10 Subtle Signs of Spiritual Abuse: How to Spot a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

covert narcissism narcissistic religious leaders Jan 16, 2024

Perhaps you are in a spiritual community, organization, or ministry that professes to love and serve God. Many people might be blessed by the ministry, but deep in the core, you feel something is off. You can feel it in your body and emotions and don’t know how to deal with it. In this blog, I’m going to delve into ten signs of spiritual abuse and lay out clearly what it is.

Jesus calls His shepherds and leaders to “feed His sheep” (John 21:15-17). Three times over, Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. Feeding the sheep is a posture of giving to and caring for God’s people. A godly shepherd or leader gives out of their love and service to God.

Spiritual abuse, on the other hand, is when a shepherd or leader feeds off the sheep that they are supposed to care for. Spiritual abuse is when someone uses the scriptures, the faith, their teachings, and the systems they create to control, harm, or exploit others to satisfy their own agenda or needs. It is a betrayal of the trust that people place in spiritual leaders. It undermines the very foundation of the faith and exploits the vulnerability of individuals who are seeking a genuine connection with God. This kind of abuse is especially damaging because it is deceptive and can look pious and spiritual on the outside, but it is dark and diabolical on the inside. These people are the wolves in sheep's clothing that Jesus warns about in the Bible. He says, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). These types of people do not feed God’s people but prey on them.

Understand this: Spiritual abusers are not in ministry to serve. They use the ministry as a means to feed themselves.

Sadly, we are seeing this kind of deception more and more. It is important to address spiritual abuse in these times because Jesus warns that, “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” (Matt 24:11). Prophets that are not aligned with Jesus Christ, who do not seek to be a man or woman after God’s heart, and do not dedicate their lives to be conformed to the image of Christ, may have their own agendas. Jesus warns us to be aware of such people. He also calls them blind guides. He said about the religious leaders and Pharisees who were walking in hypocrisy, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matt 15:14).

It’s important to take spiritual abuse seriously because who you allow yourself to be influenced and led by can affect your destiny.

Spiritual abuse should be taken seriously. Who you allow yourself to be influenced and led by affects your destiny in life. So, I’m going to share with you 10 subtle signs to watch out for. I hope these might help you from falling into a pit with a blind leader. 

Before we get started, I need to clarify that if someone engages in one or a few of these signs, it doesn’t mean they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may be lacking in character, and they may be making some bad choices here and there, from which they need to repent. We all make mistakes and get things wrong. However, if you see someone who makes a practice out of the behaviors I am about to share with you and does so in a stealthy way to maintain a pious image, then you are dealing with spiritual abuse. When someone habitually uses these behaviors as part of a larger deception (rather than a once-in-a-while mistake), then this person has the potential to erode the foundation of other people’s beliefs. In other words, their practices can shipwreck other people’s faith.

1. Manipulation and Control

A religious leader may use coercive tactics to control the beliefs, behaviors, and decisions of followers. A simple way to spot manipulation and control is to observe how the leader handles questioning. A spiritually abusive leader might say or imply to their followers that questioning their teachings is a sign of weak faith, disobedience to God, or dishonor of the leader. In more extreme cases they may teach that questioning a leader’s authority will lead to God’s discipline or punishment. In their philosophy, questioning is synonymous with challenging. Using these arguments, abusive leaders may discourage independent thinking and promote blind obedience to their directives. If a leader manages to get a whole community to fall for this deception, they can quickly create a culture where members feel guilty or fearful about asking questions. 

Examples of manipulation and control could look like a leader

  • expressing anger, disappointment, or sadness when someone expresses disagreement or concerns.
  • repeatedly sharing stories of people who suffered negative outcomes for questioning authority. 
  • asserting, or implying that questioning the leader is equivalent to questioning God.
  • rewarding those who conform while subtly excluding or marginalizing others.
  • offering special privileges or recognition to those who align with their views.
  • emphasizing that loyalty to the leader is paramount, and claiming that questioning disrupts group unity.
  • promoting people based on loyalty to the leader, or leadership, rather than based on their competence or calling.

