Just Obey: Christian Patriarchy as Spiritual Abuse

I have heard the term “spiritual abuse” thrown around the blogosphere lately and I just realized that I wasn’t really sure of a good definition of the term. I did some digging around on the internet and found a variety of definitions and aspects. There doesn’t seem to be one consensus on what the term means, exactly. Some bloggers give it a wide definition while others give it a very narrow one.

But as I thought about spiritual abuse, I kept coming back to one thing. Spiritual abuse involves one person telling another person or group of people what to believe and how to live, and then backing that up with some sort of coercive force, whether it be claims to divine authority or simple emotional manipulation. And as I thought about it, I realized something: Christian patriarchy is by its very nature spiritually abusive. Let me explain.

Christian Patriarchy holds that a woman must always be under male authority. And, that authority includes obedience. Christian Patriarchy holds that women must always obey their male authorities, be that father or husband. Here is a quote:

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Scriptures say a woman ought to obey her husband! … If you are intellectually honest, you will have to admit that it is impossible to find a single loophole, a single exception, an “if” or “unless.”  The Scriptures say, without qualification, to the openminded reader, that a woman ought to obey her husband. (pp. 24, 25)

Christian Patriarchy says you have to obey your male authority, live as he says to live, move where he says to move, believe as he instructs you to believe, because God says you have to. Christian Patriarchy thus uses the “God card” to tell people what to believe and how to act – and backs that up with every bit of force it can muster, from religious guilt to emotional manipulation. I’m sorry, but that’s spiritual abuse.


When I started to ask questions and form my own beliefs, my mother told me that I should ask any spiritual questions I might have of my father, and then believe what he told me whether I agreed with it or not. My mother said that my father’s timing for me was God’s timing for me, and that I should heed that. My parents did everything in their power to get me to obey them, to live as they live, to believe as they believe, and they backed that all up with appeals to scripture and God’s authority – and, of course, emotional and social manipulation.

Really, how can Christian Patriarchy not be spiritually abusive? As long as it involves one group telling another group how to live and what to believe, or one person telling another person how to live and what to believe, and backs that up with some sort of coercive force – in the form of shame, manipulation, threats, or what have you – how can it not be?

You may wonder what I mean by “coercive force.” What I mean, quite simply, is inducing religious guilt and employing emotional manipulation, threatening consequences like a loss of access to family or making one’s life miserable if one deviates in any way. Given that Christian Patriarchy is family-based, and is thus something one can’t easily or without consequence simply walk away from, its spiritually abusive potential is magnified.

After writing everything above, I came upon an article on spiritual abuse posted on a conservative Christian blog here on Patheos. What is uncanny about this article is that it echoes so much of what I said above, and of what I have thought, and it also seems to – completely unintentionally – drive home the connections between the beliefs and practices of the Christian Patriarchy movement and spiritual abuse. And yet, it’s by an author in the evangelical channel. It’s definitely worth a read, and I’ll finish this post by excerpting the best parts here, highlighting what I found especially pertinent, and ending with a comment:

One of the most recent cases was a young couple who sought me out for informal counseling (not psychotherapy). They told me about their home church and the circumstances surrounding their leaving it which was extremely painful. As is often the case with spiritual abuse, their home church was their extended family. But they began to notice some unethical conduct among the church’s leaders and tried to point it out. They were labeled “the problem” and shamed for daring to speak up about the ethical problems. Soon they were ostracized and they eventually, sadly, left the church.

Put most simply, spiritual abuse is the control of people by manipulation of their religious needs or sensitivities by means of shame.

This usually takes place in a hierarchical religious context led by unaccountable spiritual leaders of dubious morality and/or dominating personality.

In such a spiritual context, it is usually an unwritten rule that members will submit unquestioningly to the leaders and turn a blind eye to any unethical, immoral or abusive conduct.

In such spiritual contexts, leaders will often select a person perceived as not totally submissive (to the leaders or the system) and subject him or her to special negative treatment to force the person “into line” or out of the organization.

The tool most often used in spiritual abuse is shame. A person who dares to ask a question that might be perceived as critical of what a leader is saying or doing is shamed as unspiritual. For example “God is doing a mighty work in this place and who are you to question it or slow it down?” Often questioning the leaders is turned around so that it is made to be questioning God.

Usually the shame is implying that the insubordinate or nonsubmissive person is unspiritual–simply by virtue of daring to question or point out a real problem.

I’m not talking about church discipline. Spiritual abuse can happen under the guise of church discipline, but it’s something else. It’s almost always aimed at protecting the religious system and/or its leaders.

Church discipline is requiring repentance or departure by someone who has knowingly violated a community norm (that he or she knew about when joining).

If that “community norm” is “protect the leader(s) no matter what” and/or “never question anything” with the threat of spiritual shame or possible expulsion, then that “church discipline” is, in my opinion, spiritually abusive.

In a toxic spiritual context, new rules, new community norms, are often invented for no other reason than to force conformity and submission. In that case, what is happening is not church discipline but spiritual abuse.

