Book: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

A few years back when I was studying the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing & Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen I wrote up summaries of the book through chapter 3.  I think they might be helpful to others, so I’m going to post them below.  I highly recommend that book.


Summary of Author’s Note, Intro, & Ch. 1

Who Could Benefit from this Book?

I personally feel that most anyone could potentially find this book to be helpful. Spiritual abuse affects many more people than I realized. A lot of struggles that people have with the church, with trusting other people, and with trusting God have their roots in past and/or present spiritual abuse.

This book can be helpful for both those who have experienced spiritual abuse and for those who are being spiritually abusive. This book is not condemning anyone, but rather it shines light in darkness and helps people know that there is abundant grace and hope for healing.

Their stated purpose of this book is “to help readers — victims and abuses alike — recognize and escape spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church” (page 10) And they clarify that they “write to help, not to condemn.” (page 14)

I thought it was important to note that “Any one of us can be a victim, and sometimes a perpetrator without realizing what we are doing” (page 19).

They list two basic purposes of the book on page 25:

1) “. . . to help you examine your own practice of Christianity first. Are you practicing grace, allowing the Spirit of Christ to live through you in such a way that you help lift oppressive weights off of others and spiritually empower them to live?”

2) “. . . to help both leaders and followers to recognize spiritual systems that have become abusive.”

The dedication reads:


to the wear and heavy laden,

deeply loved by God,

but because of spiritual abuse,

find that the Good News

has somehow become

the bad news.

Handle with Care

The authors share the following caution in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book: “the subject matter and guidelines given in their book must be handled with care.” Reading about these things may bring up big feelings, and it’s okay and healthy to allow yourself to have big feelings. Some might experience some painful feelings as you learn these things. Others may feel greatly validated reading the things in this book. The authors explain that we can “respond and not react.” They further explain,

“Reactions that burst from pain and disappointment often feel good and right at the time. But most often they do not build, they hurt your credibility, and sometimes those reactions incur further abuse. Take your time. Emotional healing will come. There is recovery from spiritual abuse.”

Why Call it Spiritual Abuse?

Abuse is such a strong word. Why would it be called spiritual abuse? In the introduction, Jeff shares some thoughts that help show why he believes the use of the word “abuse” is warranted:

“When one person treats another in a way that damages them physically, we call that physical abuse. Damaging someone through emotional means is called emotional abuse. Brainwashing is a phrase that describes psychological abuse. 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.”

Definition of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse: “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (page 20)

It can occur when a) “a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person” (page 20), b) “spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard'” (page 21).

Results of Spiritual Abuse

Results of spiritual abuse are usually the same: “The individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian” (page 22). At this point, spirituality has become abusive.

Freedom in Christ

Galatians 5:1 – “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (NIV)”

1 Corinthians 7:23 – “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” (NIV)

They share what they feel they found is at the root of it all (page 26):

“. . . too many today have forgotten the incredible price that was paid, in blood, for our freedom in Christ. For we have been called to a spiritual life built upon the free gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). The works we are to do are only those that our God and Father prepared for us (vs. 10). Is is to God alone whom we will answer for what we have done in His name and what we’ve failed to do (Matthew 25).”

The chapter closes with this:

“The Christian life begins with freedom from dead works, from religious systems and from all human attempts to “please God.” It’s time for many of us to shake off the religious systems and expectations we’ve created, and return to that joyful freedom in Christ.

“Ultimately, that’s our hope and our goal.”


Chapter 2 – Spiritual Abuse is Not New

Headings in this Chapter:

* A Scriptural Portrait

– In the Old Testament

– In the New Testament

* Who Are the Perpetrators Today?

* “Brood of Vipers”

* “Ravenous Wolves”

* Paul’s Battle

* Legalism

* A Seething Confrontation

* Leaders Who Serve and Protect the Flock

* Conclusion

In chapter two we learn that not only does spiritual abuse really exist, but that it is far-reaching, and that it can be “as wounding as other forms of abuse” (page 29). Why is it so bad? On page 29 the authors explain why:

“Spiritual abuse, however, puts people at odds with their best Friend. It causes some people to question, doubt, and even run the other direction from their Source. They see their strongest Advocate as their biggest accuser, and their Ally as their enemy. For some people, spiritual abuse can have eternal consequences.”

