Spiritual Abuse: It Takes “Two to Tango”: 'How Does Spiritual Abuse Happen?'

SPiritual Abuse - How to Overcome It

Overcoming Spiritual Abuse

And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name;  take away our reproach.”  – Isa. 4:1, ESV

This is one of those obscure verses with lots of different opinions about what it might mean. I think it has application to the dynamics of spiritual abuse. Sometimes, we can be so broken in our soul, and struggling for identity and acceptance in the wrong places, that we allow those who promise those things for our compliance to their wishes, to spiritually abuse us.

Whether it’s literal or prophetic, I think it’s safe to say the image is of a time of such distress that normal cultural behaviors and expectations are upended.  In Bible times, a woman was little more than a piece of property. A woman was a “non-person” in social standing until she married, and more specifically, until she had given birth to a son. Her worth, identity, and value was associated with providing a son. It was not uncommon in Mediterranean cultures of antiquity that a woman would be more bonded emotionally to her first-born son than her husband. I would like to make an application to some kingdom/church dynamics in the day in which we live.

The women in this prophetic image are so desperate for a sense of identity that they are willing to forgo normal cultural expectations of their rights for care in a marriage. They are even willing to share sexual intimacy with a man, just for the removal of reproach—just give us a “name” –a sense of identity and place in the societal order of things.

I have dealt with literally hundreds of people who have experienced spiritual abuse in unhealthy church environments. I am very sympathetic to their pain and have my own hair-curling horror stories I could tell of the things that have been done to me, my wife, and my children by “leaders” in the name of Jesus. I GET IT. 

However, I’ve noticed a difference between those who are quickly restored to spiritual health, and those who often remain in reactionary woundedness for years or decades. Those who recover quickly admit that there was something broken or unwhole in themselves that was a “hook” for controllers and abusers to play on. They do not just blame the perpetrators of the injustice against them. Healthy, whole, functional, adults–especially fully resourced believers (2 Pet. 1:3)–are not easy to control, and less likely to be victims of spiritual abuse.

As real as the mistreatment we received may have been, somewhere along the way, abused individuals (assuming adults–not children or minors)  failed to exercise their God-given abilities to protect themselves. God has given every mentally whole adult the “power of no” to protect ourselves. How much more so believers who have the indwelling Spirit? The trouble is, we are often not whole, and we often ignore the Spirit’s prompting because of the emotional cost of following what He says to us. Saying NO might cost our friends and social networks. Being Spirit-led takes more courage than people normally think, but then again, courage is one of the first evidences of being a regenerated, Spirit-filled, human being (Acts 1-4).

Being courageous in interpersonal human dynamics is often the hardest for many, especially those who by temperament do not like confrontation or who avoid unpleasant interpersonal situations. Remember, the blessing is not promised to “peace-lovers” but peace makers. Peace making, including making peace for one’s own soul, can be a a very relationally bloody process. It takes courage.

Folks could have said “no” to leaders. Why didn’t they? Could be lots of reasons for that. What was the “hook” in the soul that folks could not say “no”? Folks can leave a ministry or church. They don’t. Why? Could be lots of reasons, some very difficult to face. They could have confronted. They didn’t. Abuse does not happen in a psychological vacuum. Spiritual abuse has a pyscho-relational context that makes it possible. It takes two to tango:

The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule on their own authority; And My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it? – Jer. 5:31, NASB

We cannot control how others treat us. We can control our responses to how others treat us. We are not hapless and helpless victims floating in a cosmos of powers that bop us around like a ping pong ball. That sense of victimhood and helplessness in the cosmos goes against everything the Bible says about God, us, His promises to us, and power in us. It is culturally popular to play the powerless-victim-card and to demand that folks who have hurt us be “punished,” but you will not find that thinking or spirit in the new testament.

In this blog, I’m not going to deal with the controlling, manipulative, abusive leadership side of the relational dynamic. I’ve dealt with that at length in my other writings and books. If you are looking for a “balanced” presentation, read my other works. I want to talk about the codependent victim side in this blog. This is not about “blaming the victims.” This is not about “who is guilty” and “who is not.” Purge that from your thinking. This is about asking self-reflective questions about human dynamics and psychological issues.

If I have been a victim of spiritual abuse, how did it happen? Are there areas in my soul that are unhealed or broken that make me particularly vulnerable to strong, controlling leaders? If so, God has provision to make me whole and to make sure it never happens again. If I don’t deal with this, I will likely just go from abuser to abuser, hoping to not be abused, but experiencing more cycles of spiritual abuse, which is irrational behavior.  It’s like looking for a kinder, gentler, better managed, prison camp. You leave one, go to another, just to be hurt again by someone who is more skilled at using the whip on you than the last camp commandant. The question I have to ask, is what is it in me that is attracted to untrustworthy abusers?

