Spiritual Abuse: Eternal Salvation by Any Means Necessary

Spiritual Abuse: Eternal Salvation by Any Means Necessary January 4, 2024

A few months ago, my daughter told me that she experienced spiritual abuse in some of the churches I pastored. How did I respond to this?

Man with hand in front of his face saying, "Please stop."
Photo by RDNE Stock project

At first, I became defensive. Certainly, I couldn’t be guilty of spiritual abuse, I told her—because this is what I told myself. Then, I talked with my other children, who agreed with what their sister said. As I processed all this, I had to admit that perhaps some spiritual abuse had taken place in my churches. Yet, my admission of guilt was not complete or genuine.

Still, I protected myself by insisting that I had not been the real perpetrator. Instead, it must have been deacons or teachers within the churches who did such things. But it certainly couldn’t have been me! But the more I have sat with the word “abusive” that she used to describe the manipulations of the church, the more I have come to understand that she is right. And I was not innocent of this crime. I participated in, and in fact led, many of the abusive strategies we employed to “get people saved.”


Abusive Strategies

Here are a few of the abusive tactics we used to save souls. We didn’t think of them as abusive—we thought we were being unshakably faithful. After all—no tactic is off limits if it results in eternal salvation (or so we told ourselves).

  • Graphic and gruesome artwork depicting the crucifixion shown to very young children, along with a guilt trip about Jesus’s death being their fault.
  • Sin-mitigation strategies that employed shame. One example is telling sexually active kids that they were like used bubble gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe.
  • Demonizing people whose “alternative lifestyle” we disapproved of—be it LGBTQIA+ folks, or the party crowd.
  • Withholding proper sex education from our children, fearing that the more they knew, the more active they would be (In fact, the opposite is true).
  • Withholding harm reduction products and strategies (condoms, for example) from our kids, thinking that we would be culpable for their sin if we provided life-saving assistance without judgment.
  • Using the fear of hell as a scare tactic to prevent suicide, rather than encouraging real mental health resources.
  • Telling people that their dead loved ones were burning in hell if they had not been a Christian. Or, threatening eternal torture for anyone above the mysterious “age of accountability” who doesn’t receive Jesus as their savior and lord.
  • Shaming people who come to the church with a benevolence request, if their lives aren’t up to the standards of the congregation. Or, forcing them to attend a worship service before they can make their request from the church.

These were a few of the spiritually abusive practices my kids pointed out, that we employed in churches that I served. Mind you, I didn’t personally use all these tactics. Some of them bothered me a lot. But, as the pastor it was my responsibility to make sure that others within the church were practicing trauma-informed care, rather than creating trauma within the church.


Does the End Justify the Means?

Machiavelli would have loved the evangelistic tools we employed. After all, the end justifies the means—or so we told ourselves. If you really believe that God loves humanity so little that God would burn the majority of us in eternal conscious torment for not believing in Jesus, then it’s easy to justify spiritual manipulation as an act of love. It doesn’t matter how you get them to come streaming and screaming to the altar, as long as you get them there. You are saving souls, after all!

These days, I see things differently. For one, I no longer believe in eternal conscious torment. For another, as a universalist, I believe the many scriptures that point to the salvation of all people. Finally, I don’t believe that there is any justification for using fear or guilt tactics to coerce people into faith. Such conversions rarely last. Mostly, they are emotional reactions to manipulation that give the evangelist a feeling of power and success. The best thing they produce is a fearful faith. At worst, they inspire converts to become spiritual abusers as well.


Spiritual Abuse: Eternal Salvation by Any Means Necessary

Let me be clear. We didn’t realize that our behavior was abusive. We were doing the best we could, given the religious teaching we ourselves received in the Evangelical church. We thought we were carrying out youth evangelism, by any means necessary, to save sinners from hell. We believed we were acting out of love. Yet, this neither justifies nor excuses what we did. It was wrong. I was wrong.

I invite you to keep an eye out for my next article, “Youth Evangelism Gone Wrong: A Confession of Spiritual Abuse.” In this article, I will discuss one particular week at summer camp that I wish I could undo. Hopefully, by this confession, I can shed some light on some of the manipulative tactics employed in traditional evangelism—especially as it is directed toward youth. Maybe readers will think twice before subjecting their kids to such proselytizing strategies. By reading these articles, I pray that readers will recognize these manipulations for what they are, and refuse to participate in them, themselves.


For related reading, check out my other articles:


About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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