In this chapter we also learn that spiritual abuse has been around a very long time, and that it can be seen in both the Old Testament, more specifically spiritual neglect (see Jeremiah 5:26, Jeremiah 6:13-14, 30-31) and New Testament, more specifically by legalistic attack (see Matthew 23:4, Matthew 9:36). We can see in the New Testament that Jesus took spiritual abuse very seriously. He called abusers a “brood of vipers” pg 33 (Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33) and “ravenous wolves” pg 34 (Matthew 7:15).

And spiritual abuse is still alive today. Here are the means by which spiritual abuse happens: (page 32)

1) there is the neglect of real needs in favor of the “needs” of authority

A way this is seen today:

“Today, we might parallel Jeremiah’s dilemma by examining our own spiritual setting in which the people of God are so often counseled to ignore their real needs and are offered placebos in the forum of easy answers, ‘try hard’ sermons, and the latest ‘get rich’ formulas. As in all unhealthy relationship systems, in a spiritually abusive system the most important thing is how things look. So the ugly and messy relational process of meeting people’s real needs gets sacrificed for a better-looking but false peace. (page 30, 31)

2) then legalism replaces rest in God with demands for spiritual performance.

They define legalism as “a form of religious perfectionism that focuses on the careful performance and avoidance of certain behaviors. It teaches people to gain a sense of spiritual acceptance based on their performance, instead of accepting it as a gift on the basis of Christ” (page 37).

“People who are spiritually abused feel so tired and so belittled, because they cannot live up to other’s spiritual expectations, that they have lost their sense of blessing” (page 38). An important question to ask ourselves: “Are the spiritual relationships you have bringing the rest Jesus promised, or do you find just more toil and weariness?” (page 28) Jesus wants us to find rest! Here is His stance toward tired, wounded, struggling people (page 31):

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I thought this was really important: (page 32)

“. . . Not all strong Christian leaders are abusive, nor are all spiritual systems abuse. It’s also possible that healthy leaders and spiritual systems can sometimes, unintentionally, treat people in hurtful ways. There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt. But the difference between an abusive and a non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts and abuses in the abusive system. Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim in made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”

Conclusion of the chapter:

“It’s not wrong to notice legalism, legalistic families and churches, and to protect yourself from being abused. Noticing a problem does not make you the problem” (page 39). We should be “on guard” (Acts 20:28) against “specific leaders and systems that throw their spiritual weight around” and “the subtle use of ‘formulas and doctrines that are so often used to press good people of the faith into conformity with a religious system instead of conformity to Christ” (page 39).


Summary of Chapter 3 – Abused Christians

Victims of Spiritual Abuse Struggle in These Areas

1. You develop a distorted image of God. (page 41)

“A distorted image of God is on tip-off that someone may have experienced spiritual abuse. Here are some distortions people frequently have:” (these are all on page 41)

* A God who is never satisfied

* A mean vindictive God

* An apathetic God

* A God who is asleep (one who doesn’t notice when people are hurt and abused)

* A God who is awake, close, and who see and cares, but is powerless

* “A God who is a kind of fickle baby. His mood can be manipulated by our slightest mistake.”

* “The ‘utterly holy’ God. He is like a spiritual burglar alarm, ready to go off anytime you think about sin.”

2. You may be preoccupied with spiritual performance. (page 44)

Some indicators of a performance-based lifesyle:

* self-righteousness – “a sense of spiritual superiority based on your own behavior” (page 44)

* judgementalism – “a sense of spiritual superiorty based upon someone else’s behavior”

* perfectionism – “a need for situations and relationships to be ‘just so'”

* “high level of anxiety based upon external circumstances and an urge to control what people do and how things turn out”

* shame – they say it’s the flip side of self-righteousness and defined as “a sense of inferiority, a negative self-assessment, an indictment on your very personhood.”

“In spiritual systems where performance is more important than emotional honesty or human need, both extremes [of self-righteousness and shame] will be strongly in evidence” (page 44).

3. You have a distorted self-identity of yourself as a Christian. (page 44)

“People who have been spiritually abused tend to have a negative picture of self, or a shame-based identity” (page 44).

