Spiritual Abuse - Lesson 1

Description of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse exists when a person or group of people with religious authority use their position of spiritual power to control or dominate another person in the name of God, church faith, etc., taking advantage of the person’s vulnerability to gratify their own needs in areas like power, intimacy, prosperity, sexual gratification, etc.

Gerry Breshears
Spiritual Abuse
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Description of Spiritual Abuse

Description of Spiritual Abuse

I. Definition of Spiritual Abuse

A. Situational example

B. Additional examples

II. Different Levels of Spiritual Abuse

A. Intent to control and dominate with malice

B. Betrayal of confidentiality

C. Personal relationships

D. Elders

E. Example of a pastor

F. Cultic abuse

G. Conclusion

  • Spiritual abuse exists when a person or group of people with religious authority use their position of spiritual power to control or dominate another person in the name of God, church faith, etc., taking advantage of the person’s vulnerability to gratify their own needs in areas like power, intimacy, prosperity, sexual gratification, etc.

  • It can be difficult to recognize spiritual abuse because you often don’t realize that it's happening. One sign of possible spiritual abuse is a change of personality in a negative direction. Many abusive situations will undermine and devalue family relationships of the members to exploit them and increase control over them in the group. They will emphasize church loyalty to the exclusion of family loyalty. 

  • When you are encouraging someone as a friend who has experience spiritual abuse, there are specific elements of your relationship that can be helpful.

  • When you are encouraging someone as a friend who has experienced spiritual abuse, there are 6 elements of your relationship that will be helpful to avoid. 

  • Untwist Scripture passages and model a healthy relationship.

  • Dr. Breshears responds to questions that are commonly asked about the subject of spiritual abuse.

How to recognize spiritual abuse, important steps to take to recover and what you can do to walk with someone as they recover.

Spiritual Abuse

Dr. Gerry Breshears


Description of Spiritual Abuse

Lesson Transcript


Well, spiritual abuse, all of the various things that I am knowledgeable in. This would be right at the bottom of the list. I would like to have anything be an expert in other than spiritual abuse, because it's only one way to get to be a real expert. And that is and that's is that you either are a survivor of it or you work with people who have been. I have never been under spiritual abuse. I, I have walked with a number of survivors in a number of different circumstances. And so what I want to do in this time is just kind of unpack for you a little bit of what kinds of spiritual abuse they are in this session. And then we'll talk about what to do about it, how to recognize it and in future pieces of this. So I just begin with what is spiritual abuse. I'm and a definition that I've used goes something like this. Spiritual abuse exists when people with religious authority use their position of spiritual power to control or dominate another person in the name of God, faith, religion, church, whatever. Taking advantage of the victim's vulnerability to gratify needs such as importance, power, intimacy, value, prosperity, sexual gratification, spiritual fulfillment. You got all of that right. Let me unpack that just a bit at a time. It always is in context with somebody who has religious authority for spiritual abuse. When I look at the different dimensions of a person, I think that we have were body or spirit, were mind, were emotions, all those different kinds of things. We're calling. We're part of a family system, we're part of a social system. And the thing that differentiates spiritual use from other kinds of abuse is it's done by one who has spiritual authority over the person.


So it can be done by any kind of spiritual authority. Pastors would be common, but doesn't have to be. It can be people in any kind of spiritual authority. And they come from that position of using that spiritual power to control or dominate another person. Same kind of thing you find in sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not about satisfying sexual needs. So sexual abuse is about dominating. Another person in spiritual abuse is about dominating or controlling that person. I always, in the name of God, always the name of religion, always in the name of spiritual betterment and taking because of the power differential the power person has over the. Oh, well, I just want to say victim, but it's really over. The person who is in submission in partnership with the one who's the abuser. So get a pastor. You've got to say a church secretary, you've got a pastor, you've got a new convert, you've got a pastor, you've got a person on the elder board. It could be just about anybody. But that power differential between the pastor and the person is critical thing. So in spiritual abuse, the pastor uses his position of authority to control, dominate, exploit the vulnerability of the person who is being abused and doing it. I suppose he's doing it for the sake of God. But really what he's doing is fulfilling his own need to feel important, to feel powerful, to feel a servant of God out, to have some sort of spiritual fulfillment, but is to fill their own needs. I and it comes in lots and lots and lots of different forms, lots of different forms and a very personal level. Oh, abuse happens when. Well, the story that I tell is a pastor, a church secretary.


