Posted: March 30th, 2022

Pastoral Theology on Mission and Ministry

Spiritual Abuse: Pastoral Theology on Mission and Ministry


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This paper addresses the pastoral doctrine regarding spiritual abuse. An increasing trend has been observed, of ‘spiritual abuse’ in the house of God, by clergymen. Such abuse entails different degrees of exploitation, manipulation, and mind control. In the past few years, numerous websites and blogs have typically highlighted the “spiritual abuse” phenomenon. The term appears to be enjoying some traction, and has entire blogs dealing with it. A stark reality is described here — that the presence of spiritual authority within the sinful world of mankind will occasionally be accompanied by instances of abuse of this power. Spiritual abuse resembles a spiritual reversal of roles, in which a shepherd, rather than modeling himself on, and depending on, the Good Shepherd by guiding mankind (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5; 1 Timothy 3; Ephesians 4), artfully demands that mankind exist and meet his own needs (James 4:1-4). Instead of being servant leaders, pastors lord it over Christians and pull rank (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 5:1-6), for personal benefit rather than that of the people. Instead of ministering truth and grace, and speaking truly, with compassion (Ephesians 4:11-16, 29; Colossians 4:3-6; Titus 2:10-12), pastors who are spiritually abusive will bully, judge, criticize, blame and shame the sheep, with no regard for their spiritual well-being (Jeremiah 23:1-4; Matthew 23:1-39) (Challies 2011). Hence, it is imperative to establish a pastoral doctrine for appropriately taking care of traumatized victims.


From God’s Word as well as church history, spiritual abuse clearly constitutes a genuine concern. One can address its scope by taking into consideration the causes underlying spiritual abuse. Firstly, it will be helpful to provide a general, scriptural description of the factors underlying church conflict. James’ work is valuable, as he raises the analytical question of what causes quarrels and fights among men (James 4:1a). The answer he provides is: The reason for quarrels and fights is man’s internal desires that he yearns for but fails to grab hold of. He kills and covets, but can’t acquire it. This failure is simply because he asks not from God, and even when he does, his motives are selfish. He wishes to spend that which he has acquired on his own pleasures. James asks the “adulterous” world whether it is really unaware of the fact that to be friends with this world means hatred toward the Lord. Any individual who opts for such a friendship will become God’s enemy (James 4:1b-4). Conflict can always be traced in the house of God, whether pastoral/spiritual abuse of or by pastors, to mankind’s adulterous heart, which desires and worships worldly things more than the Lord (Challies 2011).


One of the tell-tale indications of this form of abuse is power-posturing. Such leaders devote considerable time in emphasizing their authority to themselves and others. VanVonderen and Johnson claim this is actually needed, as clergymen’s spiritual authority is unreal or postured and not based on true godly character. Practically, this may manifest itself as a church leader who enjoys reminding the congregation of his ability to excommunicate them or that all things a follower does comes from him. It is forbidden to question this leader, and he is typically not answerable to anybody. People flocking to him are generally only “yes men” doing as he orders in return for delegated power to domineer over other individuals (Leclaire 2011).


A Socio-Cultural Reflection


Increased reports have emerged of victims who experience brainwashing and manipulation by alluring con artists or Christian leaders. Some such compelling leaders participate in evangelism on TV where they can raise several million dollars to serve personal interests. Some of them pastor at small churches, reigning tyrannically and subjecting members to spiritual abuse symptoms.


The situation outlined above necessitates a pastoral doctrine as response. In responding to Christian groups’ concerns, churches need to create a spiritual abuse-related division in pastoral theology. Religious freedom is what makes cults thrive. It is good, and imperative, for the world’s progress. But cults have misused religious freedom. The theme of “Leadership being a representation of God” is a strong symbolic authority invoking obedience and fear. Abusive leaders exhibit themselves as God’s highest authority. They dedicate more time to asserting or enforcing personal authority. The sermons they give would demean other leaders, thereby enhancing their authority. The group’s system advocates training of members to honor and preserve their power (Vollmar 2014).


Pastoral Counseling Reflection


Awareness of the nature of spiritual abuse is crucial for pastoral care practitioners. Ward cites four spiritual abuse themes: Leadership as a representation of God; Acceptance through performance; expounding internal/external tension; and spiritual intimidation. Ward explains the first theme in the following way: Leaders were supposedly placed in leadership positions by the Almighty, and hence, has the right to speak authoritatively on every area of life and religion. Subsequently, if leaders were representatives of the highest power (God), then obedience to them was basically obedience to God, and disagreeing with them would mean disagreement with the Lord (Ward 2011, p.903). Counselors have to cultivate trust and rapport. Victims might find it difficult to trust authoritative figures. They should be urged to have faith in their own reasoning and be confident about their independence. Ministering to victims of spiritual abuse may be challenging. Counselors would experience myriad emotions, right from despair and helplessness to downright outrage. Generally, pastoral care consultants possess significant empathy and love for assisting fellow human beings. This forms one reason for their entering the profession. Incidents of spiritual abuse mock their practice, and the worst part is the fact that they are perpetrated by clergymen, who consider themselves shepherds or spiritual leaders guiding souls along the right path. Though they make false promises of heavenly treasure and help, the reality is that they exploit innocent Christians for fulfilling their paranoia or for personal advantage. They derive sadistic pleasure or material wealth, whilst victims’ lives are robbed cruelly (Vollmar 2014).


For tackling this spiritual abuse ministry, pastoral care professionals would need to constantly address it on an individual level. The ministry is regarded as a marginalized work. Just like sexual abuse, it involves considerable embarrassment and shame. Meanwhile, practitioners also struggle with feelings and emotions. Just like the tackling of sexual abuse, practitioners should deal with such victims with extreme care, as their work can help victims and spiritually heal their souls. One cannot abandon them and expect them to face it independently. Thus, the need for this ministry is really great (Vollmar 2014).




Spiritual abuse represents the sinful use (i.e., misuse) of spiritual power by Christian religious leaders for promoting, protecting, or enriching a Christian individual or institution irrespective of the damage caused spiritually to Christ’s cause and innocent parties (Murray 2016). The phenomenon of spiritual abuse has been growing unchecked. Churches will need to show greater response to victims of spiritual abuse, just as victims of sexual abuse receive support and therapy. A large number of excellent resources are available for victims of spiritual abuse, which can be utilized by pastoral care professionals (Vollmar 2014).


Reference list


Challies, T., 2011. Spiritual Abuse. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].


Leclaire, J., 2011. Spiritual Abuse, Christian Cults and Controlling Ministries. [online] Charisma News. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].


Murray, D., 2016. Reformed “Spotlight”: What is Spiritual Abuse? — HeadHeartHand Blog. [online] HeadHeartHand Blog. Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].


Vollmar, J.D., 2014. Pastoral Theology on the ministry of spiritual abuse. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 May 2016].


Ward, D.J., 2011. The lived experience of spiritual abuse. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(9), pp.899-915.

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