Spiritual abuse can be found in churches, non-profits, and denominational organizations. It is not limited to fundamentalists or liberals, Christians or cults, but may run the spectrum of theological ideologies. My friend, Jeff VanVonderen, has come up with a definition of spiritual abuse in his bestselling book, co-authored by David Johnson, entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Using the book as a guide, the following is a descriptive definition of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is when a leader uses his or her religious position of authority to control, intimidate or dominate another person. It also occurs when a person in need of answers, help or support is denigrated for either questioning the "Lord's anointed" or not being "spiritual" enough to submit to the decisions of the religious authority.
The First Characteristic of a Spiritually Abusive Religious System:
There is a preoccupation with the leader's authority and the constant need to remind others of that authority.
Leaders will spend a great deal of time talking about their "authority" and reminding others of it. This posturing appears most frequently in ridiculing or shaming remarks toward those in the congregation, including demanding total attention and allegience to the leaders' words.
The difference between real spiritual authority and abusive spiritual authority is that the former actually possesses it, the latter only postures it. When Jesus taught he possessed spiritual authority because his life and his character backed up what he was saying.
One of the best ways to identify abusive authority is to pay attention to how much time and effort is expended by the religious leader in reminding others of his authority and how everyone else is supposed to submit to it. Abusive leaders are eager to place people under them - under their word, under their "authority" - and it is the clearest indication that they are operating under their own authority and not the Spirit of God's authority.