The Insidious Harm of Spiritual Abuse/Toxic Faith

12 04 2008

Recently, allegations of abuse  by staff at Mercy Ministries Australia made frontpage headlines in a Sydney daily newspaper. Mercy Ministries, is a residential program for women that is supported by Hillsong Church. Hillsong Church also support a mens residential program called ONE80TC, an initiative of Teen Challenge NSW.

I’ll leave you to make you own mind up about the claims and counter-claims made across the various media.

What such headlines bring is awareness within both the general and evangelical Christian populations of allegations of various forsm of spiritual abuse being made against a range of well-known Christian ministries here in Australia, such as Hillsong Church, which until now have mainly been disseminated by a small number of accusatorial websites.

Hopefully, with the Christian churches, the discussion will continue to become more mainstream, and with it the concern to eliminate spiritually abusive practices becoming actual practice. The time for ALL churches to implement and abide by safe ministry protocols is long overdue. So too are transparent complaints policies!

Dr. Graham Barker, Head of the School of Counselling at Wesley Institute, Sydney in an article titled  “The Insidious Harm of Spiritual Abuse“, says that he, like many others, had the commonly held belief that spiritual abuse occured only in the well-documented cults, but had come to realise “that this same abusive system had infiltrated some of the more respected evangelical churches”.

Please take the time to read Dr. Barker’s article. Spiritual abuse occurs in many settings yet there remain commonalities that victims are able to identify upon reflection. Become aware of the signs of spiritual abuse so that you can reduce the likelihood that you or those you love will be hurt.

Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources:
Toxic Faith (part 1) – Stephen Arteburn
Dr. Stephen Arterburn answers questions inspired by his book, TOXIC FAITH: EXPERIENCING HEALING FROM PAINFUL SPIRITUAL ABUSE. Filmed circa 1991.

Topics covered: What is Spiritual Abuse? What is an Outcast?

Toxic Faith (part 2) – Stephen Arteburn
Topics covered: Can one be addicted to an educational system?  How do I know when it’s time to move on?
What are the stages of spiritual abuse? How can a victim recover?

Spiritual Abuse

Recovery from Spiritual Abuse (Bible Guide)




7 responses

13 04 2008

I can definitely testify that spiritual abuse hurts, sometimes even kills. And it doesn’t always happen in cults.

However, like all abuse you can recover from it.

13 04 2008

The comments in the media about Mercy Ministries abusing young women are true. I know because I am close to somebody who was at Mercy Ministries in Australia, they destroyed her, saying that she was not sick, it was demons instead. They forced her to have an exorcism too. Christians need to band together to make sure that organisations such as Mercy Ministries cannot go about calling themselves a ‘Christian’ charity when they are obviously not.

14 04 2008
Cult Survivor

Spiritual abuse is real and it is a destroyer of people and families. My wife has been involved in an abusive church and has been for years. Their teachings have ended our marriage and completely divided her from myself, our children, and her parents (20 year veterans of missionary service in Thailand.)

Unfortunately, once someone is under their spell, it is very difficult for them to see anything else. The largest issue is trust. The abusive church rapidly takes charge of the person and eliminates any trust they have for anyone else. The “church” becomes everything to the member and nothing else matters.

14 04 2008

I really enjoyed the article that you linked to. It was so good and to the point. A wonderful place for someone to start. I couldn’t get the links to work for the videos. It says that they are not longer available. You can find them if you go to youtube and type in Toxic Faith. Thanks so much.

17 04 2008

All of this is so true. A very effective “weapon” of these spiritual abusers in the church is the marriage institution. Many of these so-called “church leaders” are willing to see a marriage destroyed to gain their own ends. And like someone else has just said, women in particular are ever so vunerable and all to eager to comply.

See for many articles on this fact.

25 04 2008

This kind of clinical approach will both underscore and undercut a huge and growing body of empirical evidence on the irrelevance of theology.

On the practical side, I’ve done several private arbitrations (judgments: out of court) in church cases involving clergy and parishioners in which abuse is alleged.

Sorting out the causes and effects of pressures and actions perceived to be “abuse” (and constituting “abuse”) is sometimes as difficult as sorting out the allelic shifts of thousands of genes in our very genome.

For example, in English speaking counties, like Australia and others, there is generally some sort of doctrine equivalent to our version here (US) of “the eggshell skull.” This doctrine simply means that there are people who are particularly fragile (eggshell) and those people who cause them harm are still required to pay damages. But notice, Arteburn too severely characterizes the very entry level and the very beginnings of religious quest as a fragile state (eggshell skull), because people who have already failed to be satisfied in wordily pursuits (failure in career) – these are the fragile people seeking religious comfort. The pathology exists antecedent to religious quest. See more below on Albert Ellis. An auxiliary study in the US tries to pin the tail of poverty onto the donkey of theological conviction. This study would pathologize some theological convictions prima facie: without other proof of real abuse. Put the two together (Arteburn’s approach and the sociological studies) and you have an impossible liability for religion. With no discount for those who agree to this abuse.

What’s extremely lacking in Arteburn’s case is a consideration of an Albert Ellis type clinical approach of direct confrontation because of a patient’s sheer stupidity of getting into stupid situations – and such a clinical approach of direct confrontation would include confrontations for joining an “abusive” church. On the other hand, why should pastors in daily practice be emasculated in advance into a state of never confronting a parishioner by Arteburn’s missive against “abuse,” when in fact an Albert Ellis type of confrontational approach may be needed, case by case?

I don’t doubt that spiritual abuse occurs. I don’t doubt that spiritual abuse could be mocked up by science and clinical studies and inducted into a clinical form. I don’t doubt that Arteburn is calling attention to abusive practices and making a valid appeal for abused people to flee.

It’s just that in the daily practice of clergy-parishioner relationships, the dynamic is not unlike the dynamic of parenting children through developmental stages, where most clinical practitioners and scientists of development already agree that what works very well for one child is disastrous for another child – even for identical twins.

It’s disheartening to me how some clergy and some parishioners alike lack any concept and lack all clue about the nature of abusing the casuistry of abuse itself (see Toulmin, “Abuse of Casuistry”). The idea that religion itself is a sheltered realm that takes us to distal lands of safety far away from the abuses of the real world is itself a fantasy that’s abusive.

The point here is that if Arteburn’s clinical agenda is taken too far, then pastors suffering both the social stigma as well as suffering civil suits in courts for malpractice will soon need to put “warning labels” on their entry level contacts with everyone they meet, giving advance warnings to people, telling people that if they don’t like to be warned against damaging consequences of their own behavior (Albert Ellis style), then these people ought not come to church, ought not affiliate, ought not draw near – and instead, should join up with Arteburn who will lead the sheep through softer pastures.

The questions are where to set the bar? – what evidences to consider in cases alleging abuse? – how to partition allegation from proof? – whether clinical judgments provide better fora for resolutions than legal and quasi-legal venues? – how to discount the contributory actions of “abused” people (take adults here) who agree to remain in abusive relationships? – the whole role of “caveat emptor” when it comes to religion and religious affiliations? – how to shift burdens of responsibility, say by putting on abused people a duty as against clergy expressly to define the abusive behavior and to demand it stop (on analogy to sexual harassment in the workplace laws here in the US)? – and just what margins of tolerance for error (error margins) in practice, and, what degrees of parsimony or leniency we ought use in examining these cases, case by case, rather than making grand and sweeping pontifical pronouncements about “abuse” as some reified category, then pinning it to a local church?



11 09 2009

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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