Characteristics of Unhealthy,
Abusive and Cultic Church Environments
What is an unhealthy or abusive
environment, and why would anyone care? Well, the last question is
easier to answer than the first one. People involved in a church
just doesn't seem quite right might be wondering if anyone else has
ever had similar experiences. Or, family members may pick up on
odd characteristics or behavior and wonder if something is amiss with
article will equip people in those situations to make an assessment of
the church in question.
So what is a healthy church, what is an unhealthy church, what is an
abusive church, and who gets
Church environments fall
along a continuum. On the one extreme would be the absolutely perfect
environment. Since people make mistakes and people would be part of any
church envronment, such a perfect environment could only exist in
theory. On the other extreme would be an abusive, exploitative,
destructive group with no redeeming values whatsoever. Hopefully, the
only place a group like this would exist is also in theory. Between
these two extremes, there is every other church environment.
So what are the points along this continuum that divide the healthy
from the unhealthy, and the unhealthy from the abusive, and the abusive
from a cult?
Evaluating specific church
environments is difficult for several reasons. Since there are many
areas of consideration (e.g. teaching and doctrine, potential for
growth or service, leadership style, church culture, etc.), weighing
each of these elements would have to be taken into account. Not only
would the actual evaluation of each of these areas be unique to each
individual, the relative importance of each area also would be unique
to each individual. There is no fixed system or criteria for making
example, two people in the same
church can perceive the exact same thing differently-- one could think
it is terrible, the other could think it is great. I once heard a
sermon that I thought was absolutely terrible, and the first person I
talked with after the service thought it was great. Further, one person
might consider sermon content quite important, another might not care
about it at all. So for one person, a church might be just fine. But
that same person
at another stage in life, or for another person, it might not.
Now matters of preference and opinion are one thing, but matters of
spiritual health and abuse are another. Issues such as the health of
itself and the church's core values and culture are far more
significant than preferences about what type of songs are used in
worship services. In these matters, there is a point where
a particular church is (or
becomes) unhealthy, abusive or cultic.
Let me make define
some terms here:
- By identifying a church
as "unhealthy" I do not mean that it merely has problems. All churches
have problems, no churches are perfect. Further, churches go through
phases that are difficult, analogous to any normally healthy person
being sick for a few days. An unhealthy church has certain problems
that are not only debilitating, but are also persistent or chronic like
who has a chronic illness or condition.
- By abusive, I mean a
church mistreats and/or exploits its people.
- By cultic, I mean a
church uses deception, manipulation and other unethical means to gain
and maintain members.
Each individual has the task
responsibility, as an adult) of determining if a group is unhealthy,
abusive or cultic for him. This
falls not to the church leader, not to friends within the church, not
to the concened family members, not
to close friends, but to the individual (provided that individual is an
adult; otherwise this falls under parental authority and
responsibility). The point of this article is
to provide some guidelines for individuals to evaluate if their
individual church is unhealthy, abusive or cultic.
Many authors and
researchers have attempted to describe unhealthy, abusive
and cultic church environments. What
follows is a summary
of these data-driven observations for analysis and comparison. (The
point to Barnabas Ministry reviews of each book considered. The reviews
generally elaborate on these criteria, and these books are highly
recommended by the Barnabas Ministry.)
|David Johnson, Jeff
Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
- Power-Posturing- leaders
of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as
- Performance Preoccupation- In
abusive spiritual systems,
and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied
the performance of their members. Obedience and submission
are two important words often used.
- Unspoken Rules- people's
controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken
rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not
said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don't find out
they're there until you break them.
- Lack of Balance (Extreme Objectivism or Extreme
- Paranoia- there
is a sense, spoken or unspoken, that "others will not understand what
all about, so let's not let them know-- that way they won't be able to
ridicule or persecute us." There is an assumption that (1) what we say,
know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened that others; (2)
others will not understand unless they become one of us; and (3) others
will respond negatively.
- Misplaced Loyalty ("We Alone Are Right", Scare
Tactics and Humiliation)- a misplaced sense of loyalty
is fostered and even
We're not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given
organization, church, or leader.
- Secretive- When you see people in a
secretive-- watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate;
hide what is inappropriate.
- Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on
their position or
office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of
leadership is authoritarian.
- Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but
do another. Their words and deeds do not match.
- They manipulate people by making them feel guilty
for not measuring
up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no
effort to lift those loads. You know you are in an abusive church if
the loads just keep getting heavier.
- Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good.
They labor to
keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad
- They seek honorific titles and special privileges
that elevate them
above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
- Their communication is not straight. Their speech
becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending
- They major on minor issues to the neglect of the
ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God's
Cult Mind Control
- Behavior Control- warped emphasis upon unity and
conformance to group behavior.