The pastor is a member of the church and he feels very important about that. So he ends up taking a woman in ends up leading her to Christ. She is in a very, very significant position in business, serving as a high level legal secretary for a leading law firm, making a lot of money in that position. He leads her to Christ, begins to disciple her, and then helps understand that she is not doing the Lord's work as a member of a law firm and that she would be more spiritually approved by God, more spiritually accepted by God if she would quit that and come to work for him. So she does gives up a lot of money and feels very strongly that now she is doing God's work and he begins to use her her skills. But instead of just being a part of the church, he is using it because she is personally serving him, citing texts like You should not touch God's anointed or be in submission to those who are in authority over you. Hebrews 1317 beginning to help her see that whenever she serves him, it's like she's serving Jesus because he is the anointed leader of God's church. I'm in that position there. It's like she never does anything quite right. He just consistently leaves her feeling like she's inadequate, incapable. But if she continues to work hard and does exactly what she's told, then she'll be doing much better in in this position of where you see now she's being dominated. She gets paid for 20 hours a week and a part time job having left the well-paying, full time job. But he expects her and he encourages her to sacrifice and to take up her cross and follow Jesus.


And what that means is not working 20 hours a week, but working 35, 40 hours a week, but no extra pay, of course, because this is the Lord's work. And if she polluted it with money, that would lose her reward in heaven. So she does that and constantly is in the spot where she just never does anything quite right. But she keeps trying harder and well, one day the pastor comes in, I he's in. It's one of those moods and she knows that she has done it wrong. It's her fault. Again, that pastor is not having the peace of God because she has not served him well. She smiles at him. She encourages him. She compliments him. And he comes out and says, Put this side in the presentation for Sunday. And she. Of course, sir. Of course. And when she looks at it, she sees that if this announcement slide is in the PowerPoint for Sunday's service, it will offend deeply some major people in the church. She realizes, Oh my gosh, Pastor, this is not a good idea. Now, she can't say it that way. What she does, though, in her position of being dominated and servile, if I can use that term, is she gives him a quiet suggestion. You know, we could word this a little bit differently and make it a little bit clearer. I just want to help you be the man of God that he has called you to be. She as submissively as possible, suggests this revision. He explodes at her. Can't you ever do what you're told? Just be submissive her and leaves the sentence undone and storms away. She doesn't let him see the tears. And puts a slide show together as commanded. And sure enough, on Sunday, key leaders in the church are extremely upset by what happened.


And she's feeling really bad. Because, you know, she didn't do her job well. Well, Tuesday's staff meeting. People come together. They're all gathered together. Pastor comes in and usually because they have this. Powerful working relationship. He'll stop and catch her eye and just give her that look that says you're we work together, you're my you're mine. You're a servant of Jesus because you serve me so well. But this time he doesn't catch try. And she sees the other staff members who are really, really ticked off by what happened on Sunday. And she prays quietly for a pastor that he'll be able to be the strong anointed man of God. I. The staff meeting begins with a normal time of prayer. The pastor stands up and with a whole look on his face, said, I need to apologize to all of you for the slide on Sunday. And she prays. Oh, Lord, Give him grace. And she he turns to her and says, Why in the world didn't you do what I told you to do and put that slide in there with that kind of wording? Can't you do anything right? And she. What can she do? He's God's anointed. She says, I'm so sorry I didn't serve you well. And the meeting goes on. Now, that's a kind of spiritual abuse. That's just personal. Spiritual abuse is done in a church context, as I've described it. There is this is not a real story. It's a conglomerate story of ones I've heard where scriptures used to put it in that servant position, where scriptures used to dominate control, where anything goes wrong is never the pastor's fault. It's always somebody else's fault. He never does anything wrong. And she was shredded. Now, she didn't quit her job.


