5 Things You Must Do When There is Spiritual Abuse in Your Church

church i'm in the relationship narcissistic religious leaders prayer Jan 23, 2024

What do you do when your eyes become opened to spiritual abuse? Whether that be in your church, a ministry or organization, your work, your family, or marriagedo you run? Do you stay? What is the wise and God-honoring approach to such disillusioning, complicated, and messy situations? In this blog, I'm going to share five critical things you must do as you are awakened to the reality that you are being spiritually abused. 

What is spiritual abuse? Spiritual abuse happens when someone in power, or who is supposed to be representing the heart of God, uses the faith, scriptures, teachings, or the systems they create as a means to control, harm, or exploit others to satisfy their own agenda or needs. Spiritual abuse exploits the vulnerability of individuals who are seeking a genuine connection with God. 

Spiritual abuse tends to occur within a system of people, for example, in families, churches, or other spiritual communities. When someone practices spiritual abuse, it's often rooted in a stronghold, a blind spot, or a compromise. An unregenerate part of them has not been renewed in Christ. You might be dealing with someone who is a cult leader or who is gifted with knowledge of the scriptures and who is intelligent but who uses these gifts to feed themselves instead of God’s flock. These leaders find ways to distort the meaning of the scripture to conform to their personality instead of seeking to conform their personality to Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In my last blog, I shared ten signs of spiritual abuse to watch out for. I’d encourage you to read it with this blog if you haven't read it.

Let’s get into it then! If you are experiencing spiritual abuse, recovering from it, or want to avoid it, these are five things that are absolute musts.

1. Know the Scriptures for Yourself

Immerse yourself in your Bible and get to know the scriptures well. Become like the Bereans. The Bible says the Bereans were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica (Acts 17:10-11). Why? Because they received Paul’s message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if what he said was true. The Bible commends this group for not taking teachings at face value–not even from Paul. The Bible considers doing due diligence to be a sign of noble character. 

If your spiritual leader believes that questioning and examining their teachings closely is a sign of disrespect and dishonor, this is a symptom of spiritual abuse. You cannot afford to depend on another person’s knowledge of what the Bible says or their ability to interpret it. You must read it for yourself. If you do not, spiritual abusers will exploit your lack of scriptural knowledge. They will find a loophole and prey on your ignorance. 

Read the scripture cover-to-cover. But don’t just read it. It is not enough to study the scripture: You need the Holy Spirit’s illumination. Ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind the same way Jesus came and opened the minds of the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Unlike any book that exists, this book is a living document. And, even better, its author is alive and speaking through the Holy Spirit. If you don't have the Spirit illuminating, then instead of this book conveying God's heart and passion for humanity, it could be a weapon for destruction in the hands of a person who uses it incorrectly. The Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6).

If reading and studying the scriptures feels daunting, ask God to give you a love and a hunger for His word. Ask Him to make the words come alive to you. He hears and answers these prayers.

2. Shift Your Allegiance 100% to Jesus. 

Remember the words of Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 11:1, when he says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The emphasis here is on following Christ. In verse just previous to this, Paul expresses his heart: “I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33). In this context, Paul humbly gives himself as an example that can point others to Christ. However, from the very beginning of his letter to the Corinthians (1:10-17), he warns us that we must not have allegiances to other teachers before our commitment to Christ. Our allegiance, your allegiance, must be 100% to Christ.

Unlike Paul, a spiritually abusive person is seeking their own agenda, and so they are compromised. If you have been taught to believe that submission to God means submitting to your leaders, this can be a tough pill to swallow–whether that leader is a pastor, a business partner, a spouse, an organization, or a family member. The moment a person stops following Christ, you are not obligated to submit to them. Your first allegiance must now be 100% to Jesus Christ.

If you want to avoid becoming deceived or inheriting the blind spots of your leader, you have to be fully committed to following Christ–not others. Having a passion for the truth is crucial, which gives you the strength to walk away from people, communities, and organizations to which you have become attached but may not support your pursuit of truth.

Pursuing truth or walking away isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes courage. When you need that courage, remember God’s promises to you. He promises you that anyone who leaves fathers or mothers or brothers or sisters or lands for Christ’s sake will receive a hundred times as much and eternal life (Matthew 19:29). Whatever you lose for the sake of Christ, He will repay it back to you multifold, either in this life or in the life to come. You are much better off rebuilding now on the solid rock foundation of Jesus Christ than finding out in eternity that all your work was in vain.

