Where Does the Bible Draw the Line Between Conflict and Emotional Abuse?

We avoid emotional abuse by following the Lord Jesus Christ’s example and adhering to his principles of love, kindness, and compassion.

Contributing Writer
Updated May 20, 2024
Where Does the Bible Draw the Line Between Conflict and Emotional Abuse?

Abuse comes in different forms. While we easily recognize the patterns and evidence of physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse proves more complex. 

Emotional abuse involves a pattern of behavior that undermines another person’s self-esteem, sense of worth, and emotional well-being. It can manifest in several different ways but leaves no visible scars, making it a challenge to detect. However, the effects of emotional abuse lead to anxiety, depression, and difficulty forming relationships. 

At the core, abuse defiles the image of God given to every person at creation. Each human being has been made in God’s image, a special creation on this earth, and we should, therefore, treat that image with dignity and respect, no matter who a person is or what they’ve done. The image of God in every person pre-existed our actions and behavior, and this divine design within humanity forms the basis for God’s love and mercy for humanity. From this love, he seeks to redeem us back into a reconciled relationship with himself. 

Whether emotional, physical, sexual, or religious, abuse brings violence to the image of God in a person. The Bible speaks against all abuse of authority, including the emotional. 

What Bible verses address emotional abuse? 

While not explicitly mentioned as “emotional abuse,” the Scripture addresses it through various verses emphasizing the importance of love, kindness, and respect for others. 

Jesus dealt with how people treat others when teaching using the word “Raca,” a curse word, or “you fool.” Christ explains how religious leaders will punish people who use the curse word. Yet, if people curse another, saying simply, “You fool,” they are guilty of the same sin and subject to God's judgment since all individuals have eternal value to God. 

Ephesians 4:29 instructs believers to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Words possess power, and people have the responsibility to use uplifting language that encourages others rather than tears them down. Corrupt or abusive speech has no place in a believer’s life, and instead, they should speak kind and encouraging words.  

Similarly, Colossians 3:19 addresses emotional abuse within marriage, instructing husbands to “love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” In Christ, spouses must treat each other with gentleness and respect rather than harsh or demeaning language that can cause harm.  

Proverbs 15:1 offers wisdom on responding to conflict: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Problems will occur, yet believers should respond kindly rather than reacting with anger, hostility, or aggression. It encourages Jesus' followers to approach conflicts with a spirit of gentleness and humility, seeking to constructively resolve disagreements.

Galatians 5:22-23 describes the fruit of the Spirit, which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities stand in direct opposition to emotionally abusive behaviors such as manipulation, control, and verbal attacks. Instead, believers are called to draw upon the indwelling Spirit and cultivate these virtues in relationships, demonstrating love and respect toward others.

What are the signs and elements of emotional abuse? 

Emotional abuse may not have the same outward evidence, so we must learn to recognize the signs and examples of emotional abuse to address the harmful behavior. 

Criticism appears as a key sign. This involves constant belittling, name-calling, or demeaning remarks to undermine a person’s self-confidence and sense of worth. For example, a partner who consistently criticizes their spouse’s appearance, intelligence, or abilities engages in emotional abuse. 

This criticism brings us to the next sign, manipulation, which takes many forms, including gaslighting, guilt-tripping, or using threats to control another’s behavior. A parent might manipulate their child by constantly threatening to withhold love or affection unless he or she meets certain demands and engages in emotional abuse. 

Those who engage in emotional abuse seek to isolate others. This entails removing sources of support, such as friends, family, or social activities, to exert control. As an example, a parter who prevents their spouse from seeing friends or family members to limit access to outside perspectives and support.

Emotional abuse often involves invalidating a person’s feelings and experiences. This can include dismissing their concerns, minimizing their emotions, or refusing to acknowledge their needs. For example, a boss who consistently ignores an employee’s complaints regarding workplace harassment engages in emotional abuse.

For the net element, the abuser uses threats and intimidation to maintain control over a person, usually involving threats of physical violence or more subtle forms like menacing gestures. A caregiver who threatens to harm an elderly relative if they speak out about the abuse engages in emotional harm. 