Two things to note: In the case of Christian Patriarchy, one’s spiritual leader is one’s husband or father and one’s church community is one’s family – especially when homeschooling is involved, as it essentially always is. Further, the idea that you are not to question or disobey the spiritual leader – your male head, the patriarch of your household – and that he is always right and always knows what God wants is actually a core doctrine of the movement. Finally, the use of shame to bring an “erring” individual back in line is huge. And worst of all, that shame takes place within your family. That’s spiritual abuse at its worst.

In the end, the Christian Patriarchy movement is simply an institutionalized form of spiritual abuse.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • gillyc

    You’ve just described almost all religion, there – nothing you said is unique to Christian Patriarchy. The RCC behaves in exactly the same way. Pretty sure it’s common in Islam, Hinduism, you name it… the only reason I say ‘almost’ is because I think Quakers (at least in the UK, I know Quakers in the US are rather different) mostly manage to sidestep it, from what I’ve seen, and I have to assume that other religions could have similar sects. But for any sect, of any religion, to grow large and not split, you need a strong hierarchy and leadership, and you’re probably only going to get that by using spiritual abuse.

    I might be wrong – I’m thinking specifically of UU, can anyone confirm whether spiritual abuse is a problem there?

    Perhaps modern communications (the internet etc), high populations and ease of travel can override the historical tendency towards authoritarianism, through making it easier for churches to form and keep afloat, without eventually forming schisms? Just thinking out loud here.

    It seems to me that the main force *against* spiritual abuse is the idea that god speaks directly to everyone. As soon as you have some ‘rule’ denying that, all hell breaks loose….

    • Steve

      Aside from the way they enforce conformity, instilling shame in people is integral to all Abrahamic religions and some others as well. Christianity at its very core shames people for being human. We are born sick and broken and humanity is a condition that needs to be overcome. Despite different doctrines the other two desert religions aren’t really any different. Among them only Reform Judaism de-emphasizes that aspect.

      • http://www.cleverbadger.net Jay

        And fear. Don’t forget fear.
        The moment you introduce the threat of eternal torture as a consequence of disobedience, you’re manipulating fear.
        When Libby Anne writes about the child-rearing techniques of people like the Pearls, she’s writing about the exact same mechanism.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Proud Reform Jew here and all but I really don’t think that’s correct. I don’t really see shame for being human, or viewing humanity “as a condition to be overcome” as features of Judaism in general. There is no teaching in Judaism that humanity is inherently depraved. In need of protection, perhaps, but not redemption or any concept similar to Christian “grace” and that’s an important distinction. I’m not saying this to imply that Judaism is superior–spiritual abuse certainly happens in Orthodox communities but it’s accomplished a different way. I’m just pointing out that Judaism really is very different from Christianity, at a very fundamental level. It’s just not as simple as identifying a feature of Christianity and finding an exact analogue in Judaism.

        Really. I promise. *sigh*

        As for Islam, I know something about it and it’s various manifestations, but not enough so that I’d feel comfortable speaking for it here.

    • machintelligence

      While I largely agree with what you said (the RCC was what first occurred to me as well), I think the solution which you proposed may be worse than the problem.

      It seems to me that the main force *against* spiritual abuse is the idea that god speaks directly to everyone. As soon as you have some ‘rule’ denying that, all hell breaks loose….

      Do you really want everyone having “divine” revelations at the drop of a hat? How can we distinguish them from wishfull thinking or paranoid delusions? For an example of how this can go badly wrong see “Under the Banner Of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. A summary on Wikipedia can be found here
      A few words to the wise for those seeking or having revelations: The voice (or voices) in your head are your own voice.

      • http://www.cleverbadger.net Jay

        A few words to the wise for those seeking or having revelations: The voice (or voices) in your head are your own voice.

        Interesting, isn’t it, how when “God” speaks to someone, He almost always tells them what they want to hear?

      • gillyc

        I didn’t mean it as a solution, I just meant it acts as a counterbalance. I’m pretty anti-religion, myself; I was just trying to make the point that you don’t get ‘spiritual abuse’ so much in churches where people are free to follow their own conscience. Sorry if that’s not how it came across and I totally agree with you about revelations.

    • Caitlin

      Gillye, I’m a UU–I think our 7 principles were written in part to prevent spiritual abuse, but it certainly seems possible that it could occur in a particular congregation. However, there’s no frightening penalty for rejecting a leader’s interpretation of the faith, because one of the tenets of the faith is that there is no hell. Also, a lot of UUs are atheists.
      (for those not familiar with UU, our principles can be read here: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles/)

      • gillyc

        Thanks Caitlin, I didn’t know that but it fits with what I’ve heard about UU. I like the idea of a church that accepts atheists!

  • gillyc

    Ooops — just to clarify: “nothing you said is unique to Christian Patriarchy” – sorry, that’s clearly wrong. I was talking more of the spiritual abuse itself; the precise form it takes varies from one church to the next. (And this is why I don’t have my own blog; it would be full of stupid over-generalisations!)

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com from two to one

    Great post, Libby Anne. Have you ever thought of how Christian Patriarchy aligns, on a micro-scale in the nuclear family, like the divine right of Kings? Interesting that many who rebelled eventually against that seem to then have rearranged that power for themselves in their homes and churches.