If you notice a leader or religious or spiritual person exhibiting any of these types of behaviors it is a red flag. All these examples are signs of a leader operating out of manipulation and control rather than by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

In contrast, a healthy leader is submitted to the leadership of Jesus Christ and understands that Jesus is the head of the spiritual community. Rather than taking matters into their own hands, trying to get their needs met, or accomplishing a personal agenda, a godly leader is willing to risk loss and reputation to pursue God’s will. They are committed to walking out the God-connections and relationships that God brings into their lives even if those people rub them the wrong way at times. These leaders understand that they need people who challenge them–people with complementary strengths and giftings–and who can help them see their blind spots. Leaders like this seek out input from others, rather than shutting down questions.

2. Guilt and Shame

The second red flag is a theme of guilt and shame. For example, a spiritual leader may claim that certain natural human desires are sinful or impure. Followers are made to feel guilty about normal aspects of their humanity, such as sexuality or personal ambitions, perhaps even how they dress, spend their time, and who they associate with, and are told that only by adhering strictly to the leader's rules can they find God’s approval of them. 

If you are in a spiritually abusive community, you may notice the guilt and shame playing out in these ways: 

  • The leader promotes an idealized image of perfection and frames any deviation as a failure, inducing feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
  • They pit members against each other by highlighting the achievements of some, while publicly singling out and being critical of members who have not met certain expectations, leading to embarrassment and shame.
  • They blame individual members for any negative outcomes or setbacks experienced by the group.
  • They create an environment where those who express independent thoughts or dissenting opinions are ostracized, inducing guilt for going against the group.

Notice that all of these examples are signs of a leader using guilt and shame in order to exert power and control over people. Leaders who create this kind of environment are frequently insecure and unwilling to share their weaknesses with their community.

A healthy Christ-centered leader, however, is not insecure. Aware of their weaknesses, they walk in humility and don’t need to shame others to protect themselves. They have no trouble acknowledging their shortcomings. Healthy leaders walk in compassion and empathy for the struggles of others and inspire them to go higher. A Christ-centered leader strives to create a culture of belonging and acceptance, where people are celebrated for who they are and simultaneously inspired and supported to continue growing, rather than remaining where they are.

A key difference between these two types of leaders is their understanding of the redemption we have in Jesus. The scripture clearly states that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). However, this is not the end of the story. A healthy community rejoices in the message that follows in the very next sentence: 

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood… (Romans 3:24-25).

This is the good news of the gospel. A Christ-centered leader should present good news to those in the community, where the conviction of the Holy Spirit does not come with condemnation, but instead inspires a deeper knowledge of the goodness of God (Romans 2:4; 8:1).

3. Exploitative Practices

The third red flag is exploitative practices: Spiritually abusive leaders may target vulnerable individuals, such as those dealing with emotional trauma or life crises, and exploit their trust for personal gain. To do so, a leader may offer false promises of prosperity, blessings, God’s special favor, or an elite spiritual status, manipulating these individuals into unquestioning loyalty. The exploitation of trust in this scenario only amplifies the vulnerability of individuals seeking spiritual support. 

Here are some examples to watch out for: 

  • A leader uses their position to subtly manipulate followers to donate significant amounts of money to fund the leader's luxurious lifestyle, promising spiritual rewards in return. 
  • A spiritual leader takes advantage of the trust and dedication of followers by requiring them to work excessive work hours, demanding unpaid labor, or using followers to advance personal business ventures under the guise of serving a higher purpose. 
  • A leader justifies these behaviors by saying that their servanthood or slavery to Jesus Christ is manifested by their serving or being a slave to the leader. 

These behaviors reveal that the leader sees their followers as objects that they own and who exist to serve them, instead of seeing their followers as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, each with a unique calling, destiny, and relationship with Jesus Christ.