Of course not, because she's serving God's anointed. She wrote him a long letter of apology. I. Promised to serve him better in the future. That's the kind of thing that happens in a spiritual abuse, is that even though she has been hurt so deeply and wounded so badly, it's her fault because of the kind of domination and control that happens when somebody is good in personal abuse. I could put names on these on my own experience of where this has happened. You know, not do it here. It's a it's an amazing story. It happens at lower levels of a pastor help somebody spiritually. And then later on, when the pastor's trying to raise money for the new building project, lets it be known that the person he has helped really should make a large contribution to the building project. That's a form of spiritual abuse. It's using my position as a helper to get somebody to do what I want them to do and to sacrifice for my cause. That's pretty common kind of thing. It happens in many different kinds of things. I have a letter here of a woman that I worked with for a while as a pastoral counselor. I and she met a guy. I mean, he was an amazing guy and he wanted to help her. And she was a little reluctant because she'd been through a really, really, really, really difficult time as a as a pastor's kid and just took a bit for her to trust. And so after this time when he had invited her to share her life story and she said maybe not today, he wrote a letter back and this is what he said. It said that you dwell on the pain of the past in name and blame it on others.


I only have compassion for you, and I feel sorry for your counselor who deserves blame for all your pain. Remember all she does not trust him with her story. Someone offered you fellowship and nothing else. And you remember and dwell on pain. Who are you? And you know who you are in Christ. Bondage is all you know. I will pray for you to be set free, forgive others, and you will be set free to rejoice. Let them off your hook. Freedom in Christ is what you need so long until you want to experience freedom. Now, see, he knew nothing about her situation, absolutely nothing. But because she did not immediately trust him as a spiritual authority, he just ripped her to shreds. And I was the counselor and she brought this in and helped me understand this because she it was her fault. She'd done everything wrong. That's the kind of things that happen in spiritual abuse. Now, abuse comes in different levels. The stories I've told here are people who do it with malice. These are people who intend to hurt other people. And when you use the term abuse, typically we're talking about those kinds of situations where there's an intent to control and dominate. There's a temp, there's a there's a in a design to take advantage of somebody's vulnerability. And when we talk about spiritual abuse, that's the real kind of spiritual abuse is when it's done with intent to fulfill my needs by exploiting somebody else's vulnerability. There's lower levels of things where pastors are told a story and then they use that story in a sermon without permission and abuse. The confidentiality of the person who shared that story, you know, on a pastoral situation. Now, that's abuse in a real sense.


I don't use abuse for that unless I'm talking to the pastor. Then I abuse him in the name of Jesus to help him learn. No, you don't get to do that. But yes, there's no malice in that. That's just being stupid and sinful and not honoring somebody's trust. Spiritual, beautiful. All that is spiritual abuse, because the person who's a pastor has a responsibility to honor the trust of other people. If somebody gives me information, I have a responsibility to honor that as their information and not share it and not use it for my own advantage. So there are different levels of abuse, is what I'm saying here. It can happen in personal relationships like this guy who exploited this girl for his own sense of dominance. It can end up in a church situation like the pastor and the secretary in the story told there. It doesn't have to come from the guy the top of the heap. In fact, it can come from anybody in authority. The kind of thing that I've run across, one of the stories that I just made me so angry. One of my best students, I was a young pastoral guy who had just amazing ability, but it wasn't honed. He was a neophyte. He had gone through seminary, done very well. But, you know, we don't give him all the skills to be a pastor. We give him some tools and such, and then need to be in a spot and actually get mentored and be helped out. Yeah, there's a part of our seminary training, but this young man went into a church. And he was hired by the elders of the church in the government of this particular church was set up to the elders, ran the church.


They made all the decisions. They did all the hiring, did all the firing that all the evaluation and the congregation. It was just followed the elder rule. They didn't vote on anything except once a year they voted on the budget. And in effect, that was I mean, it was a meaningless vote because nobody would defy the elders. They ran the church and it was again, very successful church. And my student was hired in to be a a student ministry pastor in the junior high area. And I thought, well, you know, this is good. I didn't know the church full well, but it was successful. I was glad he went in. And after he'd been there about six months, I got a message from him and I said, Oh, he said, Could I come talk to you? I said, Sure. A good guy really enjoyed working with him. And he came in and said, I just need a little advice on how to be in my church. Okay, well, what's going on? And you started telling his story. And what happened was, even though he was pastoral staff, the elders in their six month review just shredded the guy not from ministry competence, but they accused him of being unethical. They accused him of all kinds of things that I thought, what the heck is this about? I mean, I didn't know him super well, but I mean, this was just so off. And I said, Well, tell me more about the situation, Like, what's going on? And as he told it, I thought, you know, this is crazy. Here's a guy who in my relations with him had been nothing but highest integrity, nothing but super trustworthy. And he's being evaluated for being somebody who did not share the truth and was not responsible for truth and was not dependable for actions.