Another form of emotional abuse happens when controlling a person’s access to financial resources and using money to manipulate them. This includes withholding money, controlling access to bank accounts, or sabotaging the victim’s employment opportunities. For example, a partner who controls all household finances and refuses to allow the spouse any money independence. 

Lastly, emotional abuse often involves blame-shifting and refusal to take personal responsibility. This can manifest through constantly shifting blame onto the victim, denying any wrongdoing, or refusing to apologize for hurtful behavior. A parent who blames their child for their own abusive behavior, claiming they provoked it, engages in emotional abuse.

How can religion or the church be guilty of emotional abuse? 

Since Christians are human, the Church can be guilty of emotional abuse when certain beliefs, practices, or teachings are used to manipulate, control, or harm individuals’ emotional well-being. While many churches strive to provide a supportive and nurturing environment, instances of emotional abuse still occur.

One way churches engage in emotional abuse happens through leaders misusing their authority. Leaders who wield their influence in coercive or manipulative ways create an environment of fear, guilt, or shame among the congregation. These leaders use tactics like authoritarian rule, micromanagement of personal lives, or imposing strict or unreasonable moral standards under threat of ostracism or other punishment. Such tactics undermine people’s autonomy and self-worth, leading to emotional distress and dependency on the church for validation and approval.

Certain scriptural interpretations perpetuate beliefs that contribute to emotional abuse. For example, teachings that emphasize submission to authority without question or condemning dissenting views foster a fearful and controlling community atmosphere. Doctrines that emphasize sin, guilt, and punishment without offering grace, forgiveness, and redemption exacerbate feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Finally, the culture and dynamics within a church community also play a significant role in perpetuating emotional abuse. Toxic church cultures characterized by gossip, judgmental attitudes, and exclusionary practices create an environment of fear and mistrust among members. This leads to social ostracism, bullying, or emotional manipulation, particularly for those who deviate from the perceived norms or expectations of the community.

How can Christians avoid emotional abuse? 

We avoid emotional abuse by following the Lord Jesus Christ’s example and adhering to his principles of love, kindness, and compassion. Here are several ways Christians promote a culture of emotional health and well-being within their communities. 

  1. Cultivate a culture of love and acceptance. Jesus calls us to love one another as he loved us (John 13:34-35). This means accepting others unconditionally, regardless of their background, beliefs, or behaviors. By fostering a culture of love and acceptance, we create spaces where individuals feel valued, respected, and supported.
  2. Practice empathy and compassion. Christ demonstrated empathy and compassion towards hurting or marginalized people (Matthew 9:36). We follow his example by actively listening to others, validating their feelings, and offering support and encouragement during distressing times. 
  3. Speak words of encouragement and affirmation. Proverbs 16:24 teaches, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Words have power, and we properly use words to build others up and speak life to them and their circumstances. Offering encouraging, affirming, and thankful words uplift the spirits of those who struggle and provide them hope for the future. 
  4. Create safe spaces for vulnerability and authenticity. Romans 12:15 encourages us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” When we create these safe spaces within our communities, individuals feel comfortable expressing emotions, sharing struggles, and seeking support without fear of judgment or condemnation.  
  5. Provide pastoral care and counseling. “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Problems and abuses will occur, and churches should offer pastoral care and counseling to those experiencing emotional distress or difficult circumstances. We can be part of the healing instead of perpetuating the problem. Providing a listening ear, offering guidance and support, and connecting people with further resources make a significant difference in healing. 
  6. Practice forgiveness and reconciliation. Ephesians 4:32 urges us, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The Bible continually tells us to forgive others, which we couldn’t do unless someone hurt us. Unforgiveness becomes a toxin within our hearts, so we promote emotional health and well-being through practicing forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships. Extending grace and forgiveness to those who have wronged us breaks the cycle of hurt and bitterness, enabling us to restore wholeness.  
  7. Recognize and Call Out Abuse. From Matthew 21:12-13: “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’” We must all be on guard against emotional abuse, and all abuse. The faith community should be a place where the image of God is valued and dignified, and when abuse occurs, we must address people and situations with love and grace, offering restoration and repentance while standing against and decrying the abuse. 

By following these principles, we promote healthy emotional communities in which we value all people and offer hope and love to those who are hurting or in need. 

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/seb_ra

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.


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