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

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 Religious Trauma

This article is about what I consider the source of most emotional and spiritual abuse, the divine authority syndrome. I will describe how such abuse gets going in the first place and the reason why abuse can often continue unhindered for a long time.

In a next article I hope to address some of the more common consequences of the divine authority syndrome. Together, the two articles are intended to be of help to mental health practitioners, therapists, and psychologists who are treating clients with any form of emotional damage resulting from constrictive faith environments, in short, Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). But I also believe this article will be very helpful to people who struggle with RTS themselves.

This article is neither written from a psychologist’s point of view nor does it propose a formal therapeutical theory or process. Rather, I write as a theologian. A theologian, to be precise, who has extensive experience and skill in untangling the messy webs of belief systems and religious practices that people get entangled in. I do this to expose the hidden mechanisms of abuse and damage not to discredit religion as such. I offer an indictment of certain form of religious expression and organization but will in no way advocate abandoning religion or Christianity per se. It is up to each individual to decide for themselves which is the right way to go ahead after recognizing and confronting emotional abuse. There can be a religious, spiritual, secular, agnostics, or atheistic responses. And each of these may constitute a valid and meaningful response.

What I find important is that both victims of RTS and therapists understand that the damage inflicted has specific theological origins which are based on certain assumptions about the nature of reality, the nature of God, as well as the nature of divine revelation. Not addressing these theological issues heads on will keep a victim bound to the assumed origins of religious authority. These theological assumptions need to be addressed, exposed, and explicitly rejected or amended. It is precisely in the nature and execution of religious authority that a lot of things go horribly wrong.

Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse

I have identified four distinct patterns or symptoms that each result in a specific form of abuse in churches, regardless of their affiliation. These patterns have to do with authority, sexuality, dependency, and justice. The latter three are corollaries of the first one, authority. Therefore, in this article, I call these symptoms together the authority syndrome. Ultimately they result from one core-issue which has to do with how in Christianity God is often thought to function vis a vis the church community. This core problem is that God becomes part of the system that human beings create. I will get to that core-issue in my second article on this topic. Then, I will start using the term systemic god syndrome alongside divine authority syndrome.

I will now look at the foundational thought pattern from which a lot of abuse stems, the so-called divine authority syndrome. I call it a syndrome because it is marked by a complex set of phenomena that are all related to the central issue of divine authority. If this syndrome is not addressed as a sickness it will lead to more emotional and spiritual abuse before it leads to the undoing of Christianity.

Divine Authority Syndrome

It is one thing to say that God has the highest authority and another to assert that God has bequeathed his authority to a certain group. It is one thing to say that there is divine authority and quite another that one is able to locate that authority, identify it, represent it, guard it, or execute it. To say that God has the ultimate authority is a confession of faith that can provide comfort to a believer and instill a sense of awe and wonder. To say that one acts on behalf of or with divine authority is to move beyond confession to power. The authority of God becomes active in human history through human acts. God enters politics and hierarchies.

In order for divine authority to be transmitted people need to gain acces to the divine. I’m not talking about literal access to the divine. The process I describe is the constructive process of human thought with regard to a constructed divine being (regardless of the question whether God is real). What is in operation here is the human imagination. Human imagination still needs to fulfill certain conditions in order to move from confessed authority to practical authority. As part of this fulfillment, human imaginative thinking constructs mental axioms that are assumed to make true claims about reality, the world, and God.

Apostolic Succession

Various strategies can be employed to make this work. I identify three here but I’m sure more an be found. The first is that of apostolic succession. According to the tradition, Jesus appointed Peter to replace him as leader of the Church and Peter was succeeded by a bishop who set up shop in Rome and over time became the primus inter pares(i.e. the first among his fellow bishops). Eventually the mega bishop came to be called the pope.

The pope stands at the head of Christendom though the Eastern Orthodox Church split away from it and countless dissident Protestant denomination today form a living challenge to its authority as well. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the pope even has the ability to speak infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra, i.e. there are certain situations where the pope speaks absolute divine truth. He is the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest who reign in place of Christ on earth.

In this constructive imagination, the pope, a human figure, has been endowed with the highest authority imaginable, that of Christ (and thus God). The pope himself stands at the apex of an elaborate hierarchical structure that ultimately invests the local priest with the authority of Christ, albeit derived from the pope’s authority.

Biblical Authority

The second strategy is one that was developed within the Protestant world at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. In the absence of a clear religious authority after the Reformation had dethroned the Roman Catholic Church in Europe in the 16th century, a new location for religious authority needed to be found. Luther had played with the idea of a person’s conscience as earthly source for authority. Conscience in dialogue with divine Scripture seemed to provide a reasonable non-coercive proposal that was to issue in a hermeneutical understanding of the divine will.

Hermeneutical sophistication, however, was lost on the Calvinists of the time as well as the evangelicals of the late 19th century. The Bible evolved into a divine oracle that made absolute divine claims accessible to the church. In their battle with the challenge to religious ideas coming from science, American evangelicals decided to double down on that Scriptural authority and claimed that the Bible is inerrant in everything it says and on every topic it addresses. Since the Bible was God’s Word, its infallibility, combined with these Christian’s hermeneutical positivism, guaranteed a direct link to the very will of God that paled the Catholic tradition in its absoluteness and certainty.


The third strategy is much less rigid that the two previous ones but no less insidious. The 19th century was a time of increased religious fervor in the United States. The first wave of Awakenings that had begun in the 18th century made way for a new emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. It was believed holiness, whatever exactly that was, was something to be achieved in this life simply because the power for sanctification was available to the Christian thanks to Christ who had sent the Spirit.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the birth of the Pentecostal movement, a movement marked by religious ecstasy, the gifts of the Spirit (like speaking in tongues), and a direct and enduring involvement of the Spirit in the believer’s daily life. This democratization of divine access seemed promising, but the non-structured environment made for the emergence of strong leaders who wedded a fundamentalist theology, with the spectacular phenomena of the Spirit. All too often, this results in the creation of a personality cultus in which the leader has personal messages for the congregation or individual members of the congregation. These messages are to be received as divine oracles and must be obeyed, regardless of whether cross the boundaries of a person’s integrity.

What these three approaches, apostolic succession, biblical inerrancy, and Pentecostalism have in common is that a direct link to God is established. By virtue of this access it becomes possible for those in charge of that link to have the right to say what exactly it is that God says or wills and who gets access when and how. Since God is believed to be real in these communities and since the content of the direct communication is considered to be really from God, those in charge of the direct link wield tremendous power over the members of the faith community.


In this article I’ve began to map the problem. The fundamental issue of divine authority, how it is thought to be possible and how it is thought to be made available, leads to situations in which abuse can easily happen. In my next article I hope to connect the divine authority syndrome to the phenomena of sexuality, dependency, and justice in order to make the claim that any systemization of God or the god-concept leads to unhealthy forms of religion and makes religious communities vulnerable to emotional and mental abuse.

For counselors and therapists it is vital to haver insight in the theological nature of the abuse that their patient has endured. It can also be very useful to understand precisely what kind of divine authority structure underlies the particular form of emotional and spiritual abuse.

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