Home Christian News Wade Mullen: How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse in Evangelicalism

Wade Mullen: How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse in Evangelicalism

Another type of charm Mullen identified is gift-giving or favor-rendering, whereby the abuser provides gifts with an expectation that, as a result, the victim will do what the abuser wants. The third type of charm is something Mullen called “helps.” In this case, the abuser provides a lot of unexpected and even unnecessary help to the victim to make the victim feel dependent on the abuser. This is a common way of isolating victims, as well as of gaslighting and shaming them. 

The fourth and final charm Mullen mentioned is alliances, a tactic through which the abuser seeks control by focusing on shared opinions and experiences. When using an alliance to manipulate, an abuser might say something like, “You and I have more in common than you think,”  “It sounds like we both want the same thing,” or “There’s more we can agree on than disagree on.” This is a common strategy, said Mullen, used by abusive pastors who want to make a comeback.

Spiritual Abuse Through ‘Dismantling’

The abuser’s whole purpose in charming victims is to dismantle their internal and external worlds. Then the perpetrator can make victims dependent on the world he or she is creating to control them. “If charms use favor to create trust in the abuser,” said Mullen, “dismantling is designed to use fear to create distrust in the victim’s external and internal worlds.”

The abuser dismantles a victim’s internal world by attacking his or her identity. This could look like teasing, bullying, or name-calling as a way of humiliating the victim. An abuser might even do so publicly, and how the victim’s community responds in that moment is crucial. Mullen said that laughter is a key sign that humiliation is taking place.

Abusers also dismantle by targeting victims’ ability to make decisions for themselves. In abusive communities, there is often a lot of rules and a lot of scrutiny. “Often members aren’t even aware of these rules until they break them,” said Mullen. “So the spiritually abusive person creates an environment where you are constantly looking over your shoulder, always fearing what will happen if you step out of line.”

The abuser dismantles a victim’s external world by cutting off their support systems. Those who comprise the external world can include family, friends, journalists, law enforcement, the legal system, and the healthcare system. One way abusers might try to cut off someone’s external world is by teaching that anything outside a specific religious system has the power to corrupt. 

Abusers could also attack a victim’s understanding of God (similar to how Satan attacked God’s character in Genesis 3). “This is especially powerful in its effect when the abuser casts himself as an agent of God,” said Mullen, “appealing to their calling or their anointing or their theological insights or their role or their spiritual gift in a desire to be seen as the person who knows exactly what God wants for the victim.” 

An abuser might claim to have heard directly from God, causing victims to fear that if they say no to the abuser, they are saying no to God himself. Some spiritual abusers cause their victims to believe they are under a type of demonic influence and must depend on the abusers to be free of that influence. “This stuff is happening,” said Mullen, adding that he learned of a real-life example of that very scenario just a few weeks before his talk. 

The Role of the Community in Spiritual Abuse

It is not unusual for a community to play a major role in perpetuating the abuse of its leader. One of the reasons why, said Mullen, is because many evangelical institutions have set up the leadership role “as a keystone holding everything together.” 

If the leader is the keystone holding the community together and the leader is abusive, when the victim decides to confront the abuse, the victim becomes a threat to the community. When that happens, said Mullen, “The abusive system then assaults the internal and external worlds of the victim in the same way the abusive individual has.”

Spiritual Abuse Before and AFTER the Abuser Has Been Caught

Mullen closed by outlining various defense strategies abusers employ in order to protect themselves from being caught, as well as to protect themselves after they have been caught. It is crucial that the church learns to recognize when leaders and communities are still being abusive after a leader has publicly fallen from grace. 

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Jessica Mouser is a writer for churchleaders.com. She has always had a passion for the written word and has been writing professionally for the past two years. She especially enjoys evaluating how various beliefs play out within culture. When Jessica isn't writing, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.