The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse {book review, helpful tips}

Since I was sick in bed this weekend, I caught up on some reading. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church is a comprehensive examination of spiritual abuse and its victims, abusive leaders and post-abuse recovery.

One basic purpose of the book is to help readers examine their own practice of Christianity first:

Are you practicing grace, allowing the Spirit of Christ to live through you in such a way that you help lift oppressive weights off of others and spiritually empower them to live? Or are you trying to force people to live under laws, rules or formulas for spirituality that cause them to feel weighed down, unable to measure up to your standards? (pg. 25)

I especially appreciated the definition of a Christian “growing in godliness”:

…they convey restfulness, which comes from being comfortable and at peace with God…they convey a sense of fulfillment knowing that whatever spiritual work they [are] doing is in God’s will instead of…striving for more perfection… (pg. 41)

For people who have been spiritually abused or had a hurtful church experience, we are accustomed to spiritual leaders who give us advice that focuses on our behavior. I remember the first time I met someone who just rested in her faith. She wasn’t overly concerned with outwardly religious behavior. I was almost annoyed by how easeful she was about her practice of Christianity. In fact, I mistook her peacefulness for laziness.

The truth was that all I knew of Christianity was abusive and unhealthy so meeting someone with healthy spiritual boundaries was like meeting a religious alien. I didn’t recognize it.

First of all, I had a distorted image of God. As the book points out, victims of spiritual abuse sometimes have an ‘overriding preoccupation’ to “somehow decipher God’s will for every area of life, down to whether or not it was in His will to have a certain soft drink (pg.41).” Um, yeah. [Think about how this is manifested in systems like Bob Jones University which requires a stringent ‘behavior code’ from its students].

A distorted image of God leads to a distorted self-identity; mainly, an identity based in shame: there is much “confusion between guilt and shame. Guilt is a valuable signal indicating a wrong behavior…shame is an indictment on you as a person…You feel shame even when you’ve done nothing wrong; you feel defective as a human being, and like a third-rate Christian underserving of God’s blessings and acceptance (pg.45).”

The book goes on to describe abusive spiritual authorities, saying that “if a pastor’s spiritual authority were real, he would not have to demand that others notice it…those who are in positions of true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power and credibility by their lives and message.” People naturally want to follow a leader whose life matches his message. An abusive spiritual authority is one whose message places a heavy burden on his followers while he himself refuses to lift one finger in carrying it.

Abusive spiritual leaders also may live double lives: preaching against sins they are committing themselves. Or, maybe they are really big on the importance of submission and obedience, all while preaching about this “from the pulpit of an independent, separatist church (pg. 123).” That was my personal experience. Our independent, separatist little church was reeeally BIG on submission, obedience and loyalty. Funny how that works.

What I found most helpful about this book were the lists that characterized spiritually abusive systems. For example, a spiritually abusive system is characterized by: power posturing, performance preoccupation, unspoken rules, lack of balance, paranoia, misplaced loyalty and codes of silence (pg. 187).

Sometimes, the very first step to understanding your abusive church experience is to recognize the defining characteristics. Although the book didn’t provide many practical ideas for HOW TO recover from an abusive church experience (Take Back Your Life provides much more in-depth recovery tips), The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is an invaluable resource for people trying to understand and make sense of their experience. I highly recommend it!

Related Reading:
*my review of Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships

*What not to say to someone who has suffered spiritual abuse

*My “no” is broken



  • Susan

    This is a great book. I read it awhile back when I was first reeling out of the door of an unhealthy church. It was reassuring, uplifting, and practical.

  • Toni Gatlin

    Good stuff! I so appreciate your perspective on the spiritusl abuse issue. Though I hesitate to say that I experienced it myself, I was certainly witness to and on the fringes of an abusive goup (Bill Gothard’s IBLP/ATI). There’s a thorough study of this book that digs pretty deep here:

  • jana

    “For people ….. we are accustomed to spiritual leaders who give us advice that focuses on our behavior. I remember the first time I met someone who just rested in her faith. She wasn’t overly concerned with outwardly religious behavior. I was almost annoyed by how easeful she was about her practice of Christianity. In fact, I mistook her peacefulness for laziness.”

    I finally get it. Thanks for a well written post! Several months ago, I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was. This is it. I don’t feel that I am at an abusive church but this is why I’m feeling restless.

