Tom micromanages his wife Sarah’s physical appearance to fit his personal tastes. He picks out her clothes, tells her how she can do her hair, and restricts her diet so she remains thin. When Sarah confronts him on his controlling behavior, he cites Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
Miranda is an overprotective mother. She homeschools her 17-year-old daughter, Kate, to prevent her from being exposed to rebellious teenagers. She won’t allow her to play sports, attend dances, or get her driver’s license. She cites 1 Corinthians 15:33 as her justification for parenting this way: “Bad company corrupts good character.”
Bill forces his wife Angie to have sex against her will. He’s rough in bed and occasionally strikes her when they’re being intimate. He cites 1 Corinthians 7:4 as his allowance for doing so: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”
What do these three scenarios have in common? A spouse or parent is committing domestic spiritual abuse. While these examples may seem extreme, I assure you they’re not. During my time as a marriage counselor and pastor, I’ve seen cases of spiritual abuse in the home that would make your skin crawl.
What Is Domestic Spiritual Abuse?
It seems appropriate to define domestic spiritual abuse before we go any further. Domestic spiritual abuse is using Scripture, biblical principles, or one’s spiritual authority to control a family member for selfish gain.
The abuse may be sexual (Bill), physical (also Bill), social (Miranda), emotional (Tom), verbal, financial, and/or psychological in nature—but the key is that the abuser uses Christianity to justify the behavior. The hard heart of the abuser causes the mind to interpret Scripture through a clouded, self-serving lens. It distorts biblical truth and squeezes out the Greatest Commandment to love God and love others (Matt. 22:36–40).
Why So Common in the Home?
Why does spiritual abuse tend to rear its ugly head so frequently within the family? Two reasons.
First, family members have tremendous relational power—the ability to bring us joy, misery, and everything in between at the drop of a hat. Since family members influence us so powerfully, it’s tempting to try to control them. Domestic spiritual abusers give in to this evil temptation.
Second, it’s relatively easy to get away with. Friends, extended family, the church, and legal authorities can’t see what happens once the doors of the house are locked and the shades go down. This makes domestic spiritual abuse almost impossible to prove, which is exactly what abusers want.
What Does It Look Like?
While every home and situation is unique, here are 15 signs that spiritual abuse may be taking place in your household. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it’s a start.
You may be experiencing spiritual abuse by a spouse or parent if he or she is doing any of the following in the name of Christianity:
- Physically harming you.
- Pressuring you to engage in sexual activity.
- Insulting you or calling you names.
- Isolating you from your family.
- Threatening you.
- Sabotaging your friendships.
- Restricting your ability to access financial information.
- Forcing you to diet or exercise.
- Preventing you from working.
- Controlling your email or social media accounts.
- Telling you what you can and cannot say in small groups, church, or other social settings.
- Locking you in rooms, closets, or basements.
- Taking away your access to transportation.
- Blocking your contact with counselors, mentors, or other spiritual figures.
- Punishing you for your sins.
And yes, I’ve seen all these. All in the name of Christianity.
God Hates It
How does God view domestic spiritual abuse? He hates it. He hates all spiritual abuse. In Titus 1, Paul rebukes Jewish Christians who were teaching heresy for selfish gain (sounds a lot like spiritual abuse, doesn’t it?):
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. . . . They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. (Titus 1:10–11,16)
God detests spiritual abuse.
Breaking the Silence
While spiritual abuse has been taking place in homes for centuries, few survivors come forward. Why do they remain silent? At least three reasons.
First, some survivors don’t know they’re being abused. They may be young in the faith and as-yet naïve to what the Bible actually teaches. Or they may come from a similarly spiritually abusive home and think the behavior is normal. Or they may love the abuser to the point that they’ve blinded themselves to the abuse. No matter the reason, many survivors are ignorant to domestic spiritual abuse. So they say nothing.
Second, some survivors are afraid nobody will believe them. Perpetrators are often respected people in the church community—elders, pastors, trusted parents, ministry leaders. They have spiritual and relational capital in the public sphere that survivors often lack. Understandably, survivors may assume the church will take the side of “spiritually mature” abusers. So they shut their mouths.
Third, survivors are often scared. Will coming forward split up their families? Will their abusers not only deny the accusations, but even abuse them more for speaking up? Will their abusers shame them as spiritually immature, crazy, deceived, or evil? These and many other valid concerns often prevent survivors from going public.
Pastors and church leaders, it’s long past time we stand up against all forms of abuse. This includes spiritual abuse in the church and the home. Domestic spiritual abuse is far more common than you think. It hurts innocent sheep daily. It destroys the fabric of families and churches.
While it may never receive a hashtag, let’s do our part to put an end to domestic spiritual abuse.
Editors’ note: All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of those described in this article. Anyone caught in an abusive situation may also call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233.