How to Identify Spiritual Abuse: 'You Might be in a Cult if . . .'

Identifying Spiritual Abuse

How to Identify Spiritual Abuse

It is a sad reality that many folks have bad church experiences in Christianity. These experiences range from mild disappointment to severe abuse, and in some cases, even criminality. Recovery from one of these experiences can be a painful and at times, a lengthy process. People who have experienced hurtful church experience can suffer from symptoms similar to PTSD or Stockholm Syndrome.

It can be helpful on the path to recovery, to be able to reflect upon our history, or perhaps our current circumstances, to provide either the inner healing and recovery from spiritual abuse, or, to find the inner motivation necessary to make changes to get out of a very toxic, unsafe, unhealthy church environment.

Everyone makes mistakes. All of us are prone to imperfections, mistaken opinions, errors in judgment, belief systems, and practices. However, when isolated errors multiply, become compounded, systematized, institutionalized, and defended; and conformity to these errors is demanded, a very dangerous line has been crossed.

You MIGHT BE in a cult if . . .

  • honest disagreement and asking questions are interpreted as being of a “Jezebelian” or “Absalom” spirit, or being disloyal, a rebel, etc.
  • Matthew 18 is used by leadership as a mandatory speech and thought control template to stifle thoughtful criticism, dialogue, discussion, and disagreement.
  • Old Covenant leadership motifs are practiced: “Mosaic” style leadership “hears God for you,” rather than equipping you to hear God for yourself.
  • your group’s identity and existence is dependent on a single individual and his/her gifts and talents; celebrityism; personality idolatry.
  • you are rewarded for conformity by relational “access to the leadership,” and “punished” (overtly or covertly; openly or subliminally) for nonconformity by denial of relational access to leadership.
  • you are told your heart is desperately wicked, and not trustworthy, but leaders expect you to trust theirs.
  • transparency in relationship is demanded before trust in relationship is established; “transparency” is leveraged and used against you.
  • leadership “de-gifts” you; that is, proclaims to be able to remove your gift, grace, and calling from you for alleged nonconformity.
  • you are told you cannot make a personal decision without approval from your “covering.” There is no such concept as covering in the NT.
  • leaders nurture a culture of infantile dependency upon themselves, rather than maturing, equipping, and releasing the saints; corral and control rather than equip and release.
  • your leaders tell you who you can date (or if you can date at all!), who you can marry, if you can have children, how many children you should have, where you can live, what job you can take, when and where you can take vacation, etc.
  • your leaders mandate how your children are to be educated (home school or not, etc.).
  • Godly boundary lines of natural family (immediate and extended) are violated: “spiritual fathers and mothers” manipulate the affections of natural family members; natural family members are estranged and devoted to “spiritual parents.”
  • you are told to sever all relationship with natural (blood) family members who are not “believers;” don’t go to their birthday parties, anniversaries, etc.
  • your leaders discourage women from getting an education under the guise of being “keepers at home.”
  • you are discouraged from getting an education, pursuing a career, saving for retirement, or buying insurance, etc., because it is the “end times” and Jesus is coming “any minute.”
  • you are taught that only your group has the “real truth;” your group is the “remnant,” every one else is wrong, apostate; your group is in the Holy of Holies, others are “outer court.”
  • you are threatened with dire spiritual peril should you leave the group; belonging to your group is considered being in the “ark of safety.”
  • those who leave are “black-balled,” socially ostracized; you are forbidden from contact with those who leave.
  • anyone who leaves your group is called a “covenant breaker.”
  • you are told to “turn your mind off, and turn your spirit on;” that the exercise of rational faculties is somehow “not spiritual.”
  • honor, authority, submission, loyalty, etc. are inordinately emphasized and only flow one way: up the hierarchy, a lack of a culture of mutuality–submitting one to another in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21).
  • leaders foster a culture of elitism or  superiority; a fraternity of insiders:  the clergy-laity divide.
  • your time, talent, and treasure are fuel for another person’s ambitions of greatness; you are consumed by another’s carnal drive for significance.
  • you are psychically manipulated with music under the guise of “worship.”
  • leaders can correct you, but you cannot correct leaders.
  • you are told that correcting or criticizing a leader is “touching the Lord’s anointed;” in the NC, all believers are equally anointed.
  • leaders try to get you to do things for them for free (babysitting, lawn mowing, house repairs, etc.) under the guise of  teaching you “to serve.”
  • insistence on titles of rank and position are required under the pretext of “teaching honor and respect.”
  • devotion to the scripture replaces devotion to the Person of Jesus.
  • devotion to the scripture does not produce character transformation.
  • your leaders only associate with young people – they have no peer level, age-level, and maturity level equals in their social sphere.
  • the “leadership team” is stacked with family members, cronies, and yes-men.
  • you are not allowed to say “no” at appropriate times and in appropriate ways, to leaders; godly boundaries are not honored.
  • the finances of the group are managed in secrecy. Only official “leadership” is allowed to see the money, how it is spent, where it goes.
  • loyalty to leadership is thought to be equivalent to loyalty to the Person of Jesus.
  • emphasis on being doctrinally right is valued more than being relationally right with God and humanity.
  • leaders live a lavish lifestyle of privilege and “perks,” while the poor, orphans, widows, etc., are ignored or thrown some scraps to ease the conscience.
  • pursuing holiness results in isolation and insulation rather than transformation, integration, and societal penetration.
  • the teaching emphasis is on obscure and esoteric topics, rather than the things that really matter; majoring on minors.
  • flattery is used to manipulate behavior.
  • giving/finances are used as tools for emotional extortion; giving monetary gifts to influence thought and behavior.
  • you are made to feel inferior if you do not routinely demonstrate supernatural manifestations, gifts, miracles, etc.
  • you are accused of being unspiritual, judgmental, or critical for questioning the source of unusual supernatural manifestations; for desiring to “prove all things,” you are accused of not understanding “the things of the Spirit,” or of being “an intellectual rationalist.”
  • leaders with a vested self-interest, try to tell you where to give your money.
  • typological teaching from the OT is not Christ-centered; selective proof-texting in preaching and application; legalism.
  • your group uses insider language/jargon that makes others feel like outsiders.


