Trigger warning: This post contains depictions of abuse. Need help? Call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233, or visit RAINN. Names and any other identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of those described in this article.
The #MeToo hashtag has revealed horrific stories of sexual abuse around the world. The #ChurchToo hashtag has done the same, in the context of the church. As a marriage counselor and pastor, I’ve seen cases of sexual abuse that would make your skin crawl. They’re evil, inhumane, and an abomination to God.
But I’ve also encountered another kind of abuse that is equally appalling to God. It isn’t necessarily sexual in nature. It probably won’t gain a famous hashtag. It has become disturbingly prevalent in our culture — and yet it remains largely hidden.
It’s called domestic spiritual abuse.
Defining Domestic Spiritual Abuse
What is domestic spiritual abuse? While the National Domestic Violence Hotline lists several signs of spiritual abuse, the root of domestic spiritual abuse is the use of religious texts, religious principles, or one’s spiritual authority to control a family member.
What does that look like in practice? Here are three examples. They may seem extreme, but I assure you they are not unusual.
Bill has a high sex drive. When he wants sex, he wants it now. If his wife doesn’t reciprocate, he forces himself on her or verbally shames her for “failing as a Christian wife.” He justifies his behavior by citing 1 Corinthians 7:4: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”
Miranda hits her six-year-old daughter with a wooden paddle when she’s disobedient. Her daughter is often left bleeding, bruised, and limping. Miranda cites Proverbs 23:13 as her reason for disciplining this way: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”
Tom micromanages his wife’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 she confronts him on his controlling behavior, Tom cites Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
Domestic spiritual abuse may present itself as sexual (Bill), physical (Bill and Miranda), or emotional (Bill and Tom), but the common denominator—as shown by these examples—is a spouse or parent using God’s word to justify abusive behavior.
While every household dynamic is unique, here are 15 signs that spiritual abuse may be taking place in your home or that of someone you love. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it’s a start.
You may be experiencing spiritual abuse by a spouse or parent if they are 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 relatives.
- Threatening you.
- Confining you to your home.
- Sabotaging your friendships.
- Restricting your ability to access financial information.
- Forcing you to diet or exercise.
- Preventing you from working.
- Controlling your e-mail 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.
And yes, I’ve seen all of these behaviors. All in the name of Christianity.
Breaking the Silence Around Domestic Spiritual Abuse
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, and 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 abuse them even 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 that 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. Worst of all, God detests it (Titus 1:10-11,16).
While it may never receive a hashtag, let’s do our part to put an end to domestic spiritual abuse.