How to Spot Spiritual Abuse

In a high control group, the most important control factor is the flow of information.

We have all heard the saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” but the converse of that is that the lack of knowledge can be even more dangerous.

We are posting a number of e-letters Make Sure Ministries has received from David Henke, founder of Watchman Fellowship, Inc., an apologetics ministry, on a variety of subjects. They will post on Tuesdays into the foreseeable future. As always, we appreciate your comments. Please consider clicking on the link following this blog to learn more about Watchman Fellowship and what they have to offer. E-letters have been slightly edited for clarity.

The prophet Hosea said:

My people perish for lack of knowledge.

Hosea 4:6

If you don’t have the knowledge of how to survive a trek in a rain forest you probably won’t be heard from again.

Such an environment is hostile to almost all life forms. Human survival in such an environment is based on knowledge of the dangers and being able to adapt to them.

Interestingly, at least to me, religion can be like a dangerous environment where knowledge and adaptability are the two most important survival skills.

For the sake of putting my analogy in a Christian context let me say that some environments are not very dangerous, if at all, while others on the opposite end of the scale are deadly.

It should also be stated that the [biblical] Christian gospel is not dangerous to anyone, but the message of radical Islam is very deadly as witnessed by the extremities of Isis, the Taliban and Al Qaida, who refuse to accept any faith under their control but Islam.

Having set the scale of measurement between the extremes, what are the telltale signs to look for in any group that might be problematic? In my Spiritual Abuse Recovery Workbook, I list thirteen characteristics of a high control group. An analysis of the reasons for each of the abuses will help you to understand why they exist.

There are essentially two reasons for high control mechanisms to exist.

First, the “truth” of the group is not the truth at all and must be defended with more lies.

Second, the leader is a narcissist, or a controlling personality, and feels insecure or threatened by anyone around him who does not submit to his will.

I think you will see this with each of the abuse symptoms.

A Spiritually Abusive Group Will:

  • Claim a Superior Status With God
  • Focus on the Leaders Position of Authority
  • Provide No Accountability For Leaders
  • Try to Control Your Time and Sources of Information
  • Close You Off From Outsiders
  • Put You on a Performance Treadmill
  • Emphasize Conformity to Legalistic Rules
  • Use Fear and Guilt to Manipulate You to Comply
  • Blame Misfortune on Lack of Faith
  • Wound People Spiritually and Emotionally
  • Shut Off Discussion About Forbidden Subjects
  • Label Those Who Dissent
  • Label Former Members as Unspiritual

It could be very useful for you to keep this list readily at hand. Many times I have answered the phone to listen to a caller describing an abuse situation. They are usually confused about why it is happening to them.

I will go through this list and ask the person if the group does any of the things in the list. Most often they agree with virtually every one of them. That is when they understand that what they are in is a dysfunctional religious environment.

At that point I tell them they have two choices, leave and find healing which I offer to help them find, or, stay and fight for friends and loved ones. In the latter case I recommend they not choose this path if they don’t have enough emotional courage to carry it out.

My book Spiritual Abuse Recovery is available on Amazon in either digital or print format. Here is the link:


According to Jeff Vanvonderen, author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, the symptoms manifested by a serious spiritual abuse victim are identical to those of a victim of incest.

  • The ability to trust spiritual leaders is lost.
  • Religious jargon can trigger anger for many years afterward.

Therefore, avoidance of the sources of their trauma is the only recourse left. Evangelical churches are not immune either. Scores of thousands leave evangelical churches every week according to William Hendricks in his book Exit Interviews.

We should be aware of the controlling tendencies of fallen man. We should also stand up for God’s truth while practicing the same grace toward others that He showed to us while we were still sinners.

October 15, 2021 E-Letter

Copyright© 2019 Watchman Fellowship, All rights reserved. Used by permission of David Henke.


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