Over the years I’ve rhetorically asked, “What could be so powerful, that normally functional, intelligent, sane, adults would allow themselves to be so clearly violated by corrupt spiritual leaders, to go so far as to support them with time, labor, and money–literally PAYING to be violated by them?” What causes their normal faculties of self-protection to go dormant?  There has to be a hook in the soul somewhere, some element of “soul damage.” What is the “soul-Velcro” that makes the whole dynamic possible? It is not a matter of volition. It is normally unrecognized at a psychological level.

I believe it is related to the image in the Isaiah verse: an unmet and unresolved need for identity – “take away my reproach, give me a “name,” give me “status.”

People will allow themselves to be violated by controlling leaders in exchange for those leaders giving them a sense of false identity and status with something that has the appearance of success, notoriety, and superiority.   By belonging to mighty apostle/prophet/teacher so-and-so’s “world changing,” “miracle producing,” “seventh-heaven,” “doctrinally pure,” “city-taking” “soul winning,” “open portal” “last-day revival,” “overcoming,” “man-child,” “Zadok priesthood,” “Joshua Generation,” of  restored Davidic worshiper Ministries International, we can feel just a wee bit superior to others: We have a “name” that others do not.

This phenomenon is particularly strong in new converts or young believers. They often align themselves with a strongly gifted 50-plus-year-old as an authority figure. Since a young person is often not completely formed in their own sense of personhood, and is in the process of learning (if they ever do) that their real identity is in Christ, they can be particularly vulnerable to the ploys, charms, and manipulations of insecure, controlling, “recruiting,” older leaders.

A psychological swap is made: the leader gets sycophantic followers, and the followers get a sense of name, identity, and status from a person or an organization that should come from Christ alone. It’s all an unholy psychological transaction that can be dressed up in all kinds of great sounding Bible-lingo and proof texts.

Imagine I am a mature “father,” 50-years-old or more, with a strong “teaching gift,” a strong personality, charisma, the flow of spiritual manifestations, and decades of experience. Before me are 500+ young people between the ages of 18-30.  These young people have various degrees of unhealed psychological issues and identity needs. I preach intensely and passionately for a week to these people about how everyone must submit to a spiritual father/apostle/leader/pastor (whatever) if they are to satisfy God, fulfill their destiny, or be all that God intends for them, and how they will never reach their potential if unconnected to an apostolic father, and how if they align themselves with a father they will be the last day generation that will change the world by their submission and intercession.

What kind of psychological pressure do you think might be on one of these young people (or psychologically fragmented adults) at the end of the week?  What “father” happens to be available at the moment? Who is likely to accrue benefit in this scenario by preaching “sonship” to the vulnerable under the guise of revelation? Convenient is it not?

Do you think many of the folks in the crowd, especially a young person, would have the courage to stand on their own and resist the teaching from the 50-year-old father/expert and say firmly and respectfully: “No, thank you”?  I highly doubt it.


I propose that to deny this psychological phenomenon of spiritual abuse is to be naïve.  To have the lives of others under our power of influence is a sacred thing, not to be presumed upon.  If we have a captive audience of immature, psychologically unwhole, and alienated young people older adults, (or lonely “ministers”!), looking for identity and belonging, and we pummel them for a week with the importance of submission and sonship, we are operating in a soulish predatory spirit, and a form of psychological manipulation and abuse, regardless of whatever justifying Bible verse we may believe.

Our only job is to preach Christ, lift up Christ, and make Him known and exalted in the understanding of hearers. We don’t preach “sonship” unto a man. We preach Christ-crucified, sonship unto Him,  and let “sonship-type” relationships between believers at difference stages of maturity emerge as the Spirit births and develops them.

The glorious news of the gospel is that the second thing that is supposed to happen to a new convert after believing the good news is the healing of the broken heart, the broken souled (Isa. 61). Upon a real conversion,  a new believer should be awakened to their true identity:  in Christ and Christ alone. The overcomer in Christ is promised both a new individual name on the forehead, and the name of the city of God as well!  We are to have a new sense of personal identity and a new sense of placement in a community (Rev. 3:12). In fact, a “double-new-identity.” Glory to God! The good news just gets better and better!

It is such a painfully sad situation to see so many sell their souls on altars of ambitious and insecure leaders who promise them a name, identity, status, greatness, and fame, all at  the price of allowing themselves to be psychically violated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you have experienced spiritual abuse in a church situation, I urge you to forgive quickly, take responsibility for your own soul, repent to God for not using the tools he has given you to protect yourself, find people who can love you without agenda, help you find inner healing if you need it, and be restored to a vibrant and healthy kingdom life. There is a good future in God for you.

