Spiritual Abuse is a Two Way Street

I am beyond thrilled to have Matt Appling of The Church of No People fame guest posting today. Matt is a great writer with fantastic, out-of-the-box thinking. I hope you enjoy his offering below. BTW Matt has a book coming out on April 1st, Life After Art. Go check it out.

Spiritual Abuse is a Two Way Street

Where does “spiritual abuse” come from?

That term kind of reeks of “culty” churches, of patriarchal systems that keep women in their place, of churches that keep secrets and wield the Bible like a weapon, of churches that use fear to keep control.

boxingglovesTo be sure, these are all serious forms of abuse, and they are a perversion of the gospel and the church.  In no way is this post going to make light of any of that, say it does not exist, or say that victims are just bitter and are making too big a deal of it.

But I want to look at spiritual abuse from another angle.  Because when we say “abuse,” we assume it’s always coming from one direction.  It inevitably comes from the man up front.

But I never really hear the conversation happening the other way.  I never hear people asking if they themselves have been perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

And I never, never hear anyone confess that they have spiritually abused their pastor.  It seems impossible, right?  How can a layperson abuse a pastor or a church?

Trust me, it’s possible.

Not Up to My Standards

What is the measure of a man?  What is the measure of a pastor?

Too many times than I can count, I have heard friends and acquaintances complain or denigrate (read: abuse) their pastor over his oratorical abilities.  Not his ability to interpret scripture or his character, but just his ability to entertain themFor one reason or another, a mere man is not able to live up to their sky-high standards of performance.

I have seen people withhold their attendance in protest of their pastor’s talents.  I have seen people show up to church, but passive-aggressively refuse to participate in worship.  Withholding approval from your spouses unless they do ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ or ‘Z’ isn’t love, and withholding approval from your church leaders based on their level of God-given talent to perform isn’t Christian love.

That’s Pastors’ Work

Likewise, I have heard so many people leave churches for the last time with the parting words, “I’m just not being fed.”

I get it.  There are times to break fellowship.  And maybe the pastor is just lousy.

But nine times out of ten, the first question I want to ask is how much time in prayer and Bible study do these people spend each week.  Chances are, it’s not much.  (We all know a lot of American Christians are pretty bad at this.)

If you starved yourself for a week, and tried to eat a week’s worth of food in an hour, would you be satisfied?

No?  Then how can you expect a church to spoon-feed you everything you need? You know how some couples fight over housework?  Some guys think that cooking meals equals “woman’s work?”  Well the same abusive attitude exists at church.  Keeping everyone spiritually fed somehow equals “pastor-work” while everyone else sits back and relaxes.  That’s not what church is about.

Raise My Kids

In many ways, churches have set themselves up to take on an impossible task, a task that they are almost certain to fail at.

I’m talking about the task of turning your children into Christians.  Millions of Christians (of various levels of luke-warmness) have outsourced their children’s spiritual formation to churches.  Take the kids to church and youth group, and blame the church when faith doesn’t stick.

I think we’ve seen how that turned out.  Fully 7 out of 10 young Christians today will give up their faith in college.  There is even some evidence that kids turned out better who didn’t go to youth group at all.

Two Way Street

It is sad and ironic to me how much we can talk about spiritual abuse, but the conversation only goes one way.  In a church landscape where thousands of pastors burn out and give up each year, we have to start fessing up.  The culture of abuse doesn’t just come from the stage.  It’s not limited to cults or fringe splinter churches.  It’s right there, in the church down the street.

What do you think?  Are the people in the pews just as capable of spiritual abuse as the guy behind the podium?




Matt Appling is a teacher and pastor.  He blogs at thechurchofnopeople.com.  His first book, Life After Art (LifeAfterArtBook.com) is being released April 1. 


35 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse is a Two Way Street

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  1. Great post! As someone who comes from a generation on one side having highly developed martyr complexes, I can say that God has dealt severely with me to crush that horrible, prideful attitude and spray pesticide on it whenever it tries to pop up again.

    I do think there is one category of leadership abuse that you have missed: The emotional/time vacuums. They are the people who are so needy for help, whether it is emotional, physical or monetary help, and will take as much as you are willing to give. However, they are unwilling to do anything other than complain about their situation. Then, when you decide to stop enabling them, they will talk trash about how unloving and un-Christ-like you are to all their friends, maybe even (theoretically) posting something on Facebook about what a horrible Christian/person you are.

    Unfortunately, I think I have just triggered my martyr complex again and need to have Jesus adjust my attitude. God bless!


