I must admit right from the start that I do not enjoy writing articles like this one. I would much rather write all my articles about Jesus’ love and all the wonderful things we have access to when we accept Jesus as the Lord of our life. But I must be obedient to the Holy Spirit.
When we read the New Testament it covers both the good and the bad. We are warned about the infiltration of bad into the churches, especially in the end times. Satan does his best to try and bring down the bride of Christ, even if it is one Christian at a time, one pastor at a time, and then one church at a time. We can see it from the very beginning of the Church in the Book of Acts.
I went out on the Internet and gleaned snippets to put this article together as concisely as I could. I also gleaned from my past experiences of being in an abusive local church for 20 years. You may ask, “Why did I stay for 20 years?” There are a few reasons. First, an abusive church is usually a devolving church, especially if it is part of a major denomination. It may start off good but devolves slowly over time into its abusive role. Second, when it devolves slowly around you, it is much harder to detect. Because we live in a fallen world, bad tries its best to infiltrate all churches, so you wonder when does the bad outweigh the good. Third, once I realized, as I delved into the Bible on my own deeper and deeper to see what the truth really was, I was able to break away in my spiritual walk even though I physically attended for quite a while afterwards. I actually did this as a resource to propel me to draw as deep as I could from the Bible in order to distinguish the ever so subtle abuses and later be able to help other Christians who find themselves abused. In simple terms, I used it as a learning platform rather than me being the victim. What I found amazing was the guilty parties tried their best to abuse many people around me, but they never pursued me once they realized I was no longer under their spell.
Traditional cults such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are easy to distinguish. But there are, however, other groups with cultic characteristics that do not fit the same profile as the traditional cults. Christian scholars refer to these churches as ‘Bible based cults’ even though they appear outwardly orthodox in their doctrinal beliefs. What distinguishes these groups or churches from genuine orthodox Christianity is their abusive, cultic-like methodology and philosophy of ministry.
In his book ‘Churches That Abuse’, Dr. Ronald Enroth (leading scholar on cults and cultism) carefully examines several of these churches throughout the United States. He reveals the cultic methods these groups use and points out several distinguishing marks or ‘red flags’:
(1) Control-oriented style of leadership
(2) Spiritual elitism
(3) Manipulation of members
(4) Lifestyle rigidity
(5) Suppression of dissent
(6) Perceived persecution
(7) Harsh discipline of members
(8) Denunciation of other churches
(9) Painful exit process
Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist and emeritus professor of the University of California, Berkeley, provided her hearty recommendation on the book’s jacket. Here is an excerpt:
“When does a church cross the line between conventional church status and fringe status? What is the nature of the process by which any given group devolves into a fringe church or movement? What are some of the signs or indicators that a given group is becoming abusive of its members and is headed for the margins? When should a member consider bailing out? ‘Churches That Abuse’ answers these and other important questions about abusive churches and groups that operate in this country – organizations and churches that are not necessarily characterized by doctrinal deviation but have particular traits that make them behavioral and sociological outsiders. It also helps readers identify and beware of abusive tendencies in more “normal” Christian churches.”
Those involved in a church that seems to reflect these characteristics would be wise to evaluate the situation thoroughly and leave the church if it is appropriate. Staying may increase the risks of damaging your family relationships and multiplies the likelihood of losing your perspective. Members of such churches often develop a distorted view of reality, distrust everyone, and suffer from stress, fear, and depression. Some former members even continue to experience these things after escaping from an abusing church.
