[DANGER!] 6 MASSIVE Warning Signs Of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is a scary subject that we have to talk about.

Over the last year, I’ve read a number of books about incredible, powerful, visionary people who achieved incredible things, only to have everything fall apart due to their own self-destruction.

I’ve read sobering stories of bad pastors who inflicted spiritual abuse (Jimmy Bakker), deceitful startup founders (Elizabeth Holmes), and obsessive athletes (Tiger Woods).

I’ve also witnessed the profoundly destructive power of bad pastors and spiritual abuse first hand.

What struck me as I read these books was that in both the “secular” world and the church, destructive leadership tends to look the same. In other words, the same things that caused Jimmy Bakker to implode also led to the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company “Theranos” (once valued at $1 billion).

And Tiger Woods, though not necessarily a “leader” in the same sense as a pastor or CEO, imploded for many of the same reasons.

More and more, it’s critically important to be able to identify spiritually abusive, dangerous, destructive pastors BEFORE everything falls apart.

Few things cause Christians to become disillusioned more than being ripped to pieces by spiritual abuse in the church. Few things do more to sully the name of Jesus more than abusive spiritual leaders.

Dave Harvey puts it this way:

There are few things more dangerous to a church than a pastor who is extraordinarily endowed on the gifting side and extraordinarily deficient on the character side. That guy is a decaying tie rod waiting to break. The progress can be impressive until character collapses.

Here are six bright red warning signs of spiritual abuse.

  1. He surrounds himself with “yes” people
  2. Critics are isolated
  3. Loyalty is prized over diversity
  4. Refusing accountability
  5. Leading by force of personality
  6. Refusing to believe anything is wrong

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding spiritual abuse. What exactly is spiritual abuse?

Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, uses their power and influence to manipulate and control people. A spiritual abuser is not concerned with promoting the well-being of those he serves. Rather, he’s only interested in how people can further his plans and agenda.

What does this look like in real life?

Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader uses their power and influence to manipulate and control people. Click to Tweet

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #1: A Bad Pastor Surrounds Himself With “Yes” People

Godly spiritual leadership is about helping people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. It’s a wonderful thing when a leader desires to see people going full-throttle for God.

As Richard Blackaby puts it in his book Spiritual Leadership:

spiritual abuse in the church

Unfortunately, what often happens is that pastors and spiritual leaders conflate God’s plans with their own plans. What often starts as good and godly ambitions can curdle into spoiled, selfish ambitions, which then leads to spiritual abuse.

They say they want to gather thousands of people and create massive movements and do giant things “for God”. In reality, it’s more about creating something that will shine the white-hot spotlight on them instead of God (even though they might not recognize it as such).

The problem with this (apart from the obvious pride and glory stealing), is that creating massive movements requires massive amounts of momentum. To generate momentum, everyone has to be on board, eager to make the pastor’s vision a reality.

Those who challenge the pastor and the vision only slow things down, making it really difficult to pick up speed and achieve the “big things”.

And so spiritually abusive leaders and pastors surround themselves with people who always say, “Yes.” Those guilty of spiritual abuse are quick to speak and slow to listen, and they need people who will always back them up. The inner circle – those closest – will support every decision the pastor makes, no matter how destructive or ludicrous.

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #2: Critics Are Isolated

This is closely tied to the previous point. Not only are critics cut out of the spiritual abuser’s inner circle, they are also isolated. After all, the leader can’t afford to have critics talking behind his back.

And so they do everything they can to isolate and discredit critics, smearing their character, accusing them of lacking faith, saying their understanding of the Bible is wrong, and even spreading lies about them. The pastor guilty of spiritual abuse wants his followers to have nothing to do with critics and seeks to discredit them as ungodly sinners who are holding back God’s plans.

The sad reality is that those labeled “critics” often start as close confidants of the pastor, but once they begin to push back, they are cut off. Instead of being able to provide guardrails for the roaring ambition of the bad pastor, they are sidelined and slandered.

