Spiritual Abuse

It was the fall of 2001 and I was in early recovery. My therapist asked me to read a book titled, Tired of Trying to Measure Up, by Jeff VanVonderen. I finished it quickly and noticed the author had written another book titled, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I wanted to read it because I desperately craved anything that would take the focus off my betrayals and sin and allow me to point my finger at someone else. It didn’t matter whom. I wanted to be mad at someone other than me. I was tired of being angry with myself and clearly I was a victim of spiritual abuse, such as the public reading of my sins from pulpits and demands placed upon me by church leaders who expected to trump the authority of my therapist and sponsor regarding my recovery.

I picked up VanVonderen’s book so I could point my still shaking finger at those in power who abused me, but before I finished the last page, I realized my own guilt. I was the spiritual abuser. I employed God to manipulate people to behave the way I thought best. I exploited people’s fear and used it as a tool of the Spirit, erroneously thinking it was listed with the other fruits or gifts of the Spirit when it came to ecclesial practice.

Realizing that spun me out. I ran, not willing to walk back to my addiction, not willing to deal with the pain of knowing I had driven people away from the Kingdom of God. I faced the very real possibility that my whole professional and Christian life was a lie.

While in rehab, Susan (my therapist), asked me to pick up Henri Nouwen’s remarkable book, Return of the Prodigal. I entered anew this story of a Jewish boy who was alone, scared, and feeding the pigs in a Gentile land after screwing up badly. As I read, I received a letter from a staff member I had poured my life into, loved and trained, abused and encouraged to abuse others. He wrote, not knowing anything of my current journey, “I will not come down and eat with you at the pig trough.” Clearly I had trained him well. I wept…

Spiritual Abuse

Gracefall defines spiritual abuse as:

“Using God as a carrot or stick to control and/or manipulate people’s emotions, beliefs and/or behaviors.”

God does not manipulate or control people. He offers freedom. Indeed, He created us for freedom. It follows that we should follow suit. When we attempt to control others we and the ones we want to control are both damaged in some way.

We believe the following prophecy from Jeremiah 31:31-34 is for today, having been first realized on the Day of Pentecost:

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”


As is true with all forms of abuse, spiritual abuse begets more spiritual abuse. People who have been spiritually abused will also spiritually abuse others. The cycle of spiritual abuse is pandemic and spiritual abuse always brings spiritual death. We hold it as a primary cause of the Church’s ongoing decline in the West

The American Association of Christian Counselors lists several common ways spiritual abuse is perpetuated:

  • Refusing to provide pastoral care to women on the basis of gender alone
  • Coercing “reconciliation” between a victim and their abuser
  • Dictating or controlling basic life decisions such as marriage, job, housing, possessions, etc.
  • Using deception to coerce sexual activity (which is also sexual abuse)
  • Denying divorce when it is within spiritual bounds

One can add to this:

  • The creation of Christian “ghetto” thinking (such as Steve Taylor satirized when he said, “You can only drink milk from a Christian cow”)
  • Creating levels or classes of Christians based on behaviors or attitudes
  • Any level of misogyny or patriarchy in the name of the Triune God
  • The creation of political benchmarks as a measure of holiness

We hold that if a pastor struggles with any form of addiction, they will be spiritually abusive. Getting down to this abuse will become Gracefall’s ultimate concern as we work with you, helping you find freedom and a new found relationship with the Triune God.