W I N T E R • 2 0 1 2


For many of us, church represents God. Whether it is right or wrong to have this expectation, church is supposed to be a safe place where we can worship God and study His word—and the important word here is “safe”.

For many of us Christians, church represents God. Whether it is right or wrong to have this expectation, church is supposed to be a safe place where we can worship God and study His word—and the important word here is “safe”. We expect our pastors and leaders to have integrity and to be faithful to the doctrines of the Bible. We expect our churches to be protected sanctuaries where we are free from harm. Moreover, we may rely on pastors for counseling when we go through difficulties in our lives. Our home congregation typically brings us a sense of comfort, solace, and love.

But what happens when that love is betrayed by an abuse of the “power of the pulpit”, either because leaders within that body stray, or because the denomination as a whole has gone off course? What happens to the followers of these leaders? This breakdown of trust and the exploitation of the faithful amounts to spiritual abuse.


Definition of spiritual abuse

A very basic description of this phenomenon says: “Spiritual abuse occurs when someone uses their power within a framework of spiritual belief or practice to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others.”1

Additionally: “Spiritual abuse is a type of abuse that damages the central core of the victim. It leaves them spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God… It consists of the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”2

In his book Churches that Abuse, evangelical sociologist Ronald M. Enroth points out that:

Abusive churches…are first and foremost characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other more traditional evangelical churches are put down. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is discouraged. Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound. For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult.3

From these descriptions we can see that abuse can be perpetrated either by a church organization that has strayed from biblical teaching, thereby damaging its followers, or by an individual who has a leadership position in the church. The characteristics of either the abusive systems or of the abusive leaders that are described below are primarily distilled from writings by Major Scott Nicloy from the Salvation Army and Steve Cadman-Neu, MSW, who quotes from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by VanVonderen & Johnson4 in his article.

While these descriptions may apply to any spiritually abusive system or leader, some of them have special significance for those who have spent time in the Seventh-day Adventist organization. Where applicable, therefore, we will show the connection between the characteristics that are listed and the practices or traditions of Adventism.

The abusive leaders seek power and control with manipulation, domination and intimidation. Their words have great weight, as if they are personal emissaries of God. Where a true Christian leader can encourage fellowship and growth, the religious dictator coerces people to be completely subordinate to him/her. The leader promotes dominant-submissive relationships with those around him. Rod Smith explains that the abusive leader claims to hear from God and that God apparently “goes through him/her to speak to the faithful.”5

Within Adventism there is no single leader who directly controls all members, although the general conference president does set the tone and expectations for the denomination worldwide. The voice of God within Adventism, however, is the late Ellen G. White (EGW) whose writings are a “continuing and authoritative source of truth”, as stated in the organizations’ Fundamental Belief #18. Her “counsels” and her hermeneutic for understanding Scripture continue to be considered God-given and are treated as revelations from God that are binding on the members’ consciences.

The abuser is narcissistic, using him/herself as the primary point of reference. The dominating leader believes that only “his thoughts, his feelings, his perceptions are fully real…he assumes that what he thinks God thinks, and what he believes is Bible-based…They take it for granted that any idea that jumps into their heads is from the Holy Spirit and that they are only following the promptings of the Holy Spirit whenever they decide to do anything.” “When you (the narcissistic leader) believe that you are right and righteous, then all that you say and do is right and righteous. Any thought to the contrary never enters the picture.”6

Even though individual Adventists may disclaim believing in EGW as a prophet, nevertheless she is officially acknowledged as a “source of truth” and is considered God’s messenger to the Seventh-day Adventist movement. She wrote the following about her writings, which have determined the “shape” of the Adventist worldview:

“God was speaking through clay. You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision—the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”7

“The abusive church/leader thinks in black and white terms, “either-or” and “we vs. them.” These leaders use terms like “we are the (only) true Christians,” and they are the judge and jury on who is spiritual and who isn’t.8

Seventh-day Adventism teaches exclusivity by declaring itself the “remnant church” of Bible prophecy. It believes only Adventism has the two marks that identify God’s remnant people: it keeps all the commandments of God, including the fourth commandment, the seventh-day Sabbath, and it has the “testimony of Jesus” which is the spirit of prophecy (see Rev. 19:10). They identify the writings of EGW as the spirit of prophecy. They believe, based on EGW’s revelations, that in the last days, the seventh-day Sabbath will be the mark that separates the saved from the lost. Moreover, they believe that those who worship on Sunday will have the mark of the beast and will be legally permitted to hunt and kill the Sabbath-keepers.9

