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Spiritual Abuse

The Salvation Army is opposed to spiritual abuse. Spiritual authority is given for the care of God’s people and its misuse is a betrayal of the Spirit of Christ, contrary to Biblical principles of servant leadership and ultimately destructive both of Christian community and of individual Christians.

Definition

In human relationships there are areas of legitimate authority. When power or control is exercised beyond the appropriate boundaries of such authority, whether in the context of a religious organisation or in individual relationships where spiritual authority is claimed, this constitutes spiritual abuse. This can happen when spiritual authority is misused to manipulate peoples’ emotional responses (such as fear, guilt or shame) or loyalty, for the benefit of the church, institution or of another individual. Spiritual abuse may also include or underlie other forms of abuse such as sexual, physical, verbal, psychological or emotional abuse when these take place within the context of a religious organisation.

Biblical principles

Jesus taught that 'the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.' (Mark 2:27) This establishes the principle that customs, institutions and organisations are subordinate to the higher good of the people they serve.

The Bible teaches that we should be truthful, kind and Christ-like in our dealings with others (Ephesians 4:15, GNB). Acts of abuse are incompatible with the teaching of Christ.

The New Testament provides models of church leadership and encourages members of churches to show respect for their leaders, so that their work is a joy rather than a burden (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, GNB). However, Jesus held up 'servanthood' as the ideal attitude for those in authority (John 13:14-15, NIV). He confronted those who abused the faithful by demanding outward observances while neglecting justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23, NIV).

Paul rejected the tendency to 'lord it over' members of the church and proposed a commitment to 'working together' with them, 'for their joy' (2 Corinthians 1:24, GNB), while Peter too warned against 'lording it over those entrusted to your care' or exploiting them (1 Peter 5:2-3).

Characteristics

Abusive religious structures tend to be characterised by authoritarian leadership, a preoccupation with an image of righteousness and infallibility, the suppression of criticism or alternative ideas, perfectionism and the tendency to emphasise minor or peculiar doctrinal or behavioural issues.

The most loyal and committed members of a religious organisation are often most susceptible to manipulation of this kind because of their very willingness to serve the cause.  This type of abuse is also a significant breach of the duty and trust inherent in a position of leadership. 

The most vulnerable members of a community are particularly susceptible to abuse, whether by omission or commission. As the Church is called to have special regard for the poor and vulnerable, special care must be taken that their trust is not betrayed (Mark 9:46, NIV; Romans 14:13, NIV).

The practice of spiritual abuse is not restricted to the leadership of a religious organisation, however. A leader’s willingness to work hard or be vulnerable for the cause may also be exploited by a church or by the power-brokers within a religious community.

The effects of abuse, including spiritual abuse, are often long-term and include the denigration of a person’s sense of wellbeing. The consequences can include eventual loss of faith.

Practical responses

The Salvation Army is committed to upholding Christian standards of love, care, protection and respect for the whole person in all relationships and to providing a safe and nurturing environment in its ministry to those in need.  Those who have power or influence over others have a commensurate responsibility to be accountable to ensure that these standards are met (James 3:1, NIV; Luke 12:48, GNB).

People who have been spiritually abused are in need of healing. Recovery is helped by the problem being admitted and identified, and the experiences being shared with a support group which includes others also in recovery.

Spiritual abuse is best avoided when a faith community fosters personal spiritual maturity, provides an environment for dialogue and exploration and ensures that power structures within the organisation are accountable.

Approved by International Headquarters
December 2005

  • For information realted to this subject, read the Power in the Church Talksheet, published by the Moral and Social Issues Council.
  • Please refer to our Complaints Area if you have concerns about issues of abuse (including sexual misconduct or criminal sexual behaviour) within The Salvation Army.