If you have experienced, or are experiencing any of these symptoms, you need to make some changes. You can be healed and find restoration to spiritual vitality. Your trust can be restored: trusting God, trusting God in you, trusting others who genuinely love without an agenda, and trusting your Heavenly father to make up the difference when honest human beings let you down. We will always have to deal with human weakness and frailty, but we do not have to put up with systematized abuse and corruption. Spiritual abuse may have marked your past, but it does not have to define your future. We hope that some of the resources and articles that you will find here on this blog, and at will assist you on your hope-filled pathway to recovery.


Copyright 2013,  Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, 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

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19 comments on “How to Identify Spiritual Abuse: 'You Might be in a Cult if . . .'

  1. We think of cults as “Moonies” or Mormon’s, but unfortunately, your above signs of a cult very much describe many main line churches I have been involved within my life. They would be incredulous to admit any resemblance to a cult, but…..if the shoe fits.

      • Stephen, you are so right. I think it is even easier to see the cult like tendencies when you have been part of the leadership. You/I realize that we truly believed so much of these things and tried to manipulate people into following along. Maybe it is easier as a past leader of this kind of group to see because we knew what went on in our own hearts and knew what was said behind closed doors. Thanks for this.

        • Thank you for posting and the encouragement, Barb. Like I said in my reply to Jeanne, this is not about finger pointing . . . like you, I either did, or was part of a good number of these at one time another, for which I am ashamed, and have repented before the Lord, and before others, where I could. So, there is no condemnation, but an opportunity to all, to look in the mirror, and say “It’s not by brother, it’s not my sister, it’s me Oh Lord,” and to step into gospel freedom that he offers for all of us.

