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A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Eight Elements of Coercive Control Hiding Behind the Mask of Faith

Updated: May 14, 2021

A guest blog post by Patty Bear

Shutterstock | Isaac Lugalia Arts

Heresy. The very word ignites our collective psyche with haunting images. Questioners have been burned at the stake both metaphorically and literally for centuries, and toxic faith leaders and organizations count on us to remember this trauma, to carry the memory of the heinous cost of looking behind the mask of faiths.

Of course, not all faith communities are toxic authoritarians wearing a gentle disguise. Some are broadly supportive of their members, encouraging the kind of questioning required to nurture an independent conscience and spiritual maturity. However, if you are reading this article, you have probably begun to question your faith environment, or perhaps even stumbled upon the bared teeth of the wolf behind the disguise. Or maybe, like me, you would describe yourself as having religious PTSD.

I was raised in a sect of the Plain People of Pennsylvania. As a child, I took in the Church teachings and role modeling of my mother and saw my future clearly—and willingly—without question. Though I wasn’t always comfortable with how women were portrayed in sermons, it wasn’t until my teen years that the drilling of female inferiority and subservience into me was upended. Once I was awakened, the coercive control I’d been living under no longer had a place to hide—but the long-term effects had already taken root.

When I was growing up, I often heard the phrase from the book of Matthew: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Toxic faith organizations are quite good at showcasing a smorgasbord of “shiny fruits,” seemingly polished to perfection. For this reason, I have found that a far better metric for identifying those in sheep’s clothing is recognizing their cunning, stealthy, wolf-like behaviors—the rotten fruits that might be more difficult to spot at first.

After the Korean War, psychologist Albert Biderman studied the methods of coercion and control used against prisoners of war to induce false confessions and to manipulate prisoners to betray their country. Since he first developed the framework, it has been recognized by domestic violence and child abuse experts as the universal toolbox abusers around the world use to systematically take control of their victims. To show how these tactics operate in parallel to many spiritual leaders and faith-based organizations, I have applied Biderman’s eight elements of coercive control below with specific examples of what to look for . . .

The Eight Elements of Coercive Control in Spiritual Settings

1. Isolation

  • The creation of close-knit spiritual communities separating believers from nonbelievers, subtly or unsubtly discouraging intimacy with those outside the “tribe.”

  • A gender-based hierarchy, often where female members have a lesser status than male members, and sometimes insistence that female members be dependent on male members to be considered “godly.”

  • The lending of assistance to down-on-their-luck individuals who come to believe they can’t survive outside the group.

  • The requirement of a dress code or uniform that sets members apart from everyone else.

  • The extinguishing of members’ voices by insisting upon conformity, secrecy, and silence.

2. Monopolizing Perception

  • A heavy indoctrination process, such as repetitive sermons constantly reinforcing a few select scripture passages, forced scripture memorization, a narrow religious education, and the vilifying or demonizing of otherness.

  • The discrediting of anyone who questions the indoctrination, or the ejection of them from the group as troublemakers.

  • The discrediting of outsiders and family or friends who question the spiritual group’s beliefs or behavior patterns.

  • The discouragement or forbidding of secular education or certain types of books, music, and entertainment so that only the “right” beliefs get airtime.

3. Humiliation and Degradation

  • After isolating and monopolizing perception and discrediting others, it remains necessary to discredit the individual themselves or an entire class of people so that they are:

- gradually drained of self-esteem, self-respect, and personal agency

- weakened in their physical, mental, and emotional ability to resist

- worn down by being treated in demeaning ways, ridiculed for having any needs or independent perceptions, mocked, labeled in derogatory terms, and given subservient tasks

This can be done by:

- publicly exposing an individual’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses under the guise of prayer, or saving their soul

- targeting individuals for exorcism or ostracism

- depriving individuals of sleep, meals, or special privileges

- denying individuals participation in group activities, such as kicking them off the mission trip or not inviting them to the group picnic

- demanding members be submissive no matter how badly they are treated

  • This process conditions targeted victims to accept increasingly unacceptable behavior without complaint. In other words, what might have once been shocking behavior becomes normalized.

4. Threats

  • Designed to create anxiety and despair, threats may be overt or subtle, but they are intended to:

- make abusers’ expectations clear

- induce fear of consequences for challenging the authority or erratic behavior of abusive individuals

- make clear that, “Thou shalt not question ‘God’s’ representatives on earth, as ‘He’ is beyond question,” and therefore so are his representatives and any demands they might voice.

This might look like:

- passive-aggressive behavior through comments like, “It would be a shame to lose you as a valued leader/member,” or quoting scriptures that make it clear God sees your behavior or questioning as worthy of eternal damnation

- overt blackmail, such as threatening to expose a perceived sin

- threats or displays of aggression, physical dominance, and violence

5. Omnipotence, Superiority, or Overwhelming Power

  • Demonstrations of shock and awe, such as performing alleged miracles or claiming to receive visions or special dreams.

  • Overwhelming displays of force or disproportional consequences, such as dramatically ejecting a member from the community for sincere questions, noting hypocrisy in the leadership, or separating family members as punishment

  • Brutal and/or public scapegoating of a member in a staged powerplay to demonstrate superiority. Making an example of someone.

  • Open committing of crimes by authority figures.

  • Indulgence in hypocrisies or treating others in ways nobody else could get away with.

All of this behavior further conditions the acceptance of the unconscionable, serving the purpose of demonstrating the kind of omnipotence that generates a profound sense of futility for anyone in disagreement or who would fight back.

