Spiritual and spiritual sexual abuse

Spiritual abuse is the manipulation and exploitation of others by the misuse of spiritual privilege and power. By definition, the majority of those who perpetrate such abuse are officeholders in churches, new age organisations and religious institutions. Instances of spiritual abuse can range from a one off event innocently committed by a single, well meaning church or spiritual group leader to an intentionally scripted abusive system involving the leadership en masse. The act can be as obvious as a public breach of confidentiality or as private as subtle pressure to give financially beyond your means. Spiritual abuse is common within orthodox religiosity however it is rampant within the new age community.

How to recognise spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse shares many common features with other abusive systems.
The most identifiable are the unspoken rules: Don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t think and don’t question.

Don’t trust. The power wielded by abusive leadership is generated from the double premise that they alone are God’s “anointed” and that their biblical interpretations or spiritual teachings alone are to be trusted. Any interpretation or information that does not receive their endorsement is untrustworthy. The “don’t trust” rule squashes the individual’s confidence in their own judgment and their ability to make decisions for themselves. Any personal experience that contradicts the leadership’s teachings is also deemed untrustworthy and an indicator of spiritual immaturity. There is a fine line here. Any genuine spiritual development process will have other ideas and behaviours which will be mutually exclusive to the success of that teaching. Just like a champion athelete probably should not smoke cigars so will any self development path include an understanding of what must be avoided. These teachings however need to make sense and be reasonable..... an alcoholic may not think it is reasonable to avoid alcohol yet any sincere seeker of spiritual truth understands that ingesting any substance which reduces the souls ability to control its vehicle is not wise.

Don’t think. Leaders of closed systems do not tolerate the study and consideration of alternative interpretations of
Scripture. Their viewpoints are considered unquestionable truth. This closed mindset often extends to edicts on
personal life; clothing, occupation,  location and even marital choices may be prescribed. Independent
thinking, particularly any close analysis of the group’s belief system, is considered a sign of dissention and disloyalty. While it is certainly true that it is difficult to make a stew and a pudding in the same pot at the same time, meaning that there is some wisdom in not combining a bunch of spiritual practices from all over the place, the study of comparative theologies is an important part of spiritual/personal growth and I believe it should be encouraged.

Don’t talk. In abusive systems any discussion of group issues with nonmembers is discouraged. The leadership will not tolerate outside consultation since it could expose the membership to alternative solutions and undermine the leadership’s authority. Often current members are forbidden to talk to or about former members, unless it is to report on their subsequent shame and demise. Former members with relatives still involved in the church or group may be reluctant to talk about their experiences for fear of reprisal. In some groups, members are commanded to sever communication with nonmember relatives and to adopt the group as their new family. From my perspective, your day to day life is the context within which you express your growing self mastery. Any genuine personal/spiritual development path should enhance your life rather than cut you off from it. Having said that if you want to succeed on any spiritual development path it may not be wise to hang around with a bunch of substance abusers or self obesssed hedonists. So as with all things, it is about moderation and wisdom.

Don’t question. Abusive leadership will not tolerate challenges to its authority. “Don’t question” is a powerful rule. The member who questions the decisions or standards of the leadership is usually ostracised, humiliated or excluded from ministry opportunity. I have met with many individuals and couples who have experienced such treatment when they questioned the leadership in their church or group. I believe that discernment is vital if one is truly on the path towards self realisation and self mastery. While it is true that some things have to be taken on faith until you have the wisdom of hindsight that comes from personal experience, the practices and behaviors need to be reasonable and have a demonstrated history of success.

Characteristics of the abuser

The leaders of abusive systems share a common profile:
  • A need to control
  • An authoritative style
  • A commanding personality
  • An inability to tolerate criticism or dissension
  • A tendency to surround themselves with a small, exclusive clique.

Often the leader is a selfstyled bible expert or guru whose subjective interpretations of scripture and contempory spiritual teachings appeal to the members, as they justify unethical and immoral behaviours, and thus reinforce the leader’s “anointed” position. Rarely do these interpretations survive close scrutiny, but, even so, such criticism of their teaching is perceived as persecution. Given the choice, the senior membership invariably remains with the besieged leader, lest they risk having to face the reality that they were tricked and are fools and/or they lose the privilages associated with the unethical lifestyle of the group.