Ways a shame-based identity can be seen:

* “Lack of understanding or even awareness of New Testament texts that elaborate on our identity as new creations in Christ” (page 45)

* “Confusion between guilt and shame.”

guilt: “a valuable signal indicating a wrong or bad behavior”

shame: “an indictment on you as a person”

* “Shame is the prime motivator of behavior”

* “A high need to hang on to a negative picture of self in order to explain negative behaviors”

4. You may have a problem relating to spiritual authority. (page 46)

The authors say that being spiritually abused can lead to “toxic faith,” and that “one of the many areas this would spill is the area of relating to those in authority.”

Here is their definition of “toxic faith”:

toxic faith: “a destructive and dangerous relationship with a religious system, not with God, that allows this system to control a person’s life in the name of God” (page 46)

They explain that those who have experienced misuse of power develop ways to defend themselves from being abused again and that two of those ways are to be either extremely compliant or defiant when faced with someone else having authority, but they also explain that these reactions, though designed to prevent hurt, won’t. (page 46)

5. You may have a hard time with grace. (page 46)

“The idea of being treated gracefully (treated to a fullness of grace) causes you great difficulty. This springs from the shame-based identity which tells you that you don’t deserve to be treated this way” (page 46).

6. You may have problem in the area of personal boundaries, an unclear understanding about “death to self” teachings and “rights.”

boundaries: “invisible barriers that tell others where they stop and you start” (page 47)


People who have misused their spiritual power have disrespected or beaten down your boundaries. They have shamed you out of your “no,” clouded your will and intruded into your life with religious agendas. They have violated your spirituality by playing “Holy Spirit.” Having an opinion has come to equal lack of submissiveness. Having a right to not be abused is selfish.

7. You may have difficulty with personal responsibility. (page 47)

The authors explain that those who have been spiritually abused may tend to the extremes of either being “under-responsible in your relationship with God and others” or to be “overresponsible, a burden bearer.”


Matthew 9:36 describes the multitudes as distressed” and “down-cast.” This was a result of the performance weight places on them by religious leaders who did not shepherd them, but devoured them instead.” They did this by endless spiritual rules and regulations, and by constantly pointing out the least flaw in others. If you’ve been through this, you wind up very tired, emotionally, physically and spiritually. (page 48)

8. You may suffer from a lack of living skills.(page 48)


. . . abusive systems develop a “bunker mentality.” This is characterized by being closed and paranoid toward the outside, and secretive about what goes on inside. The mentality is not only separatist, but highly judgemental . . . . The result is that a student is equipped emotionally, spiritually, and mentally to work only somewhere in the original system or in one like it. (page 48)


For people whose lives and relationships aren’t working, it’s important that they come to understand their problem isn’t the evil that surrounds them on the outside. Their need is to develop maturity, strength and the ability to make wise decisions, to grow in dependence upon God as their source on the inside. (page 49)

9. You may have a hard time admitting the abuse. (page 49)

This is common because:

a. “In an abusive system, you are told that you are ‘the problem’ for noticing that there is a problem” (page 49)

b. “admitting the abuse out loud — or even thinking that what you experienced was abuse — often feels like you’re being disloyal to family, to church, even to God” (page 49)

c. “those who have experienced spiritual abuse as ‘normal’ have lost track of what normal really is” (page 49)

d. “. . . natural denial is another factor. Denial is actually a God-given ability to delay feeling strong emotional, psychological or spiritual pain” (page 49)

c. shame “Very often they experience a great deal of shame — a sense of defectiveness — for having allowed themselves to get into a situation that was so obviously abusive” (page 50)

10. You may have a hard time with trust. (page 50)

The authors say that those who have been spiritually abused will have a hard time trusting a spiritual system again, and they explain the significance of this as follows:

“because the essence of living as a Christian is a trust relationship with God, within God’s family (page 50).

About Jeri Carr

I'm a SAHM & have been married for 26 years. DH and I have 4 kiddos, age 22 down to age 13, and we are unschooling-ish, AP parents who strive to use Grace-Based Discipline. I have been vegan for 16+ years for ethical, ecological, & health reasons. Also, I love to run and swim. I've done one 50k and would love to do another one in 2018. I'm a Nuun and Skirt Sports Ambassador.
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1 Response to Book: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

  1. Rae says:

    I read this book last year and it was a game-changer for me. So thankful and grateful to these authors for writing this book. Its contents helped clarify the spiritual abuse I once went through.

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