  2. Speaking of the shoe, fitting. How about of the 35+/- items on the list you provided, Steve, I was in “group think” on all but 5 [30 out of 35] Can, anyone, top that? Not, all for same reasons given. Similarities abound, such as for ‘covering’ our term was “God’s Umbrella” for protection. Tremendous deception, that because we believed in a Triune God and that Jesus is Lord, followers did not recognize it as cultish. In fact, many, including myself have had shame/a resistance to admitting it as a cult. It took many years out, but, seeing how other mainstream churches operate; I have insights into comparisons of cultish techniques they are using. No longer under a cloud or a sort of condemnation to feel ashamed. Regrets? I’ve had a few. Have I concluded I/we were victims? Speaking, for myself, absolutely not. I was getting something out of it. Flattery, intimate love bombing/etc. When, not in the doghouse; felt pretty good at the time before it wore off/turned to rot. And, because there was a spiritual doghouse for rebelling against God’s authority, it made the good times feel that much better. Yes, it was how you were treated and about your “feelings”. He is faithful and wonderful to deliver us from the enemy, which some/much of the time can be ourselves. Because, He lives I can face tomorrow.
    Lift Him Up!

    • Hi Robert, you make a VERY good point. This is not about pointing the finger in victimization. The people I am able to help recover from this stuff, are the ones who take responsibility FOR THEMSELVES! That is, they admit there was something in it FOR THEM, that allowed them to put up with this stuff, and, they failed to use the God given ability to protect themselves from abuse: They could have said “no”, but they didn’t.

      Can’t blame that on anyone . . .but . . . . one’s self.

      Indeed . . . onward into tomorrow . . . free . . . and setting others free

    • Robert, My heart breaks for the things you have gone through. Tragic!
      As for our responsibility; it’s sounds almost like the Stockholm Syndrome. There’s probably some psychological syndrome that develops with this kind of sick control and the codependents that subject themselves to it. Wondering if there are those personality types that are more prone to this control. What makes us willing give up our personhood and become slaves?

  3. Many of these would be really hard to prove. They would SAY they would never ask this of their members but the longer you were there the more you realized that that was how it was done. It was insidious how it crept into the very fabric of the group without ever being truly spoken. I could say like Robert that our group met 30 of the 35 but a few more were met without the leadership ever having to say anything really directly.

    • Hi Barb, Insidious is the word, indeed. Many of these things are in the category of “unarticulated expectations,” the subtle innuendos, the look in the eyes, the subtle withdrawal of relationship, the coolness of spirit and attitude, a spirit of suspicion that is projected on others who are viewed as “non-compliant”. . . everyone knows how the “game is played” but they never openly say it, so the practitioners can claim deniability, which makes it all the more nefarious.

      In my case, many of these were openly taught, so there was nothing to “prove.” These values were taught openly from the pulpit in more than one church.

  4. I agree with all these. I read these heathen “anti-new age” books as a young christian, and it made me blind. These words are like a small stream for my soul.

    For those who protest on many of these. I guess, it is not the truth of conservative christianity that is questioned, but the human rules added later, and the ATTITUDE of “christianism”.

  5. I too have been in 30 out of 35 at the darkest hours down to ‘liberal’ 15. the thing is those who are at 15 regard those at 30 as cultism and they are OK using a comparison of each other. The question is not “better than”. but are we walking in new covenant freedom.

  6. A chapter could be written on each issue on the list, Steve. On issue of free labor for our queen bee’s many needs.’Worker bees’ fanned/serviced he and his family; with free work/labor. This was done and expected always. Not token labor but many hours worth. Most of us were contractors/in construction with talents. Wives, were also involved in free labor with knitting/other stuff related to one of his businesses. When dedicated followers with their free labor made a mistake, they were expected/required to fix the mistake on their dime. Again, usually, an unwrtten/unsaid rule, that would be denied, if ever brought up. Since this labor took away from being paid from other work, having the money to pay for these fixes was not always easy. Free labor did not pay/it was also costly. Standards were unreasonably high so a mistake was subjective and sometimes, ‘worker bees’ offered the fix for free/including paying for materials, just to stay in good graces. Which, was always accepted. One can imagine that this business model scenario, in place for 20 plus years; resulted in queen bee and each of his sons becoming multi millionaires. Did I say it was all about money? True story and could go on with an entire chapter related to free labor/keeping followers poor/under control. Yes, the word insidious comes closest to the darkness just capsuled above. A close friend, after leaving from being under ‘God’s Umbrella’. When, sharing his experiences, on ‘group think’ aptly has said, “you have to understate what happened to remain credible”

    • I understand, Robert. It is all too common. We tend to think it is “just us” and our “little group” that is a “bit off” . . . . no, I have seen this around the world, again, and again, and again . . . it is a wide-spread plague . . . a disease.