Abusive leaders are also quite secretive. Rarely are their financial affairs and family life subjected to the same scrutiny as those of their membership. The demands made on others are not made on self. Spiritually abusive leadership seems to flourish in environments with the following characteristics:

  • Earnest seekers of truth who are emotionally wounded
  • A biblically diluted established church or a new age group with a sexually permissive culture
  • A philosophy which encourages exclusive feeling of specialness
  • Little or no emphasis on the importance of high ethics and work work towards psychological clarity and purity of intention
  • Accredition by the group as being on of the chosen or being a high level master simply by being part of the group  
  • A society that seems to have lost its spiritual and moral way.

In such cases, the resulting spiritual vacuum is filled by leadership that offers a sense of authority and a security not found elsewhere. That strong sense of “belonging” makes the abuse tolerable. To lose that is to return to insecurity.

The path through spiritual abuse

Survivors of spiritual abuse recount how they were left with deep personal issues, particularly an inability to trust.
Because critical thinking was discouraged, they had no confidence in their own ability to discern truth from error. This led to a distorted perception of creative source, whether that be God, the Universe or whatever feelings of guilt and shame which not present a barrier to having a working relationship with that creative source.

Survivors also struggle with the concept of unconditional acceptance and self worth. Most spiritually abusive systems are very performance oriented. God’s pleasure depends on submission to the church or groups edicts and the total acceptance of the leadership’s authority. This leaves many survivors with a relationship with God/Source based on fear and performance. Grace and unconditional acceptance are ideas that were spoken about but never experienced. This lack of trust and confidence also impairs the member’s marital, family and social relationships. It is difficult to share closely with a relative when issues of group loyalty are at stake or to accept another as a brother or sister when they have been labeled, with no uncertainty, as an untrustworthy nonbeliever.

Note: It is important to understand that when one embarks upon a genuine spiritual path of some kind people may think and call you crazy when all you are doing is losing your attachments to material things and no longer working to become ‘the richest person in the graveyard’. So discernment is necessary. There is a different between genuine concern from those around you and them simply attacking something they don’t understand or are not yet ready for.

A lack of self confidence will impair most attempts to achieve or to take a risk in life, and a diet of performance based acceptance will make most people vulnerable to emotional and physical burnout as they strive to gain approval. For the survivor of spiritual abuse, recovery is often long and arduous. Spiritual abuse is no exception. The survivor, having exited the system, needs to begin trusting, talking, thinking, questioning.

Healing often begins with confronting and dismantling the rules that governed the group. This needs to be done in a safe and confidential setting, and the survivor has to find someone they can trust. A neutral therapist is a good place to start. If you contact me I can probably recommend someone. By talking about their experiences and expressing the strong emotions that they feel, the survivor will discover that the hold the leadership had on them will weaken. Processing the fears and guilt associated with their exit will require sound counsel and caring, accepting friends or a transparent and accountable support group. Once the grief over exiting has been resolved, the survivor needs to immerse themselves in new patterns of relating and living based on developing a healthy relationship with creative source. Everyone that works with me adheres to a very strict code of ethics which you can view here.

The need for vigilance and discernment

Church goers, even in mainstream churches, and members of new age groups need to be alert to the signs of spiritual abuse.

  • Are their leaders open and accountable?
  • Do they encourage critical thinking?
  • Will they willingly consider new ideas and initiatives?
  • Can they tolerate a diversity of opinion and interpretation?

Any hint of spiritual abuse needs to be addressed through all appropriate channels. For Christians in Matthew 18:15, Jesus outlines the process for dealing with those who have wronged us. This involves confronting the abuser in increasingly more public arenas until, as a last resort, the relationship is terminated. If the local church or group  leadership is part of the problem, most denominations and large new age groups have a grievance procedure that should be followed. But if the leadership is not accountable to a higher authority, then the members need to question the rules and talk out and challenge as often as they can. If you feel there is no acceptable response, move away. Find a group that is healthy and focus on your own healing. Abusive leadership maintains its power and privilege by breeding fear and guilt and rewarding loyalty. Dissension and exposure are what they fear most.