The difference between an abusive spiritual leader and one who is serving God is that a spiritually abusive leader extracts the resources from their followers, whether it be money, labor, time, or resources, in a way that is deceptive, manipulative, exploitative or that compromises the well-being of their followers. In contrast, a leader devoted to serving God operates with transparency, integrity, and a genuine concern for the welfare of their followers. Instead of extracting resources, a healthy leader encourages voluntary contributions and fosters an environment of mutual growth and support. Their focus is on doing the will of God as well as caring for people and empowering them to grow.

4. Demanding Unwavering Loyalty to the Leader over Loyalty to the Truth

When a leader demands unwavering loyalty above loyalty to the truth, this is a major red flag. These kinds of demands for blind trust are common in spiritually abusive settings. Followers are subtly instructed that their love and devotion to the leader must supersede their love for truth. This expectation creates an environment where individuals may unknowingly fall into idolatry, placing the leader on a pedestal above God. 

As this plays out you might notice: 

  • Leaders or members turn a blind eye to the sinful actions, abuse, or scandals involving the leader to protect the reputation of the community. Reporting or acknowledging such incidents might be discouraged or dismissed to maintain the image of the leader. 
  • Any form of dissent or questioning of the leader's decisions or teachings is suppressed, discouraged, or labeled as rebellious. 
  • Instances of unethical behavior by the leader, such as financial impropriety or exploitation, are ignored, downplayed, or rationalized by loyal followers. 
  • Information that reflects negatively on the leader is withheld or manipulated to present a more favorable narrative. 
  • Transparency is sacrificed to protect the leader's image, leading to a distorted version of the truth. 
  • The leadership structure lacks mechanisms for holding the leader accountable for their actions. 
  • Loyalty to the leader might prevent the implementation of checks and balances, allowing potential misconduct to go unchecked. 
  • Followers fear expressing concerns or grievances, as doing so might lead to repercussions or shunning within the community. 
  • Loyalty to the leader creates an environment where individuals hesitate to speak out against potential wrongdoing. 
  • Loyalty to the leader fosters an 'us vs. them' mentality, where anyone critical of the leader is viewed as an outsider or an enemy. This divisive mindset discourages open dialogue and prevents the community from addressing legitimate concerns. 

In a healthy spiritual community, the commitment to truth and walking in integrity and transparency take precedence over loyalty to the leader. Individuals feel empowered to speak out against wrongdoing, and there are established mechanisms for accountability and transparency.

5. Twisting Scriptures or Distorting Emphasis

The fifth red flag is twisting scriptures or placing distorted emphasis on certain kinds of scripture. In spiritually abusive settings, a leader may manipulate the scripture and doctrine to advance their personal agenda. This could involve cherry-picking verses or taking teachings out of context to create a distorted interpretation that aligns with their interests.

For instance,

  • they might emphasize certain verses promoting obedience and submission while neglecting those that encourage critical thinking or independent evaluation.
  • The teachers and preachers may selectively quote scriptures to support the leader's preferences or directives.
  • A leader might take Biblical teachings out of context to justify abusive behavior.
  • The leader might present their preferences as divinely inspired, equating followers' compliance with God's will.
  • They might take a harsh, Old Testament law approach to interpreting the Bible rather than taking a Christ-centered approach.

In contrast, a Christ-centered leader understands that the sum of God’s word is truth and is committed to studying and integrating all aspects of the Bible’s teachings, even verses that cause discomfort. They have a heart and a love for wisdom and understanding, and they also have a deep passion and commitment to understand and interpret the Bible in a Christ-centered, Spirit-led way.

6. Lack of Financial Transparency

The sixth subtle sign of spiritual abuse is a lack of financial transparency. If your spiritual leader withholds crucial information about budget allocations, leaving followers in the dark about how funds are utilized, this is a red flag. Scripture warns that said that the root of many evils is the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10). In many cases, you can determine the corruption level of an organization by simply following the money. 

