We ought to scrutinise and tackle harmful language as well actions to ensure our churches are healthy and wrongdoing is properly dealt with.

Abuse is more prominent as a public issue now than it’s ever been. Campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have highlighted abuse of women in the entertainment industry. British Cycling has confirmed that its former director Shane Sutton promoted a culture of fear’ among riders. The Speaker of the Commons, John Berkow, has been accused of bullying members of his staff. Meanwhile, various churches continue to deal with the fallout from clergy and laity who’ve been found guilty of child sexual abuse in particular, but of other forms of abuse, too.

For some, such non-sexual forms of abuse should include a category called Spiritual Abuse’ (‘SA’). For others, this categorisation is unhelpful. In February this year the Evangelical Alliance’s Theology Advisory Group (TAG) published a report which took the latter view. That report has spurred widespread debate. Some months on, it’s worth taking stock of where we are with this debate, and how we got here.

It’s important to say right away that abuse which occurs in and around the church is a grave issue and needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. Pastoral care for victims and survivors should be paramount, and appropriate action should be taken against perpetrators. But in order to do this effectively, we need to know clearly what we’re talking about, and that requires accurate definition and analysis.

Alongside sexual, physical and neglect-based abuse, UK law also proscribes what it calls Emotional and Psychological Abuse’. This covers bullying, manipulation and humiliation, all of which can have significant effects on a person’s mental health. This is the category of abuse most relevant to the cycling and political cases just mentioned, and to situations in which women have been harassed by men in Hollywood and elsewhere, even if they haven’t been forced into sex.

Indeed, it’s because we see strong similarities between such cases of emotional and psychological abuse that we don’t typically distinguish them according to their context. Granted, different situations where abuse is alleged and prosecuted might have some bearing on the way abuse has happened, and on the specific power relationships that are exploited in the process. But abuse is abuse: we don’t typically talk about sporting abuse’, parliamentary abuse’ or showbusiness abuse’.


Still, advocates of SA’ terminology argue that there’s something so particular about emotional and psychological abuse in religious contexts that it deserves its own special name. That name isn’t entirely new: back in the 1990s a few Christian books depicted the practice of heavy shepherding’ as a form of SA’. But in 2013 the psychologists Lisa Oakley and Kathryn Kinmond offered a more formal definition. SA’, they said, features generally abusive practices such as coercion, control, exploitation, enforced obedience, secrecy and censorship. But they also said that it’s marked out by the fact that its perpetrators claim divine justification’ for their actions, assert their own divine position’, or make appeals to sacred texts’.

This definition has been picked up by certain Christian agencies and denominations, which have begun to include it in their safeguarding training and disciplinary procedures. So, what’s the problem with SA’ language, and why does the Evangelical Alliance think there are better ways to define and address emotional and psychological abuse in Christian settings? 

Before anything else, it’s crucial to stress that rejecting SA’ as a term doesn’t in any way mean denying the actual phenomena of domination and denigration it’s been taken to describe. In churches and other Christian contexts, we should treat accusations of abuse with the greatest seriousness, and church leaders who have pastoral care of their congregations should aim for the highest standards.

We should go above and beyond the law in this area, vindicating the trust people place in us as representatives of Jesus. In Matthew 23 that same Jesus lambasted religious leaders who shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces’ (v.13), and then chided those who insisted on petty legalisms while failing to show justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (v.23). Paul, likewise, castigated religious empty talkers and deceivers’ who upset whole families’ and teach things they should not teach’ (Titus 1:10 – 11). Such injunctions should underpin church education, pastoral care and discipline. But affirming these high biblical standards is one thing; believing we need to equate their opposite with the term SA’ is another.

The problems

The first key problem with SA’ language is a problem of definition. Virtually all who advocate for adoption of SA’ are focused on Christian contexts. Yet the term spiritual’ implies a full range of religious traditions. As such, it’s notoriously hard to pin down and makes any catch-all sanction problematic. Not all religions or Christian denominations have ordained or authorised leaders with a distinct divine position’; not all have sacred texts’; and some, such as Theravada Buddhism, wouldn’t even claim to have a god as part of their belief system. To reiterate: we must take action against those guilty of psychological and emotional abuse in Christian contexts, and we must excel in our care for those who have suffered from it. But in our pluralist society it would be presumptuous and unworkable to assume that the specifically Christian imperatives we’ve outlined could be used as a template for safeguarding guidelines to cover all faiths under the heading of SA’.

The second major problem highlighted in the report relates to application. Some have suggested that SA’ should become a distinct criminal offence. Again, however, this would be unworkable. It would also be discriminatory. This is because it would single out religious people for particular state punishment simply because they were religious. It would also require legal professionals, police officers and social workers of all faiths and none to make theological judgements about the specifically spiritual’ aspects of abuse on a case by case basis – judgments they couldn’t possibly be expected to make. If they were to assume such authority over theological matters, the implications for religious liberties hard-won over centuries would be disastrous.

If a religious person inflicts emotional or psychological abuse on another as defined by the law, they should be investigated, charged and punished for doing so under the law. But they shouldn’t be punished specifically as a spiritual’ or religious person, since religious and non-religious people alike should be equal before the law. It might be that their own religious community will wish to hold them to account in addition, according to their own distinctive theological convictions. But the legal system in 21st century Britain can’t be expected to make such theological judgments.

Some of those who acknowledge that SA’ is a problematic term still argue that it’s the phrase most often used to describe what we’ve been discussing, and that we should therefore stick with it on the basis of custom and practice’. This overlooks the fact that SA’ attempts to be a diagnostic term, and that diagnoses routinely change in the light of more accurate study and research. One hundred years ago, terms such as the vapours’, shellshock’ and hysteria’ were common in psychology. These days we speak in more precise and nuanced ways about clinical depression, bipolar disorder, functional neurologic disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. The words we use matter because better diagnosis informs better treatment.

Our proposal

The Evangelical Alliance’s report proposes that speaking of Emotional and Psychological Abuse in Religious Contexts, while perhaps not so catchy, provides a better diagnosis than the opaque and misleading terminology of SA’. Indeed, we believe it will help us detect, report and reject abusive churches and church practices more effectively.

This commitment to better diagnosis and response means the Evangelical Alliance is continuing to work with those within and beyond its membership who are engaged in frontline safeguarding and pastoral care of abuse survivors. The support of those who’ve suffered abuse must be central to our response. We’ll also continue to work with theologians, psychologists and lawyers on this topic, to ensure that our understanding is deepened, and that we have precise definitions of emotional and psychological abuse applicable to religious contexts, and specifically to churches, that enable us to take action.

The Evangelical Alliance’s Above and Beyond event in February addressed these themes, and a specialised academic conference is being planned to explore them more fully. We do all of this to honour the Lord Jesus, our suffering Saviour, who cared for the vulnerable, who stood with the abused. We ask for your continued prayers as we take this vital work forward.

Danny Webster, advocacy and media manager at the Evangelical Alliance, co-authored this article.