Emotional and Spiritual Abuse in the Church (I): the Divine Authority Syndrome

Josh de Keijzer
8 min readJun 11, 2019

Emotional and spiritual abuse in the church often results from wrong ideas about how divine authority functions within the faith community. It is often wielded as a tool to suppress, exploit, and dominate gullible believers. This article aims to show the deeply theological connections between abuse and religious authority. In short, spiritual abuse has everything to do with the religious imagination.

Abuse in the church is a hot topic these days. What started with rumors and an investigation in Boston spread like a wildfire. It seems as if all over the world the Roman Catholic Church is embroiled in sexual abuse investigations. Whatever was left of the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church has been further tarnished. As if the Church was not already under siege by modernity and secularism, the most insidious subversion of the Christian Faith seems to come from with the ranks of the faithful! The evil within the church’s walls is doing more damage than all the despisers of religion are able to inflict together.

But there is another form of abuse in the church, even more widespread than the sexual abuse you hear about in the media, and no less damaging. What I refer to is the more hidden emotional or spiritual abuse that takes place in fundamentalist and conservative religious circles. Many people suffer from the very faith that was supposed to provide comfort and healing. Today people increasingly speak out against oppressive belief systems that hinder rather than foster human flourishing. The problem of spiritual and emotional abuse has been placed on the agenda and is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Having grown up in a very conservative church and as an expert on Christian theology, I know what I am talking about both from an experiential and analytical perspective. I have been rather deeply scarred emotionally by an unhealthy spiritual environment that made me believe and act according to principles and assumptions that were not life-generating but life-stifling. I in turn inflicted emotional abuse on other people, because that is what made sense to me at the time. Of course, I deeply regret what mistakes I made, at least as much as I regret what happened to me.

A Theological Analysis of…

Josh de Keijzer

Writes at joshdekeyzer.com. Writer, researcher, lecturer, Bonhoeffer scholar. Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology.