Spiritual Abuse: When the System Becomes the Persecutor

Gary R. Veenhuizen


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/or a church system to become an abusive persecutor? 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.