Spiritual abuse occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim's spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.
The definition given by Jeff VanVonderen who is the author of this term:
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own.
According to the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen:
“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.” (p.20)
“Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard’.” (p.21)
Spiritual abuse occurs when shame is “used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or…to fend off legitimate questions”. (p.22)
“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.” (p.23)
“There are spiritual systems in which…the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders… These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion of the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse.” (p.23)
The authors define the following characteristics of spiritually abusive systems:
2. Performance Preoccupation
3. Unspoken Rules
4. Lack of Balance (Extreme Objectivism and Extreme Subjectivism)
6. Misplaced Loyalty
In his interview, Jeff VanVonderen explained how he and his co-author Dave Johnson came to this term:
What we did was to stumble across some language that worked for people. It’s a language that matches the feelings and wounds that many people have experienced. We give people a way to talk about this kind of thing. But spiritual abuse is certainly nothing new. Spiritual abuse has been here since biblical times. We just came across a way of talking about it in our time, and put it into a package that made sense to a lot of people.
There is a video series entitled Spiritual Abuse: An Introduction by Jeff VanVonderen:
Lecture 1: Healthy and Abusive Spiritual Dynamics (55 min)
Lecture 2: The Abusive Religious System (59 min)
Lecture 3: How We Get Hooked (60 min)
In the first of them, he said that when people use power to make others to do what they want, it is abuse. When people use God's name in order to make others what they want, it is spiritual abuse.
The definition given by David Henke:
Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian.
He gives the following characteristics of spiritually abusive systems:
2. Image Conscious
3. Suppresses Criticism
Two other famous books on spiritual abuse were written by Ronald Enroth:
Churches that Abuse
Recovering from Churches that Abuse
In the first of them, he listed the following characteristics of spiritual abuse:
1. Control-oriented leadership
2. Spiritual elitism, perceived persecution
3. Manipulation of members, fostering dependency
4. Life-style rigidity
5. Emphasis on experience
6. Harsh discipline of members, information control
7. Painful exit processes