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #3: Loyalty Is Prized Over Diversity

In order for a church or spiritual movement to be healthy, a diversity of opinions is required. In Christ, we are all priests to God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and given unique gifts to build up the church.

bad pastor

But this doesn’t work for the spiritually abusive pastor or spiritual leader. Diversity leads to dissent, which slows momentum and keeps him from achieving his grandiose plans. He doesn’t want a variety of opinions, he wants loyalty. You’re either in or out, for or against.

And if you’re not all in, you’re accused of being disloyal. Of not being a team player. Of being a naysayer and downer. Of not believing in the mission.

Those who are loyal are promoted to positions of honor, while those who criticize are ostracized. Spiritual abuse often deploys shame and fear and bullying against those who aren’t loyal.

Spiritual abuse often deploys shame and fear and bullying against those who aren't loyal. Click to Tweet

A sure sign that things are going downhill is when everyone in leadership thinks, acts, and even speaks alike. Additionally, if the leadership team gets smaller and smaller, it’s a sign that the pastor is hoarding power and promoting only the most loyal followers.

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #4: Refusing Accountability

A spiritually abusive pastor or leader doesn’t like to be held accountable for his decisions. Because of this, he’ll take actions specifically designed to minimize accountability. Often times, this involves creating odd leadership structures where those who are supposed to hold the pastor accountable are unable to do it.

They (the accountability) may be misled or kept in the dark about the leader’s actions. Or, when push comes to shove, they may lack the formal power to hold the pastor accountable.

The result is that it may look like he’s being held accountable when in reality he can do whatever he wants. When spiritual abuse is present in the church, accountability is almost always lacking.

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #5: The Pastor Leads By Force Of Personality

This one is a little trickier to evaluate and should be examined in conjunction with the previous signs. Spiritual abuse can be a subtle thing. Most bad pastors don’t seem like bad pastors. They’re often charming, dynamic, and even visionary. They are forces of nature, charismatic, able to inspire people to do hard things.

But the personality is often a facade, whitewash splashed over a tomb. On the surface, they appear to be prophets with a direct connection to God. In reality, they’re deceivers who don’t fear the Lord.

It’s the dynamic personality that often causes people to allow destructive spiritual abuse to go on for far too long. They can’t reconcile the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the bad pastor, and so they endure spiritual abuse and hope things will get better.

Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #6: They Refuse To Believe Anything Is Wrong 

Sadly, most bad pastors refuse to believe that anything is wrong with their leadership style or the way things are headed. They remain convinced that everything is great, up until the point that everything falls apart.

And even if they do harbor doubts, they certainly don’t share them with others. That would be an admission of wrong, of fallibility, of weakness, of insecurity. It would be an acknowledgment that maybe, just maybe, God isn’t on their side. And so they are always full of bluster and bravado, making grand claims about how swimmingly things are going.

The result is that things go from bad to worse to total implosion. Many people get hurt, the Lord’s name is dragged through the mud, and the movement usually falls apart. Even if it doesn’t, it’s only a shell of it’s former “glory”.

Don’t Tolerate Spiritual Abuse

If you suspect that your pastor is a spiritual abuser, don’t hope that things will get better. That rarely, if ever happens.

Instead, talk to someone outside your normal circle of friends and ask their opinion. Share specifics with them, including all the red flags. Getting an outside perspective is helpful because it can be hard to make sense of everything when you’re in the middle of it. Additionally, bad pastors are often manipulators, able to explain away every action, no matter how egregious.

Whatever you do, don’t tolerate spiritual abuse. It will leave you hurt, disillusioned, and feeling betrayed.

God has better things for you. Joy will come in the morning.

Read next:


    • I don’t believe so Kathryn. Steve was describing what is called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There is a big difference between NPD where one is born without a conscience and someone who grew up in Palm Beach who never had to struggle. The latest study on clergy, found that 1 in 3 have pathological traits of NPD (Hand, G. & Puhls, D..) This study was on the Canadian Presbyterian Church. The people Steve was describing in the article are dangerous. Within the Reformed camp little has been done collectively to understand mental illness let alone these high conflict people who seek out leadership positions to lord it over people that they see as pawns. These people are in a fight for their own glory and their fight is with God Himself.
      There is a big difference between an confident extrovert and someone who is devious and evil to the core.

      • I have been married to a Narcissistic pastor for 17 years! I found this article because I needed to see what spiritual abuse look so like as I have been enduring that too. His most recent message was preached at me to correct me when it is really him rebelling against God. These people are monsters and have no place in the house of God! I am now seeking to end this nightmare, but I am so worried about the people that trust him. They are the most crafty and evil people you will find and people don’t have a clue. Get away fast!

    • Now just think of Obama… same thing, right? Don’t even think of Hilary! Whew!

  • I’m thinking there are varying degrees of “bad”. A former pastor comes to mind who had many of these flaws; although it was not complete and total in any of the 6. For example, he didn’t refuse accountability or keep out diversity, but he did discipline some members who differed from him or he disciplined before listening to the member in question – making assumptions about behavior and choices.

  • I been through everything you just talked about and you hit the nail right on the head. This pastor and I were good friends until I try to tell him about something he needed to be corrected on. I was the Chairman of the Deacon board. I believe you should always surround yourself with people who are going to tell you the truth whether you like it or not. That’s a true friend.

  • Good observations. Our church had an ex-minister who sought to undermine the then current pastor by nourishing sinful thoughts and attitudes of various members against the then minister. He was so nice and so supportive of the pastor to his face, but behind his back he would agree with any and all criticisms of him, fanning the flames of discent. Always he would seek to get the member to vocalise the issue while he remained silent in the background (various reasons for this given). He was very liberal, sat in authority over the Word of God and sought to question and weaken the faith of believers rather than encourage and build them up. He was very destructive, but also very popular with those who only sought a social club type church.

    It also seems one common trait in all six mentioned by yourself is that of PRIDE and self-love. The focus of the minister is themselves and not Christ. They point people to themselves, ther teaching and ministry and rarely ever seek to glorify Christ in humility.

  • Thank you for posting this – it’s been really helpful. Points 1-6 are unfortunately why I felt I needed to leave my previous church last year….

  • I read through these six warning signs, hoping that maybe two of the six would apply, proving to me that what my family was put through really wasn’t so bad. Nope. All six. The more I read, the sicker I felt. How do we communicate this to the ones we love who are still there? They don’t see it.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that. Honestly, I don’t think you can make people “see” things. The only thing you can do is pray that God opens their eyes.

  • So I recently sat through a message, where the visiting minister said unless you can say that the church has been disconnected from Christ, you shouldn’t leave. If I’m seeing these things you wrote about in my church and pastor, how do I sift through THAT advice?

    • Well it’s certainly not easy. I think if you’re seeing these signs in your church, it should at least raise some red flags for you.

  • First, I must say, the warning signs of spiritual abuse are define so clearly in this article. There are many good pastors, but there are also many bad ones. I’m a firm believer that God is gonna judge spiritual leaders more harsher than members of a congregation. In my opinion, spiritual abuse means a spiritual authority or abusive pastor, tries to control people by some type of action (holding things over their heads) to make sure they keep them submissive and agreeing with them. Spiritual abuse is strictly connected with spiritual manipulation and is not God’s plan for promoting spiritual growth. I also believe if you have to say “yes” to everything, you’re in a cult and God isn’t in it.

    This article is so on point for today’s churches. Members of congregations can see these type of things happening and turn their heads away. You and I both know that God is not pleased. Christians are too afraid to speak out about bad pastors because, they have been brainwashed that God will inflict some type of punishment on them. It’s sad to see how God’s people will look up to man per se and never realize that Jehovah God is the true Creator of the Universe. I do agree that all things are to be done decent and in order, no one should ever be slammed or slandered. It’s up to Christians to make sure that there is accountability and transparency throughout the ministry that they are apart of.

    Leadership has become so important to me because each generation is so different. They are growing wiser, but weaker. If society keeps going like it’s going who will be here to stand for right. I’ve started writing about “leaders and leadership and I have published books on this subject. Please check out my author’s page at Amazon.com?