    1. You are exactly right. Those that drain indefinitely are abusing the pastor and staff. Martyr complex, huh? I think there are a few people out there with that. God is big enough though.


  2. Matt, I want to affirm everything you have said about problems that men and women face when they are pastors. Good on you, because these are serious issues. However, I would like to raise a caution that what you have described is not spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is about manipulation, power, and control by appealing to God or the Bible to make the case. It is, too, an action that begins by someone in power as leverage to maintain that power. I wonder if we could affirm everything you have said here without making survivors of legitimate spiritual abuse feel like the definition of this serious evil has been cheapened.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Preston. I can see where there could be a differentiation with this topic. I am not Matt so i can’t answer for him.

      You said, “Spiritual abuse is about manipulation, power, and control by appealing to God or the Bible to make the case. It is, too, an action that begins by someone in power as leverage to maintain that power.”

      I wonder if this description could be applied to the countless committee-run and deacon-run churches nationwide. Where people outside of the pastorate are using God’s word or “prayerful” discussion to lean on and “manage” pastors all the while holding at ransom their jobs. There is clearly some manipulation going on in this scenario. I have attended a church that had a particular family that was the self-appointed “church guardian” protecting us from the possibility of an evil man. They also kept growth stagnated and outreach was next to nothing despite the pastoral effort. It could even point to search committees looking for a new pastor.

      These things were not mentioned in the post itself and maybe that is where this discussion comes from. Thanks for bringing it up.


      1. Hi Ken, please see my response to Jason, above. I have first-hand experience with the situations you describe, but I still want us to consider a lot of care in our word use.


      2. Thanks Preston. I appreciate your focusing on what is actually in the post. Many times comment threads are giant rabbit trails hitting every point out there save the post at hand. I am terrible at staying on topic. I see that you have not belittled or invalidated the points of Matt’s post just the label. Thanks for that. Good conversation and I get to learn a little of the behind the scenes Preston.


    2. Preston,

      I understand what you are saying. However, pastors are always challenged with power struggles within churches. If they are smaller churches those challenges can be extremely powerful and overwhelmingly threatening to a pastor’s family and his/her lively-hood. For example, if a person of influence who is not the lead pastor also wants control, then that is manipulation by power. It causes the house to be divided.

      Ken’s post here is well thought out as well.




      1. Hi Jason, I want to mention that I don’t make these comments from the outside. My Father was a pastor, now a director of missions, for over two decades and I saw first-hand what power struggles in churches looked like. My Mother suffers a debilitating chronic illness that was used by a deacon board as “proof” that my Father was committing a secret sin. Trust me, I know exactly how nasty this stuff can get. But all that said, that context firmly in mind, I still cannot make the leap to calling that sort of crap–let’s call it what it is–spiritual abuse. And my parents, who have spent a portion of those two decades counseling ex-cult members, would also not make that leap. For them and for myself, spiritual abuse is a term that deserves respect in being applied with care. What lay people do to their clergy is problematic, it is, at times, abusive, but spiritual abuse is about ongoing indoctrination of authority through manipulation and, as poor as some church atmospheres are, as hard as they can be, as vicious as they can be–which, again, I have first-hand experience with–to call them spiritually abusive devalues survivors of truly abusive situations.


    3. Preston, I completely see what you mean, but let me offer this. I am speaking from a place, not where the congregants have no control in their conversation, but from a relatively moderate place, where congregants do actually have some power and authority over the pastor. And where that power exists, even in small doses, there is room for abuse, even if we call it something else.


      1. Matt, why don’t we call it “something else” as you say, then? Yes, even in more moderate-leaning churches, there is room for abuse, but that doesn’t mean that consumerist attitudes (“I’m not being fed” or the worship isn’t entertaining enough) or childish spirituality (“complain or denigrate oratorical abilities”) qualify as abuse.

        Please do not diminish the power and importance of words like abuse to describe what is more aligned with disrespect, immaturity, poor boundaries, or unhealthy (but not abusive) relationships.


  3. While I think it’s uncommon, I think it can exist. Have you ever heard of the book “Clergy Killers”? http://www.amazon.com/Clergy-Killers-Guidance-Pastors-Congregations/dp/0664257534 Description: “Though some conflict in the church may be normal, there are some types of conflict which are abnormal and abusive. Within some congregations there are personalities who seek to unsettle the relationship between minister and congregation. In this engaging and useful book, G. Lloyd Rediger offers strategies to prevent abuse, support clergy, and to build healthier congregations.”


