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Refusing Pretend Peace

Practical tips for recognizing and responding to spiritual abuse

In the counseling room, I often hear women say, “I never saw it coming….” Or, “I saw the signs but didn’t act on them.” When it comes to spiritual abuse, what are warning signs we can look for? How do we recognize spiritual abuse, and what should we do about it? Consider these examples. 

“He said that he would always be seeking my best interests. It sounded loving until I found out that the decision about what that ‘best’ was belonged to him.”

“He said, ‘We should let the pastor decide which one of us is right.’ But the pastor always took his side and even threatened to take me before the board of deacons if I didn’t submit."

“He said, ‘You are expecting me to give up my manhood!’ I began to wonder if I was asking too much of him. I’m supposed to protect his ego, am I not?”

“He said, ‘The Bible says you should love me sacrificially—that means sacrificing your opinions, your career, and your previous friends’.”

“He said, ‘I didn’t tell you about the money because I am the only one in charge of it’.”

“He said, ‘The Bible says you are more easily deceived than I am’.”

“He said, ‘Of course I didn’t tell you what to do when we were dating. But now, that is my right’.”

“He said, ‘My dad never trusted my mother to make a decision, and she didn’t complain. Why are you complaining?’”

“He knows the Bible backward and forward, and he says…”

“He said, ‘If you don’t want me to yell, do as I say’.”

“He said, ‘Can’t you be like the other women at church?’”

“He said, ‘Use the brain God gave you!’ But, in the same conversation, ’God isn’t going to speak to you, only through me.’ So I wondered why I should even bother reading the Bible.”

Whether we are trying to heal from previous abuse, sorting out whether a particular situation is abusive, or working to ensure that our environments are healthy and safe places for spiritual growth, we must find some clarity for this discussion. Without quoting any particular client or church member, may I share some observations? 

In recognizing spiritual abuse, we must first allow ourselves to question the situations in which we find ourselves, as well as what we have been taught by leaders in the church. As Christians, we often receive messages about not being judgmental, and not questioning those who “know more” or are “in authority.” Women in particular, because of their gender, are sometimes told, “You must not question your husband or your pastor.” But, even when a person quotes a lot of Scripture to us, we must be free to analyze their teachings. Q‌uoting Scripture should not be equated with good Bible interpretation. 

We know that Jesus warned us about false teachers, but actually saying, “I disagree,” may be frightening, particularly for those who have experienced or are experiencing abuse. People may say we are troublemakers, or our jobs or even our safety may be put in jeopardy. Yet, when clients ask me, “Am I asking too much?” I am usually certain that no, they are not. The truth is, it’s difficult to hurt the feelings of an innocent person. When someone is offended at honest dialog, we may have our first warning sign that unhealthy dynamics are present in the relationship. But once we find the freedom to examine the potentially abusive relationship, situation, or teaching, we can begin looking for some practical signs of abusiveness. 

Is this person spiritually abusing me? Ask yourself these questions: 

Is this person’s interaction with me based on shame, intimidation, and/or fear? How do they try to influence me? How do they try to change my mind? Using shame, intimidation, or fear to maneuver a discussion is a tactic of abuse. 

Is this person telling me what my motive is? Are they ascribing some “intent” to me, as though they could read my mind? This is another warning sign. 

Is this person taking away my choices? Do they think they can make decisions for me? If a decision affects our spouse, it should include our spouse. 

Does their discussion of the Bible start with their conclusion, allowing for no background research; understanding of the original audience, grammar, and cultural context; or dialog about differing interpretations? Whenever a person, group, denomination, or religion says, “From this point on, there is no more discussion,” we find abuse. 

Does this person use my strengths against me? If they know you want your Christian walk to have quality and they say things to you like, “You say you are a Christian, don’t you…,” in order to compel you to do what they want, then you are being abused. Remember that Satan tempted Jesus with sayings like, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…” (Luke 4:9). Manipulating someone by questioning their commitment to God is abuse. 

Is this issue really about power and control? The humility of following Christ and of mutual submission does not mix well with this proud world in which we live. Christ’s call to servanthood and discipleship is not nearly as appealing as the superficial call to being a strong leader with authority. But the Bible discusses the gifts of leadership as service and directly contradicts the idea that leadership is about controlling others. And, after all, “husband” and “wife” are relationship positions, not leadership positions.

Is this person using catch-phrases that either don’t appear in Scripture, or are misapplications of Scripture? Nowhere in Scripture is the man called the high priest of the home, or the spiritual leader of the family, or the covering of the wife, or the head of the house, or the authority over the wife. 

Is information handled in a one-way flow? Am I told things on a need-to-know basis while the other person wants full disclosure from me? 

Does this person warn me about what I read or with whom I talk, as though I can’t be trusted to think clearly?

These are some questions that will go a long way in helping a woman, or a man, avoid spiritual abuse. Perhaps the best question to sum them up is, “How is your spirit doing since being in relationship with this person?” If your spirit is not as healthy as it was before, or if you are exhausted, drained, and feeling far from God, then take a very honest look at the relationship and seek help.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, is an excellent book on this topic. The authors point out that Jeremiah warned against “pretend peace.” False prophets would cry out that all was well when it really wasn’t. Abusive people often warn others to “keep things quiet, under wraps.” The authors also point out that Jesus dealt with abusive people honestly. We do men and women no favors if we try to reach men in our churches by contriving a message that says, “Come worship with us, and you can still be proud, you can still be the “big cheese,” and you can still boss someone around. Come to our church, and we will call you a leader.” No, the truth is, if terms like “servant” and “disciple” and “follower” are not good enough, then we, like the rich young ruler, are turning away from Jesus.

Another development that has added to the problem of spiritual abuse, among those who are dating, is the glorification of the status of being “in a relationship.” Couples speak of being “in a relationship,” and this is seen as much more preferable to being “single.” I admit that the term “dating” wasn’t wonderful, either, but the modern idea of being in a relationship has gathered up the idea from “marriage philosophy” that people should not break up, but rather do all they can do to keep the relationship going, no matter the costs. The maintenance of one’s status as “in a relationship” can become more important than the health of the relationship itself, presenting opportunities for manipulation and abuse. Combine this with the fact that many of these couples have already begun a sexual relationship, and breaking up becomes even more complicated.

The truth is, these days of learning about each other, doing life activities together, and not being prematurely entangled with each other are excellent opportunities for a vetting process in which couples can decide whether the relationship is a healthy match. Breaking up should not be seen automatically as a loss, or a source of embarrassment. It can be the result of a wise assessment. While often difficult, breaking up is infinitely preferable to entering into an unhealthy and potentially abusive marriage. 

To those in spiritually or otherwise abusive marriages, know that sometimes in marriage, a stand against abuse may mean divorce. It is important to remember that the stand against abuse is not the cause of the divorce. The abuse is the cause of the divorce. If your church doesn’t recognize that a divorce has occurred because of the hardness of a human heart (the heart of the abuser), then you may have to insist that the truth be known. You may have to “find your voice” and stand up to the church, like you had to stand up to the abuser. Speak the truth in love, but speak it nonetheless. Remember that: 

You didn’t fail, you walked away from abuse.

You don’t need to be embarrassed, you walked away from abuse.

You aren’t a Jezebel, you walked away from abuse.

You aren’t a poor witness, you walked away from abuse, and that is being a good witness. 

Whether or not you have experienced abuse firsthand, we all have an important job to recognize and respond to it. Just as Jesus honestly confronted abuse and offered hope and healing to the afflicted, may our churches and relationships foster honest dialog and provide a place for healthy spiritual growth. 

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