Parts of this blog are excerpted from our title: Father-Son Ministry: Reassessing Apostolic and Prophetic Perspectives, available in all formats at www.stevecrosby.com.
Spiritual Abuse - How to be Restored

Overcoming Spiritual Abuse

Copyright 2013, Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, www.swordofthekingdom.com. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact stephcros9@aol.com.

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20 comments on “Spiritual Abuse: It Takes “Two to Tango”: 'How Does Spiritual Abuse Happen?'

  1. Such a blessing as always, my brother. Nothing but the genuine expression of His Body can bring the healing and restoration that is required to those dear ones who have suffered such cases……but they must be willing to release the pain and distrust in order to receive.

  2. I agree with the part about the responsibility that rests on leaders:
    “Our only job is to preach Christ, lift up Christ, and make Him known and exalted in the understanding of hearers. We don’t preach “sonship” unto a man. We preach Christ-crucified, sonship unto Him, and let “sonship-type” relationships between believers at difference stages of maturity emerge as the Spirit births and develops them.”
    But I find it disturbing to put some of the blame on the victims much like blaming a victim of physical abuse for not leaving such a relationship…even children. The power of spiritual abuse is in the threat of taking away all your friends and the sense of belonging.
    I like the passage from Jude:
    Jude 1:20-23(NET) But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith, by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life. And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh.
    Have mercy…snatching them from the fire….

    • Hi Tom, I am certainly not putting the “blame” on victims–God forbid. You would have to read my other stuff that I referenced to get a full picture. I have written extensively and severely on abusive leadership. I specifically said this does not apply to children who are powerless. My point is, adults are not powerless. God has not left us resourceless. Fear of loss (friends, family, etc) as you say is is indeed powerful, I know, because I have experienced both myself, but what did Jesus say about the possibility of losing both? He said it might be part of the cost of following him. If our attachment to social bonds is the hook that allows abuse to continue, well, that’s our issue: we choose our pain-continued abuse, or loss of social attachments. Sometimes, freedom’s price tag is indeed emotionally costly. Our eldest son did not speak to us for 20 years. I am not “theorizing”. I’ve lived the pain,and recognize my own fears, and hooks in my own soul.

  3. Another good one my brother! I have a question for the dr. If we are whole and healed from such people, do we stay away from church and disconnect because of such leaders? Do we start our own home church and invite those whom we are trying to protect? When do we allow Jesus to protect us and lead us to healthy leaders and churches? If we distance ourselves from people to protect ourselves from the abuse then we become an island to ohrselves with no connection to the people God created us to be in relationship with. Should we first submit to God through a right relationship with a healthy leader. Then allow the body of Christ to be whole and connected. 🙂

    • Hi Daryl, excellent question. I think I touch it at the end where I mention finding a new community of love. Wellness is always found in otherness, not isolation. If we are in a toxic and unhealthy environment, it makes no sense to allow ourselves to be continually defiled or abused. Humility does not require degradation of the image of God in us by others. To me in any situation there seems to be only four rational possible responses:

      1. Find overcoming grace to plug your nose and endure the situation/environment for God’s purposes.
      if that’s not possible . . .
      2. Find overcoming grace to implement redemptive change in the situation/environment . . . .
      if that’s not possible.
      3. Find overcoming grace to find a new, safe, healthy situation/environment
      if that’s not possible
      4. Find overcoming grace to create a safe and healthy environment for myself and others.

      Isolation and insulation is not the answer.

