Recovery from Spiritual Abuse

This week’s email is taken from the Introduction to my Spiritual Abuse Recovery Workbook. It can be useful to you to have on hand when, and if, you find someone who needs help recovering from abuse and disillusionment. The Workbook is available on Amazon.

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.

Since 1975, I have been intensely involved in researching, counseling, and writing about religious groups that exert a high level of control over the personal lives of adherents. I am the founder of Watchman Fellowship, one of the leading ministries focused on this issue.

Through the years I have become very familiar with the pain and suffering individuals experienced at the hands of false spiritual leaders. The methods these leaders use to exert control over their followers leads to a loss of freedom of conscience and personal liberty.

Most of the groups I have dealt with are cults that you would recognize if I named them. I will not for one simple reason. My goal is to deal with the dynamics of control in a religious setting. To name any group is to put the focus on that group and therefore take away the focus from the control that is so spiritually and emotionally damaging. I want you to make the connection between the symptoms and methods I describe and the group of which you were a member. If there are points of connection, you may need the information in this workbook to free yourself from its clutches and begin a process of healing.

What I will describe is not limited to groups that are doctrinally outside the bounds of the Christian faith. This is a problem that arises from human weakness and need that frequently gets mixed up with religious practices and leads to problems that can affect doctrine or practice.

Human weaknesses will be found in every religion. Someone with a need might use religion to meet that need; if they use it legitimately, then all is well. However, if they misuse religion others are often at risk. Such misuse of religion is called spiritual abuse.

Usually someone in a position of power or influence is tempted to abuse his authority. The temptation to take shortcuts at the expense of ethics and the needs of followers is very real. I have found that the powerless and weak are seldom the perpetrators, because abuse is an exercise of power.

A prominent place is given in scripture to warnings about false teachers who bring in false doctrines that will ensnare believers and place them in bondage. Every book in the New Testament, except one, Philemon, contains such warnings. In Jesus’ own ministry a prominent place is given to His conflict with the spiritual abusers of His day, the Pharisees and religious rulers.

In this workbook we will look at the example of the Pharisees and their modern counterparts.

Over the years I have met with groups of what I call “dissidents” who have invited me to help them understand what happened to them in a religious setting. In those meetings I discuss the same things I present in this workbook. In group meetings I ask everyone present to agree not to share what is said with anyone not present. Confidentiality is crucial when discussing personal experiences.

I first describe the characteristics of legalism. From there I go to the marks of spiritually abusive systems. Last, I describe the eight criteria of mind control. At each of these areas, dissidents are given whatever time they need to discuss how a characteristic may have been displayed in their group. They begin slowly, cautious about what they can say, and who will hear them. But as the meeting continues the comments begin to flow. When the meetings are over people express relief that they are not alone in their experience and understanding that they were caught up in a system that stifled their God-given freedom to think and act for themselves.

Some dissidents even identify with the mind control model, the extreme far end of the spectrum of control.

As you read the descriptions of mind control you may say, “That is what happened to me.” Perhaps. But mind control is a much stronger version of the spiritual abuse characteristics you will read about later. It can literally cause people to drink the Kool-Aid. It sounds similar to spiritual abuse because it is operating on the same principles but to a more extreme degree.

I will provide insights into why some people get snared in spiritual bondage, and why others are susceptible to control and abuse.

I will describe some of the doctrines and cliché sayings that are used to compel submission.

Another fascinating topic will be the five roles that are typically played in high control religious systems. It is important for the individual who struggles with the issues of guilt, shame and doctrine abuse, to know that a comprehensive system was in place to control and manipulate them into submission.

Those who bring this kind of abuse on their followers may not even recognize what they are doing. When one falsehood is taught, another falsehood is required to support it, and then another to support that, re-enforcing the injurious system.

I will also describe what you must do to become whole again.

If you are in the depths of despair, you may wonder if your life will ever be peaceful again. It can and will if you make healthy choices and avoid those things that bring harm. My purpose is to describe the Truth and rely on the assurance of Scripture that “the truth will set you free.” The truth will provide you with the insights you need to discern whether you are experiencing legalism or spiritual abuse. It will give you direction so that you can gain freedom from the abusive control of others and find healing. The truth will also show you how you can turn your bad experience into a blessing to yourself and to others.

Some of the problems I will describe arise from personal needs that are met by illegitimate means that the perpetrator does not recognize as being illegitimate. He may respond to being taught. There may also be psychological problems that give rise to his abuse, or to a follower’s submission to false spiritual leadership. In such a case a licensed counselor should be consulted. It is my earnest hope that this workbook can help you process your experience, just as others have when they learned more, and were able to think through the implications of this information.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?

Psalm 27:1

November 5, 2021 E-Letter

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


Email: (If you would like to receive David’s current e-letters, request them here.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.