What is Spiritual Abuse?

Lee Gatiss looks in depth at the Church of England’s definitions of “spiritual abuse”, and how it can be avoided.


The Church of England has some very helpful online resources for safeguarding. They even have some courses that can be taken by anyone involved in church at their Safeguarding Portal, and you can get “badges” and certificates to prove you’ve passed the course if that is of use in your context. I got a couple of foundational certificates and also did two very helpful and informative training courses on modern slavery and human trafficking, while looking into this recently.

Whilst checking out some of these very well-presented resources, I was struck by the definition given of “spiritual abuse” — something which has sadly become topical of late, and something which many of us are now wrestling with, and trying to understand or come to terms with. It starts by admitting that unlike physical abuse, sexual abuse, or modern slavery for example, “spiritual abuse” is not a category of abuse recognised in statutory guidance. It is a matter for great concern, however, both within and outside faith communities, including the Church of England. It was, for example, discussed and defined in Protecting All God’s Children (2010), a Church of England document which can be found online here. There it is said that:

“Within faith communities, harm can also be caused by the inappropriate use of religious belief or practice. This can include the misuse of the authority of leadership or penitential discipline, oppressive teaching, or intrusive healing and deliverance ministries. Any of these could result in children experiencing physical, emotional or sexual harm. If such inappropriate behaviour becomes harmful, it should be referred for investigation in co-operation with the appropriate statutory agencies. Careful teaching, supervision and mentoring of those entrusted with the pastoral care of children should help to prevent harm occurring in this way. Other forms of spiritual harm include the denial to children of the right to faith or the opportunity to grow in the knowledge and love of God.”

This I think was the working definition in the case of the Revd Tim Davis who, it was reported in 2018, subjected a 15 year old boy to intense prayer and Bible sessions in his bedroom. The teenager described the mentoring he received as “awful” and all-consuming, but never felt able to challenge the minister. Davis was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk of holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority.”

Distressing Control and Coercion
The Safeguarding Portal course defines spiritual abuse as “coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack.” The “spiritual” aspect then is the context of the abuse, which is all about coercion and control. It is a form of emotional and psychological abuse, as Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys (whose work has been very influential on the Church of England’s approach to this) define it in their new book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse. The idea of “coercion and control” is a category of offence which has entered our legal code: Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”, which involves violence of some kind and “serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on [one’s] usual day-to-day activities.” The legal guidance on this is set out here.

I think that what is becoming known as “spiritual abuse” is this controlling or coercive behaviour in a spiritual context, i.e. in a religious or ecclesiastical relationship. It is a systematic pattern of behaviour which causes serious alarm and daily distress, perhaps with a threat of violence of some sort, in a church context or within a religious relationship or organisation. There is a connection between “an intimate or family relationship” and the church, of course, which is “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), a family of faith (Galatians 6:10), a “brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17, 5:9). But it is a distinct context, which can shape the abuse in certain ways, and leave particular kinds of scar.

Whether “spiritual abuse” is the best term for this, is debatable. It might perhaps be better known as religious control or coercion, and of course we know that coercion and control happens in non-religious settings too, such as workplaces and in other clubs or societies. But I am more interested here in examining the idea and concept than I am in questioning the exact terminology being used by others.

What does this look like?
This is a real thing. It happens, and we must face up to it despite the fact that it is emotionally disturbing and can cast a long shadow. Only then can we think about how to lovingly apply the good news of Jesus Christ to such situations. Whatever we call it, people certainly have this experience, in many different “faith” settings. It is not just a problem for ascetic Roman Catholics, or for certain cultures and classes; every faith community recruits its members from the fallen human race. That’s also why evangelicals are not immune from this problem. Indeed, a properly evangelical and Anglican doctrine of sin ought to teach us about a worldly desire for power and inclination to evil, that “this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated” (Article 9).

Having undertaken a survey of 1,591 people, Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys say in their report Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities that, “Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.”

According to the Church of England, this type of abuse (whatever it might be called) may include the following behaviours:

* The misuse of Scripture, the authority of leadership or penitential discipline, with a requirement to be obedient to the abuser.
* Enforced accountability and pressure to conform.
* Requirements for secrecy and silence, with isolation from others external to the abuse context.
* Oppressive teaching.
* Censorship of decision making.
* Intrusive or forced healing and deliverance ministries or rituals.
* The denial of the right to faith or the opportunity to grow in the knowledge and love of God.

Some people reading this kind of list of characteristics will immediately see how it could maliciously be used by some, wrongly to label orthodox Christian teaching as abusive. Does outlawing “pressure to conform” mean that we can’t expect clergy to teach and behave in line with their ordination vows, for example? Does it mean I can’t urge people in my sermons to live godly lives which please God? Will “oppressive teaching” end up meaning any teaching which some litigious person doesn’t like or which makes demands of repentance and faith on people? Is this all just part of a progressive agenda to silence orthodox teaching by labelling it “oppressive”?

This could be indicative of a suspicious and alarmist mindset, or it could stem from a right desire to get our definitions as precise as possible. I think we ought to interpret such things in the light of Anglican theology and practice as a whole. That is, these things should never be construed in such a way that they would outlaw the doctrine and practice of the Church of England as legally defined. So they cannot mean it is suddenly wrong to teach the Scriptures and such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. They do not outlaw the doctrine found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal (see Canon A5). Indeed, our law says that “The Thirty-nine Articles are agreeable to the Word of God and may be assented unto with a good conscience by all members of the Church of England” (Canon A2). So they can hardly be said to be inherently “oppressive” by that same church.

So it is not spiritually abusive to expect clergy to live by the promises they make in the Ordinal, and to encourage godly discipline for both clergy and laity in accordance with the teaching of our Articles and Prayer Book (see especially Articles 26 and 33 on the need for church discipline). Indeed, quite the opposite: it would be a misuse of scripture and the authority of leadership in the church to suggest that such discipline is a hindrance to spiritual life and flourishing. This is not a recipe for allowing false teaching to spread unhindered. Indeed, as I have said in the book Fight Valiantly, “Given that heresy is gangrenous, pernicious, and poisonous according to scripture, why is it so unthinkable that it should be rooted out in the church today? Why are those to whom we have entrusted this task not keener to safeguard our spiritual health and wellbeing?” After all, our eternal welfare rests on this.

At the same time, we must not be concerned merely for what a person teaches, but how they behave. In many circles, charming and capable people are able to rise through the ranks and be given all kinds of platforms without serious consideration of their suitability for ministry, simply because they can teach well or have had “good training.” But some of the greatest heretics and most immoral leaders in church history have been excellent in the pulpit and in print. We must be concerned not simply with what’s in their sermons or CVs, but about what’s in people’s hearts, and how they treat others, if we are to spot the telltale signs in the list of abusive behaviours.

Oakley and Humphreys helpfully tell us that this form of abuse is not tied to any particular denomination or group. It happens all over the place. And, they add, “it is also not bound to a particular theological stance or theological positions… Thus holding a theological position is not in itself necessarily spiritually abusive” (page 16 of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse). As I have said before, I think it is vital that we acknowledge this, because some people like to denigrate theological positions by linking them to abuse, as if they inherently produce it (e.g. believing in the inspiration of scripture leads to authoritarianism, or the doctrine of substitutionary atonement leads to violent behaviour). Also, as I pointed out when the scandal surrounding John Smyth first came to light, some people will always seek to co-opt abuse scandals for their own political ends, whether to attack a theological position or a group of people they harbour resentments against for some other reason. Making hay for your own pet cause out of someone else’s suffering neither serves the truth nor shows compassion for the victims.

Examples of spiritual abuse
The Church of England’s safeguarding training gives us not just a list of behaviours to look out for, but also these examples of spiritual abuse:

“It might be seen in a leader who is intimidating and imposes their will on other people, perhaps threatening dire consequences or the wrath of God if disobeyed. They may say that God has revealed certain things to them and so they know what is right. Those under their leadership are fearful to challenge or disagree, believing they will lose the leader’s (or, more seriously God’s) acceptance and approval.”

It is important to note that abuse of this kind is usually part of a systematic pattern of behaviour. Reasonably, it is not sufficient to count as coercive spiritual abuse if someone simply gives you spiritual advice you don’t like, or applies the Bible in a way you think is wrong one Sunday. All of us have been guilty of not exegeting scripture carefully enough from time to time, but this is not necessarily “spiritual abuse”, unless it is part of a bigger pattern of enforced accountability and pressure to conform, threats, requirements for secrecy and silence, with isolation from others external to the abuse context, and censorship of decision making, and so on. Often the abuser is addicted to the power rush afforded to them by their ability to control others who seem to be “below” them in rank, class, power, ability, or strength of body, mind, or character.

