can also be experienced in homes. In the home, it can take many forms, and below are some examples.

  • When you are ridiculed by your family because of your religious beliefs.
  • Being forced to follow your spouse’s religion.
  • The use of scripture to justify abuse toward one’s spouse or children.
  • Using religion to shame, ridicule, and belittle other family members.
  • Creating an authoritarian environment by use of Scripture so that the elders, mostly fathers, are not held accountable or questioned.
  • Forcing family members to follow the elders’ religion, forgetting that ultimately it must be a personal choice. Children can be encouraged but force will only make them rebellious.

Common effects.


Our faith is supposed to bring about a sense of peace, joy, comfort, and support. When someone is abused in the context of their church or their religion, it creates disillusionment. This means that there is a loss of faith and confidence in what they believed. Due to abuse, this lack of trust will eventually be directed toward God Himself, to the extent of even questioning His existence.

Mental health issues. As with any form of abuse, spiritual abuse brings about a lot of mental health issues. Those who have suffered spiritual abuse might struggle with complex PTSD, depression, anxiety, and trauma.

Physical trauma.

Sometimes abuse under the guise of spirituality can turn physical. This can be in the form of beating, sexual violence, and starvation. All these can have tremendous physical effects on the functioning of our bodies. Some have even lost their lives as seen in some cults that are misled to believe that they are doing the will of God.

Loss of life’s meaning.

After being abused in a spiritual environment, people may struggle to find meaning in life or their initial calling or purpose. They can feel that God cannot use them after what they have endured. Self-blame is a trauma response.

Grief and loss.

Those who experience spiritual abuse will go through immense feelings of loss and grief. Because most people will not talk about the abuse, they are forced to leave the community that had nurtured them for years. If they chose to report, most times they will not be believed; therefore, they are excommunicated. This process results in the loss of identity because, for many of us, our faith is central to who we are.

Self-esteem issues.

Going through spiritual abuse will erode a person’s self-esteem and sense of self. It does not matter what type of abuse it was. The effects are there: shame, guilt, and a lack of self-confidence. Abuse dismantles our trust in ourselves and our abilities. It can be made worse if people do not believe you when you report. There is further abuse that occurs, and this can make one feel so ashamed and exposed.

Next steps.

Coming to terms with spiritual abuse is a painful process that should not be done without the support of others. We understand that it can be daunting to trust people again after trust has been broken in such a painful way. But we are here to tell you that we can hold your hand and help you with what happened. We have trained counselors that are equipped to work through the unique challenges of spiritual abuse.

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