The Difference Between Spiritual Abuse And Christian Courtesy

One of my favorite aspects of working at Ouachita Hills in years past was “courtesy week.” This week was (and presumably still is) a time when morning worships focused on the power and practice of courtesy. A quote often used at such times is this:

“If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.” – 9T 189.4

Courtesy is, ultimately, a baseline for true Christian behavior. If we are not courteous, we are not filled with God’s Spirit. And promoting spiritual life and courtesy simultaneously sounds to me like an ideal part of true education.

But the facts of the case are that Laodicea is not a church full of born-again persons when Christ says to her that she is wretched and naked (Revelation 3:17).

And consequently, sadly, and frankly, persons are continuously wounded by uncourteous behavior in church-related circles. And if such uncourteous behavior keeps 99 potential converts at bay, it probably can also be blamed for shuffling 99 potential youth out of reach of their former church.

So Courtesy is a Big Deal

When the lack of courtesy comes from someone in spiritual authority, such as a pastor or teacher or administrator in a Christian church or school, the damage can be magnified terribly. We expect, for example, that our rude cousin might call us “stupid.” But when a teacher does the same, our ideas about our young selves can be modified tragically.

Again, if a classmate suggests a secret rendezvous for a romantic get together, the influence can be terrible for our spiritual life. But if a pastor makes the same suggestion, the influence can thrust us far away from theism and out of the realm where church friends can be of assistance. If your grandmother embarrasses you in public, you will blush. But if your principal shames you in front of your friends, you may experience traumatic stress.

Spiritual Abuse

What is “spiritual abuse” or “religious trauma”? The definition I am using here is this: When a person in spiritual authority uses his or her position to do any of several uncourteous things that would wound those under him. Such actions include public shaming, punishing dissent, threatening, shunning, invoking God (as in, “God wants you to do this now.”)

And what such behavior has in common is that it is manipulative.


Manipulation is the art of influencing someone to depend on your judgment rather than using their own. It fundamentally differs from persuasion. In persuasion, I seek to engage your thinking and judgment by giving you helpful data and warm encouragement. In manipulation I seek to bypass your thinking by pushing you to conform to my judgment. (Threats, shame, shunning, “trust me,” help manipulators.)

Now here comes the rub: When persons who are struggling spiritually are employed as teachers and pastors, their insecurity and incompetence often leads to spiritually abusive behavior. Such persons get frustrated with dissent. They are intimidated by challenges and questions. They invoke God to increase their influence, but at the expense of their credibility. They excuse their own evil traits while shaming you for yours.

And even if they are converted, their social immaturity may come off a bit coldly. They may fail to show empathy at a time when such a failure causes great pain.  I think I have been one that has failed shamefully in this way at times.

So, from my own interactions with thousands, I conclude that “spiritual abuse” is fairly common. And its results, as mentioned already, include stagnated evangelism and bleeding youth departments. Such abuse is tragic and at time, possibly even criminal.

Speaking the Truth in Love

But let me switch gears for a moment. The world hated Jesus. And Jesus in his prayer of John 17 said that the world will hate us too. And while the world may be expected to hate an abuser, it is less intuitive to figure out why the world would hate the loving Savior.

But he answered this question when talking to his brothers. “The world cannot hate you; but me it hates, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7).

When you call a transgender person by his birth pronouns, when you tell a cohabiting couple that they are sinning, when you tell a student that his disregard for policies has resulted in a disciplinary action, you are likely to feel some of the hate that Jesus felt directed at him. If you tell him in a way that is harsh or sarcastic or angry, you may be abusing him. But if you tell him in a kind but serious way, you are serving him.

And the problem is that he may remember it emotionally rather than factually. Emotional interactions are often remembered that way. (So memories of schools that have strict rules darken over time until the student would be shocked to hear a recording of his own testimony about such a school soon after his graduation from it.)

One form of manipulation manifests itself especially in recruitment. If I try to recruit a missionary by telling him that God will punish him for not coming, or by threatening him, or by telling him that God said you should do such and such, I am using uncourteous and unchristian techniques that are hurtful.

But, if on the other hand, I give him good data and invite him to count the cost, I am not hurting him at all, even if he does go away as sad and self-condemned as the rich young ruler. Nor have I hurt him if he leaves his job on his dad’s boat to follow Jesus Christ for a few years before being martyred.

Avoiding A Culture of Victimhood

And this brings me to my main point of writing this article: I am very very very concerned that Satan plans to leverage this new phrase “spiritual abuse” to condemn God’s training programs wherever they may be found.

I am worried about it in two ways. First, I am worried that actual abuse may be happening because spiritually immature persons and perhaps even yet-to-be-converted persons may be employed at such schools. And this needs to stop post haste. It causes so much disaster when uncourteous persons are teachers! Firing an uncourteous person causes far less trauma in the planet than does retaining one.

Second, I am worried that actual gospel actions may soon be condemned as abusive because they cause such real pain in those who do not accept God’s values. I am worried that persons who are legitimately rebuked will be offended. I am worried that persons who are dishonest will be opportunists. And I am worried that persons with fragile mental states will find meaning and support in being victims. And that brings me to two of the most important training programs in the United States.

Two Important Training Programs

Last week Facebook confronted me with a series of posts that were about “spiritual abuse.” These posts, at least the ones in my newsfeed, are mostly related to incidents real and alleged at two special training programs that have been operating for decades. And as those two schools have produced a large portion of the missionary zeal that has kept canvassing alive in North America, I have an intense interest in the posts that relate to them.

After reading the two hundred or so posts that I found by various persons, I came away with some take-home conclusions:

1.      Some poor teaching techniques and unkind assumptions have quite likely been used in a way that has hurt some persons, including public shaming, invoking God frivolously, and blaming victims in abuse situations. (Two individuals have been released from employment to date, as a direct consequence.)

2.      Some good solid work that has been done at these two schools has been labeled as abusive when it is not abusive at all. Rather, in the cases I have in mind, the incidents are just proper protocol in situations that are always painful (poor job recommendations, etc.)

3.      Some very good and solid work has not been done sufficiently. And as this is important, let me explain: How painful does your correction feel to another? That depends on how closely you have revealed your personal concern for the person. Teachers, if you don’t have time to get personally involved with your students’ personal lives outside of class, then you don’t have time to be effective. If students aren’t in your home, aren’t comfortable expressing their doubts or perplexities to you, aren’t convinced that they matter to you, then your work of instructing them may be needlessly painful.

One of the students who posted under one of the threads spoke to one staff member that had been previously personally involved with mentoring students:

“Your loss was keenly felt on campus. You provided a human connection to the students that wasn’t easy to replace. When you were there we knew that your home was open to us, that we could come and talk if we needed it. You brought humor and fun to the rules and taught ‘why’ behind them so clearly. You had mercy beyond what we deserved. After you left there was a noticeable shift towards hard consequences for behavior from those who didn’t have a connection with us, and a lot more passive aggressive techniques and spiritual manipulation. The human connection got replaced with rules and regulations and it was not a good switch. Just my 2 cents, but I am not the only one who felt that way.”

From this bit of poignant prose I think all staff in God’s training schools ought to see what Ellen White says clearly, “in all true teaching, the personal element is essential. Christ in His teaching dealt with men individually.” Teachers, if you aren’t one with your students, feeling yourself to be a peer with them in so many ways, then you are likely to fall far below them in terms of soul-saving courtesy.

In the week since the posts started I have heard from several persons who I love and trust who shocked me by describing how two of them had experienced a crisis of faith after being viewed as rebellious by staff that they looked up to.

Now I don’t suppose in any way that such uncourteous methods of dealing with problem students are a product of the high values and good Adventist theology of these training schools. Indeed, an informative video by Professor David Sedlacek on spiritual abuse indicates that a quarter of students at Andrews, Southern and Oakwood report that they have experienced some form of spiritual manipulation.

Rather, the use of religion to hurt persons is a product of an unconverted heart. It is as common as the broad intersection of authority and unregenerate living. Husbands that emotionally torture their wives with “submit!” are in that intersection. Pastors that kiss their counselees are in that intersection. Teachers that resent difficult questions in class are part of that intersection. Administrators who view difficult students as enemies are part of that intersection. Someone who thinks they alone know you well enough to tell you what you ought to do is a manipulator too.


So what do I conclude? Real pain has been suffered by students because of a lack of courtesy. And real pain has been experienced because of immaturity of administration. I am sure that I have hurt persons in ways that are shameful and blameworthy. And I have repented.

But more than this, let’s protect our training schools from attack. If you are in a school, seek to sweeten the atmosphere. If you are outside, at least give encouragement to overworked persons.

And if overwork is causing the personal element to be neglected, then drop something else. Meetings? Classes? Facebook? Let anything go but the personal element.

And all persons: reread 9T 189 at the head of this article.

100 conversions to the truth.



The Institute of East Asia Training, with Eugene and Heidi Prewitt, serves budding missionaries from the countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia. These young people are trained in the arts of winning hearts, selling books, teaching doctrines, planting congregations, and reaching unreached groups.  Extensions of the iEAT program that serve in Indonesia are listed as a separate project.