  4. Hi Steve…. I can offer only from my own experience. For me I was drip fed cut n paste pet scriptures and did not know what was happening. i heard the voice of the Holy Spirit so many times saying something was wrong, but i had been well trained in OBEYING AUTHORITIES and brainwashed into the belief that to be in conflict with, to disagree with, to disobey, to speak a word out in opposition to … etc etc that i was self containing. I was so sucked in i did not think the voice i was hearing was the lord but attributed it to the enemy and that in some way i was giving him a foot hold to affect my thinking in such a way. In short i gagged the Lord until such a time as the “apostle” became so infalable in his own eyes that he over played his own hand, lied, twisted scriptures out of context and used threats and tried to impose guilt on us which finally exposed the truth… we were being manipulated and we could no longer ignore that fact. As much as we saw this i felt a strong responsibility to protect the “authority figure” from being hurt by our leaving and yet we knew we must leave or spiritually die.
    When i started to read this article i was initially taken aback and felt condemnation for having “allowed” so much for so long (almost 2 decades though not all were like that). however on leaving the group it took me some 15 months before i came to understand what was weighing me and others down so heavily…we had lost our identity! It was only then i became aware that my identity had not been in Christ but the approval of man. You are absolutely right in that we were all broken people – the church was full of them. It was no secret that wounded spirits in need of a father were attracted to the place and we heard exactly as you posed in the article about spiritual fathers etc etc etc. It is almost 3 years for us and we have finally began to recover and as you say it is in the security of a loving fellowship who are concerned for one another rather than promotion, status or recognition. We found this in a small fellowship where so many of the congregation are retired and traditional in many ways, but their way of loving others is radical, unreserved and steadfast. We have a minister whos heart is that of a servant… Hi is in service to God and His people. After being in a “QUOTE… Bible preaching, tongue talking, devil crushing, spiritually active superior church” (cult actually) we have finally rediscovered GRACE… MERCY…LOVE. I would also have to say your book “Silent Killers of Faith” helped us greatly in that rediscovery of grace, but to be in a healthy place with whole people with nothing to prove other than Gods love amongst them, has been and remains vital in our healing. It is quite humbling to be honest and we are just thankful for ministries like yours and theirs. We never felt like welcome visitors… we felt embraced as part of the family from the very first time of being with them. In all the 29 years of being a Christian i had never actually felt i “belonged” but expended a lot of energy just fitting in and preserving that by jumping through the relevant hoops… Now I feel accepted, valued, and part of a loving fellowship and community of believers. Bless ya Steve.

  5. Stephen, good to read this. I knew SJ many years ago when he was part of a fellowship in Fort Wayne, and I’m so glad that we’ve re-connected. I became a believer in that fellowship, and there was so much good that happened, so much healing. There was some wonderful DNA in our community, and I had so many moms and dads and aunts and uncles who knew how to help a young, broken man find healing and wholeness in every aspect of life.
    This is what made it so hard 13-14 years later as I came to realize that I needed to take my family and make a change. Over the years, we watched so many of our friends walk out the door, and almost always for the same reasons. Men and women we loved and respected had to leave. This was the only family I had, and there was so much good happening. My wife did not agree with or understand what was happening, but she now realizes to some extent that she had an unhealthy attachment that blinded her. She realizes now that it was the right choice (3 years later), but at the time, I felt truly alone in what I had to do. That was part of my cost.
    I believe that our situation is a leader who had a major control issue and who had the opportunities over the years to be healed; but he never did. As such, it came to the point where I felt strangled emotionally. At that time, I began to pray about what we should do. It’s been very hard at times since then, but it was the right thing to do. I’ve not really found a community or church body that “fits,” but for us it’s about the relationships. I’m 39 and have 4 kids, and for us it’s primarily about cultivating the deep friendships with those most important to us and fulfilling our calling in work and our neighborhoods, etc. The church organization is not at the top of the totem pole.
    I wish it could have been different, but I’ve come to peace with those individuals, and I sincerely want them to be blessed with every spiritual blessing. I’m truly thankful for everything that’s happened. It’s one of the life experiences that has fed my passion for helping leaders to find the Father’s heart and to demonstrate who He really is to those under their influence.

      • Thanks for replying. Your time is valuable. There are a lot of us – as I’m sure you’re painfully aware – who need to share our stories and keep the conversation going. I appreciate the perspective that you and SJ are bringing in your podcasts and writings. I share many of your views. I see an awakening taking place in people coming from “mainline” churches, and it’s really encouraging. God is faithful to each generation. His love never fails.

  6. A very thought-provoking article. Well-written and clearly-stated. I realize that I am unfamiliar with your other writings, but I do have several questions about this topic.

    As a victim of spiritual abuse myself, I certainly recognize my own responsibility and overly-credulous nature. As you say, I need to identify the brokenness inside of me and recognize why I was deceived for so long. I suppose I “allowed” myself to be deceived, but then again, if I knew I was being deceived, I wouldn’t have stayed in my former church. So did I really “allow” myself to be deceived, or was I just deceived?

    Could you speak to the role of religious brainwashing in all of this? I am happy that you exempt children from needing to repent of allowing themselves to be spiritually abused, but I struggle to see anyplace where Jesus told 1st-century Jews to repent for following the Pharisees who spiritually abused them. Instead, Jesus called the Pharisees to repentance and had compassion on those who were misguided and bewitched by them.

    Do I really need to “repent” for being spiritually abused? Is this the right theological term? Is repentance something I have to do when I have not yet attained all that God has given me in Christ, or is it rather for sins I have committed? Is being deceived by a religious leader a sin on my part? This is a fairly important distinction. Any further thoughts?