One key here is to remember the element of threatened violence in the legal definitions of coercive control. I think most people also understand that “imposing your will” on someone in such a way that they are fearful to disagree and fearful of losing your acceptance, is different to a pattern of loving application of the Bible’s teaching in a humble and mutual relationship. If we are more afraid of what our spiritual leader(s) will say than we are of displeasing God himself, or we even equate them directly with God, it could be because we have an unhealthy idolatry; but it could also be that they are abusing their charisma and position, making us vulnerable.

Sometimes abuse of religious power in these contexts can also cross the line into other forms of abuse as well, such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. It is not easy to divorce “spiritual” from psychological, mental, and physical aspects of abuse because we are spiritual, psychological, mental, and physical beings. It is not straightforward to compartmentalise these features of who we are as human beings. Some recent stories have highlighted uncomfortable nakedness and physical abuse, and even indecent exposure and gross indecencywhich can accompany forms of psychological coercion in a religious relational context. So it is important, for example, to remember that ascetic self-flagellation or brutal physical punishments for sin inflicted by others are not part of the Bible’s teaching on salvation or sanctification. As I have written in Fight Valiantly:

“Jesus’s blood alone is what atones for our sin. This is the point of Hebrews 9-10, for example, especially when he declares that ‘how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God’ (Hebrews 9:14). Serving God with a purified, clean conscience requires the blood of the spotless Jesus, not your blood or anyone else’s. ‘We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus’ (Hebrews 10:19).”

Intimidation and fear are also key terms to bear in mind. We have to be sensitive to how we may come across to others. Various aspects of who we are as people, such as our height, weight, position, fame, seniority and so on, can make us potentially intimidating to some people. Just putting on a dog collar can make clergy appear overawing to others. One of the helpful “Pastoral Principles for living well together” promoted by the Pastoral Advisory Group is therefore “Pay attention to power.” They write that “Because of our understanding that Christ calls us in humility to regard others as better than ourselves we refuse to exploit any perceived or real power over others… We need to learn to become more aware both of our own power and of our vulnerability to the perceived power of others.” This is crucial if we are to avoid religious coercion and control. Remember who you are before God.

Oakley and Humphreys warn us, however, that “any person can control and coerce another. It can be top-down from leadership. It can be bottom-up. A powerful couple in a congregation can control what happens in the church and coerce the leader. It can be side-by-side, by those in equal positions.” (page 9 of Escaping the Maze). Anyone can be a victim; anyone could be a perpetrator. Sin is sly, and doesn’t always work the way we think it might.

Most especially, the Pastoral Principles encourage us here to “minister to one another in the recognition that God alone, through his Holy Spirit, can effect transformation in our lives and the lives of others.” If we truly believe this, then we will not attempt to effect change in others by way of coercion, harassment, or the use of threats and withholding of acceptance. We will faithfully teach God’s word, and live it out ourselves, trusting God the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts and minds by his word. God’s word is unerring; we are not. Evangelicals should already know that this is “How to Transform a Church.” But we need to truly believe it, if we are to live and minister in this way, and not abuse the positions of power and influence that we may be given in local communities.

The potentially coercive requirement for secrecy and silence can also be a problem in examples of spiritual abuse. As I say in Light After Darkness, about how some tried to cover up the sins of Ulrich Zwingli:

“Truth is not well served if evidence is shoved under the carpet or consigned to the flames in a mistaken belief that it might harm the truth. Neither is truth or justice served by attempting to keep things (and people) as quiet as possible in the hope that it will all go away. We must walk in the light, and (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) neither dissemble nor cloak such sins. People love darkness because their deeds are evil (John 3:19), and too often we are tempted to keep hidden things which are better off exposed to the light and dealt with…”

“When there are allegations of abuse or of immorality, whether today or in the distant past, it is important to remember that God does not require cover ups… As John Donne (1572–1631) preached: ‘Sin is a serpent, and he that covers sin, does but keep it warm, that it may sting the more fiercely, and disperse the venom and malignity thereof the more effectually.’”

How not to spiritually abuse others
With some of the scandals that have arisen in the church recently, there has been much talk of spiritual abuse, which has worried a few people: have I unwittingly committed this form of abuse? How can I know? What can I do to avoid it? How do I respond to it?

I have already made some applications to this, and there will be more for us to say on these things in future posts. Basic common sense ought to warn us away from some of the more egregious forms of domination and coercion that have hit the headlines recently. Stay fully clothed. Respect personal boundaries. Behave sensibly and moderately with people in your pastoral care, who are there to be served, not to serve you. Consider carefully the intensity and demands of your relationships and programmes. Be aware of the possibility of developing unhealthy power-and-control dynamics, especially in one-to-one situations.

More widely, the Pastoral Advisory Group encourage us to ask: “How do we become accountable to one another in relation to our perceived or actual power as a result of our role, social status, sexuality, gender, age or other characteristic?” And also, how do we “encourage vulnerability in our relationships and look for ways of modelling it appropriately?” If we consider these things soberly and prayerfully together with others who can know us and see our potential weaknesses, that will be a good place to start.

The official Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy contain these very helpful statements about how we exercise power in our positions of trust:

“The clergy are placed in a position of power and authority over others, in pastoral relationships, with lay colleagues, and sometimes with other ministers. In all forms of ministry, in leadership, teaching, preaching and presiding at worship, the clergy should resist all temptation to exercise power inappropriately. This power needs to be used to sustain others and harness their strengths, and not to abuse, bully, manipulate or denigrate.”

“Pastoral care should never seek to remove the autonomy given to the individual. In pastoral situations the other party should be allowed the freedom to make decisions that may be mistaken unless children or vulnerable adults are thereby placed at risk in which case the advice of the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser must be sought.”

“The clergy should thankfully acknowledge their own God-given sexuality. They should not seek sexual advantage, emotionally or physically, in the exercise of their ministry.”

We have power. We must use it well, as Jesus did, for the benefit of others and not ourselves. We must expect and then in his strength resist temptations to misuse our power, which ought not to remove autonomy from others. Ministry is not a way to gain sexual advantage or find avenues for sensual gratification. Perhaps these things are obvious? We must examine our own hearts before God, and confess that sin remains, yes even in those who are well trained, properly ordained, and well thought of in “good churches.” If we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves; so let us confess our sins to the one who is faithful and just to forgive us, knowing that we have a perfect leader, Jesus Christ the truly Righteous One, who is the propitiation for our sins (1 John 1-2).

Oakley and Humphreys say in their report on spiritual abuse that “Respondents noted the important role culture can play in coercive and controlling experiences and the need to consider the hallmarks of healthy cultures… Features of responding well to a disclosure include: active listening, understanding and empathy, taking the disclosure seriously, not minimising the story or blaming the individual.” I recently heard someone censuring victims of John Smyth, for seeking to be abused (32mins), which is clearly an extremely inadequate response, especially if the perpetrator is thereby exonerated from responsibility for leading people into such vulnerability. It’s hard to escape the impression that there are often cultural blindspots in play when we think about such things, whatever our own particular background might be.

There is much work to do still to help people understand this very damaging experience of “spiritual abuse”, and how we ought to respond to it. We also need to think very carefully about aspects of our Christian subcultures which can be experienced as coercive and controlling. This is much wider than an approach which says “it’s only a few bad apples, but mostly we are fine.” We will try to do further thinking on these things, in the coming days. I confess to finding all this a difficult and emotionally very draining exercise for a whole host of reasons, and I doubt anyone finds it easy to abstract thinking about this from other things going on personally and in the churches. Yet we must face up the painful and humbling challenges we are presented with.

I wish to thank especially Ros Clarke, Mark Wallace, George Crowder, John Telford, and Jake Eggertsen for their comments on drafts of this article.

This post is part of a planned series examining and reflecting on spiritual abuse in the Bible and in our contemporary church context.
1. Spiritual abuse
2. God’s judgment on spiritual abuse
3. What is spiritual abuse?
4. Guarding against spiritual abuse
5. Spiritual abuse and the Six Pastoral Principles
6. Spiritual abuse of children and young people

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society