How to Spot an Abusive Church
Cult-watcher Ronald Enroth exposes the six manipulative tools some church leaders
use to control their flocks.
BY DR. RONALD ENROTH
Is your church spiritually abusive?
According to cult-watcher Dr. Ronald Enroth in his just-released book Churches That
Abuse, controlling, authoritarian church leaders have a grip on countless congregations
all over the world. How can you recognize abusive tendencies when they surface?
Enroth points to six key characteristics of abusive churches. Read about them in
this excerpt from Churches That Abuse:
Abusive churches foster unhealthy forms 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. They promote what former
Great Commission International member Jerry MacDonald calls a form of "learned helplessness."
He writes: "Remarkably, many intelligent Christians actually enjoy being told what
to do. In GCI churches, people seek the elders for permission to go home and see
their parents or friends, and to inquire for how long they may stay; they go to
them for permission to go to a party with unbelievers..."
The disquieting truth is that many Christians do indeed fall into the trap of authoritarianism
because of an inclination toward the black and white mentality that abusive churches
cater to. If you have the type of personality that is drawn toward groups that offer
wrap-around security and solutions to all your problems, you are vulnerable to spiritual
The discerning Christian must also be aware of the trap of legalism. Preoccupation
with keeping Christian rules enhances guilt feelings in members, and it acts as
an effective control mechanism for power abusers. "Legalism is never corrective
church discipline. For legalism pulls us away from following Christ toward another
gospel, another gospel that says the cross is not enough."
Another quality that can lead to abusive behavior in a church is the tendency toward
isolationism, a conscious effort to limit input from outside the church-in other
words, information control. Beware of the church where outside speakers are consistently
denied access to the pulpit, and where other Christian churches are regularly denounced,
belittled, or ridiculed.
It is my opinion, based on extensive research and informal observation, that authoritarian
leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly
in the context of systematic checks and 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.
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.
An overwhelming majority of the ex-members I have interviewed expressed the opinion
that abusive leaders are cold, almost cruel, in the treatment of people who leave-whether
that departure was voluntary or involuntary.
Disrupted Family Relationships
A sure sign that a church is headed for the fringe is when family relationships
are significantly disrupted and the leadership encourages the severing of ties with
relatives outside of the group. "Be prepared to switch your loyalty from your natural
family to God's family," advises Marie Kolasinski of the Body of Christ Fellowship.
"Those blood ties are filthy rags unto God. So if you are experiencing great upheaval
in your well-ordered natural family, BE OF GOOD CHEER."
When a Christian is asked to sacrifice family relationships for church loyalty,
it's time to bail out.
When a church institutes a surveillance system and encourages its members to keep
close tabs on one another, it's time to look for another church.
A former member of the Boston Movement describes a scenario common to most abusive
churches. "Everyone's Christian life was under scrutiny by someone, assigned by
some level of authority; each member was confronted with observed faults, issued
counsel, and followed up; each was encouraged to know the true state of his own
soul, its sins and weaknesses, and to confess these openly and honestly to others
who have ministry and authority over him."
Copyright© 1992 Group Publishing, Inc. / GROUP Magazine