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Wade Mullen: How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse in Evangelicalism

“There are times in our lives where abusers take hold of the pen of our story, and when that happens, you fear turning another page,” says Dr. Wade Mullen. Speaking at Julie Roys’ Restore Conference last November, Mullen offered specific, practical insights on how to recognize patterns of spiritual abuse in evangelical organizations. 

Mullen is a professor, researcher, and victims advocate whose focus has been on how evangelical institutions manage the opinions others are forming about them “in the wake of an image-threatening event.” What’s more, Mullen himself experienced spiritual abuse in a church community over a period of years.

“I’ll never forget the night my wife and I made a heart-wrenching decision to walk away from a people we had grown to love,” said Mullen, “from a house we had a made a home that belonged to the church, from a job that paid our bills, and from a career and a future that seemed secure.” Mullen said he worked in an “oppressive church system” for years without realizing it and then became a target of abuse himself when he started confronting the destructive behavior.

“Those years were filled with confusion,” he said. He would wonder, “Is something wrong with me? Am I the only one who sees this? In a sense of captivity, how do I get out of this? Everywhere I turn, there’s a wall.”

How to Recognize Patterns of Spiritual Abuse

Mullen has done extensive research in the area of spiritual abuse and has observed that the patterns of evil are consistent, whether he is examining accounts in the Bible or looking at real life case studies. “Over the past few years,” he said, “I’ve looked at more than 500 cases of church leaders who have been publicly exposed for all various types of abuse, most commonly the sexual abuse of children.” His conclusion? “There is a problem in our churches.”

The Bible offers us insight into the behavior of evil leaders, as in Jeremiah 5:26-28, which says, 

Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor.

The wicked people described in this passage are using deceit to set a trap for their victims. Mullen emphasized that when evil comes, it is not bold or obvious. Rather, it starts with deceitful language. And, he said, “If evil begins in the language, evil language usually begins with charm.” 

Spiritual Abuse Through ‘Charms’

Mullen outlined four ways abusers attempt to charm their victims in order to manipulate them. The first of these is flattery. The spiritual abuser might say something like, “God has anointed you” or “There isn’t a group of people I’d rather be leading.”

It can be difficult to tell that these words are insincere because they sound just like true encouragement. The way that you can know that compliments are flattery is by how the abuser responds if you do not return them. If the abuser gets upset, that means he or she wanted something from you and was not being genuine.

Very often, people do return compliments, and this begins what Mullen called a “wheel of praise.” Once this situation is set up, the wheel spins faster and faster until flattery is embedded within a culture and any criticism is labeled as divisive and disrespectful. Mullen sees this process happening in celebrity Christian culture.