Spiritual Abuse: Understanding the Impact of the Power Differential

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Jason Swilling

In my previous post, we looked at the basics of spiritual abuse and its effect on the development of addiction in adulthood, including sex addiction. Beginning with this post, we will examine some of the different elements of spiritual abuse. Today, we will discuss the power differential element that is often present in different forms of spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse in all its forms starts with those who are in power. While some of the more legalistic religious institutions structuralize spiritual abuse, other religious communities are not as structured in how they abuse members spiritually. Therefore, the first element of spiritual abuse is the power differential between spiritual leaders and those who follow them. Basically, the leader’s thoughts, opinions, and spirituality (even theology) are supreme; thus, questioning the leader or having an objection to what the leader says is not given real consideration.

This power differential can exist not only in the top spiritual leader of the congregation but in the small group leaders, assistant leaders, etc. As such, the power differential often trickles down from the top to other leaders, with the thoughts, opinions, and theology usually remaining in line with the top leader. Thus, a person can experience the power differential from all levels of leaders.

This power differential can be overtly stated, as seen in various cults, either by the spiritual leader or by the other influential members of the community. More often, however, the power differential is simply understood and part of the culture, rather than being overtly stated. This is what we see in many churches. Either way, real questions or objections are quickly brushed under the table by some other modicum of spirituality, such as advocating for blind faith or quoting a small portion of the religious text (Bible, Koran, Torah, etc.), with that text often taken out of context.

Admittedly, religious leaders are usually more learned than their congregant members. But rarely will you hear a leader in a spiritually abusive environment say something like “I don’t know” to a question or an issue that is not directly addressed by the religious text. They will simply answer the question as they see fit and expect their followers to follow.

When addicts have experienced spiritual abuse through a power differential, they have usually become skeptical, perhaps even rebellious, toward any type of authority. This can become an important element in the development of the addiction. It can also create difficulties in recovery, as a large part of addiction healing involves learning to trust others.

Fortunately, 12-step recovery has no person in authority, and that, coupled with an addict’s gift of desperation when first coming into recovery, usually allows addicts to move toward authentic and vulnerable relationships – despite their long-standing lack of trust.

Most often, addicts’ lack of trust becomes apparent in the 4th step, when they bare all their secrets and resentments to a sponsor. At times, their lack of trust causes them to hold secrets back, which can easily lead to relapse.

Recovering addicts who are struggling with trusting others courtesy of spiritual abuse can benefit from identifying that their trust issues, at least partly, come from the abusive power differential in their religious experience. After that, working with a trauma therapist who understands spiritual abuse can bring the relief they need as they work toward trusting and becoming authentic with their recovery support network.

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If you or a loved one are struggling with sexual addiction, Seeking Integrity can help. In addition to residential rehab, we offer low-cost online workgroups for male sex addicts new to recovery. The next session starts March 4, 2023. Click here for more information.