  • Mandy

    Thanks for writing this, and the great quotes. I agree with your statements about the nature of patriarchy, and how what is supposed to be a supportive community of believers can become more like the mafia, where words and social coercion are used instead of guns, except you can’t just go to the hospital and get the bullet removed and some antibiotics.
    I did want to raise a red flag about something, though, that bothered me. You mentioned homeschooling, saying it is almost always involved in spiritual abuse. I would like to speak in defense of homeschooling, because it would be easy for a reader to unknowingly file homeschooling away in their “bad stuff” list, but homeschooling (also done historically as tutoring – the way generations of our ancestors learned, including well-educated people like Elizabeth I) actually can be incredibly helpful and nurturing. Unfortunately, what you see if families who homeschool not just for the sake of education, love, and nurture, but because the parent are living through a fear of the outside world. Those parents instead of teaching their children to love and value everyone, and reach the world through humanness and understanding, teach them to judge people and treat people who don’t subscribe to their beliefs as outsiders. Home education is used to put up walls, and instead of gradually releasing a child out into the world with tools for how to live in it and really be salt and light, they keep their children behind walls of legalism and judgement, or at the very least the idea that if they’re not careful, people who don’t think the same way will somehow get them dirty – that they have to hold the world at a distance or get tainted. It’s like if they take one step wrong, God won’t want them anymore…and certainly not their family or community.
    So…all that to say, homeschooling is a fantastic way to nurture and educate children, but only when the parents/educators are trying to help their children be the best they can be – best of who they are – not trying to raise their children in their image. I recommend “Give them Grace” by Elyse Fitzpatrick, one of many great books on raising healthy children first by making sure you’re healthy.

    • Annie

      I think what she was getting at was that those who are deeply involved with CP “essentially always” homeschool, not that homeschooling in and of itself is spiritually abusive. Certainly there are legitimate reasons to homeschool your children that don’t involve shutting them away from the world to create little ideological clones, I don’t think that’s ever been debated here.

  • Ibis3

    Spiritual abuse involves one person telling another person or group of people what to believe and how to live, and then backing that up with some sort of coercive force, whether it be claims to divine authority or simple emotional manipulation.

    This is basically a definition of most religion. Very few don’t have people in charge telling other people what to do based on what the god or gods want, and woe to you who deviate or disobey. You’ll either get your punishment meted out now by God’s enforcer, or later by God himself (or, usually, both).

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    Ditto on the homeschooling though I understand where you are coming from. I discovered the patriarchy/ quiverful group online while looking for educational resources after I started homeschooling my son. I hadn’t even known they existed until then. There were lots of homeschoolers like us in my area and no one looked remotely like these extremists. Back then it was a great way to get a better education but this movement basically took over and brought the educational standards down to a horrifying low. I can understand why people are wary of homeschoolers now. Since I lived in a city and was not a religious control freak I had no desire or plan to turn my son’s life into a cultural and social wasteland. My daughters even took off school sometimes to go on one of our many excursions. It was fun and very rewarding for us.

  • smrnda

    This is why I’m pretty much totally anti-authority, unless it’s some sort of democratically elected leadership that can be voted out if they aren’t doing their jobs. I just think authority and love are incompatible. Authority demands that other people submits to it, regardless of whether or not it’s really doing a good job, and seeks to use force, or guilt, to manipulate people into not criticizing it in the first place. You see this where the authorities pretend their authority is such a burden and that the people under them have it so much better without the burden of authority.

  • Tragedy101

    Thank you for attempting to answer my question.

    Do I correctly understand your idea of spiritual abuse (Which I, personally, do not believe occurs.) is when a person uses emotional force to manipulate another person or persons into doing or not doing activities based on perceived concepts of “good” and “bad”?

  • AL

    I was in a ‘New Apostolic Reformation’ church for over ten years and no one ever said the word ‘New Apostolic Reformation’. But once you ‘see’ truth and their control tactics and start seeking what they really stand for, you run as fast as you can. And wonder, how could I have been so deceived for that long? The control definitely turned into spiritual abuse. But you had best not question their ‘authority’ or you will be ostracized.

  • Azura

    I chose to be a solitary pagan partly to avoid spiritual abuse as you defined it. The thing is, I don’t get any abuse from my spiritual leader, because that’s me, but I face it from those who want to convert me. I get it much more now than I did as an agnostic, but that’s because I never mentioned agnosticism and I now wear religious symbols.

    Corner preachers are one of the worst kinds of spiritual abusers for me because I can stay out of religious buildings, but I’d miss out plenty of fun in downtown Toronto if I avoided Dundas Square completely, which is where Islamic and Christian preachers shout at all hours. At this point I’ve had enough Christians abuse me that I get instantly uncomfortable at the sight of a cross necklace. That being said, I can’t get through life without any Christian friends at all, and if I’m treated with kindness I relax and react in kind.

    • smrnda

      I know street preachers defend their activities under ‘free speech’ but I also find them to be fairly obnoxious. I can’t imagine they get many converts that way – it seems like a tactic that’s valued simply because it’s intrusive, in your face and confrontational. It serves the street preacher’s need to cause a scene more than anything else.