027 Personal Growth: Spiritual Abuse At Church


The church is the place we go to strengthen our bond with God, even more so when in moments of need. When spiritual abuse happens, it can be devastating.

We hear from today’s guest, Athena Dean Holtz, on how she got wrapped into a church cult for over 12 years, and how she got out of it. Athena is a speaker, author, publisher, blogger and radio presenter.

She works with people who have been victims of abuse at church, and helps them build their bond with God again.

“Savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock”

Those are the words from Acts 20:29, which teaches us that there will be individuals who will attack others and stray them away from the flock. Abuse comes in many forms – psychological, physical, sexual, financial, etc., and it convinces people to believe and behave in a certain way.

It makes it hard for people to recognize that they are being victims of abuse. It took Athena 12 years to spot that she was being abused into selling her business to the abuser, neglect her family and friends and almost turn her face against God.

False Prophets

Abusers from the church often pull teachings from the Scriptures out of context to “keep you down so they can be elevated”. Through a convincing portrayal of an exclusive circle, cults can be drawn to by our pride.

Often abusers prey on individuals who have a traumatized past that seek to be healed, or people who are very zealous and really want and obey God. Athena has learnt that so many of us are drawn to convincing, toxic people because we’re not fully addressing traumatizing pasts. That said, it can still trick anyone.

Walking Away

It took over a decade for Athena to finally realize that she was a victim of abuse. After having sold her business to her abuser, it was through some legal issues that pointed out fraud.

Athena’s initial reaction was to turn against God. But she decided to deal with the things that made her vulnerable in the first place through counseling: “it’s a very satisfying and healing process to go through”.

She made the decision to own her part in this mess – she had to speak up for all the family they ripped apart. Through blogging on notafraidtotellmystory.com, she stitched together all the bullet points that lead to how she got there.

The church is a powerful institution that is a place of healing. But lone wolves can still sneak in to build a pack, and abuse the church’s powers.

Cases like Athena’s show how debilitating it is to be abused – she lost her business, her family and her faith. We learn how knowledge is power – through a better understanding of cults, exploring our vulnerabilities and owning our part to the story is fundamental to healing and rebuilding trust in God.


Full Circle: Coming Home to the Faithfulness of God’ by Athena Dean Holtz

What is spiritual abuse? Spiritual abuse can cover a multitude of facets of a person’s life–their relationships, finances, sexuality and most importantly their relationships with God. Learn how Athena Dean Holtz overcame her experience with a cult and grew her faith.

Published by

Vincent & Laura Ketchie

Vincent Ketchie, LPC and Laura Ketchie, LPC are the hosts of Relationship Helpers, a podcast where they discuss family issues and interview relationship experts. Vincent and Laura are licensed marriage counselors.

3 thoughts on “027 Personal Growth: Spiritual Abuse At Church”

  1. It’s sad how we can anticipate spiritual growth yet in the real sense we deteriorate. The beauty of God is that He will never forsake His people no matter how much time they may have wasted mingling with spiritual liars. I support you when you say we have to understand cult to be able to identify it. It’s like listening to controversial discussions on the radio! I feel it’s occasionally worth it. It’s good to know what happens on the other side of the world without becoming victims. It helps in analysis and gives a way forward rather than swimming in a lack of knowledge.

    1. Thanks for your input, Judith. We live in a fallen world and as much as it pains us to have to discuss these things, we know that we want to be able to help others to make decisions with discernment. Thanks for stopping by!

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