      1. You’re welcome. I used to be marginally acquainted with the author a number of years ago so that is why I am familiar with the book.


  4. Matt, I think Preston his the nail on the head. You have pointed out real, legitimate problems in this post. But to frame those problems in terms of “spiritual abuse,” if I’m being honest, makes my stomach turn. To use “abuse” in this context weakens the truly horrific nature of actual abuse of all kinds. Words matter, and it doesn’t seem that you have taken care to really understand what “abuse” actually is. It feels insensitive to abuse survivors. Please, let’s use words carefully, so that those who have experienced real, devastating evil done to them are not robbed of the vocabulary they need to talk about what happened to them.


    1. Do you think that there may come a time when we will possibly see this as abuse? For a long time, for example, “abuse” was seen as only physical and we know understand that it is much, much more than that.


      1. No, I do not believe we will ever come to see this as abuse. “Abuse” requires someone else to have some sort of power over someone else and use that power in an inappropriate manner. What Matt describes here is not that, and should not be put in the same category as abuse.


      2. Check out the link I posted in another comment. It can and does happen. It’s rare, but it apparently occurs often enough that a book was necessary.


      3. His bio says he is a pastor. What if these are experiences he has had that make him feel abused?


      4. “Abuse” is a very specific word. Matt’s being a pastor doesn’t absolve him of the responsibility to use the word accurately. That doesn’t mean his experiences aren’t hurtful, or frustrating, or difficult, because they absolutely are. But social workers, social researchers, etc., have been spending years studying and writing about what abuse is, what are the patterns that define it, etc.

        Again, pastoral abuse exists. There are definitely those situations in which people hold the ability to abuse a pastor through threatening to take away their job, ruin their reputation, etc. But that’s not what Matt is talking about. I suspect the book you mentioned below wouldn’t characterize any of the things Matt mentions in his post as abusive behavior. It’s poor behavior, definitely. But not abusive.


      5. So using a dictionary definition of abuse/abusive doesn’t count, then? Just trying to clarify, because I’m going by a basic definition and I think you are going by something very specific and nuanced. Maybe Matt can tell us what definition he is using, too.


      6. I still fail to see how someone leaving a church b/c they don’t like the pastor’s preach/teaching style or having ridiculously high expectations for the children’s ministry counts as abuse, even according to the dictionary definition. You’re not “using” a pastor or church when you leave or expect too much from them.


      7. As a writer and blogger, I consider it to be always in my court to clearly and contextually define terms that I will be using, especially if those terms relate to loaded, controversial, and/or sensitive topics. Yes, it takes effort, but then again, it also reduces the probability of misunderstandings and misconstruings like in Matt’s recent posts.


      8. Sorry, I didn’t see this until just now. Abusive: 1 characterized by wrong or improper use or action 2 using harsh or insulting language. (Merriam-Webster).

        Expecting a pastor to be everything one wants him or her to be is using that person improperly. The pastor should not have to be that way. If I expect that the children’s ministry is supposed to teach my kids everything, that is also improper use of it, because I have a responsibility to teach them too.


      9. I find it troubling that the way we use terms as weighty and important as “abuse” has become so steeped in relativism that the experiences/examples of unhealthy boundaries, spiritual immaturity, and consumerist attitudes that Matt provides have been defined as “abuse” because someone may “feel abused.” Matt, in his other post about why he doesn’t believe in equality, also mentions “people who feel slighted or abused” and those who “perceive inequality.” Abuse is not a relative term. It is clearly-defined and rigorously studied, not based on “feelings” or “perceptions,” and to misappropriate terms like “abuse” is to water it down both for the abuse survivor and society in general as we seek to understand the systems and individuals who perpetuate true harm.


      10. I don’t know. I think we do need to take into account how people feel, because to not do that diminishes their experiences, and everyone has experiences and stories that shape who they are. And while I agree with you that abuse has been rigorously studied, people have also have not had the same understanding of it through time. There was a time when only physical abuse was considered abuse, right? And then we learned through people’s experiences of emotional or verbal abuse.

        And if we look at basic definitions of words, as I stated elsewhere, these things *can* fall into them. Now, they may not be serious enough in a *more nuanced* discussion, but I thought he gave us some viewpoints to be considered, and I thought he got jumped on and dismissed and told “you’re wrong” too quickly–there wasn’t much in the way of asking questions/dialogue to understand both sides; it looks more like he is being told his opinions are wrong and that he must change them to agree with others. That’s not conversation.