The spiritual abusers promote “legalistic perfectionism” and “perfectionistic legalism.” In reality, these expectations are about power and control, not about holiness. This focus “is a form of religious perfectionism that focuses on careful performance & avoidance of certain behaviors.”10

Adventism illustrates this principle by requiring the keeping of the Ten Commandments, especially the fourth, as the evidence of honoring God. It further officially forbids the use of tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Adventism encourages vegetarianism and veganism, and these prohibitions and recommendations are for the purpose of prolonging life, suppressing one’s “animal passions” (sexual desires), and enhancing mental clarity and physical health so one can better perceive the Holy Spirit.

Many abusive church leaders tend towards being isolationist, choosing not to have fellowship with people whom they consider to be in error, including other Christians and even family members. This withdrawal from Christian acquaintances can also lead to paranoia when the congregation “assumes they are more enlightened and that (others) won’t understand unless they become one of us. Paranoia prevents people from getting the help they need… Leaders cover up child abuse because of distrusting the evil, secular social service system.”11

Adventism sees itself as separate from the “world” although in the world. It strongly encourages the young people to attend their private academies and colleges so they will be more likely to marry within the organization and become established as adults within the system. Their Sabbath-keeping is a natural barrier separating them from the Christian community, and they tend to limit their close friendships to Adventists who will understand their diet, their worship, and their worldview.

There is an obsession with discipline in abusive churches, and questioning the leader is tantamount to questioning God Himself. They may be extremely punitive if not obeyed, including shunning those who run afoul of their “laws”. The absolutist leader expects blind obedience because he/she has “the mind of Christ”.

Adventism is less overt than many other false religious systems in its rejection of those who break its rules or leave altogether. Nevertheless, when someone leaves Adventism for the sake of the gospel, a subtle-at-first but increasingly rigid rejection takes shape. It is not uncommon for families to experience unresolved breaks in relationships that worsen rather than repair over time when one member becomes born again and leaves Adventism for the Christian community.

Sometimes “pastoral care” in cultic groups ends up being a type of surveillance system to control people’s behavior. The boundaries of the individual are violated, and the abuser uses personal information for control and manipulation.

Within Adventism, violations of boundaries are not necessarily problems linked to pastoral care. The problems of control and manipulation are strong but less easy to isolate than in many other groups. Because the organization is worldwide and because it has developed large medical and educational systems, the control within the local churches is not always centered on the pastor. Often the physicians are the ones who wield the most power within congregations. Furthermore, there is an unspoken but powerful pecking order, and families of physicians have social status that other families do not. Boundaries are often broken within Adventism between professors and students, doctors and staff members, and also between pastors and parishioners. There is further guardedness among members in general, especially between those who have less financial and social “clout” than others. Personal secrets can effect social and political limitations within the system.

The church that is spiritually abusive encourages a Pied Piper mentality, and this effect is often especially noted with young people. A youth leader who has all the young people from the congregation following him everywhere can be problematic; a healthy youth leader would encourage the youth to form positive and healthy relationships with a variety of people in the fellowship. No “personality cults” should be allowed.12

Adventism has at least partially avoided personality cults by moving its pastors every few years. Some larger churches within the organization have retained their senior pastors for ten years or longer, but in general Adventist pastors move every few years. This lack of long-term stability, however, perpetuates guardedness and lack of trust.

Spiritually abusive churches claim absolute truth for themselves. Obviously the claim that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life” is a fundamental, absolute biblical truth. The abusive church, however, has numerous extra-biblical claims that have more to do with the personal views and opinions of the leader or the organization’s traditions than they do with the Bible.

For example, Adventism believes that the seventh-day Sabbath will be the last great “test” of loyalty to God. It believes that all those who are alive when Jesus returns will be keeping the Sabbath if they are saved, and they believe that worshiping on Sunday will be the mark of the beast during the last days. The Sabbath is considered sacred and mandatory. In fact, when people leave Adventism to join the Christian community, the first question people have is not, “What will do you with Jesus?” Rather, the question is always, “But what about the Sabbath?”

Eschatology is often a major interest in churches that are abusive, not because that topic is problematic intrinsically, but because many abusive leaders are obsessed with time lines and end-time preaching. This fascination feeds fears and uncertainties among the congregation. If the people can be kept in a state of anxiety and fear, they can be dominated and controlled by others.