3. Repent from Idolatry

Repent for putting your leader on a pedestal higher than God and making them a god in your life, even inadvertently. When a leader becomes spiritually abusive, they often do so gradually. In the process, they begin to demand more and more respect and priority in your life. In the beginning, this may pass under your radar, since, after all, they are a leader. However, if this person is narcissistic, they will soon want to take God’s place in your life. Of course, they will never say this out loud. Instead, the tactics are insidious and subtle. Whether you are coerced through fear and intimidation or have deep admiration for the gifts and strengths of your leader, when you put them on a pedestal and allow them to become like a god in your life, that is idolatry.

It is possible to idolize many things–the institution of marriage, an organization, a reputation, a spouse, a leader, or even a ministry agenda. It is possible to idolize good things. Idolatry is a problem of priorities. When any of these things become an obstacle to following Jesus Christ, that is idolatry. Remember that you serve only one master, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (John 10:27). He also said, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24).

More often than not, the transition into idolatry happens without you being aware. Regardless of whether or not you were aware, it is still idolatry and you tacitly agreed to participate in it. It is crucial to reflect on where idolatry occurred and to repent of it.

In this repentance, you may see that God can still work in the midst of these toxic environments and relationships. He may have allowed things to continue so that He could accomplish a higher purpose in your life or the lives of others. He may have been waiting for the right time to bring you out without hurting you or others whose lives or souls were at stake.  Abuse rarely happens in a vacuum. However, God’s destiny for you is not to be in an abusive or destructive environment or relationship indefinitely. It’s not sustainable. At some point or another, you will see through the abuse and realize that the person you thought you were following is merely putting on a deceptive mask. This can bring your world crashing down. It’s disillusioning, and naturally so. Sometimes, the best moments of your life are mixed in with the traumatic, destructive times. It takes a lot of discernment and grace to sort out the good from the bad, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

4. Pray for Spiritual Discernment.

There is a passage in the scripture where the disciples ask Jesus what they should expect in the last days (Matthew 24:3-6). Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” We need to be watchful and vigilant not to be deceived. The best thing you can do is ask God for spiritual discernment so you can tell what is true and what is false. 

You can pray your own prayer or use this one:

Father God, You promise that if anyone asks You for wisdom you will give it generously (James 1:5). In this situation, I pray for your wisdom. Teach me discernment and knowledge because I believe Your word is truth (Psalms 119:66). Please give me an understanding heart to discern between good and evil (1 Kings 3:9). Let me walk in Your love and depth of insight so that I can discern the best way and bear fruit in you (Philippians 1:9-11). Amen.

5. Pursue Truth at Any Cost

Decide to pursue truth no matter what it might mean and what it might cost you. Truth will protect you from delusions and deceptions. People fall into deceptions and delusions because they do not love the truth. The Bible says, “They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11). That is a scary place to be. It is a form of judgment when God himself sends us delusions. 

However, God promises that when we seek the truth, when we seek Him, we will find Him (Matthew 7:7). In fact, Jesus promises that if we abide in His word, we will find the truth. And when we find the truth, it will set us free (John 8:31, 32). Be encouraged that even though the cost of pursuing truth now may seem high, as you find truth in God, you will find more and more freedom–from the disillusionment, the fear, the confusion, and the weight that often accompanies spiritual abuse.

Conclusion

If you are in a spiritually abusive environment, do not be quick to act. Whatever you are in did not happen overnight, and whatever action you take will affect other lives besides your own. Take some time to pray. Even better, fast and pray. Fasting positions your heart to hear God more clearly. Ask God what for His way and timing. He will show you. Ask Him to give you wisdom to know who to talk to and who not to talk to. He may even reveal things to you in your dreams if you are asking. Keep your ear listening for His voice. When you ask God for wisdom, He gives it to us generously without penalizing us.

Navigating spiritual abuse requires great courage and strength. But you are not alone. Jesus Christ was also spiritually abused by the religious narcissists of His day. He understands what you are going through. He is with you and will not leave you nor forsake you. None of what you are going through surprises Him, and you can trust that He will see you through this turbulent time. Whatever steps of courage you take will also blaze a trail for others to find their courage.

If you are struggling right now, I pray for much strength, grace, and guidance for you. God has good plans for your life, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11). So be encouraged and don’t lose hope.

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here

Toxic Churches

  • 10 Subtle Signs of Spiritual Abuse: How to Spot a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. [Read] [Watch] 
  • 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]

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]

If you are in a season of transition, check out my free training on 3 three keys to navigate difficult transitions successfully. Each of these things brought so much breakthrough in my life. 

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