        Regarding people who feel slighted, I thought he brought up some good points there too. For example, I have a couple of friends who have posted about how persecuted Christians are in the USA (one person gave the example that she was persecuted because she couldn’t help out at a See You at the Pole day). I explained to her that I didn’t think that was persecution–I said if she wanted to see persecution, go somewhere that Christianity is illegal. But not being able to help out at SYATP because it is supposed to be a student-led thing, is not persecution.

        And maybe that’s an example of the same thing going on here–she and I obviously are working with different understandings of the word, and we both think that we are right.


    2. Shaney, I appreciate what you are saying, and obviously I don’t wish to denigrate suffering and abuse, since I’m talking about it. But I’ve got to give props to Kelly’s illustration. I think our definition of abuse can be expanded without destroying the meaning. There is something abusive about a pastor who is not paid enough, being held up to ridiculously high standards, being on call for every little problem that a congregant might have, and then the congregant withholding themselves from the church when they don’t get their way.


  5. One thing that is really challenging for me in this post is Matt’s use of the phrase “Spiritual Abuse” to describe something that, while certainly bad and harmful, has no correlation with the accepted definition of this term. “Spiritual Abuse” is far more than hurt feelings or rude behavior.

    “Spiritual Abuse” is a recognized phrase in therapy and recovery research/literature that is fairly well defined. While the experience of Spiritual Abuse certainly differs in form and degree on a case by case basis, it is still a known and definable thing. To wring out the standard meaning of this phrase is a disservice to people recovering from Spiritual Abuse and to those unfamiliar with the term.

    In fact, it pulls the same sort of bait-and-switch trick that is common in situations of abuse. Changing the definitions of words, practices, or behavior IS a standard identifier of manipulative and abusive systems. (ie, an abusive person hitting or verbally abusing and then saying ‘it’s because i love you so much.’ the action of hitting or verbally abusing is wrong, but the redefinition of love to allow these things is also incredibly damaging.)

    And I’m NOT saying Matt or Ken or anyone else is an abuser or wants to promote any sort of abuse. I believe they are good men and absolutely are against abusive behavior and patterns, which is why I want to point out this similarity and encourage you to talk about these things in a different way. What you’ve presented here is damaging and doesn’t even address your real point: that people are jerks to pastors sometimes and that sucks.

    I am certainly sorry that Matt and other pastors and people in leadership experience this type of criticism. It sounds awful and I would love to talk about how to navigate a graceful response. I know that Matt cares deeply about people and serving well. But what Matt is writing about here, and what you published here, Ken, is not “Spiritual Abuse.” There is no “other angle” when you remove the word from it’s moorings.

    As writers, we have a responsibility to use words as best as possible in context. This is our burden of good communication: to research and analyze and present well. I believe that this piece fails to do so and I hope future discussions of these issues, both Spiritual Abuse and people-being-jerks-to-pastors will be better.


    1. First, Emily the link got this comment out in the pending column and I missed it. Sorry for that. It’s up now.

      Secondly, thanks for weighing in.

      Now, as for the two way street, others have shared and I’m inclined to agree that the possibility of pew-to-pulpit spiritual abuse exists. That would make the street two way. Matt has given his post a misnomer by mixing in the terminology he chose with the content he chose.

      It does sadden me a little that, though the issue of the use of spiritual abuse needed to be addressed, the correction of Matt, and by default me, has taken on a greater life than the content of the original post. Numerous readers agreed that these things take place and are horrible but they take a backseat to the correction of the writer. I fully understand the reassignment of word definitions (read Nazi propaganda) as well as abuse through experiences I am not willing to share here yet.

      At the end of the day I don’t think Matt is maliciously marginalizing spiritual abuse but he actually wanted to talk about the all too common mistreatment of pastors and staff by congregants.

      “As writers, we have a responsibility to use words as best as possible in context. This is our burden of good communication:…”

      Unfortunately the ease with which any individual can publish content makes it easy to err as well as dispense pure lunacy. Regretfully I am guilty on both counts far too often. I wouldn’t use that as an excuse to be purposefully hurtful or ignorant but just to point to the fact that there are a world of ideas out there. Many I completely disagree with and others that change my feelings/thoughts entirely.

      In closing (veiled church reference) I hate that our first interaction paints us in a perceived opposition. Though I don’t oppose you it feels that way. I would much rather find our commonalities first then vigorously disagree if the need arises. Those common points do well to bond us leaving the ability to disagree without threat of damage to our friendship.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciate your taking the time to read Matt’s post more so because your shared your heart.


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