What is spiritual abuse? How do we heal from it?

spiritual abuse

Rachael Clinton Chen believes that we are seeing “an apocalyptic unveiling” of abuse committed by faith leaders.

And it’s not hard to see why: In the past decade, a slew of once-revered Christian leaders have been exposed for sexual violence or sexual misconduct: Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, Jean Vanier, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and too many others to name.

But as director of teaching and care at The Allender Center, which offers care and training to help people heal from trauma, Chen knows that abuse has many forms.

And when sexual violence is committed by a faith leader, it’s often accompanied by another form of violence that’s harder to define: spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is “a distortion and exploitation of spiritual authority to manipulate, control, use, or harm others, mostly through shame and fear,” Chen told me in January 2023 during our conversation for Sojourners’ Lead Us Not podcast.

“It’s using vulnerability — it’s using really good things to exploit.”

Later, via email, Chen told me that warning signs of spiritual abuse include intolerance for questions and doubts, using the Bible to arouse fear and rigid “us vs. them” binaries, and leaders who demand unwavering loyalty, often threatening anyone who doesn’t comply with being cut off from the community or God.

Spiritual abuse can also look like a leader who offers above-and-beyond care, but in ways that cross ethical, emotional, or spiritual boundaries.

This type of trauma, Chen wrote, often leaves victims “with traumatised bodies, disordered imagination and broken relationships, making the path to healing all the more challenging but certainly not impossible.”

I included excerpts of my interview with Chen in episodes four and five of Lead Us Not, but the full conversation explored key questions about spiritual abuse, including how we can recognise and heal from it at both an individual and communal level.

“It’s actually a really scary moment,” she told me.

“Because it’s one thing if you have an experience of spiritual abuse or sexual abuse, it’s another thing when you start to see, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a whole pattern of behaviour.

“It’s in the water … It’s not just a person or one institution. There’s something about the structures and about the ways in which we give power and empower certain spiritual authorities.’” Continue reading

  • Jenna Barnett is senior associate culture editor at Sojourners.
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