The Dangers of Spiritual Abuse: Clinical Implications and Best Practices

Cyndi Matthews, PhD

Reprinted with permission. The original article was published in Interaction, XVII(4), and it can be found here: Interaction is the newsletter of Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a branch of American Counseling Association (ACA) .

The Dangers of Spiritual Abuse: Clinical Implications and Best Practices

Cyndi Matthews, PhD; Kevin C. Snow

News headlines today are full of incidents where spiritual and religious abuse are evident—stories where terrible abuse is done in the name of a particular deity (e.g., God, Allah, Krishna, Buddha) or in the name of a specific religion. Recent headlines have included: “Woman claims pastor sexually abused her as teen, used Bible as justification” (Williams, 2017); “Polygamist parents have been convicted of child trafficking in Canada” (Berman, 2017); “I joined a cult for 4 years and lost $1M” (Roberts, 2017); and “Thousands of children at risk of being beaten and prevented from learning English in illegal faith schools” (Fenton, 2016). Such sensational headlines make it easy for us to recognize spiritual and religious abuse and make our hearts ache for the victims and the trauma they have suffered.

As counselors we know the long lasting effects of trauma and abuse. Spiritual abuse can come in more subtle forms and may be more difficult to identify, yet have the same long-lasting trauma effects. As counselors, especially as members of ASERVIC, we pride ourselves in valuing and respecting other people’s religions. However, we may find it difficult to talk about spiritual and religious abuse. Our ASERVIC (2009) competencies speak of not only being aware of our own “attitudes, beliefs and values about spirituality and/or religion,” (Comp. 2) but also about being respectful of our client’s spiritual/religious beliefs and integrating client spirituality and values into our counseling practices (Comp. 8). Identifying and openly discussing spiritual abuse with clients may feel uncomfortable as counselors, almost as if we are not respecting another person’s spiritual/religious practices, but keep in mind our competencies state “when making a diagnosis, the professional counselor recognizes that the client’s spiritual and/or religious perspectives can (a) enhance well-being; (b) contribute to client problems; and/or (c) exacerbate symptoms” (Comp. 10). As counselors we need to be aware of what spiritual/religious abuse is, know how some spiritual/religious practices may undermine mental health and well-being, and know how to counsel and treat those who have been spiritually abused.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual/religious abuse is often associated with more radical religions or cults. However, spiritual abuse can be found in many “common” religious organizations through a variety of leaders and members. These leaders may range from misguided and well-meaning to narcissistic and/or sociopathic. Spiritual abuse can be defined as any abuse or trauma done in the name of religion or the deity associated with that religion. Leaders and members may use their religious power and position to coerce, control, and manipulate their members. As justification, spiritually abusive leaders and church-members may even say they are speaking for God, quote scripture, or quote from faith leaders/founders in order to get their own needs met, thus turning the faith from a refuge to an unsafe place. Abusive religious leaders may also devalue and disrespect members both in private and public and shame and discredit members openly to their congregations. Abuse can also include yelling, threatening, lying, and causing individuals to do things they normally would not do, such as sexual or financial favors. Abusive leaders tend to promote concepts such as not questioning authority, claim they have all the answers, demand allegiance to their religious organization and/or deity, use exclusive language about their religion/congregation, cultivate dependency on the leader, and blame members if the members feel harassed or victimized (Johnson, 2013; Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991).

How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse

Clients will often come in feeling guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, having somatic issues, and believing that the problem lies within them. Upon further investigation and gently probing the client’s story, it becomes evident that their spiritual/religious leaders, doctrines, and even other congregants/family members may be the source of the abuse (Matthews & Salazar, 2014).

Some indicators of spiritual abuse may include:

  1. Clients will talk about how they are the cause of their own suffering and they need to be more faithful, read more, go to church more, be more forgiving, etc., in order for their suffering to be alleviated.

  2. Clients have a polarized view of their deity – they see their God as either a Santa Claus figure or an extremely vindictive being. This polarized view creates a categorical view of life in terms of all things being good or evil.

  3. Clients may display magical thinking, meaning all good things come as a result of good behavior and all bad things come as a result of bad/sinful behavior. Car accidents, illnesses, cancer, and tragedies may all be seen as a result of somehow being their fault and as a result of their sinful behavior.

  4. Clients may be very critical of themselves and others. They may have perfectionistic or legalistic thinking in terms of the standards they set for themselves and others.

  5. Clients may have a difficult time with boundaries and allow others to disrespect their personal boundaries. They may have a difficult time saying no because of guilt, shame, etc., and have some underlying feelings of resentment towards others because of their boundaries being violated.

