Nine marks of an abusive church

Taken from Ronald M. Enroth’s book:  Churches that Abuse

(1) Control-oriented style of leadership

Pat Zukeran explains: “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 (emphasis mine).”

(2) Spiritual elitism

Abusive churches see themselves as special. In his book, 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.”
(3) Manipulation of members
“Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. In my opinion, 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,” explains Dr. Enroth on page 103 of Churches That Abuse.
(4) Perceived persecution

To explain this identifying mark, Zukeran writes: “Because abusive churches see themselves as elite, they expect persecution in the world and even feed on it. Criticism and exposure by the media are seen as proof that they are the true church being persecuted by Satan. However, the persecution received by abusive churches is different from the persecution received by Jesus and the Apostles.
Jesus and the Apostles were persecuted for preaching the truth. Abusive churches bring on much of their negative press because of their own actions. Yet, any criticism received, no matter what the source–whether Christian or secular–is always viewed as an attack from Satan, even if the criticisms are based on the Bible.”
(5) Lifestyle rigidity
Zukeran explains this mark as “a rigid, legalistic lifestyle of their members. This rigidity is a natural result of the leadership style. Abusive churches require unwavering devotion to the church from their followers. Allegiance to the church has priority over allegiance to God, family, or anything else. There are also guidelines for dress, dating, finances, and so on. Such details are held to be of major importance in these churches.
(6) 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 that: “Unwavering obedience to religious leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the group would be less easily achieved if analysis and feedback were available to members from the outside. It is not without reason that leaders of abusive groups react so strongly and so defensively to any media criticism of their organizations.” (p. 162)

(7) Harsh discipline of members

Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied impose discipline, in one form or another, on members. A common theme that I encountered during interviews with ex-members of these groups was that the discipline was often carried out in public — and involved ridicule and humiliation,” writes Dr. Enroth (p. 152).

(8) Denunciation of other churches

According to Zukeran’s article on Enroth’s book, “abusive churches usually denounce all other Christian churches. 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.”

(9) Painful exit process
Finally, Zukeran explains that abusive churches have “a painful and difficult exit process. Members in many such churches are afraid to leave because of intimidation, pressure, and threats of divine judgment. Sometimes members who exit are harassed and pursued by church leaders. The majority of the time, former members are publicly ridiculed and humiliated before the church, and members are told not to associate in any way with any former members. This practice is called shunning.

Many who leave abusive churches because of the intimidation and brainwashing, actually feel they have left God Himself. None of their former associates will fellowship with them, and they feel isolated, abused, and fearful of the world.”

Read more here at thewartburgwath.com

Do you agree with this list?  Have you ever been a part of an ABUSIVE church?  Which of these 9 marks was evident to you and caused you to leave?

Todd

4 Comments

  • Steve Miller July 12, 2013 Reply

    Probably helpful to point out, these same marks are given by unhealthy abusive people who leave healthy churches. These are marks of both unhealthy leaders and unhealthy followers. Thanks be to God that He gives us the Bible so we may lead and follow Christ’s example.

    As a leader be prepared to hear these complaints and be humble enough to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where the root of the problem is. Leading is messy. You must cleave to Christ so when the hurt feelings and accusations explode you can guide your church well through the firestorm.

    • Anonymous October 28, 2013 Reply

      Steve, is there any way I can contact you to ask you follow up questions about unhealthy abusive people leaving?

  • Fred July 12, 2013 Reply

    I agree with most of it. I would add that people still drinking the kool-aid see the church as the best thing since sliced bread.

  • Ry September 26, 2014 Reply

    Thank you! In November 2013 my wife finally turned to me one Sunday morning after a church service and requested we find a new church. It all began in May 2013 after we signed on to be members of a church that nearly broke my family apart in the months to follow. I have personally experienced all 9 marks listed here along with the systematic humiliation and degradation weekly during my ” counseling” sessions. I am still weary of churches and find it hard to participate in simple bible study groups. If you are trapped in such a church, depart from it. It will ruin you!

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