    • Ty Alexander Huynh

      Jana, If you are talking about spiritual guidance from God, then you are likely correct that He wants you to pay attention to this topic of peace. However, you cannot jump to conclusions about what God’s whole message is. There may be more pieces to the message that you need in order to understand the whole thing. Having peace with God in any situation is important to have, but having an overly relaxed attitude about God and His laws is not a good thing. You need a good balance and the right knowledge to have a complete life with God. Every believer needs to know how to correctly follow God’s Spirit because getting God’s guidance without errors is NOT automatic like the church thinks. You must learn important principles so that you can get God’s interpretation of everything. Nobody can afford to keep running on the wrong conclusions of God’s Word and guidance, even if they may feel His peace and live in contentment.

  • Kansas Bob

    Another great post Elizabeth.

    “unspoken rules” were huge in the Fundamentalist church that I attended in my younger years.

  • Rachel N. Smith

    I love this book. As a counselor, it has been invaluable to me in understanding the experiences of spiritually abused clients, and in just understanding what to look for in general. I also love one of Jeff’s other books, Families where grace is in place. That one is a game changer! eshet chayil, elizabeth! I am looking forward to your book so much!

  • Teri Anne

    Last June, I left an abusive Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church that I had attended for 6 years. Before becoming a member, I attended a 5 month class which Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as the text. I knew that women were not allowed to vote in the congregation, but the class only mentioned women’s roles briefly. I loved the WELS sermons, which always talked about grace and never slammed us with the Law.

    Most of the parishioners were not very friendly, so I never received any kind of briefing on the unspoken rules. When I did break an unspoken rule, I was shunned so I never knew what I did “wrong”. The contrast between the sermons, catechism and the harsh unspoken rules of behavior left me extremely confused. Only now do I understand that I broke unspoken rules when I disagreed with the pastors, and it was 7 years before a chance remake made me realize that women were expected to obey their husbands. When my friend was severely reprimanded for successfully raising the money for a mission trip, I also learned that women were also never supposed to show any initiative.

  • pleschke

    Great stuff — I’m reading a book right now that parses out the thoughts, motives, and inner lives of abusers. it’s called “Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft. It is fascinating and terrifying and calls to mind specific people from my own past. It might be a good companion for this book — one of the book’s aims is to help women recognize the mind games abusers use, so they can get out faster.

  • Beth


    Have you seen or experienced spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church?

  • Margaret Feinberg

    Love the idea of examining and taking a closer look at how you practice Christianity. Thanks for the review, Elizabeth!

  • amanda crook

    I think my therapist reads your blog. She gave me a book on feelings and emotions, she tells me to incorporate my emotions and feelings with my rationality…

    • amanda crook

      I also left a cultic group…

  • Ariel Price

    My husband is like your friend, totally comfortable in his faith and not desperate like me to prove he’s good. It drives me bonkers, but I’m so thankful for him! Obedience is something that was so drilled into me at my church growing up that I have a very hard time feeling free from shame for the mistakes I’ve made.

  • Ty Alexander Huynh

    Elizabeth, Thank you for the wonderful review. There is a big problem in the church with incorrect teaching and treating people with contempt. The message about having peace with God is also important, but it should not be overemphasized. Teaching people about God’s laws is still very important because they are the foundations for His Kingdom. We need to have a good balance of peace and legal teaching in the church. Too many Christians believe that because they are saved, they can ignore God’s laws and covenants, or at least push all that aside as a fuzzy concept. This is not the right attitude to have, because God’s laws are still in effect and have serious consequences for breaking them. We have to remember that having eternal salvation saves us from the eternal condemnation of sin (breaking God’s laws), but Grace in Jesus NEVER took away His laws or other consequences of breaking them. That’s why it is still very important to teach about God’s laws and covenants properly – without judging anyone or treating them differently. Unfortunately, most leaders in the church today do not understand God’s laws correctly and so don’t teach correctly. The examples from the book are widespread in the church. This very serious problem happens because the church does not know how to follow God’s Spirit correctly so that they can get God’s interpretation of everything WITHOUT errors. It’s true that people who are anointed servants will have the evidence to back up their claims of authority to speak for God. I invite you to check my background in these matters in an article detailing everything you need to know to follow God correctly and move into the destiny He has planned for you as well as all His people. God’s fingerprint of authenticity is all over the guidance I write about. See for yourself here: .