As we have consistently asserted, there are indeed many fine, balanced and healthy Christian churches and associations where wholesome and uplifting spirituality serves as the foundation for their activity, ministry, and contribution to society as a whole, seeking to serve its needs for the sake of the Christian Gospel, and for the love of all men. Sadly, however, there have been some which have lost their balance and focus, becoming spiritually toxic places where many people and many communities were adversely and irreparably turned away from Christianity itself. Who would want to trust in a faith where God’s love was seemingly quite conditional, where hypocrisy and judgmentalism were quite visible, and where salvation came at a price of divided families, alienated neighbors, and self-righteous parishioners?
This has become a serious thorn in the sides of the Christian church which no serious believer can ignore any longer, especially when such sinful excess has only served to alienate men from God. Yet the problem is made worse tenfold when the congregants of an abusive church seem, at first and even several glances, to be upright, sincere and responsible people to the casual observer who knows nothing of their group dynamics of control and abuse. How can you tell whether a church or other group is religiously abusive? Several subtle yet unmistakable warning signs can help you identify places of spiritual worship, vocation and social activity that are likely to be of questionable integrity. We now will endeavor to share these with you, yet a very careful qualification must be made here before we begin:
It is essential to keep in mind one major principle when seeking to define the spiritual state of any given church: the occasional faults and weaknesses of spiritually sound, even spiritually struggling Christians in various situations can be easily mistaken for these danger signs. It is vitally important, therefore, to realize that seeing the failures of Christians in a given church you may be wondering about does NOT, repeat, NOT necessarily mean that their fellowship is unsound and religiously abusive. Mature judgement and careful examination, along with counsel received from other mature Christians from outside the given church. such as the pastors and pastoral staff of another church, must be deliberately pursued first before arriving at a conclusion. We at the TVBSA are not interested in initiating witch hunts nor scandalizing finger pointing at any church or church leader, and disavow any attempt to do so. However, we are attempting to share with you some sound guidelines that will help you arrive at informed, rational and fair choices and decisions regarding any group you may find that seem questionable.
Bearing in mind the observations we have made concerning the “seven bars” of spiritual prisons, those also are observable characteristics of domination, manipulation and intimidation that former members have recognized “from the inside.” These guidelines which will enable you to spot religious abuse on the basis of these five warning signs which are – relatively speaking – the most easiest to identify by outsiders. Ron Enroth’s excellent book Churches That Abuse (Zondervan) has provided great insights into these warning signs, from which we will now share.
The Five Warning Signs Of Religious Abuse
1) Unchecked Authoritarian Leadership
The first danger sign of a possibly unsound church, Enroth explains, can be seen through a high-handed exhibition of its leadership’s authority, which often appears unnervingly legitimate. “Spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation. .. Authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks or balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. To put it crudely, they operate a one-man (or one-woman) spiritual show. And God help the person who gets in the way or makes waves.”
He continues: “Yes, sometimes they will point to a board of elders or its equivalent, but more likely than not, this turns out to be a faithful inner circle of clones that implicitly accepts all that the leader sets forth. .. Abusive pastors often come from troubled backgrounds and are very insecure persons despite the ‘take charge’ image they may project. They are power hungry people who crave visibility. Leaders who inflict spiritual violence often hide behind the smoke screen of authority to gain power.” (pp. 203, 217, 219 of Churches That Abuse). It is important to understand that religiously abusive church leadership is most visible when it demands public and private attention to be given to the authority and control over the flock by the pastor. Often, in aberrant churches, this is not an easy thing to discern, and yet, it is frequently it is one of the danger signs that are too easily overlooked. Such leaders will seem too quick to chastise members, often in harsh forums of public rebuke.
2) Imbalanced Congregational Life
Secondly, the congregation’s social characteristics provide danger signals as well. Enroth points out that “membership of authoritarian churches is frequently comprised of young, spiritually immature Christians. This kind of church is successful because it is meeting basic human needs – the need to belong, the need to be affirmed, to be accepted and to be part of a family. It is not unusual for the leaders to assume the role of surrogate parents, especially for those young adults who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds” (p. 216). It is just this sort of yearning need and sincere zeal that the aberrant church pastor uses to exploit his flock through manipulative control. Mr. Enroth explains that abusive church leaders “foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority. They create the impression that people just aren’t going to find their way through life’s maze without a lot of firm directives from those at the top” (p. 217).
These firm directives are fleshed out in a demanding lifestyle rigidity that is actually a form of controlling and abusive legalism. A black and white view of the world is the mentality that is created in the minds of the abusive church’s congregation. Do’s and don’ts found in church-supplied codes of conduct are taken so seriously that they have a stifling effect upon the spiritual liberty that Christians should enjoy and impose a dangerously controlling conformity upon the congregation. A major component of such control is the usage of unspoken expectations: moral directives that everyone in the group knows are “the law”, the way “things are”, but which are never explicitly spelled out until one haplessly breaks one of them. It is then that punishment or sanctions are imposed.
3) Conscious Threats Of Discipline And Disfellowshipping
“Another sign of impending trouble in a church is an obsession with discipline and excommunication. Beware of churches that warn of certain doom if you leave their ‘covering,’ or if you ‘break covenant.’ Once banished from the group, little compassion is shown the wayward one.” Again and again, it has been observed that former members of aberrant churches, when contemplating leaving the group, were issued dire warnings that they were backsliding, compromising and facing judgment from God. Church members who are seen as stepping out of line will find themselves being shunned or criticized by the so-called “true believers” in public, and will usually face much harsher treatment in the larger abusive church congregation. Demeaning public rebuke, even ridicule from the pulpit is one means of religious abuse disguised as “discipline.”
But more often such power ploys are extended across the congregation or congregations in question through even subtler and indirect ways. As a means of preemptive control, the public teachings and private social life are regularly used to deliver indirect, yet unmistakable hints to potential “troublemakers” and the membership at large that one could never gain the same depth of spiritual truth anywhere else. Only among the group could true insights into life be found, the real interpretation of the Bible be discovered, the closest and deepest fellowship be experienced. With such carrots dangled on such long sticks for all to see, the reinforcement of the group’s exclusivism is accomplished, making the fear of exclusion from such a group so close to the “ultimate truth” an ultimate horror to be avoided at all costs.
4) Deliberate Disruption Of Personal Relationships
A fourth sign of aberrance in a church is when the church encourages complete isolation or strong distancing of it’s membership from family and friends not involved in the group. Enroth observes that even family relationships within the group become severely disrupted and strained, since the demands for attention to be given to the “spiritual family” become all important. Parental and marital bonds may be strained or shattered over the need for individual family members to more fully identified with the church group, and non-member relations outside of the group are often stunned at how cold and distant their once loving family members became when they “got religious.” The abusive church’s “spiritual family” then appear to become the recipients of the warm family ties and affections that group members have withdrawn from their own family.
This is one of the most heartbreaking and shattering consequences of religious abuse dispensed by aberrant churches. We know of many, many people who have suffered unspeakably agonizing losses of their marriages, children and parents at the behest of abusive group leaders who deemed their members’ relationships with them far too spiritually polluting, smothering and destructive. A marriage of twenty years was abruptly ended by a divorce initiated by the pressures placed upon the couple by an abusive church through its leadership, simply because the husband left the Polk County “church” where both he and his wife were members. Such unbelievable occurrences are all too frequent and too real to ignore.
5) Withdrawal And Isolation From The “Outside”
Enroth goes on to say that another sign of abusive behavior in a church is it’s tendency towards isolation from other churches. There is a conscious effort to limit input and contact with thoughts and ideas from outside the church’s own circle. This is what is known as “information control” and is a crucial element of what is known as mind control. “Beware of the church, ” he writes, “where outside speakers are consistently denied access to the pulpit, and where other Christian churches are regularly denounced, belittled or ridiculed.” News events, local happenings, and even personal events are reinterpreted by the church leadership in such a way so as to lead the congregation to see the world as they wish it to be perceived. Bible verses are misquoted as divine sanction for these actions, citing the need to be separate from the doomed and satanic world order outside of the group’s domain.
This contributes to the construction of a completely sealed society of people who effectively shut out the world from among them, even though they may continue to move within it. Newspapers, television programming, and even ordinary social interaction with other members of the larger culture become strongly discouraged. The issue goes way beyond a pious avoidance of tempting imagery and thought but actually is a means to stifle and control the thoughts, consciences and spiritual autonomy of the individual member. This marks the final terrifying descent of a group of zealous Christians under the leadership of manipulative leaders into a horrific deception and legalistic bondage, from which it is then almost virtually indistinguishable from outright cultism. Such groups do exist here, in the “Bible belt” and have wrought untold amounts of spiritual havoc in too many lives.
Spiritual abuse is one of the dark secrets of the Tennessee Valley, a serious problem that for too long has remained overlooked, ignored, and neglected by much of the Body of Christ. Abuse in the name of the one true God who is the embodiment of love and grace is certainly one of the great tragedies of our time that have both broken His loving heart and aroused His wrath upon the false shepherds who have savaged his flock. The Gospel of Jesus Christ can never be served or proclaimed where fear, coercion, and outright spiritual trauma is inflicted. Only the cause of religious tyranny and megalomania is advanced. It is our prayerful hope that this brief overview can help you avoid such pitfalls.
by Rafael Martinez, Director, Spiritwatch Ministries