Now I would like to turn to the abusive church I came out of because it was a lot harder to distinguish than most of the ones described in Dr. Enroth’s book. This church only exhibited the first five traits listed above. If you will notice the last four traits are more cultic or extreme in nature, whereas the first five are more abusive than cultic in nature. The main concern of churches that exhibit the first five traits is to shear the sheep for their wool rather than applying ointment to their wounds. Once the sheep is sheared, they have no problem letting that sheep go with not much of a hassle. They would rather avoid any controversy that would bring attention or bad media to their tactics. They want to keep things cool with the press. They know because of the deceptive green pastures they groom (like great Easter and Christmas productions along with a fabulous singing and music talent), that more sheep will wander in. Whereas churches that also exhibit the last four traits usually prove to be very tenacious in hanging onto their abused sheep. Because I came out of an abusive church that only exhibited the first five traits, I would like to re-iterate those traits with a brief explanation:
(1) Control-oriented style of leadership: The leader in an abusive church is dogmatic, self- confident, arrogant, and the spiritual focal point in the lives of his followers. The leader assumes he is more spiritually in tune with God than anyone else. To members of this type of church or group, questioning the leader is the equivalent of questioning God. Although the leader may not come out and state this fact, this attitude is clearly seen by the treatment of those who dare to question or challenge the leader. In the hierarchy of such a church, the leader is, or tends to be, accountable to no one. Even if there is an elder board, it is usually made up of men who are loyal to, and will never disagree with, the leader. This style of leadership is not one endorsed in the Bible. “Control-oriented leadership is at the core of all such churches. These spiritual power holders become strong role models, and their dogmatic teaching, bold confidence, and arrogant assertiveness become powerful forces of influence. They use their spiritual authority to intimidate the weak,” explains Ronald Enroth in ‘Churches That Abuse’ (page 80).
(2) Elitism: Abusive churches see themselves as special. In his book, Dr. Enroth explains that abusive churches have an “elitist orientation that is so pervasive in authoritarian-church movements. It alone has the Truth, and to question its teachings and practices is to invite rebuke.” They see themselves as spiritually elite. They feel that they alone have the truth and all other churches are corrupt. There is a sense of pride in abusive churches because members feel they have a special relationship with God and His movement in the world. In his book Churches That Abuse, Dr. Ron Enroth quotes a former member of one such group who states, “Although we didn’t come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there was no place in the world like our assembly. We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch. A church which believes itself to be elite and does not associate with other Christian churches is not motivated by the spirit of God but by divisive pride.”
(3) Manipulation of members: Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. The leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority.
(4) Lifestyle: This rigidity is a natural result of the leadership style. Abusive churches require unwavering devotion to the church from their followers. Devotion of finances is a top priority and is a well-mentioned subject. Allegiance to the church has priority over allegiance to God, family, or anything else. In churches like these, people begin to lose their personal identity and start acting like programmed robots.
(5) Suppression of dissent: Abusive churches discourage questions and will not allow any input from members. The “anointed” leaders are in charge, PERIOD! Enroth explains in his book, “Unwavering obedience to religious leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the group would be less easily achieved if analysis and feedback were available to members. It is not without reason that leaders of abusive groups react so strongly and so defensively to any criticism of their organizations.” (page 162)
I would like to finish by adding four things that raised the ‘red flag’ in my own experience with the abusive church my family and I came out of:
(1) I never ever heard the leadership apologize in front of the congregation when an apology was in order. They believed this would place doubt in the congregation’s minds that their leadership is not always correct and does not always have a direct pipeline to God.
(2) The motto of the senior pastor from the pulpit was, “I would rather make dust than eat dust!”
(3) If you ever questioned anything you were labeled a ‘gossip’ and ‘complainer’.
(4) This so called ‘church’ operated more as a ‘financial institution’ than as a ‘place of worship’. They owned many properties, some in resort type areas. They would reward their elite with free stays. There was absolutely no financial transparency in any way, shape, or form. Everything was kept hush-hush from the congregation. Money was a continuous subject and no one could ever give enough. Families were divided and shipwrecked because of the guilt that was laid on them. One of the pastors was found guilty in federal court of money laundering. Previous to that, he lost one million dollars of the congregation’s money in an investment gone bad.
Because of all the harm I witnessed firsthand, I will never attend or recommend anyone to attend a church that is not financially transparent. I realize that no church is perfect, but I consider this a vital factor. On the other hand, we never have an excuse to forsake being a part of a local body of believers and place ourself under the care of a loving pastor. With the help of the Holy Spirit each of us can be led to a place we can call home!