So how might a lack of financial transparency subtly play out? Here are some examples: 

  • The leader might withhold information about how funds are allocated or spent. 
  • They may indulge in extravagant personal expenses at the congregation's expense. 
  • They do not give any clarity on how their financial decisions align with the shared values of the community. 
  • They may spend money based on their agenda and interests rather than the collective interest of the organization, or ministry and stakeholders of that organization or ministry.

In contrast, a Christ-centered leader is committed to financial transparency and openly communicates all financial matters within the community. They ensure transparency in budget allocations, guaranteeing that funds are used for the community's benefit, charitable causes, and spiritual growth. Financial decisions align with the shared values of the community, and leaders refrain from indulging in luxurious lifestyles at the expense of the congregation. This commitment to financial transparency is a hallmark of a healthy leader dedicated to serving God's people.

7. Fear and Intimidation

The seventh red flag is fear and intimidation: In spiritually abusive settings, a leader may use fear and intimidation tactics by threatening severe consequences for those who question or attempt to leave the group. They might threaten that anyone who leaves the group will forfeit their high callings and destinies. In some communities, this could look like being shunned, ostracized, or ex-communicated by the group. By instilling fear of these consequences, followers are coerced into silence, preventing them from expressing doubts or seeking alternative perspectives. This control through intimidation is a hallmark of spiritually abusive leadership. 

In contrast, a Christ-centered leader dedicated to healthy practices does not condemn or reject people for leaving, or feel betrayed by another person's departure. They still keep relational bridges open and they don't discourage members of their church from associating with people who have left.

8. Isolation

Isolation is a red flag. Period. In spiritually abusive settings, leaders may implement isolation tactics to ensure members are wholly dependent on them for guidance and support. Those attempting to connect with individuals outside the group risk facing shunning or accusations of disloyalty. This tactic of isolation aims to create dependence on the leader, limiting exposure to alternative viewpoints and external support systems.

Isolation tactics can be subtle. Here are some examples of what to look out for: 

  • A leader encourages his or her followers to rely on them for guidance and makes them feel incapable of making decisions without their input. 
  • They assert that the community is the exclusive place for true spiritual growth. To that end, they might tell their followers not to read certain books, or websites, or engage in conversations that challenge the group's beliefs. 
  • They present any negative reviews as orchestrated attacks against the group's divine mission. 
  • They encourage their members to sever ties with friends and family outside the group, claiming those not part of the faith are agents of evil. 
  • They encourage members to share personal struggles exclusively within the group, discouraging seeking support elsewhere. 
  • They reframe any criticism or questioning from external sources as persecution against the group.

In contrast, healthy leadership values diversity of thought encourages connections outside the group, and fosters an environment where individuals can grow spiritually through a variety of experiences and perspectives. Instead of trying to control what outside sources their followers listen to, they encourage their followers to walk in wisdom and seek after understanding and truth. A healthy community sees themselves as members of the body of Christ and seeks to be in touch with the other members of the body.

9. Conditional Love as a Manipulative Tool

The ninth red flag is using conditional love as a manipulative tool: In spiritually abusive settings, leaders may use conditional love as a manipulative tool to control followers. Leaders offer love, acceptance, and approval only when followers conform to specific expectations or directives. This conditional love creates a toxic environment where individuals live in constant fear of losing the approval of the spiritual authority.

This tactic has a self-reinforcing cycle: Followers who question or express independent thoughts are met with a withdrawal of affection. The leader may subtly withhold praise, attention, or communal support from individuals who deviate from the prescribed path. This subtle manipulation leaves followers living in constant fear of losing the love and approval they crave. The leader, in turn, maintains control by creating a dependency on their conditional expressions of love, creating a psychological and emotional toll on individuals within the community. 

In contrast, a healthy leader would strive to create an environment and culture where there is unconditional love and belonging because they want to emulate God’s heart towards people in their ministry and organization.

