Opinion: Spiritual abuse can often be hard to see but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there 

(Photo by Deborah Haak-Frost)

Disclaimer: I do not attend, have never attended, and know absolutely NOTHING about the recent allegations surrounding Riverside Church. My hope is that proper investigations are underway, and the situation will be handled appropriately.

I’ve never strayed too far from my Christian upbringing, but it was far enough away to where I didn’t feel like myself. Nothing was right. I felt lost, stressed, and disconnected from God. In the last year and a half I have really recommitted to walking with Christ, and what a supernatural experience that has been! I won’t get into that now though, maybe later.

When I look back at where I was, and at how everything was going wrong, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for that disconnection. I created that separation, and by the grace of God was given the opportunity to return to Him on my own accord. On second thought, writing it that way makes it sound like I’m a saint. The truth is, I came face-to-face with my own mortality and in an instant, I knew that if it was my time to go, I wasn’t going out as a lukewarm Christian. It was an easy decision.

I’m back to what I was saying, I was living outside of God’s will for my life of my own accord. Not everyone can say that leaving the church (no particular religion or denomination) was of their own accord but rather they were pushed out, or left with no other option. Where I’m from, when someone no longer believes in/pursues God due to grievances associated with how they were treated by a religious organization’s leaders or members it was called “Church hurt.” The proper name for it though is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse occurs when a religious leader, such as a pastor, deacon, worship leader, etc. uses their authority to dominate and manipulate those whom they are appointed to lead. This type of abuse can happen in reverse where a majority of the congregation turns on the spiritual leader, and lastly it can occur amongst members of a congregation. All of it is damaging but I am of the opinion it is most damaging when the abuse is caused by elders within the church.

Congregants expect leaders to have a more devoted walk with God. They are trusting and vulnerable while looking to them for wisdom and guidance. So when the abuse starts it can be hard to see.

It can sometimes look like micromanagement of church staff, an expectation of obedience without questioning decisions, being silenced, or being shunned. It can also look like being required to dedicate long and tedious hours to achieving the pastor’s vision. It can look like regulating major life choices in an authoritative, domineering type of way.

Common examples include feeling forced into marriage to make up for previous sin, or continuing to suffer within a marriage that has more than met the biblical parameters for divorce. At the beginning of the pandemic I witnessed a new one, which was pastors harshly berating members and challenging the strength of their faith for not attending in person services despite COVID mandates in order to get bodies back into the pews.

The examples go on and on. What they have in common is the misuse of authority with the aim of achieving what the leader has determined to be their spiritual goals. Members are forced to question their own judgment and relationship with God.

God does not ask for us to work to the point of exhaustion. He does not call for us to move His kingdom forward while neglecting our own families, and the point of scripture is not for the purpose of fear-mongering. It’s sad to think about the number of people who have been driven away from the love of God because of power hungry, money hungry, lust driven “spiritual” leaders.

Maybe the leaders didn’t start out that way. Maybe they were blinded and lost their way over time. No one is perfect.

Before making allegations, it’s important to be very sure that spiritual abuse is happening and not personalities clashing. If a spiritual leader is being a good steward of their office this will include pointing out sin which may be difficult to accept. However if after investigating, a harmful pattern emerges, it must be corrected and sometimes that includes demotion because lives depend on it.

Never abandon personal discernment. Not even within the spiritual sect. A person’s title doesn’t always align with their heart posture. Gaslighting can happen in church too. So if you have to leave an environment because it is causing you trauma, leave. Leave the trauma, leave the person(s), leave a trail (by reporting it), but don’t leave God.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.


Any views or opinions expressed in “Living on Purpose” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

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