Sexual abuse in spiritual organisations.

I am astounded by the level of sexual misconduct in so called spiritual organisations. Almost every religion and spiritual group I have ever dealt with either turns a blind eye or in some cases actively supports and encourages a culture of spiritual and/or sexual abuse.

A typical scenario

Imagine for a moment that you are an earnest, sincere young woman joining a spiritual group. You read the books, go to the classes, meetings, and service days, tithe your money, etc. You are not informed that the guru/leader to whom you are pledging all your allegiance, time, money, heart, and soul conducts orgies and has sex with his students. You work hard, study hard, try hard. Your devotion increases. You advance in the organisation. One amazing day you are called into the presence of the master. You can hardly believe your incredible luck. You are getting something that is the fondest desire of nearly everyone in your little world.

You prepare yourself as best you can for this honor. Very seriously, and reverently, perhaps with some trepidation (for you know that the guru is a fire), you enter the master's personal residence. You are in a place that you have never before been allowed. You are given some instructions about how to behave by one of the inner-circle devotees. They are beaming at you. You have won the jackpot. You hope that you will not disgrace yourself.

You are ushered into his presence. His closest devotees are all there, the ones that decide what level of practice you get to be in, whether you can go to celebrations, sit with the master. They have a lot of control over your place in the pecking order. They are smiling, intense, blissful, serious, laughing at the master's jokes. There's an overwhelming feeling of intensity and shakti (spiritual energy) in the room. There are flowers, incense, works of art, beautiful objects. A bottle of Jack Daniels is going around. You have been eating a raw diet for two weeks, along with the rest of the lay members, and you have a passing thought about how your body is going to cope with alcohol, but you down a glass of it. You are not about to chicken out now. You have come for the instruction. You will be one who can stand in the fire. The party goes on, the drinking goes on, the hilarity and laughter goes on. The master is dealing with you. He is getting into your emotional stuff. You are doing your best to surrender to it all. He is telling you that you are sexually wounded because of your relationship with your father. He is precise. He knows where the hurt is. He tells you that you are stuck in your spiritual development process and you must go through this obstruction. He will help you. You know this is the test. Everything you have been doing for the last few years has been leading to this. You believe everything he says to you. You surrender all your resistance and 'alarm bells' and you allow the guru to have sex with you.

You are later debriefed by an inner-circle devotee who tells you that for the master's safety this must be kept secret. You go home, and you are profoundly disoriented, but you believe you have been given a great gift. You tell no one what has occurred. But you are very disturbed and confused by it.

When someone in a position of authority over another uses that relationship to get sex, that is an offense punishable by law. Ask Bill Clinton. Or any number of therapists or priests. This is not consensual sex. This is abuse of power. Consensual sex takes place between equals.This kind of unethical behaviour is rampant in the new age community. I am amazed at how many new age teachers, authors and healers travel the world having sex all over the place and convincing their victims that they are receiving a great spiritual gift. These deluded individuals actually believe their own bullshit. I personally have met many such individuals who believe they are doing Gods work and 'healing the goddess' by using their position to seduce woman (and men) in their travels. Their behaviour is despicible and sadly they give genuine teachers a bad name.


The real problem here is the abuse of power

Some people seem to think this issue of spiritual/sexual abuse is really about sex, rather than power. They are wrong. Sex is a matter of great vulnerability for many of us and it's safe to say, particularly for women. But the issue is primarily one of power.

What makes our group different different?

The personal spiritual development circles that we run adhere to a very strict code of ethics which you can read here. We are more like a family and we have many professionally qualified members in our group who can offer professional assistance to you if you have been a victim of spiritual or spiritual/sexual abuse. Know that you are not alone…. And welcome home.

I suggest that you also read my article on How to recognise a cult and cultlike behaviour here.

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© Michael King -The Insight Foundation
Michael King is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Insight Foundation