Amanda is 18 and loves God. She had just started attending a Message church. She didn’t understand everything, but she was so thankful that God sent her a prophet to teach her the ‘truth’ of the scripture. She had quit cutting her hair and had gotten rid of all her jeans and makeup. Amanda wanted to please God, and if those things didn’t please Him, as the prophet said, then she was more than happy to obey. 

A month after attending, a deacon pulled her aside before service began and told her that she needed to quit wearing her earrings. Amanda reached up and touched her earlobes, she had noticed no one else was wearing them but didn’t know why. 

“Earrings are of the devil,” he told her. “Do you want to be a slave to Satan? When you wear them, you are admitting that you are enslaved to him”. 

She felt mortified. Her face turned beet red. She had no idea earrings were evil! She immediately removed them from her ears as she walked to the women’s bathroom. She tossed them away in the trashcan. One of the church member ladies was standing at the sink and nodded approvingly. “We knew God would correct you. He corrects those who are His,” then the lady hugged Amanda. 

During the service, the pastor started preaching on earrings towards the end of the service. He was quoting the prophet and a scripture from the Old Testament about bondservants becoming lifetime slaves through the piercing of their ears. Amanda felt several members in the congregation turning to look at her. She felt so embarrassed and knew the sermon was about her.  The pastor said, “God put me here in this pulpit to lead you and to keep sin from coming into the church. And here, we preach the truth no matter what the world says is true. We follow our prophet as he follows Christ!”  

After service, Amanda went home and looked up passages about piercings in her Bible. She realized there were several positive scriptures about nose rings and earrings. Abraham gave Rebecca a nose ring as a wedding gift for marrying his son, Isaac. The Israelites were able to make a golden calf idol out of their numerous piercings of gold. Even God said in Ezek 16:12, “I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head” as a show of love and affection for His people. Amanda wondered why the prophet and pastor didn’t read those scriptures, too, but she went ahead and threw all her other earrings away. “Besides”, she thought, “the pastor must know more about God than I do”.


Abuse in the church isn’t necessarily obvious. Spiritual abuse is defined as using shame-based words or actions to de-Christianize others in order to legitimize one’s own beliefs. Spiritual abuse gives only one leader, or a few elite members at best, the ultimate power of unquestionable authority. Unfortunately, this is often the reason why sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse is also present.

Is your church spiritually abusive? The following characteristics are some major warning signs to look for:

1. Greed of Authority

Leaders will spend a lot of time reminding members of their authority in the church, instead of the earning trust through leading with Godly character. They do this because their authority isn’t real.  They will insist their words are literally spoken from God and will often quote scriptures like Heb 13:17 to “obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls”. But, they will ignore balancing scriptures like Act 5:29 to “obey God rather than man” and 1 John 2:27, "But the anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as His anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as It has taught you, abide in him." We are to obey and submit to our pastors ONLY if they stay with scripture. A true leader won’t need to remind their followers of their authority; they’ll earn it. Branham repeatedly reminded congregations (over 330 times) to believe “me to be his prophet”. Does your pastor remind you of his authority?

2. Performance-Based Religion

Leaders will have trouble preaching “Jesus-only” and scriptures like John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. To be a more elite Christian, they will require additional belief in their own religious teacher because they believe they have a holier word from God. They will demonize any other belief system. Performance-based religion will always have an “us verses them” mentality. “Them” can mean the world, or even other Christians outside of their church. Leaders will require legalistic rules to be followed to become righteous, even though God views our self-righteousness as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). They view those who believe in “just grace and not works/legalism” as unrighteous, even though “a righteousness from God, not from law… comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).  In Gal 2 verse 4, Paul calls legalistic preachers “false believers” sent to make slaves out of those living in freedom of Christ.  “If you have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of the world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its regulations:  “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”? —   These will all perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.   Such restrictions indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-prescribed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body; but they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:21-23).

3. Verbal Shaming

Members who do not follow their leader’s beliefs will be verbally shamed by the leader, elders of the church, spouses, friends, and/or parents. Verbal shaming plays two roles. First, to shame the specific member into obeying them. And secondly, to keep all other members in obedience by creating fear of being shamed. Shaming phrases include “If you/they really had the Holy Spirit you/they wouldn’t do/say such-and-such” (In Gal 6:15 Paul says neither works nor lack of works mean salvation), “God speaks to me, not to you/them” (the Holy Spirit speaks to each of us according to 1 John 2:27), “touch not the Lord’s anointed” (1 Chron 16:22 is only talking about not causing physical harm; disagreeing is not forbidden), or “what’s wrong with you/them?”.

4. Lack of Balance

In spiritually abusive systems, there will be polar extremes of unbalance:

  • Members will be controlled by several unspoken rules. Typical unspoken rules are “to never disagree with the leader” and “if you speak about the problem, then you are the problem”. 
  • There is also a sense of paranoia that others won’t understand “us” unless they become “one of us”, so members refrain from sharing with outsiders what they really believe. They’ll often omit that they follow a prophet when outsiders ask about their beliefs. This stems from a fear that others will respond negatively. 
  • Leaders will also claim government and educational systems should be viewed as demonic tools instead of acknowledging scriptures like 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”. And some of the most notable writers of the Bible were very educated men: Moses, Daniel, Ezra, Matthew, Luke, and Paul.   
  • Leadership will have a sense of secrecy. “Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20). Leaders will justify their secrecy by saying that their congregation isn’t mature enough to handle the truth. There could be a lack of transparency in the leader’s wages, church leadership decisions, and/or having a double standard in their life apart from what they preach. Despite Branham’s claims of being poor, he had over $3 million dollars in his possession when he died. That was in 1965.  With today’s inflation rates, it would be worth over $23 million. Branham also wore shorts, went to movies, had a Christmas tree, and allowed his girls to trim their hair.

5. Sexual and Physical Abuse

Perhaps the most detrimental of all the characteristics of spiritual abuse is the cover-up of physically and sexually abused victims. This happens when members, such as women, are required to be in complete submission to another member, like their husband or pastor. Leaders and members will also distrust the secular legal and social services system. Therefore, when abused members do speak out, the leader dictates complete control of the situation without reporting it to the local authorities. 1 Corinth 6:1-2 is most often used to justify this: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest laws courts?” This passage is about settling civil cases, not criminal ones. In civil cases, one person goes to court against another person over money or property. In a criminal case, such as physical or sexual abuse, the state goes to court against the individual and the victim is the witness. It is illegal for anyone to cover up a crime. How many abuse cases do you know that where covered up? Furthermore, the Bible gives us strict guidelines about abuse. God says this about violence: 

  • The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” -Psalms 11:5
  • Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” -Col 3:19
  • But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” -Col 3:8

In the introductory story about Amanda, we can now see several scenarios of abuse. Did the deacon, church member, and pastor purposefully spiritually abuse her? Probably not intentionally. They thought that they were really helping Amanda clean up her life.  But, their actions and words were spiritually abusive, none-the-less, and very much against what scripture teaches. Was it wrong for Amanda to wear earrings? According to the Bible, there are possible scriptures for either side of the argument on this conviction. However, we are instructed to keep our own personal convictions to ourselves. Romans 14 is a beautiful chapter on how to deal with personal convictions, and there are many study guides available online and in Christian bookstores on the subject. We highly recommend reading more in depth about spiritual abuse through some of the books listed under our Resources Page.

Other studies regarding this topic:


Using Fear to Manipulate Authority :

Lack of Transparency:

Double Standard:

Martin Luther's Study Of The Book Of Romans: