A consensus about the definition of spiritual abuse does not exist. Though the resources on this Website conceive of spiritual abuse in different ways, the following definition may provide some clarity:
Spiritual abuse, sometimes called religious abuse, results when individuals are deceived and or otherwise manipulated in ways that cause detrimental changes to core elements of the self, including one's relationship to God, religious/philosophical beliefs, self-determination, and the capacity to think independently. Though often associated with cultic groups, spiritual abuse may also occur in mainstream denominations when pastors or others misuse their authority or when individuals violate the ethical boundaries of proselytizing or other kinds of influence situations. (See "On Using the Term 'Cult.'")
Psychological abuse and emotional abuse are terms that are often used interchangeably. Both terms may refer to behavior that causes anxiety, chronic depression, or trauma in a person usually in a state of lower power compared to the abuser. Parents, teachers, therapists, pastors, spouses and others may be at risk of abusing those over whom they wield various levels of power. The adage, "power tends to corrupt," sets the stage for a risk of abuse, with the level of risk depending upon the maturity of the power holder.
Spiritual abuse, as defined above, will almost always be accompanied by psychological/emotional abuse. The abuse becomes specifically spiritual when the abused person's relationship to a transcendent reality (God, higher power, spirituality) or core self is damaged or when a religious leader, who is supposed to provide spiritual guidance and solace, uses his/her authority to manipulate, control, and dominate.
Some who do not make the distinctions advocated in the definition above will apply the term spiritual abuse to any kind of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse that takes place in a religious context. Moreover, psychological abuse is sometimes described as damaging a person's core sense of self. In part, that is why there is so much definitional confusion. Spiritual abuse and psychological abuse sometimes refer to the same phenomenon.
To a large degree, the choice of a term, psychological abuse or spiritual abuse, depends upon the framework (psychological or religious) with which the speaker/writer feels comfortable.
This Website finds value in resources coming from psychological and religious frameworks, though obviously some issues, e.g., questions about God's mercy, may require religious frameworks to address properly. We hope that readers will remain open to both perspectives and make their own determinations about what information is useful to them.
Links Relevant to Definitional Issues
Spiritual Abuse (Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources - Jeff VanVonderen)