10. Manipulating Interpretation of Prophecies and Dreams

Lastly, spiritually abusive leaders may manipulate the interpretation of prophecies and dreams. In certain prophetic or charismatic churches and ministries, the way a spiritual leader interprets prophecies, visions, and dreams can sometimes become a subtle form of control and manipulation. It's important to clarify that the mere act of receiving or sharing dreams, prophecies, or visions is not inherently a form of spiritual abuse. The scriptural foundation in Acts 2:17 and Joel 2:28 emphasizes that “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

The issue arises when leaders use their interpretation of these spiritual experiences to advance their personal agenda rather than conveying the authentic message God intended. I'm not talking about leaders who are sincere in serving and might get the interpretation wrong, or just inexperienced in the interpretation of enigmas, dreams, and prophecies. I'm talking about leaders who are chronically uninterested and unwilling to search out God's perspective, but believe that their perspective in all things is God's perspective. These leaders manipulate or embellish the revelations they or others receive to control people or situations, instead of communicating the pure unfiltered message that God intended. A person might try to control or manipulate another person by saying things like "God told me..." This kind of language makes it difficult for the person on the receiving end to be able to question or challenge that word–who can argue with God? Scriptures tell us clearly to test every spirit to see if it's from God (1 John 4). But a leader who insists on using the language "God told me..." to convey messages to people could cross into manipulation, control, and witchcraft since they leave no room for the other person to judge, and no room for their own human fallibility.

A Christ-centered leader may not be perfect, but they are always seeking God's heart and mind and want to convey that in their messages above and beyond their own interests. They will not use terms like God told me–but may say instead, "I'm sensing from God..." or "I believe God is saying..." so it leaves room for them to be fallible and possibly get it wrong and also room for the other person to judge if what they are hearing is from God. Healthy leaders seek to hear from God, but they are constantly encouraging those around them to go to God for themselves.

Conclusion & What You Can Do

Spiritual abuse typically develops with time. Like the frog in warm water, a community may be unaware as they are slowly drawn into a leader’s increasingly manipulative tactics. A spiritual abuser will never put out all their cards at once. They are subtle and devious. A wolf has to look like a sheep to be effective. That is part of the process. If a wolf did not look like a sheep or if Satan did not look like an angel of light, then they would be easy to spot. A wolf has to conceal themselves in order to get what they want out of people.

At the end of the day, spiritual abuse is all about a leader or person seeking to control others outside of the influence of the Holy Spirit and outside the rule of Jesus Christ. Spiritual abuse is when a person assumes God’s position or acts outside of how God would think or feel and instead employs their feelings to control and accomplish their own agenda outside of God’s will. It is very serious. God is not mocked and He judges His leaders and teachers more harshly and strictly.

Stay tuned for how you can be freed from spiritual abuse in next week's blog!

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here

Religious Narcissists

  • A Religious Narcissist’s War with God; How They Claim to Love God but Covet His Position. [Read] [Watch] 
  • The Addiction of Religious Narcissists: How They Pursue Narcissistic Supply Through Religious Camouflage [Read] [Watch]
  • Three Unforgettable Things Jesus Said You Should Do When You Encounter Religious Narcissists. [Watch]

Navigating Narcissistic Relationships

  • How to Leave an Abusive Narcissist: Practical Steps to Planning Your Exit [Watch]
  • When You Can't Leave the Narcissist [Watch]
  • Should I Stay or Leave the Narcissist? [Watch]

Toxic Churches

  • Is My Church Turning Turning into a Cult? 10 Signs to Watch For. [Read] [Watch]
  • When There Is Spiritual Abuse in Your Church [Watch]
  • 7 Steps to Leave a Toxic Church Unscathed [Watch]

In case we haven’t met, welcome! I’m Shaneen Megji. My mission is to help people navigate toxic environments from a biblical, practical, and spiritual perspective. If you’d like to hear regular content shared from that viewpoint, leave your email below!

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