    • I don’t agree. I watch many round table discussions he has held. He listens to experts in the field. He appoints people who are successful and highly respected to tackle the big problems. He is a problem solver who directs and holds people accountable. I’m sure he’s a tough guy to work for but a leader who gets results is someone you want working for you, especially in the toxic environment of Washington D.C. I’ve worked for a tough pastor and it made me better. That’s different than the 6 points listed here.

  • Thank you so much for this, Stephen. It means a great deal to us as we recently left our SGC church, having experienced all of the things you mentioned. Knowing your history (somewhat) makes it that more meaningful to us to have you say all that you’ve said. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you to do.

  • This message is incredible. Many church of God have been turned upside down because of spiritual abuse( speaking from a first hand experience) but thank God for Holy spirit that intervene before damages could be done. In these latter days God will pour the Holy spirit on the body of His son(Jesus Christ) and every spirit of leviathans that are dividing the church will be bound in fire. Thank God for the wisdom He gave to you to share this message. More anointing on you sir

  • Spiritual abuse is a real thing, and I agree, it should not be tolerated. What I did not hear is how important it is to pray. It is easy to point fingers and judge, but much more effective to pray for the Pastor and the sheep He/She are leading. We do not war against flesh and blood. Let’s BE the church and lift one another up. If Leaving a church body is the only solution, then do so committed to pray. Pastors are prime targets for the enemy. Love always triumphs over evil.

    BTW… throwing digs at our president makes us just like the world 🙁

    • Yes, we really really must pray. I totally agree. And I wasn’t trying to throw digs at the president. I was just responding to what had been said.

  • To say this is the president is just wrong. He doesn’t claim to be a pastor or a spiritual leader of any kind. Wow. I go to a church that appears this way and have never been able to articulate the issue. Thank you for putting into words what my heart already knew. I left once before and this certainly helps me see that was right to do and I will now go for good. Sad.

    • I’m glad it was helpful. And I think people were just saying there may be some similarities in leadership style with the president. You’re right – he doesn’t claim to be a spiritual leader.

  • Stephen,

    Is it possible that you are addressing your history in SGM while casting it in a general light? If yes, the generality could lead to unfavorable judgment about any pastor/spiritual leader who is leading a large or growing work. Any disagreement with a leader could be cast as an issue of the pastor’s pride.

    Churches that function as an eldership rather than congregationally are ripe to be accused of abuse and of being “yes men.” Likewise, pastors of churches in “movements” are subject to being assigned all of the qualities and faults of whomever is/was most prominent in that movement. It amounts to sinful judging.

    It would be better (IMO) to just identify whom/who you’re speaking of, so that a rash of “this describes my pastor(s)” doesn’t break out.

    Finally, for those who have been out of a movement for years, yet still addressing the problems of where they no longer are, I’m not sure the Lord aligns with the continual interest and disparaging of that which you’re no longer apart… and have filtered/limited knowledge of where that group/movement is today.

    Pastors, churches, and movements adjust, improve, and revise their thinking and behavior after confronting sin and bad patterns, just as I’d hope you and I do. We are not the same person we were 10 years ago. We’ve worked through the sins and foibles from back then, and now we’re working on our current, hopefully improved selves.

    We shouldn’t have to continually respond to questions about our sin from 10 years past.

    Hopefully, most of us are not currently sitting in churches where points 1-6 apply. If so, we can be prayerful as we humbly bring the issue(s) before the elders. And if we cannot find common ground, we can humbly move on, without disparaging the place that we left.

    Besides, why cast your pearls before folks unless you have a loving desire that they blessed by changing their sinful ways. If it’s just publicly sharing your opinion about their sin, that seems counterproductive. I’ve seen too many people wander in their search for a church because they bring their judgement about their previous church into every new situation. Plus, it keeps you focused on “them” years later, when you could be pouring your life into your current church.

    Greet your dad for me! He’s a hero of mine, and from what I hear, a great pastor with none of the 1-6 faults! ? ??

    • Hey Jay!

      I appreciate your thoughts. I actually wasn’t really writing about my experience in SGM and wasn’t trying to disparage the movement. I was writing based on a bunch of things, including people I’ve talked to, books I’ve read, and some personal experiences I had in my own church (not SGM broadly).

      I don’t feel comfortable talking about SGM, or any movement as a whole. Movements are different than churches. While there certainly can be abuses in movements, it seems to cause the most *personal* damage in churches. I hope that makes sense.

      How do you know my dad?

      • Stephen, I know your dad and Mom from coming out to Lord of Life Church a couple of times. I actually met you and your brother and had lunch at your house. 🙂

        Plus, your dad’s music is the primary soundtrack of most of my Christian life.

        He and I chatted recently about these issues. I have the highest respect for everything about your dad.

  • Stephen, the “?” and “??” At the end were supposed to be a smiling face and a Peace Sign! I guess the iPhone emojis don’t work here.

  • Great article except for this bit: “In order for a church or spiritual movement to be healthy, a diversity of opinions is required.”

    We need to be careful with this type of statement. If you mean for it to dovetail in with your next sentence, which correctly promotes the need for various gifts within the church in order to build up the church, then yes, we need all of those different gifts.

    But, if you mean a variety of viewpoints, opinions, doctrines, etc., then a resounding no. The church doesn’t need an “opinion”: it needs the truth of God’s Word!

    I think you mean the former, but folk could very easily extrapolate the latter, and that’s deadly…

    • I agree with you. I did not mean a variety of false doctrines! Just the true word of God. Although I think there can be room for disagreement depending on the doctrine. Obviously, certain ones are non-negotiable, but others (like paedo vs. creedal baptism) don’t need to drive a wedge between brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • I have been a pastor for 30 years. Every pastor has a multitude of voices coming at him at the same time. A few of these voices are abusers themselves. If the pastor doesn’t bend to their will they label him a “bad pastor” under these categories. Of all the pastors I’ve known only a very few would legitimately fit into this description. Far more common are the few bad members who abuse the pastor. Almost every pastor I know has experienced some of that. Hebrews 13:17 encourages the church to work with their leaders for the good of all. When anybody wants to label someone a “bad pastor”, they should first look into their own hearts.

  • If offering counsel to the brethren, it should be complete. Maybe rather than agreeing with criticism of our president, you could gently remind them of Gods instructions in Romans 13 regarding government leaders.

  • I left a ministry I loved because the leader was all six of these examples and more. I went to the church and received no help. Healing from this abuse is long and slow. I ask the Lord to use the circumstances for good.

  • That place of lack of accountability many fall there.
    There are other bad qualities of bad pastoral leaders if I may shed abit of light on them .
    Immortality especially sexual promiscuity I.e prostitution,pedophiling minors,masterbation,e.t.c.
    Spiritual witchcraft using the anointing vested upon them.
    Nepotism especially where family members hold key positions in the church leadership.
    Respecting and compartmentalization of members as per their earnings!
    Fighting other men of God especially those who are anointed than them especially in miracle working.
    It is only maturity and endurance that can keep believers in some churches.
    I am not out to attack anybody because there are men of God who are respectable.

  • My husband and I attended a church where the pastor exhibited all the above characteristics. We left, along with quite a few other people. What saddens me are the people who still attend this church and don’t realize how they are being manipulated and treated.

  • Most people who don’t agree with their leaders are rebels.
    Old men dream dreams and it becomes the vision for young men to attain.
    I believe that what you have posted here only encourages disloyalty in churches.

  • Very interesting piece, I just wish you would validate your points with scriptures from the holy Bible.

  • I agree with most of the signs but one; which is, prizing loyalty over diversity. This doesn’t suffice in instances where your church is brooded with disloyal followers who are not interested in the move of God’s work. I recommend the Book; Loyalty and Disloyalty by Bishop Dag Heward mills

  • Thank you for this. It is very helpful in our current situation where all six are present.

  • Stephen

    I agree with much of what you say about pastors who abuse.
    There is no excuse for abuse.

