Identifying “Spiritual Abuse”

Credits: Pixabay - John Hain

Within organized religious institutions, the manipulation and pressure over “performance” issues perpetuated by people in positions of authority are common, but not easily recognizable. The effects should be characterized as “spiritual abuse” initiated from a misuse of power and influence by leaders who lack humility and integrity – and who also consider themselves above questioning.

A Recommendation by Barbara Anderson

In far too many fundamentalist and conservative Christian churches, victims of spiritual abuse are taught to feel guilty that they can never do enough “to please God.” That feeling is generated and distorted by leaders who appear only to want their followers to endure more Bible reading, more gospel/preaching work – and more financial sacrifice to gain approval.

“Spiritual abuse” was a new term to me when I was introduced to it by a senior writer in 1991. I was a member of the Watchtower’s writing staff at the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) corporate headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. I remember him casually approaching me in the department’s library with a paperback book in the hand that he extended to me. I noticed that it was a new publication, the title being The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.*

Before I could even utter a word, he suggested I read the book. He explained it was actually written for members of Protestant churches experiencing long-term harm from an abusive religious system or autocratic religious leaders. He continued to explain that copious numbers of letters arrived at headquarters from JWs recounting personal experiences involving those in spiritual authority who were abusive. Decision makers at Watchtower headquarters recognized that this problem also existed within too many congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They realized that was an issue that needed their attention.

As I read the book, I could see the similarities to these Christian churches by the way many Witness leaders were persistent in pressuring followers to be more “active” and committed to spreading the “good news” and all that went with it.  Witnesses were so frequently reminded to put religious activities “first in their lives,” that the result was that many ended up on a perpetual guilt trip.

Like members in fundamentalist churches, JWs subconsciously understood that they had to keep up with the constant instructions to “do more for God and his organization.” That was required to gain acceptance and love from fellow preachers and to generate God’s favor. They never suspected that they were tolerating “spiritual abuse.”

Questioning the JWs’ religious system by members was not (and is not) permitted. In abusive Christian churches, questions or doubt could generate ridicule or belittling. But among Jehovah’s Witnesses, doing so could generate even more extreme sanctions such as “shunning,” an abusive process used by leaders to punish “rebels.”

I personally believed (and said so to certain staff members) that more “commendation” and less “condemnation” was needed for JWs not doing enough. For many JWs, “Our religion,” I said, was “becoming a performance religion,” and that could account for many of the complaints voiced by unhappy Witnesses.

My opinion and message fell upon hearing ears, but never took root. The reality is that the organization exists to perpetuate itself through gaining new converts. The “happiness” of individuals within the congregation who participated in making new converts is irrelevant.

But now…

Rarely has there been a way to offer healing and hope to those injured by abusive cults and religious organizations like Jehovah’s Witnesses. But now there is a resource available…

Spiritual Abuse Resources is a program offered by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

Spiritual Abuse Resources



Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR) provides information and assistance to:

– victims of spiritual abuse
– clergy and other religious professionals
– mental health professionals
– families
– anyone concerned about spiritual abuse

What is Spiritual Abuse?

The resources on this Website conceive of spiritual abuse in different ways.

Some apply the term spiritual abuse to any kind of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse that takes place in a religious context. Others apply the term specifically to manipulations that damage a person’s relationship to God or to his/her core self. Spiritual abuse has been reported in mainstream religious organizations as well as nonmainstream groups, such as cults.

Read More on What is Spiritual Abuse and how Spiritual Abuse Resources website can benefit you:

*Authors: David Johnson and Jeff  Van Vonderen

[Featured Image Graphic: Pixabay – John Hain]


Identifying “Spiritual Abuse” — 13 Comments

  1. Excellent article! Whether sticking with or ripping your parachute and jumping out, the years of abuse build-up toxic mental health issues that need to be cleansed–releasing one from anger, depression, guilt, and frustrations. It may not be the prescribed write-up in literature, but the ambience and settings, the context and culture, within various congregations trends towards an abusive experience. Growing up JW, the abuses are taken as normal–like an older person adjusting to the “normalcy” with constant throb of muscle aches or bone arthritis rather than pursue therapy or medical treatment.

  2. When I had my daughter in 1993 I lost a lot of blood and refused a blood transfusion. One witness from my cold and stodgy new Hall came to the hospital. AFter all, she was studying with me to get baptized. I was very weak for months afterwards. I was not making all the meetings so an elder’s wife and friends stopped by my house, which they NEVER did before. They wanted to use my bathroom and have me give them something to drink and eat “since they were pioneering.” The wife of the elder told me she “got back to the Kingdom Hall the very next day after giving birth to her 4 children and that I needed to pull myself up by the bootstraps.” She was a tall fat woman who almost didn’t make it to the hospital because they simply slid out of her vagina with little labor pains and pushing. I had LONG labors. Once I was baptized she was always making comments about how “she pioneered while nursing two kids.” I heard the same guilt trip from the pulpit. I always say, why have enemies when you can have fake “friends” like that?!!!

