Characteristics of Abusive Churches

by Mark Hill

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves
be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
-- Paul's Letter to the Galatians 5:1

It seems that we have a need to create evangelical gurus, Christian celebrities, super pastors in mega-churches, and miscellaneous ‘teachers’ and ‘experts’ that we place on pastoral pedestals. What is it about people, including evangelicals, that explains this apparent need for authority figures, the need to have someone co-sign for our lives? Sociologist Ronald Enroth

According to David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, the authors of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1991), spiritual abuse occurs “[w]hen your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person's standing as a Christian—to gratify you, your position or your beliefs, while at the same time weakening or harming another.” Part of Johnson and VanVonderen’s advice for dealing with spiritual abuse is for the victims to “keep telling the truth.”

According to sociologist Dr. Ronald M. Enroth, "In our homes, in our churches, and in our programs of Christian education, we must strive to cultivate critical, discerning minds if we are to avoid the tragedy of churches that abuse" (Churches That Abuse Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, p. 206). Paralleling abusive churches of the past with those of today, Enroth presents characteristics that serve as warning signals:

  • There is strong, control-oriented leadership.
  • The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation by the leadership to manipulate members and keep them in line.
  • Followers led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs, and that God has singled them out for a special purpose.
  • Other, more traditional churches are put down as being less "holy."
  • Subjective experience, especially public or group testimonials (sometimes coached), are encouraged and emphasized.
  • Many areas of members' lives are subject to scrutiny, and the church standards established are usually based upon the life-style adopted by the leader.
  • Rules and legalism abound.
  • Members not following rules established by the leadership (or threatening exposure of the manipulation and abuse) are often labeled "reprobates" or "dupes of Satan," and are dealt with harshly. Ostracism of former members and excommunication of dissenters are common.
  • For members choosing to leave a spiritually abusive church, returning to the realm of normalcy is difficult.

How Healthy is Your Church?

The following questions come from the book: Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1994.

1. Does a member’s personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with the group?

    In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual.

    One of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.

2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family commitments?

    Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize the commitments of their members to their family, especially parents.

    Young people may be told that they now have a new “spiritual” family, complete with leaders who will “re-parent” them.

    Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.

3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?

    Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think, although the process is so spiritualized that members usually do not realize what is going on.

    A pastor or leader is viewed as God’s mouth piece, and in varying degrees a member’s decision making and ability to think for oneself are swallowed up by the group.

    Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.

4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief and behavior, particularly on issues of secondary importance?

    A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments.

    Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increase a member’s guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream

5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and non members?

    In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards.

    In some instances, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank and file membership.

    Abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct more often than most conventional churches; leaders sometimes exhibit an obsessive interest in matters relating to sex.

6. Does the group’s leadership invite dialogue, advice and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?

    Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any outside expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership’s agenda.

    Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability.

    For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board is composed of “yes-men” who do not question the leader’s authority.

7. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs?

Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own.

They tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an “us-versus-them” mentality.

8. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?

    A cardinal rule of abusive systems is “Don’t ask questions, don’t make waves.”

    A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered to be disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God.

    People who repeatedly question the system are labeled “rebellious”, “unteachable”, or “disharmonious to the body of Christ”.

    Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or disfellowshiped.

9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if it is outside their group?

    Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups.

    This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will say, really don’t understand what is going on in the ministry anyway.

10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially as it tries to win them to the group?

    Sometimes abusive groups illustrate a “split-level religion”. There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership.

    The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the “true believers”.

    Recruitment tactics are usually intense, even if they are not actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or exploitative.

    Sometimes high pressure religious groups are evasive about there true identity: “We really don’t have a name, we’re just Christians.”

    A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.

11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?

    First impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified.

    Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership.

    Abusive churches thrive on tactics that promote dependency.

    Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders, these churches often require a level of service that is overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and spiritual breakdowns.

This article originally appeared on the Cult Awareness & Information Centre out of Australia, which was run by the late Jan Groenveld. The article is reproduced as it was seen on Jan's site with some formatting changes.


August 23, 1997
Page added November 5, 2004
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