    Abuse – dictionary
    1 – use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse.
    2 – use or treat in such a way as to cause damage or harm.
    3 – speak in an insulting and offensive way.

    And, Since leaving, Today’s Abusive Religious Systems…
    Because of these abusive pastor/leader/reverends…
    I have different questions about today’s pastors.

    Have you ever noticed?
    Most of what today’s pastors get paid to “DO”?
    Is NOT in the Bible?

    In the Bible? Can anyone name?
    One of **His Disciples** who was “Hired” as a…
    Paid Professional Pastor, in a Pulpit?
    Preaching, to People, in Pews?
    Weak after Weak?
    In a church?

    Have you ever noticed?
    The “Titles/Postions,” these abusive guys take?
    Can NOT be found in the Bible?
    For one of **His Disciples?**

    In the Bible? Can anyone name?
    One of **His Disciples** who took the “Title” pastor? Lead pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or under-shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?

    Have you ever noticed this about “Titles?”
    “Titles” – “Seperate?”
    “Titles” – “Elevate?”
    “Titles” will be used to – “Control” and “Manipulate?”

    In my “church” experience…
    No matter how loving… eventually…
    No matter how humble… eventually…
    No matter how much a servant… eventually…

    Today’s, “Titled,” pastor, leader, reverend…
    Will “Exercise Authority” like the Gentiles. (A No, No, Mark 10:42-43.)
    And, that is always the beginning of “Spiritual Abuse.”

    “Pastor/Leader” = exercise authority = lord it over = abuse = always

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    **THEIR shepherds**
    have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to
    the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  • I have just left the church I gave every drop of everything to, do to abuse. Unfortunately, my former pastor is very charamastic. I loved him in the past. Then, I realized he had developed an elder board of yes men. His accountability group were not honest with him in their own lives ( I knew things from their wives, living near, etc) so, I knew this wasn’t right either. When I started to question him about Biblical interpretation, it was over, even when I brought in commentaries from the present of his prestigious seminary. He began a vendetta to discredit me. I went from writing my daytime Bible study to being removed. I went from doing almost everything, to nothing. I was constantly questioned over the last 2 years when I would be stopping doing an in-depth, international outside Bible study, where I was actually being fed, so that I could feed others. I hadn’t felt fed at that church for years, but God fed me other ways. I totally feel God has led me to a great church with a lot of diversity, great teachers, etc.

  • I would love to purchase this book
    Please email purchasing details
    Thank you.

  • It seems you are writing from the congregation point of view and you may have no idea what the pastors challenges may be. You ideas are good but can be used negatively to encourage revolt in many churches.

  • Interesting comments. Agreed that we need to be careful to point out everything we don’t like as abuse. However, when it happens to you, there is no mistaking it is Spiritual Abuse. Many of us here have googled this subject for a reason and found this and other helpful articles. We need to call it what it is. Three months ago, after much prayer and counsel, I left a staff position, my husband resigned from the council, and we resigned our membership within two weeks after the initial abuse. Thankfully, we didn’t stay on to endure more abuse that was sure to follow. The pastor used the exact same words (and more) from this article in #3, like he was reading it. So weird. (Also, the disagreements can be minor, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a theological difference). The rest of the points here are spot on as well, such as how the leadership is configured. The elder, his spiritual leader/mentor used Gossip Prayer to get his point across. (Anyone?) We did lose our people, our community, and it’s extremely sad and hard, but at the same time, I’m thankful we are not a part of the unhealthy leadership. I’ve asked forgiveness for being blind and therefore a part of the dysfunction while on staff for about a year, ignoring some red flags, seeing enough good, loving my job, justifying things maybe because it didn’t “happen to me”. Then it did. No one, except a couple close friends, really want to know the truth of why we left, and we aren’t going to go around gossiping about it. The pastor is acting baffled about why, yet never acknowledged our letter or our resignations or asked why, if he is so baffled. So we pray the veil be lifted and people see Truth, the Light is shined on the darkness, the accuser and deceiver be silenced and members and leadership actually use their discernment and cause change.

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