Interestingly, while Adventism publicly claims it does not set dates, it was born from the fallout of a failed prophecy that Jesus would return in 1844. Instead of repenting of date-setting, the founding Adventists developed the doctrine of the investigative judgment to explain what they believe really happened on the date Jesus failed to return. That initial refusal to admit that they had not trusted God’s word, insisting instead that a spurious date had eternal significance, has yielded an organization shaped by extra-biblical authority and traditions built on a lack of trust in the sufficiency of Scripture. Additionally, Adventism continuously urges members to “get ready” for Jesus to come, warning He may come at any moment, and they may be caught indulging in sin and rebellion and thus be left to face the second resurrection and eternal annihilation.

In abusive churches, the end justifies any means. Clergy and members are often unethical and dishonest in their evangelistic tactics. They sponsor community events without saying who they are as a cover for a hard-sell campaign to get proselytes, in spite of the fact that false advertising is morally and ethically wrong. In some abusive churches, criminal conduct or other immoral behavior in the leadership is covered up for the sake of “the mission”. There is a secretive methodology, hiding what the leaders don’t want to reveal.

Adventist evangelism is well-known to be deceptive. Adventists advertise Revelation Seminars, playing on the public’s fears of world events, without saying they are Adventists. They often begin their meetings in venues that are not Adventist and move the audience to an Adventist church several nights into the series—often right before they present the “Sabbath truth” in the meetings. Additionally, Adventists sponsor health screenings, cooking schools, radio broadcasts, and Bible studies without stating they are Adventists. They rationalize that the public will be more receptive to their programs if they do not know at first that they are Adventist.

“It is a closed system with rigid boundaries. There will be a perception of a lot of evil on the outside, to keep people in. There will be power posturing on the inside, to compel people to conform. There will be tired, wounded people who feel they are either unspiritual or crazy, and they will have major problems relating to God from the heart. They can wind up totally ill-equipped for life. When they leave they may be blown around like dry leaves, or easily drawn into other abusive systems.”13

This effect is all too common among those who leave Adventism. There are large numbers of people who quietly disappear from Adventist congregations because Adventism is just too difficult to “do” properly. Agnosticism is built into Adventist dogma; members are taught that if they leave the Sabbath and the “spirit of prophecy” (EGW’s writings), they will then lose faith in the Bible and faith in God. Since they believe that Adventism is the only true church, they cannot go to a “Sunday church” when they leave because that would be choosing to join Satan’s side. Unless they hear the gospel and meet the Lord Jesus and receive His forgiveness and salvation, they remain spiritually broken, filled with unbelief and vulnerable to the next attractive false gospel.


Contrasts between a spiritually abusive system and a healthy Christian system

Abusive religion/religious leader

Healthy religion/religious leader

Coerces obedience with power, manipulation, domination and fear. Adventism teaches one will be lost if he leaves the Sabbath, and Satan will answer the prayers of those who refuse Adventist truth.

Leads the flock in his care with a servant’s heart and seeks cooperation and fellowship (Mk. 9:35).

Uses the Bible for his own purposes, i.e., to control and dominate the flock. Adds his own “theology.” Adventism teaches the Bible using EGW’s hermeneutic.

Uses biblical doctrines in teachings and encourages the flock to do their own personal Bible study and study in groups.

Has rigid or overly-enmeshed boundaries, and the members of the church are closed off from other groups. Adventism teaches members to guard against being seduced by “Sunday worship”. They can have safe close relationships only with other Adventists.

Has appropriate boundaries with members of the church. Doesn’t try to become enmeshed in their lives or cut them off from other Christians.

May be narcissistic and believe that he knows what God thinks and may even see himself as “God’s mouthpiece.” Authority goes from the top down. Adventism teaches that members who question their doctrines have refused to believe the light God gave them through EGW.

Knows that God works through the Holy Spirit in each believer to give us discernment; accountability goes both ways.

Sees itself as the only “true” church; has black and white thinking—us vs. them, right vs. wrong (the others are wrong). Adventism teaches it has God’s truth for the last days of earth’s history; they are the only true church.

All those who have accepted the finished work of Christ on the cross, without need for personal performance, are brothers and sisters in the Lord. There are not “superior” believers; all believers are equally loved by God (Romans 8:1).

Promotes legalism and perfectionism. This gives the leader ability to control people by their fears of not being saved and going to hell. Adventism teaches members must be continually gaining victory over sin and must confess every sin or they will not be saved.

