Part 2: The characteristics of spiritual abuse

Have you ever wondered what does spiritual abuse look like? Erica Hamence names some of the typical ways bible texts, doctrines and church life can be manipulated for violence.

Abuse takes many forms: it can be physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, social and spiritual. It is the latter that I want to highlight today, as it has a particular pertinence for Christians. It’s relatively simple to recognise physical abuse as abuse (though, of course, not always). However, spiritual abuse can be easily mislabelled as spiritual zeal or even spiritual maturity.

These are some characteristics of spiritual abuse that Christians can become aware of, to help them identify abuse and an environment where abuse is likely to take place[1]. Spiritual abusers often:

  • Exploit the doctrine of our fallenness to accuse, berate, critique, attack, belittle, condemn or produce guilt in the victim. They may cultivate or take advantage of their victim’s conscientiousness in regards to moral matters in order to make them feel like the real problem is the victim’s inferior spirituality. They may make the victim feel like the only reason things aren’t better is because the victim is immature.

  • Exploit the doctrine of our fallenness to excuse or minimise the severity of their own behaviour. They may try to convince the victim that since everyone is sinful, their abuse is normal, and they shouldn’t expect anything different.

  • Exploit the doctrines of forgiveness and reconciliation to demand that a victim forgive the abuse, even if there has been no real repentance. They may pressure the victim to ‘move on’, as though any ongoing hurts are the result of ungodly bitterness or resentments. They may demand that forgiveness equate to the restoration of all the previous conditions of the relationship (including contact, communication and trust).

  • Use the busyness, stress, pressures or responsibilities of ministry to excuse abuse. Abusers may use ministry to excuse deliberate neglect of the victim. They may blame outbursts, aggression, physical violence, on the pressures of ministry, making the victim feel that they can’t critique the abuse without also critiquing a valuable ministry.

  • Use the Bible to justify abusive behaviour, and insinuate or explicitly state that if the victim understands the Bible differently, the difference of opinion is actually a product of sin.

  • Use their - apparently - sophisticated knowledge of the Bible to position themselves outside of the teaching and authority of church leaders.

  • Use the Christian community to protect the abuser, and isolate the victim. The abuser may make himself or herself vital to significant ministries, in turn making the victim feel responsible for their possible collapse if they revealed the abuse. They abuser may manipulate others so that they think highly of the abuser and think little of the victim, making the victim feel like they wouldn’t have any support if they did expose the abuse. The abuser might paint themselves as the long-suffering or patiently enduring partner of an erratic or dramatic or emotional woman (or child), undermining the victim’s credibility whilst underscoring theirs.

  • Lie to the victim about how they are regarded by the Christian community, isolating them from possible sources of support.

  • Isolate their victims socially, making excuses why the victim cannot participate in social or spiritual gatherings, and limiting their access to either information or support, or both.

  • Appeal to the work of evil spirits as explanations for the victim’s accusations or behaviour.

  • Attribute accusations against them to the work of Satan.

  • Use Bible passages about generosity to justify controlling the victim’s access to money.

  • Use Bible passages about faithfulness in marriage to justify limiting the victim’s social life.

  • Use Bible passages about rebuking to justify verbal abuse.

  • Use Bible passages about sexuality to justify rape and sexual assault.

  • Use Bible passages about unity to justify silencing the victim.

In the next post, I’ll share some of the things that we can do about this, but for now, here are some tips for how we can respond:

  1. Does it pass the HWJD test? The How Would Jesus Do it test. By that I mean: is this person behaving how Jesus behaves, not merely using his words? Jesus is utterly holy, yet he is gentle with us. Jesus always told the truth, but he never crushed the vulnerable with it. Jesus was powerful and yet only used that for others. Abusers know how to manipulate God’s words, and can try to fake His character, but their use of the Bible to justify their behaviour should always meet this test: is that what we see of God?

  2. Remind yourself of the commands of the epistles for how we are to relate to one another [2], the character requirements of leaders in the pastoral epistles [3], the fruit of the Spirit [4]. Does what you’re experiencing line up against those descriptions?

  3. If at all possible, rely on your community to help guide you. When we are caught up in patterns of deception and manipulation, it can be hard for us to see it. However, if we are feeling undermined, belittled, boxed in, isolated or unsafe, it’s worth raising that with someone you trust and asking: ‘What does that sound like to you?’ If their answer doesn’t sit well with you - because it dismisses something significant in what you’re experiencing or feeling - ask another person. I recently had a fairly distressing conversation with a relative. I worked hard to understand them, to admit any wrongdoing I could see I might be guilty of, and to apologise. Yet the conversation was a mess, and I finished it feeling distraught. It was only after I phoned a trusted friend and recounted some of it that she pointed out to me what ought to have been obvious from the beginning: I’d been manipulated. My relative had used my willingness to admit fault and my keenness to make things right against me. Once she reflected back to me what she had heard from me it all became much clearer. But I needed that help and that outside perspective. Is there anyone, anyone, you can trust to do that for you? If not a friend or a relative, could it be a counsellor/psychologist/doctor?

If you have any capacity to teach the Bible at all, whether in your home, in a Bible study, to your kids, one-to-one, always include this question in your discussions of any Bible passage: ‘What application is not permitted here? Why?’ That is, we ought to anticipate the ways that a Bible passage might be misused, and head them off. For example, why isn’t the command for servants to submit to harsh masters in 1 Peter 2:18 applicable for victims of abuse? [5] Don’t leave people to make their own, private and unchecked, conclusions about these things.

This is the first part of a three-part series called 'What I wish Christians knew about Domestic & Family Violence' written by Erica Hamence from the Common Grace Domestic & Family Violence Team.

Part 1: We all unwittingly partner in the violence
Part 2: The characteristics of spiritual abuse that Christians ought to be aware of
Part 3: What can we do?


[1] This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but simply helpful. Please see Parts 1 & 3 for the full context of this blog. For more information on the characteristics of spiritual abuse, see:,
and for more

[2] This infographic is helpful:

[3] Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4

[4] Galatians 5:22-23

[5] For more on this, see: ‘1 Peter: Strategies for Counseling Individuals on the Way to a New Heritage’ by David A. deSilva; ‘Domestic Violence in the Church and Redemptive Suffering in 1 Peter’ by Steven Tracy; ‘The Importance of Literary Argument for Understanding 1 Peter’, by James R. Slaughter (each of which can be found online), or see my sermon on the passage:


Do you need support?

The following Domestic and Family Violence support services are available:

What I wish Christians knew about Domestic and Family Violence