understanding abuse

Spiritual abuse can take many forms and may be especially damaging to an individual's sense of well-being, conception of self, or view of the world leading to significant trauma. Experts have even used the term soul murder to refer to abuse of this type.

It is a common misconception that spiritual abuse arises only in religious groups teaching non-mainstream doctrines where leaders have the intention to corrupt, manipulate, or exploit. In fact, spiritual abuse is so insidious because it can occur in groups that look and feel normal to the person involved. Below are some common examples of spiritual abuse. Ask yourself which of these you have observed within Dwell Community Church.

Significant pressure  or the explicit requirement to submit to a spiritual authority with little ability to dissent or disagree.

Unreasonable control or pressure on an individual's ability to make personal decisions related to spiritual or non-spiritual life.

Perceived or actual threats to remove the benefits of the religious community in exchange for compliance with authority.

False accusations or repeated criticism labeling an individual as disobedient, rebellious, or lacking in faith, especially in front of others.

Attempts to isolate or discourage an individual from engaging in relationships or prioritizing activities outside of the group.

Expectation to engage in fervent activity within the group to the detriment of external relationships or responsibilities.

Well-intentioned religious practice can result in abuse, leading to long-term psychological consequences.

Do the abusers intend to inflict hurt? In most cases, probably not. They usually are unaware of what they are doing to people in the name of God. They may, in fact, be convinced that their behavior is what the Lord has mandated. What others interpret as control they may view as caring for the flock. Ken Blue notes that 'spiritual abusers are curiously naïve about the effects of their exploitation. They rarely intend to hurt their victims. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don't notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers.'

Recovering From Churches that Abuse

A church does not need to meet the definition of a full-blown cult to engage in spiritual abuse.

There is a lot of information in the public sphere related to spiritual abuse by religious groups readily recognized as cults due to their obviously heretical or extreme practices. However, a church does not need to be extreme to engage in spiritual abuse. Below are some characteristics common to abusive churches, many of which are obvious within Dwell Community Church.

Authority

The potential for abuse arises when leaders of a group assert authority in a manner that lacks open accountability or the capacity to question and challenge interpretations and decisions made by those in power. This authority may be engendered by a natural feeling of spiritual superiority within the group rather than as the result of a dramatic, authoritarian power play. Even within groups that have a hierarchy of elected leaders, internal dogmatic belief may be so strong that there is still relatively little ability to dissent from the group representing authority at the top of the organization.   

Unwavering obedience to religious leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the group would be less easily achieved if analysis and feedback were available to members from the outside. It is not without reason that leaders of abusive groups react so strongly and so defensively to any media criticism of their organizations.

Churches that Abuse

Defining Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse may be defined in many ways, but perhaps one useful definition is that spiritual abuse takes place when spiritual leaders to whom people look for guidance and nurturing use their authority to control or manipulate rather than to spiritually empower. Though most churches engaged in abuse are likely not aware of the abuse that they inflict on members, the evidence often becomes clear when members and non-members complain of mistreatment which fundamentally undermines spiritual and psychological wellness through excessive control, public shame, rigid and burdensome expectations, or expulsion from the community itself.

Church Abuse Questionnaire

Download the following questionnaire sourced from Ronald Enroth's book, Recovering from Churches that Abuse and answer the questions for yourself. Are there patterns and themes that feel similar to the practices of Dwell Community Church?

or download a full copy of: 
Churches that Abuse
 Recovering from Churches that Abuse

 

When our trust is violated by those who have been accorded society’s respect because of their special role as spiritual caretakers and shepherds of God’s flock, the pain, injury, and disillusionment can be devastating. 

Ronald Enroth
Recovering from Churches that Abuse

Despite the sheer volume of claims of abuse against Dwell Community Church over the years, responses from church leadership have been scant yet troubling, often blaming victims.

The following slides include articles and essays identified on the Dwell Community Church website which discuss spiritual abuse. As a warning, some victims may find the following slides to be triggering. Flip through the slides to see quotes chosen directly from the articles, or read the articles on the Dwell website yourself by clicking on the corresponding link. To read real accounts of those who have been abused by or otherwise encountered the negative aspects of the church, visit the website, below, where survivors have collected their stories.

Group Psychological Abuse Scale

This scale was designed to evaluate certain aspects of religious, psychotherapeutic, political, commercial, and other groups for use in treatment and research.

The major apprehension surrounding cults is not that they represent new religious creeds, dissenting political views, or alternative therapeutic methods.  The driving concern is that these groups tend to abuse their members, and sometimes nonmembers, unlike bona fide new religious (and other) movements, which treat members and outsiders with relative respect.