Knows that the Christian is saved by grace through faith and salvation cannot be earned by one’s behavior (Eph. 2:8-9).

Has obsession with discipline in which those who disagree are shunned, censured or expelled from the church. Leader expects to be obeyed because he has “the mind of Christ.” Adventism’s discipline is subtler; pastors are fired if they preach against the Sabbath or Ellen White. Many sins are tolerated if a person is a loyal tithe-paying member.

If the individual has erred, he confesses the sin and receives forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). Believers are not shunned or expelled for disagreements on non essential matters of faith.

Encourages “group think” by using rules and regulations that are constantly repeated, taught and reinforced by church literature, classes and teaching from the pulpit. Adventism publishes Sabbath School lessons with daily study guides. These are used concurrently by every Adventist church around the world. Adventism also publishes the monthly Adventist World news/devotional magazine in all the major languages of the organization around the world.

Encourages the Bible as truth, does not obsess about rules and regulations, but focuses on helping individuals grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Believes the end justifies any means. The denomination sponsors community events and public activities without saying who they are in order to gain proselytes. Immoral or criminal conduct on the part of a leader may be covered up for the sake of “the mission” (Nicloy). Adventism says it’s OK not to reveal their identity when advertising evangelistic meetings because people won’t want it if they think it’s Adventist before they hear it. If they hear before they know it’s Adventist, however, they will like it and embrace it.

If the end that is desired is not consistent with God’s Word, then no means will be acceptable.

Uses end-time events to promote its own eschatology. Eschatology itself isn’t wrong, but when the leaders use end time teaching to control the flock by promoting fear and anxiety, isolation from other Christians, perfectionistic behavior, uncertainty about salvation and “extra-biblical” teachings, they are in error. There may be an obsession with calculating the dates, situations or events that predict Jesus’ return (Nicloy). Adventism publicly distances itself from its inception in the aftermath of a failed prophecy that Jesus would return in 1844. Its central doctrine was developed to justify the date-setting.

Teaches that no one knows the time of Jesus’ second coming (Mk. 13:32).

Uses insider double-talk with a confusing doctrine. The group encourages blind acceptance of its opposing teachings and rejection of logic through complex presentations on incomprehensible doctrines. Adventists, for example, believe they are different from other Christians, and Sunday-Christians will persecute them in the end. Simultaneously they believe they and other Christians are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. (These two statements cannot co-exist in reality).

The Bible is the doctrine upon which teachings are based; other ancillary teaching texts must be consistent with biblical truth.


Effects of spiritual abuse on victims

When people are spiritually abused, long term damage is done. In order to heal, it is important for the victim to be aware of some of the effects they will experience. Some may want to seek professional help from a Christian counselor who is well-grounded in biblical truth to assist them in the recovery process. Here are some effects:

1. Feelings of inadequacy. When the abusive system is perfectionistic, the victim suffers from never being able to do enough to achieve the desired perfection and often becomes anxious and depressed.

2. Hidden physical or sexual abuse. A secretive system allows abuse to be unreported and untreated, thus giving the perpetrator freedom to continue to abuse. The pressure to keep the secret is destructive to the victim. “The perpetrator will never be held accountable; the victim will have to freeze up the pain and anger. It is impossible for wounds to be healed and abuse will one day escalate.”14 People remain wounded in this type of system, often for many, many years.

3. Dissociation. “One of the reasons why we have a major problem with abuse in Christian churches is because we have Christian people who are dissociated. They do not know what they feel, what motivates them, who they are or what they are about. They are divorced from their sexuality, divorced from their feelings, divorced from their real needs, divorced from their authentic selves. They are strangers unto themselves. Jesus said from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’ Dissociated Christians are people who do not know what they are doing. Abraham Maslow wrote, ‘The great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowing of oneself—of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny.’ Dissociated Christians are people who do not know themselves and are afraid to know themselves.”15

4. Inappropriate behaviors and addictions. Eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as obsessive/compulsive behaviors arise out of the anxiety created by a lifestyle that is impossible to live successfully. Members of such groups find themselves in a double bind because they eventually see that the group’s requirements for holiness are impossible, and they become depressed and discouraged.

5. Free will is broken.16 In order to fit in and have status in the group, members must unquestioningly submit to the group’s teachings and directions, and their own free will is broken. Their “will” actually becomes the group’s “will” without their realizing it. This is done either by coercive methods or is accomplished over a period of time through intimidation. Both methods make heavy use of guilt. 

6. Personality changes. After immersion into an abusive organization, the otherwise happy person may become sullen, hateful, depressed, anxious, or paranoid.

7. Social disorientation. “The victim loses his/her ability to socialize outside the group. This can go so far as to not being able to structure their time or to make simple decisions for themselves when they leave. Their worldview alters and they perceive the world through their leaders’ eyes. They become very naive about life in general.”17

8. Severe guilt complexes. “They are made to feel guilty of everything they did before entering the group, and are to strive to be ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ for ‘eternal life’. Misdemeanors are made into ‘mountains’ so that members are in a constant state of guilt for infringing even the most minor rules. Guilt comes because they aren’t doing enough; entertaining doubts or questions; even thinking rationally for oneself. This guilt is piled upon pile with new rules constantly being laid down about what is sinful and what is not. Illness may be seen as lack of faith—more guilt. Emotional illness may be seen as proof of sin in your life—more guilt.”18

9. Mystification. When a leader is assumed to have more knowledge than the church member, then the victim gets the message that it is unacceptable to question the authority of this leader. This leads to the process of mystification. Mystification is defined as: “to perplex (a person) by playing on the person’s credulity; to bewilder purposely (Merriam-Webster online).

A violation by a spiritual authority, whether the authority is a denomination or a leader, is a type of abuse that is unique in itself. When someone in a position of authority, especially of spiritual authority, abuses someone in a dependent or vulnerable position and uses their position to justify the abuse, the victim gets a double blow. On one hand, the victim is harmed by the abuser, and on the other hand, the betrayal by the abuser affects the victim’s relationship with God, often horribly marring his or her ability to trust God.

If this author can emphasize one thing above all, it is that the abuser does not represent God, and the victim is not disqualified from becoming a child of the Kingdom of God. God loves those who have been victimized by churches and wants to redeem their years of abuse.

Abusive leaders have a higher level of accountability. What does God’s word say about the abuse of position by a church leader? “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42). God does not approve of any type of abuse, especially that perpetrated by church leadership. The victims of spiritual abuse deserve a safe place to heal where they can slowly mend their lives and restore their relationships with God and the church. †



  1. Steve Cadman-Neu MSW, “Spiritual Abuse: What it is, Signs & Components” (Part 4), http://website.lineone.net/~vex/Spiritual%20Abuse.htm.
  2. Major Scott Nicloy, “Spiritual Abuse,” http://www.micsem.org/pubs/counselor/frames/spiritabuse.htm.
  3. Enroth, Ronald M. Churches that Abuse, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, p. 32.
  4. Adapted from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by VanVonderen & Johnson by Steve Cadman-Neu MSW, September 2003, at Christian Counseling website: http://www.christiancounselling.on.ca/articles_spiritual_abuse_definition_signs_&_components.htm.
  5. Smith, Rod, “Difficult Relationships”, p. 1. http://www.difficultrelationships.com/2009/02/09/ten-signs-of-spiritual-abuse/.
  6. http://www.micsem.org/pubs/counselor/frames/spiritabuse.htm
  7. White, Ellen G., Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, 67.2.
  8. http://www.micsem.org/pubs/counselor/frames/spiritabuse.htm
  9. White, Ellen G., The Great Controversy, pp. 605, 635, 640.
  10. http://www.christiancounselling.on.ca/articles_spiritual_abuse_definition_signs_&_components.htm.
  11. Smith, Rod, “Difficult Relationships”, p. 1.
  12. Nicloy.
  13. Smith, Rod, “Difficult Relationships”.
  14. Jan Groenveld, “The Cult Next Door: How to Determine if a Group is a Destructive Cult,” http://www.votisalive.com/content/spiritual-abuse-signs-1
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.


Life Assurance Ministries

Copyright 2012 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised December 17, 2012. Contact email: proclamation@gmail.com






Boundaries are often broken within

joanieJoan Yorba-Gray, MSW, has been living with HIV/AIDS since 1988. Tragically, like many people with HIV, she was infected by someone she loved. She is married to her soul mate Galen and together they have four living children and three grandchildren. She continues to be in awe of the Lord’s love and mercy in her life. She truly proclaims the Goodness of the Lord. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and is a board member of He Intends Victory, an international HIV/AIDS ministry.

ColleenRETOUCHEDsmallColleen Tinker is editor of Proclamation!. She and her husband Richard lead Former Adventist Fellowship at Trinity Church in Redlands, California. They have two adult sons, a granddaughter, and a soon-to-be-born grandson.