One of the biggest struggles with spiritual abuse is defining what it is. Different spiritual groups have different practices and beliefs. Some are more conservative or legalistic than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are abusive. Just like there are families where children receive spankings for misbehavior while others do not believe in this practice there are varying thoughts about what constitutes abuse in a spiritual environment.
Here are a couple definitions from Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Jeff has become a well known voice speaking about this critical subject.
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone is treated in a way that damages them spiritually. As a deeper result, their relationship with God – or that part of them that is capable of having a relationship with God – becomes wounded or scarred.
Likewise, those in spiritual positions of authority can violate our trust. It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t “behave” spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian – to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another – that is spiritual abuse.
There are some key components that seem to be universally accepted about spiritual abuse: damage to a person’s relationship or ability to relate with God, tearing down or condemning another, shattering a sense of self.
One thing that needs to happen in each case of possible abuse is to walk carefully through the issues and charges to understand what the offenders did and if the offended party is just overly sensitive toward the beliefs and practices of the offending party. This can be very difficult if the offended party is defiant and completely defends their position and point of view and wants to lay blame on the other party. It is very important that no charges are made toward the offenders though until the entire situation is looked at carefully and thoroughly. As with any relational problem it is certain there were mistakes made on both sides and there is always the possibility for healing if everyone will work through the situation openly and with love and grace. Working through things does not necessarily mean a relationship continues on, but instead that reconciliation occurs and open conflict does not continue.