  6. Clients may have a difficult time trusting other people, especially those in authority, and at the same time may display over-reliance on authority.

  7. Clients may have a learned powerlessness, too afraid to act because of the fear and anxiety of any repercussions from fellow members, leaders, and even their deity.

  8. Clients may experience a number of somatic complaints such as headaches, intestinal problems, chest pains, panic attacks or other body-based symptoms.

Why is Spiritual Abuse Traumatic?

As counselors we know trauma and abuse can have long-lasting, lifetime effects on individuals. Spiritual/ religious abuse is particularly traumatic due to being done in the name of a deity. The client’s deity is seen as the one who decides the eternal consequences of one’s mortal existence, in most cases. The leader representing their deity is seen as the one standing between eternal salvation and our client. Many faithful may believe, even in mainstream religions, that their leaders possess powers to divine the truth of things, to become experts in all kinds of disciplines, and to know, almost magically, special insights from their deity. Thus when leaders make requests, speak from the pulpit about what their deity requires, and also chastise, rebuke, and abuse members, good and faithful members of the religious community comply and acquiesce to their leaders’ requests and demands as if their deity has made the demand. Thus the abuse is seen not only at the hands of a mere mortal, but also at the hands of their God, and thus somehow deserved. The resulting trauma is twofold for the client: (a) the normal mental health repercussions because of the trauma, and (b) the guilt and shame associated with believing they are responsible for the abuse.

How Can Counselors Help the Spiritually Abused?

Counselors can take many measures to explore spiritual abuse and work with it (Matthews & Salazar, 2014). Firstly, they should recognize that spiritual/religious leaders, doctrines, and other-church members can be sources of a client’s mental health symptoms (Comp. 10). Next, they should listen to the client’s story – assess for past abuse and trauma, make a safety plan if the client is in immediate physical danger, and contact appropriate authorities if children/elderly are in physical danger. Counselors should educate clients about mistaken/dysfunctional beliefs. REBT, CBT, and Adlerian theory may help in working through these beliefs by (a) helping clients recognize polarized thinking such as good/ evil or heaven/hell and help clients see and understand a more balanced perspective, and (b) help clients recognize magical thinking on the part of clients/religion, such as life’s trials are not punishments and good things are not necessarily blessings from their god.

Other steps counselors can take include: (a) teach decision making skills and how to weigh things out in their own minds; (b) help clients understand that mistakes are okay and model this with them directly; (c) help clients trust their inner voice/instincts – the warning bell that goes off when they realize something is off or not right; and (d) approach the counseling relationship as an egalitarian relationship. As a counselor it is essential that we do not practice another hierarchical relationship that may impose our values on the client. We need to trust our clients that they will come to healthy conclusions through our work with them and the work they do on their own.

Lastly, we should not tell clients that their church/organization/leader is wrong as clients may become defensive and no longer listen to or seek out our assistance. If the client still belongs to their religion, and when/if appropriate (working backward from negative symptoms) we can explore the idea of a loving deity, and how such a deity would not want followers to suffer the symptoms they are suffering. Counselors can also teach the narcissistic abuse cycle, demonstrating how some abusive leaders will preach they are never wrong and the client is always the perpetrator, or cause of the abuse, which in turn re-victimizes the victim. Even though it may be emotionally difficult for us as counselors to address spiritual/religious abuse, it may be necessary to address these abuses in order to help our clients work towards healing.

The ASERVIC competencies addressed in this article include competencies 2, 8, and 10. To view the ASERVIC competencies, please visit the website:


Berman, S. (2017). Polygamist parents have been convicted of child trafficking in Canada, VICE. Retrieved from https://

Fenton, S. (2016). Thousands of children at risk of being beaten and prevented from learning English in illegal faith schools. Independent. Retrieved from

Johnson, R. (2013). Spirituality in counseling and psychotherapy. Hoboken: NJ: Wiley.

Johnson, D., & VanVonderen, J. (1991). The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany.

Matthews, C. H., & Salazar, C. F. (2014) Second generation adult former cult group members’ recovery experiences: Implications for counseling. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 36(2), 188-203. doi: 10.1007/s10447-013-9201-0

Roberts, D. (2017). I Joined a cult for 4 years and lost $1M. Music Business Worldwide. Retrieved from https://

Williams, C. (2017). Woman claims pastor sexually abused her as teen, used Bible as justification. Ledger-Enquirer. Retrieved from