Understanding spiritual abuse    

16 February 2018

If it is to be tackled in the Church, a clear definition is needed, says Lisa Oakley


THERE is growing concern among Christians about spiritual abuse: what it is, and what can be done about it.

Research published last month by CCPAS, of which I was a co-author, found that two-thirds of respondents to a survey said that they had been spiritually abused. Around the same time, a vicar in Oxfordshire, the Revd Timothy Davis, was convicted by a church tribunal of spiritual abuse against a teenage boy (News, 12 January).

Writing on the ViaMedia blog last month, the Revd Anna Norman-Walker said: “What the Church needs to be clear about is that the issue of spiritual abuse, and the stories of its victims, are not going away. Pandora’s box is already open, and we would be very unwise to try and shut it.”

The term “spiritual abuse” is contentious, however. In a thoughtful article for Christianity Today last month, Krish Kandiah grappled with the terminology of spiritual abuse, and asked questions about its usefulness and definition. In other writing and reports, the term has been criticised for its ambiguity (News, 9 February).

It is, indeed, a difficult issue, and there is anxiety about discussing this at a time when the Church is already under pressure over its response to sexual abuse. But this is exactly why it is important to discuss it. Rather than ignore harmful behaviour, we should take this opportunity for transparency and openness.


THE fact is that, as recent publications agree, coercive controlling behaviour does occur in religious settings, and it can be both problematic and damaging. For many who have experienced these forms of behaviour, public acknowledgement of spiritual abuse will be extremely important. The Church and other faith institutions need to consider how to address such behaviour, and how to prevent it in the future.

Given the use of the term “spiritual abuse” in the Davis case, within sections of church policy documents, and in a growing number of publications, I would argue that the term is now in common use, and the time to debate its currency is over. What is needed is a clear definition. This may be challenging, because defining any form of abuse is complex. There is also debate about what category this fits into best.


In my earlier writing, I argued that spiritual abuse should be regarded as a separate category, distinct from other forms of abuse, such as psychological and emotional abuse. My position on this has developed since then. Since spiritual abuse is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, it shares commonalities with psychological and emotional abuse. A separate category is not needed.

Incorporating spiritual abuse in the category of psychological and emotional abuse may have an additional, pastoral advantage. It means that people subjected to coercion and control in religious settings will have their experiences accepted as abusive, in a way that is not currently possible.

That said, there are some distinctive aspects of the experience of spiritual abuse which cannot be overlooked. My research in this area suggests that the following all have a hugely powerful effect on someone of faith: scripture misused to control behaviour; suggesting God as complicit; threats of negative spiritual consequences; and the idea that a spiritual leader is “called” by God to a position, and therefore cannot be questioned. These unique factors must be considered if we are to understand this experience fully.

Having said this, I want to be clear that I am not calling for spiritual abuse to be criminalised. If any behaviour crosses a criminal threshold it should be dealt with accordingly. Harm and damage must be addressed, however.

My current position is, therefore, that spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse, but the specific aspects of this experience cannot be overlooked if the behaviour is to be addressed. These considerations have led me to a revised definition: “Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

“This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision-making, the requirement of secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, the requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism.”


IN SEEKING to address these forms of behaviour, it is important to acknowledge that anyone can experience spiritual abuse, including church leaders. The focus must, therefore, be on creating healthy Christian cultures in which everyone thrives, and where coercive and controlling behaviour can be challenged wherever it is exhibited. Many healthy Christian cultures do exist, and these should be examined to help us define more clearly what it is we aspire to in faith communities.

The research has clearly demonstrated that effective responses to disclosures need to include: active listening; taking great care with prayer, the use of scripture, and the way in which Matthew 18 is used as a response (the suggestion that the matter should be resolved by a meeting of the parties involved), and explaining clearly the process to follow. The research also shows that the experience should not be minimised; there should be no blaming of the complainant; and the Church should not seek to protect itself.

Institutionally, there needs to be acknowledgement of spiritual abuse, clear policy and procedure, consideration of when this crosses a threshold into a safeguarding concern, and the opportunity to whistle-blow.

The Pandora’s box is open, and the Church must now think outside the box, address the issue of spiritual abuse, and focus on building healthy Christian cultures.

Dr Lisa Oakley is Research Associate at the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service.


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