    • You make a good point, and perhaps repent is too strong, if you link it with guilt, which I don’t. For me it is simply the lifestyle of “telling it like it is” with my Father in relationship. The NT calls it “the open face.” Repent for me, is the maintenance of an open-faced relationship with my Father, not a criminal on parole reporting in for parole violation to the judge for improper behavior. If you have been raised in a theological environment where repentance has been taught in a criminal motif of guilt, rather than a sonship motif of relationship, I understand your perspective. I don’t live in the guilt-criminal motif common in Protestantism. In my opinion, repent/repentance is one of many topics that have been ruined by 600 years of improper emphasis in Protestantism. I would offer another consideration. I make a distinction pre and post Pentecost in all my theology. Jesus was not dealing with new creation beings in those who were misled by the Pharisees. You and I on the other hand, have an advantage that they did not have: the indwelling Spirit, the spirit of the resurrected God-Man in glory, in union with our spirit, living in us, and being outfitted by God for all things necessary for life and godliness. God does not bring us into his family powerless and resourceless (though you wouldn’t know it by the way many live- a gospel that over-emphasizes acquittal from sin (SGM) over empowerment for life, is an incomplete, imbalanced, and false gospel). If repent is not too strong, as understood and defined above, I think it appropriate as simply: “Father, I am sorry for not availing myself of what you gave me. I ignored your promptings, I ignored the still small voice and I allowed other influences to quench everything you have given me.” Regarding “brainwashing” my premise is whole people are not brainwashable in a situation where their freedom is not constrained. If I have no option to exercise freedom, I understand the brain washing analogy. But if I can get up and leave, which in a free association such as a “church,” is the case, I do not think the brain washing analogy works, we’re back to my original premise…”Why did I allow them to do that to me”? It in no way justifies what was done, nor blaming myself, it is about my own self-reflection, and development as a person so it never happens again, and so I can help others.

      I spent 13 years in a group that makes SGM seem like amateurs in the abuse department. I understand how subjectively an individual can feel like – “I was brainwashed”. . . It “feels” like it to us. But honest examination of our own hearts will usually reveal a crack in our soul that enabled it, and I was really not passively brainwashed, but my own unhealed state became a subconscious participator in my own mistreatment.

      I had to admit that about myself, to myself, as one of the early pills I had to swallow on my own path to recovery which took a full 6 years…that is how traumatically I and my family were abused.

      Whole, free people are un-brainwashable.

      Thank you for a thoughtful post, good question, and good critique.

      • Thanks for such a quick and comprehensive reply. I am very sorry that you suffered such extensive spiritual abuse =( I suspect if we compared notes our experiences might turn out to have been very similar. The consulting agency which helped our church disband–and which deals with broken churches and fallen leaders on a daily basis–said that our church was the worst example of spiritual abuse they had ever seen in over 40 years of ministry. Yay for us.

        It helps me to hear your understanding of the term “repent.” That certainly is a different nuance than I have been taught. I think I prefer your definition, though normally “repent” is a technical theological term which relates to salvation or matters of sin. I think we are in 98% agreement on the major issues here.

        I concur that individuals who have suffered spiritual abuse usually have previous brokenness which makes them susceptible. I also agree that folks who leave spiritually-abusive environments should take responsibility for their actions while in the group and that this will cause regret. Where they have perpetrated sin, they must repent. Where they have been hurt, they will feel regret.

        I also agree that whole, healthy people are unlikely to be brainwashed. However, brainwashing is often very subtle and perhaps more complex than most people realize. And even adults–if they are not yet spiritually mature–can function as spiritual infants. Since spiritual abuse occurs in the spiritual realm, chronological age is less important than spiritual maturity. Thus, I believe that many adults who are spiritually abused are comparable to spiritual children in many regards.

        While I understand your pre- vs. post-Pentecost distinction, I still find Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees and their followers instructive.

        Nevertheless, your clarification helps me understand your position much better. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply! I look forward to reading some of your other material.

    • Hi, That is a question with many implications, to which a one size fits all, short answer is inadequate. I spent 13 years in a cult myself. I was abused and damaged there, as was my family. So I understand the emotional, spiritual, theological, and psychological implications of recovery. There are recovery resources available through internet searching for things such as toxic religion, or recovery from spiritual abuse. If you believe that some personal ministry and “hands on guidance” would be helpful as you walk out what amounts to an inner and outer life reorientation, in the process of deconstructing old beliefs and values, inner healing, and reconstructing something healthy, perhaps consider godlifeconsulting.com.

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