      That’s why I write some of this stuff . . . tens, if not hundreds of thousands are exposed to this abuse every day.

  7. Your comment is very much appreciated, Jeanne. I must share a secret, however. I was a business partner/leader’s right hand man for many years. A true enabler. Your observant question is appropriate about certain personalities vulnerable to this stuff. Oh, my yes is the reply. How I would like to write more on the specifics. But, am too long winded. I find Steve’s forum on our/his comments therapeutic and healing.
    Bottomline, through it all, I have concluded it wasn’t about me, though tragic. It is all about Him. His faithfulness, His everlasting kindness, His mercies, His patience, His forgiveness in His love. Being delivered/renewed in a divine way when you know you have really really strayed and blown it big time. This is when one experiences the depth of his love that passes all human understanding. Best thing is to love God and he promises that whatever happens in the now or what has happened in the past, will all work together for good. I believe that. Praise Be To God!

    • Robert, It is wonderful to hear of your restoration. Through what we have been through, we may walk with a limp, but that more sensitive to those in these situations that we have delivered from and be able to bind up the broken hearted and set the captives free.
      2 Corin 1:4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
      Bless you!

  8. After 20 years in cult and now 20 years out, might I highly recommend a sweet book on her personal experiences on the subject matter at hand. Was given to me to read about a year ago, from a neighbor/brother in Christ who endured the Local Church of Witness Lee fame. The book is called; THE THREAD OF GOLD ‘ God’s Purpose, The Cross, and Me–A Journey’ Jane Anderson’s account of her also 20 journey through the ‘group think’ of Witness Lee, Well written and great read, from a so called spiritual peon who is [precious in God’s sight] sharing simple/profound? insights of her experiences. Would also add one more to your list, Steve, unless, I missed it. #36… drum roll please. A biggy and part of the wood, hay, and stubble laid early on to our group’s foundation. Separation from your earthly family, which in retrospect, I think ONE HUGE RED FLAG for ALL/Anyone who hears it taught. Maintaining, good relationships with family was bascially frowned upon, discouraged, both in subtle and outright dictatorial manner. Most of us were in our early 20s and it conforms to one on list; [these leaders hang out with youth and do not have friends their own age]. Few, if any of our parents [more his age] liked our leader and said so. He didn’t like them and told us so. It was taught we had a new family that would last forever. Old family ties carnal. Not one person who stayed in the group had a good relationship with their families. We found favor when we “Stood for the Lord” against them and our leader seemed to get a smug enjoyment hearing of earthly familiy relationships going south. Math? It was about control and parents were a threat to his control. Therefore earthly families were treated sorta as enemies. It seems the longer out and removed; when these things are regurgitated, it’s worse than earlier thought and the darkness that much darker. Again, “Thread of Gold”
    A healing balm in Gilead.

  9. Whoa! And the hits just keep on coming, Steve. How bout this one? Group’s own special jargon/code language type of thing. Bascially, expressions understood by members only. We a had a small cargo of them. Many, I have of forgotten. One’s I haven’t are as follows:
    Under emphasis of [walking in the spirit]
    ‘He’s out of it’ or when scolded directly, ‘you’re really out of it’ when leader in a condescending and/or looking for trouble mood; ‘well, are you in it or out of it today?’ Not a question at all with its tone, but, all knew it meant you were out of it. Meaning, not walking in the spirit and thus in the flesh, with shunned overtones.
    Under section of being [having an open heart to God] ‘When are you going to ever get open?’ or ‘he’s closed, he needs to get open’
    Category of [hearing God’s voice] ‘whata hearing today?’ or ‘are you hearing anything or are you just in the flesh?’ another ‘when was the last time you ever heard the Lord, have you ever heard the Lord?’ with connotation, ‘are you even saved?’ Well, above unloaded, gives you a flavor of unique browbeating terms to keep upper hand/us under control and in line. Our acceptance of the terms; created a constant unlevel playing field which was obviously hard to overcome/even defend one’s self. Of note, it is my firm conclusion that this type of ministry was the result of a profound insecurity at its core of leader. A person incredibly insecure.

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