Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Ministry (DMin)




Spiritual abuse is an extremely subtle issue in its early stages. Often one doesn’t recognize when they are a subject of abuse, or how they have been influenced in ways that are controlling and involve manipulation of behavior and thought. It should be understood that all institutional systems are vulnerable to manipulation by leadership, tradition or culture of the system or organization. I am proposing that it is possible that a system itself can be an abuser, inflicting spiritual control and manipulation on the organization, the leadership and members for future generations. I want to examine the earmarks of unhealthy leadership style, authoritarian behavior or tradition methodology that may incubate and contribute to an environment that could spawn the type of abuse to which I refer. There are many types of abuse, of course. When individuals or people groups allow themselves to be manipulated they are subject to control by others. Often, the subject is not even aware of the manipulation at first because it is usually balanced and legitimized with meeting some real or perceived need the subject may have. However, even these “needs” may be guilt instilled within the subject by the perpetrator. For example, the leader may preach that certain activities may be sin and even the gateway to hell unless these activities are avoided. If the subject avoids the activity, they are accepted and held up as examples of piety but if they partake of the offending activity, they are shunned. Most people have a need for community acceptance and in this environment they believe they are loved if they meet certain conditions. This paper will focus on abuse that occurs in mainstream religious groups and institutions. I will identify factors more ambiguous than the obviously irrational David Koreshes and Jim Joneses of the world. There are seemingly ordinary leaders who use their positions for inappropriate control. Traditions also exist that have evolved over time to become unhealthy systems that add implicitly or even explicitly to Jesus’ message. I will examine one of these systems from its historical beginnings to present day as a case study. The extent and scope of spiritual abuse is not known. It will be imperative to define what is meant by “Spiritual Abuse” and the potential level of destruction that may be experienced by the abused. In order to so, several questions must be answered. How and when is spiritual abuse manifest? What are the warning signs? How does an abusive and persecutory system present itself? What happens to leaders and followers who experience such abuse? Is there an early warning system, or even clues for alerting potential victims? Can one arm him/herself to avoid being seduced by institutional systems into codependency? These types of questions can be summarized in three overarching questions: What are the signs of institutional systemic abuse? Is it possible for a church system to become an abusive persecutor? xiii What are some principles to guide an institutional system to return from or prevent abuse? In order to address the problem of spiritual abuse, I will propose a set of principles based on a covenant model. This covenant is designed to provide organizational guidance for leaders to move away from systemic abuse toward a healthy covenant relationship model that inspires renewal and growth. Chapter 1 provides an introduction of the problem. This chapter will examine definitions of spiritual abuse and related terms, relate an interview, present systemic abuse in context with historical data, include a synopsis of the basic development of that system along with the organizational structure and demographics. Some of the relevant symbolism used in the system that contributes to the issue will also be identified. In Chapter 2, I have constructed a Foundation of Relational Theology. There, I will describe God’s call to relationship, including a definition of sin, the deception that predicated humanity’s need for reconciliation to God. I will also explore the concept of relationships and community and how individual character plays a role in the context of community. We will see how love, the greatest of all virtues, informs and motivates behavior in community. In Chapter 3, I will explore Biblical accounts, which will show evidence of manipulation and/or control by Biblical figures, the systems they represented, and how healthy or unhealthy leadership dealt with those individuals and situations. I will also include claims of Biblical principles for promoting healthy spiritual systems, which include areas of accountability, empowering organizational structures, and Biblical Spiritual Formation. xiv In Chapter 4, I explore materials from Christian History and Thought which show historical perspective, accounts of manipulation and control by religious leaders and systems of the past. I will then seek to point out the resulting destruction of individuals and religious communities by those leaders and the systems driving them. Appropriate resources will also be cited which support the thesis and definition of spiritually abusive systems and their victims. The examples will also show how a system might deteriorate from healthy tradition to a system where key “signs” become apparent indicating potential abuse. In Chapter 5, I will investigate more closely the sample institution from Chapter 4, looking to answer the questions of how the activity and behavior of the perpetrators are abusive. I have tried to search for possible sources of that abusive behavior in their early personal history, as available, and identify the emotional issues that may lead to the toxic behavior of the leaders and subsequently, the system. There is a section here that explores the various roles of those persons in a toxic faith system. In Chapter 6, I will present materials, which synthesize the researched material, re-state the historical pathway toward abuse, identify the signs that lead to abuse and present a solution from scriptural principles to help individuals become aware of potential unhealthy control in their spiritual communities. This will be a descriptive process model which may be adapted in principle to various church systems. This “model for renewal” will be intended for use primarily in Western culture as the assumptions and proposals will be based on typical cultural understanding and expectations. Foreign, ancient and eastern societies have cultures laden with authoritarian and tribal type structures and therefore will not be able to relate to this proposition. This concluding chapter will include a statement of the original thesis and summarize the preceding chapters. I will have shown how Christian historical research in this area contributes to my thought processes and conclusions. Theological support will be evident in my conclusions, since they must be grounded in scripture. While an in- depth study and application of current systems theory and studies of congregational, emotional and organizational systems might be interesting, I will be using only general principles in describing unhealthy manipulative systems as well as healthy empowering structures. I will be able to defend my proposals and conclusions based on the evidence that I have gathered, which I believe are realistic and objective in nature and will yield achievable results.

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Christianity Commons