    • ilgioello,

      What awful people they are. So far up themselves it’s not funny.

      I had similar comments when my daughter died. I had the most disgusting comments made to me & I was just a bible study at the time like you. Things like; “if I lost my child, I wouldn’t be as upset as you” & “you need to stop crying, she’s in the new system now” or “you need to get out & preach so that you can move on”.

  3. Gwen Little, I am so sorry you lost your daughter. That is awful how you were treated. Wretched really. I lost a friend/sister to Leukemia. She left behind 5 children and a husband who loved her. We all grieved her death. I was told the same thing about how I should be handling my grief after moving to a icy cold Kingdom Hall full of weirdos. My friend’s husband who was a beloved elder was asked to step down from his position because he was grieving his loving wife and the mother of his kids, and he did not want to remarry right away which they were all telling him to do. I call that spiritual abuse.

    • ilgioello,

      The sad part is that most don’t realise that they are in an abusive relationship (like myself) until you step outside of it & view it from a healthier, rational perspective.

      I could tell so many stories of single mums & how they were treated yet they would somehow justify the religion. I would listen in disbelief when they would make comments like; “I just have to accept it because it’s god’s organisation”. I was still in at the time but situations like these are what helped me to slowly wake up from the nonsense.

      The religion is weird, that’s why its full of weirdo’s. They would probably be different people if they stepped outside for a while to get a broader perspective.

  4. A really excellent articles, Barbara. Now that we are out, we realize the many ways we were spiritually abused. The simple fact that they are asking more and more efforts from you, I realize now, is an abuse! I was a wife’s elder with 3 children, I was engaged in the preaching work morning and afternoons doing up to 40 hours per month, which was a lot to me. Despite that, elders where continually pushing me to pioneer! I couldn’t pioneer because I was at the top of my strength, didn’t have a minute for myself, did’nt want my family would miss something in the daily life.

    I’m so sad reading about what experienced by Gwen little and ilgioello, JW can be so distant, so selfish, so bad through attitude, and words…. this would be ‘Christian love’? Now that we are out, we realize this is really Spiritual abuse!!!

  5. Yes we are told…not to grieve like thise who have no faith…in other words…just suck it up…get out in the service…to meetings…for sure do not miss! I remember the day my brother got killed, my other brother had called at six pm, a Thurs. night…meeting night…and I had a talk…suck up your sorry…give your talk…this comes first…feelings etc….last if at all…Same for me with dealing with an abusive JW husband…if u would only be a better wife…fo more in service…push your self more than one already is…for me yrs of that stress…any type of stress now, no matter how little…muscle cramps up and aches…diabilateing pain…severe fatigue…waiting for endz here…Like Mr. Ping told Po…You just got to believe it is special….( I am referring to more than his noodle soap!). ;). Thanx Barbara…Hope I do not mess up your site…with trollies on my email…I may have done so to Jw Survey by my comments…did not mean to…

  6. Sharon & Rosalba,

    It’s so good to have sites like these where we can finally purge those inner thoughts & feelings that didn’t sit right. Those niggling doubts that we buried deep down & how we knew that the patriarchs didn’t have a clue but we didn’t have the courage to say something at the time or our heads were so muddled with their reasoning on things that it went against our own womanly instincts.

    The lack of natural affection seems to be becoming more prevalent with these latest shunning & judgement videos they’re spewing out. Especially the one with the mother is ignoring her daughters phone call. What a disgusting piece of propaganda that is.

    BTW, it’s nice to see you here Sharon. XO

  7. Gwen, when my mom died i constantly told, “well you’ll see her in the new order”. Well fuck that. That was too long away. Of course, “it’s just around the corner so she’ll be one of the first resurrected. How the fuck did they know that? It’s been 20 years btw. Anyway thats when I found cocand read it. No more trust in men; EVER.

    • Good for you Tim, COC was an eye-opener for me too.

      I came to the conclusion in the end that these people don’t realise that they have killed off there human empathy because they’re worshipping a god that lacks empathy & understanding for humanness. It’s a trickle-down affect.

    • Tim,

      I did have a comment on here but it looks as though it has been deleted. I’m not sure if I broke some rule but I just want to say that being in the religion stifles your real grief. It wasn’t until I left that I fully grieved for my little girl. It was hard but I feel like I have reached a level that is more healthier than before.

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