The rise and fall of spiritual abuse

With the popularity of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, people are talking more and more about spiritual abuse.  Which seems like a cue to hit publish on a series I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

I began a deep dive into researching the topic of spiritual abuse in the spring of 2020 – when Steve Timmis was removed from heading up Acts29.  What was weird to me was that the accusations laid out by some folks in Timmis’ church sounded…fairly standard?  I mean, clearly not great, but I was disturbed by how non-shocking I found them.  That seemed like a good indicator I needed to do a little exploration into my own brain and the nature of abuse of power.

Abuse of power, spiritual abuse – these are such big words.  And such nebulous terms.  It makes me crazy.  I like clarity.  I like criteria and checkboxes, but the reality is, abuse is often a complicated spectrum.

In my studies, I found this definition helpful:

Spiritual abuse is any form of abuse that is characterized by a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context.**

any form of abuse….

‘Any form of abuse’ means it could be psychological, emotional, or physical.  Physical abuse is generally the easiest for us to identify.   Emotional and psychological abuse are always a little harder to define.  Which leaves its victims, (and strangely even its perpetrators) often confused as to what really happened.

characterized by a pattern…

Coercion is more effective when there has been a pattern of it.  When your brain has spent years watching others experience consequences for dissenting, those memories you’ve logged will kick in and add to the pressure to fall in line.

of coercive and controlling behavior…

One thing I like about this definition is that it highlights a pattern of ‘coercive and controlling behavior‘.  It’s defined, not just by how we feel in an environment – (although that is an ESSENTIAL thing to listen to) – but how the person or system behaved.  Important note – (and more on this coming soon) – it is NOT defined by how the perpetrator felt or what they intended.  A person might believe they are acting in love for an individual or out of love for God and His word, and they could still have a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior. 

in a religious context…

A religious context lends a unique power to spiritual abuse.  A shared faith or spiritual narratives can keep perpetrators oblivious of their abuse (“this is what God wants”) and can keep victims trapped if they buy into the same ideas.


While my deep dive into the existing research began wholeheartedly last spring, I’ve been writing and reading on this topic for at least six years.  But weirdly – I’ve been scared to share any of my writing.  I’m aware that it’s a triggering topic for many.  I’m aware that none of us who care deeply about spiritual things can be unbiased.

I’m also aware, many people have brains like mine and long for clarity and light to be shed around the confusing corners of abuse rather than the obvious ones.   We hear a lot about the abuse that takes place in the land ruled by those who use God as a cover for their lust for power and control, but there is also abuse that takes place in the land ruled by those who love God and that – my friends – is deeply confusing.

So, this series is an attempt to detangle some of that mess.

Topics I’ll be diving into:

  • Intentionality: accidental abuse is still abuse;
  • Key characteristics of spiritual abuse;
  • The impact of spiritual abuse;
  • Specific narratives in “reformed” church culture that might get twisted; and,
  • Signs and steps for healthy culture

Stay tuned.  Share your own thoughts, feedback and stories along the way.  Let’s dig in together.


This post is a part of a series on spiritual abuse.  A lot of this content is from the research of Dr. Lisa Oakley from Chester University.  I highly recommend her book** with Justin Humphrys if you want to learn more about this! (And that’s where the definition used came from!) 

2 thoughts on “The rise and fall of spiritual abuse

  1. Thank you for diving into this. A friend sent me here as I sort through some complicated feelings around our current church situation.

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