Recognizing Signs of Spiritual Abuse in a Church
Church. It can be a place where people are loved, supported, and taught about God, Christianity, and the Bible. For some people, the word “church” means disappointment, disillusionment and hurt. A cult - a place where they were gossiped about, judged, ridiculed, controlled, or shunned. A place where people experienced spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse can be defined as a church or religious organization that violates the rights of individuals who are looking for a relationship with God, Biblical teaching, and inspired leadership.
A church is supposed to be a safe place that follows God’s instruction to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Luke 10:27). Some churches have done a lot of harm by not following Jesus’ command to treat others with love. They pursue their own selfish ambitions, go against Biblical principles, and emotionally damage their congregations.
Websites on spiritual abuse abound with terrible tales of people who have been emotionally devastated by religious organizations. Sadly, the very word “church” is so painful that some people cringe at the thought of ever attending a fellowship. And who can forget the sight of the Jonestown suicides or the Branch Davidian’s stronghold burning in Waco?
Using love as a criteria, how do we avoid unhealthy and abusive churches that may be cults in disguise? Here are some characteristics that help us measure the health of a church.
Members follow a charismatic leader rather than God
The followers put their leader on a pedestal and are convinced he can do no wrong, even when he blatantly goes against Christian teachings. The followers fervently believe that this leader is God’s representative on earth and that the leader’s words come from God.
These leaders may make subtle changes over time that go against scripture. The deluded followers explain away, ignore, or deny their leaders' blatant immoral and harmful acts. The leaders are somehow considered to be exempt from the standards inflicted on the membership and are not held accountable for their actions.
An extreme example of this is the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church), Warren Jeffs. He was charged with numerous charges including incest and sexual conduct with a minor, and was convicted of two felony counts of child sexual assault in 2007. Former FLDS members have also accused him of extreme control, forcing young girls into marriage, and verbal and physical abuse. Despite this, Jeff’s church group still steadfastly believes that he is an prophet appointed by God and that he has not done anything wrong.
A healthy church follows God, not man. The apostle Paul chided the Corinthian church for following the apostles instead of following after Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
Leaders claim to speak for God
Some leaders claim to speak for God so they can push their own agenda. They are motivated by a need to feed their massive ego, bask in people's adoration, and control others. They bend the scriptures to fit their twisted doctrines.
An unhealthy church preaches that it is the only “true” church
These churches teach that they are the only ones who are right in spiritual matters. They take swift disciplinary action against anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They never admit they are wrong about anything. These groups will use shame, guilt or the threat of disfellowship to keep their members in line. This belief may attract self-righteous people who feel superior to a world that doesn’t conform to their way of thinking.
Unhealthy churches isolate their members from the world
These churches may teach that the world is an evil place, and that their fellowship is the only safe place where members are guaranteed to get to heaven. Their teachings are based on a fear of punishment rather than the love of God. These churches set strict rules and teach that anyone who doesn't fall in line with them is heading straight for hell.
Healthy churches allow the leading of the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s truth and follows the principles revealed in scripture. These churches are willing to admit their mistakes, apologize, and correct their wrongs.
Unhealthy churches control every aspect of their member’s lives
God gave Christians free will and discernment through the Holy Spirit, but unhealthy churches take away that right. They dictate everything from how many hours to pray or do Bible Study to what hairstyle women should wear. They may have very definite ideas about the role of women and insist women do not work and force them to conform to certain dress codes.
Some followers who are attracted to this kind of setting are looking for easy answers to deep spiritual matters and feel more comfortable with black and white thinking. They want clear rules and regulations. There are no shades of grey here. They want someone to tell them what to do rather than make decisions for themselves based on Christian principles.
God can’t be put in a box, however. A healthy church that truly seeks God knows that many of God’s ways are mysterious and beyond our limited human comprehension. That is why we must rely on God for guidance in this life and be prepared to make changes as He leads us.
Unhealthy churches are quick to judge and punish, and show no mercy to their victims
They humiliate, scold, punish, and disfellowship at the least provocation. They rule by shame, fear, manipulation, and intimidation.
A healthy church respects the rights of individuals to choose how they want to live their lives while gently guiding them to live in accordance with the ten commandments and scriptural principles. If their leaders decide to confront someone who is sinning, they do so gently and in love – acting with the person’s best interests.
Unhealthy churches are self-centered
They gather money to enrich their leaders and push their own agendas. Some church leaders may make false claims of serving the needy to collect money and achieve their own selfish ends.
Unhealthy churches hurt people
Many people who have been hurt by churches feel like they can never trust Christians or attend one again. Just mentioning the word church causes pain. Certainly, some churches hurt and abuse people very badly, in some extreme cases, even putting their lives in danger.
There are many spiritually abused victims who are turning to support from others who have been hurt by churches. There are forums on some of these sites where people can share their stories and realize they are not alone.
However, if the pain from the spiritual abuse continues for a long time, it means that these people have not dealt their hurt. Pain should lessen with time. If the mental anguish remains the same, it may be that the hurts have become strongholds in their lives - a toxic poison that seeps through every aspect of daily living. A stronghold like this continues to inflict pain long after the person has left the unhealthy, abusive church and corrupts their view of Christianity.
The road to healing
It is very difficult for someone whose trust has violated in this way to heal from being hurt by a church. Church is supposed to be a safe place that faithfully teaches and follows the tenants of Christianity, not an abusive, destructive force. Victims can however, heal if they are willing to let go of their pain and desire for vengeance, and forgive the perpetrators.
Forgiveness is the way that victims can put the abuse behind then and begin the journey to spiritual healing. Forgiveness does not mean the church’s behavior is OK. Church leaders should be held accountable, especially if laws have been broken. We should not seek vengeance, however. God is a just God. He promises to avenge His people.
What churches can be
Churches are far from perfect because they are filled with imperfect human beings. There are always going to be people who are critical, judgmental, controlling, and nasty. Their presence does not automatically mean a church is unhealthy - unless they are majority and in most places of leadership.
Church can be a wonderful place where Christians encourage and teach one another about God, and build strong friendships with other Christians. Church also offers everyone unique opportunities to fellowship and serve. Christians need to continually pray that their churches will support their members in their walk with Christ in healthy ways. The apostle Paul tells Christians not to forsake meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).
A healthy church can be a true blessing in everyone's lives and encourage Christians in their Christian walk, if they let it.