What is spiritual abuse?

Ronald Enroth (1991) iChurches That Abuse identifies five categories:

  1. Authority and Power: 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.

  2. Manipulation and Control: abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fearguilt or threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity or stringent tests of loyalty. The leader-disciple relationship may become one in which the leader's decisions control and usurp the disciple's right or capacity to make choices.

  3. 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 or reflection, whilst outside criticism.

  4. Life-style and Experience: abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and belief that requires conformity to the group's ideals.

  5. Dissent and Discipline: abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenge to decisions made by leaders. (Enroth, 1992, Wiki).

According to David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen (1991), "Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.  It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions, or spiritual well-being” (pg.19).

Further studies of Ronald Enroth (1992) has identified certain markers for recognizing when spiritual abuse is occurring or about to occur:

Abusive churches foster unhealthy forms of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority.

The discerning Christian must also be aware of the trap of legalism. Preoccupation with keeping Christian rules enhances guilt feelings in members, and it acts as an effective control mechanism for power abusers.

Another quality that can lead to abusive behavior in a church is the tendency toward isolationism, a conscious effort to limit input from outside the church-in other words, information control.


Another sign of impending trouble in a church is an obsession with discipline and excommunication. Beware of churches that warn of certain doom if you leave their "covering," or if you "break covenant." Once banished from the group, little compassion is shown the wayward one. 

Disrupted Family Relationships
A sure sign that a church is headed for the fringe is when family relationships are significantly disrupted and the leadership encourages the severing of ties with relatives outside of the group. (Enroth, 1992)


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Many pastors love to read and follow Thomas Rainer, the CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  He founded the LifeWay Research which is " for the purpose of assisting and equipping church leaders with insight and advice that will lead to greater levels of church health and effectiveness" (Wikipedia, n.d).  He writes about the fourteen symptoms of Toxic Church leaders.  I will list 9:

  1. They expect behavior of others they don’t expect of themselves. “Do as I say, not as I do.”

  2. They see almost everyone else as inferior to themselves. You will hear them criticizing other leaders while building themselves up.

  3. They show favoritism. It is clear that they have a favored few while they marginalize the rest.

  4. They have frequent anger outbursts. This behavior takes place when they don’t get their way.

  5. They say one thing to some people, but different things to others. This is a soft way of saying they lie.

  6. They are manipulative. Their most common tactic is using partial truths to get their way.

  7. They do not allow for pushback or disagreement. When someone does disagree, he or she becomes the victim of the leader’s anger and marginalization.

  8. They surround themselves with sycophants. Their inner circle thus often includes close friends and family members, as well as a host of “yes people.”

  9. They are self-absorbed. In fact, they would unlikely see themselves in any of these symptoms.   (Rainer, 2014).


More information to be added.


Enroth, R. M. (1992). Churches that abuse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Enroth, R. (1992) How to spot an abusive church . Retrieved 28 Sep 2017, from: http://gcxweb.org/Articles/GroupMag-03-1992.aspx.

Enroth, R. (1992) Religious abuse - Wikipedia. Retrieved 28 Sep 2017, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_abuse.

Johnson, D. & VanVonderen, J. (1991). The subtle power of spiritual abuse. (Kindle ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House Publishers.

Rainer, T. (2014) Fourteen Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders. Retrieved 12 Oct 2017, from: http://thomrainer.com/2014/10/fourteen-                      symptoms-toxic-church-leaders/.

Wiki, (n.d.) Thom S. Rainer - Wikipedia. Retrieved 12 Oct 2017, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thom_S._Rainer#cite_note-16.

Here is an excellent description of a pastor who is prone to committing spiritual/religious abuse.  There are more of these pastors out there than you may think.  Be cautious.   

From the YouTube Channel "Wicked Shepherds."

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