His job and I thought, this is weird. Well, I started paying attention at that point. And what ended up happening was these elders, all the elders, nobody got paid anywhere in the elder board were actually they hired him and they were doing abuse to him, even though he was doing really well. And I got some evaluations from people, worked with him in the ministry, and they said, This guy is amazing. But the elders were actually manipulating and controlling and abusing him. And I kept thinking, why are they doing this? And I think the I mean, I don't know. But the only thing I could come up with was that in their situation of power, this young man came in with incredible ability. They wanted his ability because they want to build a youth ministry, but they were afraid of him because he was so competent and they couldn't control him. So they're actually using this evaluative process to break him down. So he would be controlled by them to do. And they saw he could exploit his abilities for the sake of the church, but at the same time break his spirit so they could control his direction. He was an evil thing. Evil thing. Now, I'm not sure that's what's happening because I wasn't in the church, but to the best I could see, that's what was happening. I know that sort of thing happens often. And these people are not paid leaders in a church. They're lay leaders. But there's still that same point where they're using their position of authority to dominate and control another person, exploiting that vulnerability for their own sense of importance or their own growth of the church or whatever it is, and they're fulfilling their own needs.


It's so evil. You can happen to more egregious level. I was involved in a story a few years ago with a very, very, very powerful pastor took a church that was just kind of limping along with a couple hundred people and built it into a true megachurch by virtue of his own abilities. But in that process, it turned out that he was actually using his position to sexually abuse people in the congregation, men and women. He was actually caught in an another state in a compromising situation. He had a boy in a bathroom in a public spot, and he was doing sinful activities with that boy, was caught by a police officer and arrested. I. The news got back to the church and he ended up having the case and of being dismissed because the policeman had a misidentification. And it wasn't the pastor, it was actually somebody else. And I heard that. I said, That's a crazy story ever heard because I know of police officers do. They don't misidentify people is not normally it just word. And because I knew people in the staff of the church, I end up paying attention to this thing. And it turned out what happened is the judge who dismissed the charge used to work for him as an attorney. Now, here's a spot where the pastor had used his relationship was who was used to be his personal attorney, who's now a judge to get himself out of a pickle where he'd been arrested for sinful and illegal activity. It came back to the church. I heard a reporter in town heard about that in having his own malice toward the church, began to pursue the story. And it turned out that this pastor was doing that sort of thing to a lot of different people in counseling situations.


And most probably the most angering thing about it was he was actually baptizing people and groping them as he baptized them in the name of Jesus. Now, that's just pure that's just evil at an uncredible level. The story ended up that he ended up leaving the church, never admitting that he did anything wrong, but just because he had become the focus of this reporter there, his presence in the church, even though he was pure, was actually harming the church and he left in order to spare the church the attacks of satan against him and walked away. Three months later, the elder board of the church, having come out from under his abusive control, realized that they had been used and duped by him, and they wrote a letter of apology to the entire congregation, just confessing that they had abused the congregation by their involvement with this man. I mean, these are incredible levels, but they happen all too often. Why? Because it put enormous trust in pastors and spiritual leaders. And in that trust, there's a wide open opportunity to abuse people under them. And unfortunately, it often happens. There's cultic abuse. And this is a spot where it's not a it's not a church and it is. I've been involved in several like this. One story was a a fellow who was hired as a college pastor in a church. I end up taking the college group or most of them with him into a his church plant. And in that spot he began to do Deliverance ministry, casting demons out of people. And he was finding demons that nobody else would ever have found. But it was a way of him exploiting and controlling what was happening in these people life, because he was the only one who could find their demons and he was getting people who were in difficult spots and he was actually giving them in very believable ways a solution to the problem.