6. Enforcing Trivial Demands

  • Reinforcement of who has the power and who does not by the making of patently silly demands that serve little apparent useful purpose, such as unnecessary manual labor, or making you apologize to your abuser.

  • Communication of no-win messages like answering questions with, “Because God says,” or, “That’s not for you to question,” or, “You just need to have faith.”

7. Induce Exhaustion

  • Expectation of members to attend services or be on committees that interfere with their ordinary life.

  • Being pressed into service to the group that consumes large amounts of time, leaving little for self-care or reflection.

  • Promote endless striving. One can never do enough, be enough, or be good enough leading members to be drained financially, emotionally, psychologically and mentally.

  • Encouragement to have more children than women would like or can care for (similar to prisoner of war situations where a prisoner may be deprived of sleep to induce a state of confusion and breakdown).

  • Promoting double-bind messages requiring members to guard and promote an idealized public image directly contradicted by a harsher private reality of behaviors and the real rules that must be kept secret. Double binds induce a feeling of being crazy and foster mental exhaustion.

  • Prolonged periods of fasting, prayer, and worship.

  • The discouragement to take prescribed medicines or other therapies, often accompanied by guilt-inducing explanations like one’s faith should be enough to heal or sustain.

8. Occasional Indulgences

  • The mostly stick, occasional carrot approach provides positive reinforcement for meeting the abuser’s demands. In the study of narcissism, this practice is called “breadcrumbing,” which is intended to:

- tease the person in a perpetual state just barely above starvation level, but perennially hungry so they will seek favor from the abuser

- exacerbate emotional vertigo as the person gets glimpses of an emotional mirage of kindness in a desert of cruelty that keeps them stumbling along, working to “earn” these indulgences and gain some self-esteem

- give the person just enough favor, love, or reward to keep them in the fold or from seeing the perpetrator(s) as a total monster

- reinforce that a person should feel “grateful for what you get” and guilty if they aren’t slavishly appreciative—this indoctrination keeps a person from focusing objectively on how little they are actually given

With all of these tactics in mind, consider that spiritual abusers often spout the phrase, “In God we trust,” yet gradually groom you to shift your trust from yourself and your Divine connection to trusting in them and in their authority. Though they go to great lengths to appear otherworldly, spiritual abusers in faith-based organizations are merely garden-variety thugs who coerce and control like any other abuser. [Click to Tweet]

For example, when a child has been abused, they are statistically more likely to encounter abuse by others and even into adulthood. It’s no surprise, then, that when a person leaves a toxic faith culture without examination of the coercion they’ve been under, particularly if it’s all they’ve known since childhood, they are almost certain to seek or be lured by another similar faith-based culture in their quest for belonging or certainty. These “faith-based” cultures may have nothing to do with organized religion; instead, they may take the form of a spiritual group led by a guru, a political party, a coaching group, or a multi-level business opportunity, all of which demand unquestioning obedience. This is why coming to awareness of what has been perpetrated on you is essential. Without that understanding, it is nearly impossible to stand in your own authority and forge your own sovereign path.

What helps to see this more clearly is to recognize that many controlling faith organizations are based on an authoritarian father figure. Therefore, we can understand these cultures in the same way we understand abusive family structures and domestic violence. Domestic violence abusers employ emotional abuse to destabilize and control the way their victims feel by undermining their self-esteem and self-trust, invading the safety of boundaries, and destroying emotional connections to the important people in their lives. They further employ psychological control measures to confuse and destabilize their victim’s thinking and sense of reality through gaslighting, twisting the truth, humiliating, controlling access to independent facts, and discrediting their victim’s own intuition and conscience. Be clear: any abusive grooming process is designed to disarm a person’s natural defenses and demolish any resistance to the totalitarian control desired by the predator.

Spiritual abuse employs the identical braiding of emotional and psychological abuse, except that it claims for its authority the omnipotent imprimatur of “God’s word” and/or “God’s will.” In this way, spiritual abusers hijack our natural relationship with the Divine or our Higher Self, and claim that power to translate and interpret scriptures to advance their abusive aims, and to provide themselves diplomatic immunity should any accusations arise. In fact, spiritual abuse tactics provide the means for indoctrinating congregations and/or entire segments of the population into a subservient role controlled by those who use “God’s will” in self-serving ways.

Unfortunately, faith is the perfect Trojan horse for the kind of unquestioning obedience abusers crave, often to further a hidden agenda of bolstering personal ambition, padding bank accounts, justifying sexual proclivities, and feeding an insatiable lust for power.

Precisely because we have been trained to honor the taboo against questioning, faith-based organizations make the perfect place for abusers and abusive belief structures to flourish unchallenged. However, if we can recognize and demystify the tactics of abusers, we then have the ability to pull off the sheep’s clothing and drain the wolves of their power. [Click to Tweet]


Patty Bear is an aviator, thinker, wild soul, and author of the recently released memoir From Plain to Plane: My Mennonite Childhood, a National Scandal, and an Unconventional Soar to Freedom and House of the Sun: A Visionary Guide to Parenting in a Complex World with Pat Shannon. In addition to being an author, Patty speaks, coaches, and writes on how the four forces of flight can be a compass for living, and how the stages of the journey of metamorphosis shape our lives and lead each of us to our butterfly destiny. Her mission is to liberate, inspire, and delight. She can be reached at, or you can connect with her on FB at

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