Just as a person can be healthy or unhealthy, so can churches. Recently, I have met with a handful of people who have come to Ada Bible Church because of wounding experiences with past churches they have attended, and so therefore, I have been reading some books on these types of problems. As a summary, here might be some of the typical characteristics of a legalistic or spiritually-abusive church (or person):
- At the heart of it, the message overall throughout the ministry that is spoken on a weekly basis is that God is a bookkeeper, keeping a checklist of do’s and don’ts. He is impersonal and maybe even vindictive. If you mess with him, he’s going to get you. The religion and over-all experience is based on fear and not on grace. The church overly emphasizes and talks about sin (either of your own or of others). Overall, you often leave church feeling like you are always missing the mark and just aren’t good enough.
- The church strongly emphasizes doctrinal or theological correctness. They overemphasize minor theological issues (e.g., baptism, the spiritual gifts, which Bible translation you should read, etc.) which in reality seek to divide other Christian groups from theirs. This may even lead to the message that they are the only “true” church. This may be literally spoken from the pulpit or subtly suggested in other ways. Leaders or the church as a whole exhibit a spiritual arrogance—other churches are not quite as good as theirs and are missing the mark.
- Scripture is said to be of primary importance, but in reality it is the leader’s interpretation of Scripture that is essential. The Bible isn’t the end-all, rather the leader’s ideas about what they think the Bible says, is what is important. With this, the leadership tends to often teach that submission to authority is crucial to being a “good Christian.”
- Religious traditions of the church are what rule the day and biblical passages are used to mandate these traditions. Scripture is often misquoted or used out of context. Verses are singled out-and used to substantiate the church’s position on issues they hold dear. These verses are not weighed against what other verses say, which may suggest a different view. The context or the overall message of the Scriptures is not allowed.
- The church staff and leadership are dominated by family members or personal friends. There is a lack of objective accountability: leadership is accountable to itself only and if any criticism about this is offered, it is shut down immediately. Intellectual development is limited to fit the doctrines that are taught at the church; schools or classes offered by other churches or organizations have little, if any worth and you should probably steer clear of “these types of people.” There are two types of dysfunctional churches in these cases. Some churches may overemphasize the intellect (doctrine over experience); others may distrust anything “bookish” and rely only on the experiences of the person (experience over doctrine).
- Church members who do not conform to all these doctrinal issues or opinions are blacklisted, labeled as rebellious or ignored for leadership positions. If you don’t fully agree with the leadership, you have no voice and may even be asked to leave the church.
- Personal and emotional boundaries are often over-stepped and relationships can become too close. The leadership asks you to be vulnerable emotionally, but they themselves rarely, if ever, show or discuss any weaknesses. These leaders have the prototypical Savior-complex. If you ask them about their own struggles, they always seem to avoid the question.
These are just some of the possible traits of a spiritual abusive church. If you believe this may be the case for you, you may want to read one or two of the following books to learn more about this important topic:
- Toxic Faith, Stephen Arterburn
- The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson
- Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen
- Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences, Ken Blue
- Bring ‘Em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church, Dave Burchett
In: Faith, Spiritual Formation
Tags: accountability, grace, guilt, ken blue, leadership, manipulation, not measuring up, spiritual abuse, stephen arterburn, toxic faith