And he was using Deliverance ministry in order to control the group and build a group. One of my seminary students was actually a part of that church. And I when I began to find out what was happening, I said, like, what's going on? You know what? What what's the good stuff that happened in that church for you? Oh, he says, This man is the most amazing Bible teacher I've ever been with. I mean, it's even better than what I'm getting here in seminary. This man is course, deep in the word of God. And I'm learning so much and being disciples so powerfully. And I thought, Oh, my gosh. And he was one of them. His wife ended up being sexually. Used by the pastor as their daughters were as well. How can that happen? Was a true cult, a group. It was completely under control of him. Now, here's the irony. I ended up in a public spot. I was asked by a radio talk show host to debate with a local pastor about how to do Deliverance ministry. And I said, There's no way I'm going to debate with a pastor on the radio about Deliverance ministry. I'm just not going to do that. He said, No, you need to do that. I said, I'm not going to do that. He said, Gary, do that need? Manipulated me spear to abuse me to go do that. And because when he told me some of the stuff was happening in the way the guy was doing a deliverance minister, I realized it was really hurting people. So I okay, all good. But I said I to debate with him. We're just going to discuss together. What ended up happening was as I begin to open up scripture, it was a call in show.


He began to talk about what he was doing and just in the inter-relationship, he was exposed for being wrong. And it wasn't so much what I said being a part of the radio show. It was what happened to the common people. And they were they were not kind to him. They were actually pushing things really hard. And he was publicly humiliated. And cult leaders can't can't do that at all. He actually went back to the group of people and told them that the demons could not be incited believer and because he had cast demons out of them, therefore they were not believers, even though he had led many of them to Christ. And he and telling them you're not believers at all because your demons are in there. We need to get rid of the rest of your demons, and then maybe you can be accepted by Christ as most incredible thing I've ever seen. I still run across people this a number of years ago, who, when they hear my name, oh, and they refer to the radio show, I know immediately what they're talking about. See, that's a full blown cult group. His teachings were not orthodox, but he was having have seminary people come in because he was so good at exploiting that vulnerability. How can that happen? How could that happen? Well, the simple thing is people have an ability to come in and use scripture to. Control other people. Ho. Hebrews 1317 be in submission to those in authority over you because they have account for your soul. There it is. Do what you're told because these people will count for you. With God, they become your priest. And if you end up going against that person, you put your very salvation in jeopardy.


Not never see it that way. It's just a kind of manipulation that happens. Why in the world would that church secretary continue to work for that pastor? Because he had exploited her vulnerability to believe that he was the one who was a channel of blessing to her. And she continued in that position, even though she had been repeatedly humiliated and repudiated, repeatedly abused by the pastor. It just happens all the time. It happens all the time. So. It just makes me so sad and so angry to hear those kinds of stories. I just ran across another one just this week. I. Friend of a friend. I was talking to me in the situation and I found it again. It's this is a very successful, fast growing church with a very strong leader as a pastor. And I began to listen to the story and I begin to recognize, oh, my gosh, here we go. We've got spiritual abuse happening now. I don't know if the pastor is malicious in what he's doing or just stupid and sinful, because I don't know enough of the story yet. But see, that's my job. Now, having been invited into the story because I know the pastor casually, I know the person who was talking about this is a friend of a friend. And I think I have a responsibility as a leader of the church here to stare into this and find out what's going on. So now the question is, how in the world do you know if it's spiritual abuse? Well, that's another video at this point. I just want to come back and say what is spiritual abuse? And again, I want to come back to this definition. Spiritual abuse is something exists when people with religious authority can be biblical, it can be other ways.


But I'm going to speak particularly of church abuse. People with religious authority use their position of spiritual power. To control or dominate another person in the name of God. They do it in the name of faith, religion, Jesus Church, whatever mission of God. Taking advantage of the vulnerability of the people under their leadership to gratify personal needs, such as the need for importance, power, intimacy, value, prosperity. Sexual gratification, spiritual fulfillment. It happens all too often. All too often. So I'm starting to depress you. Oh. But the reality is, this stuff happens and we need to be prepared to respond to it.