- Information Control- information enables people to
make decisions; hiding information prevents sound decision making and
leads to manipulation.
- Thought Control- internalizing group teaching,
simple answers to
complex questions, and using "loaded language" to shunt the thinking
- Emotional Control- using affection, guilt and fear
to manipulate people into loyalty and devotion.
In my own experience and studies, I have come up with my own criteria
for determining whether a group is unhealthy or abusive.
In the article Egypt,
O Egypt, I identified several characteristics of a healthy
environment compared to an unhealthy or abusive environment. Granted,
situation with the Israelites in Egypt wasn't a Christian church, and
the Egyptians were not Christian leaders. But there were so many
similarities between that situation and my own experiences in an
abusive and unhealthy church that the application seemed quite natural.
These ideas are expressed in terms of contrasts. Interestingly, the
environment for the Israelites in Egypt changed from being healthy to
unhealthy and abusive, and this can often happen in unhealthy or
abusive churches as well.
|A place of blessing and
for those in
need. A place people want to go. Lives are blessed.
|A place of slavery. A
people want to
leave. Lives are embittered.
the welfare of those it leads.
over those it leads.
|Leadership concerned about
|Leadership concerned about the
|Devotes the system to meet
needs of the
|Exploits the legitimate
people for its
|Leadership builds up the
|Leadership tears down the
for order and
taking care of the people. Whole structure works for the good of all.
to control the
people. "In" groups, rivalries, favoritism, rewards and punishments to
ensure loyalty to the leadership and system.
|Leadership is secure,
|Leadership is paranoid,
of outsiders and
|Contributions made under
|The good of all is what
|The system and one's
it are what
|The system serves the
|The people serve the
|Leaders serve the people.
|Leaders control the people.
|Hardships related to the
by the leadership
|Negative aspects of system
corrected for the good of the people. People who identify problems are
put in a position to address these needs for the good of all.
|Negative aspects of system
silenced. People who
identify problems are viewed as a threat. They are marginalized,
stigmatized and cast out of the system..
|Welcomes helpful changes.
|Prayers of thanksgiving
|Prayers of anguish and
|God leads people to go there.
|God leads people to leave there.
Based upon my own experiences, I have made the following additional observations about unhealthy and abusive church situations:
1. Institutional Pride: The system is never the problem. If something goes good, the system gets credit for it. But if something goes bad, the system is not at fault, but rather some individual gets blamed for it. If anyone identifies problems with the system, that person will be marginalized, put down and discredited. Nobody is good enough to criticize the system. The church may consider itself the best church or perhaps the One True Church, meaning no others are saved. However, when pressed about its own shortcomings, the group may reluctantly admit that "no church is perfect" and say it is "changing," but do substantive changes that would improve the health of the group ever take place?
2. Exploitative: The system uses the people, often abusing them with harsh and demanding treatment. People serve the system and its agenda, not God (indeed, the agenda of the church is equated with God's agenda). Though deliberate efforts are made to make the group meetings appear "fired-up" or joyful, on the inside the people feel sad and trapped.
3. Leader-centric. Because leaders are the custodians of the system, they are considered superior and often isolate themselves from the members. Leaders usually lead by control and authority, not by nurturing or humble service. Getting closer to the leaders relationally or in the leadership "pyramid" is a goal and sign of advancement in the system; real spirituality and spiritual growth may not be important objectives at all. Subordinate leaders may be more genuine in their faith and approach, but they can be replaced at any time. Look at the highest levels of leadership to see the true values of the church.
4. Manipulative. The objective of leaders is to advance the system, not to do what is best for individuals. Thus, leadership direction that is given to members is biased towards what is best for the system, not the individual. For example, members may be discouraged from moving simply because the leader loses stature (and maybe even his position or salary) if his membership decreases. Leaders may use a call for "unity" to insist that everyone participate in some event or action, warping the Scriptural idea of unity. Failing to conform will lead to shaming and charges of being "independent," "unteachable" or "not a real disciple." Leaders may draw people close to them with encouragement one minute, then tell them they are terrible the next. This is a control ritual that is designed to make people perform in order to get the praise of the leadership. But alas, the member can never do enough to guarantee that praise; no matter what he does the leader can find something wrong with it if he is so inclined.
5. Dishonest: The system does not communicate straight. Communications are ambiguous, events are "spun" the way the leadership wants to present them. Pertinent information is hidden from members. Straight answers are not given; different people may be told different things. Dishonesty may show up in deceptive recruiting or leaving incorrect but favorable impressions uncorrected. Finances may be kept secret, with misleading financial statements that hide where the money really goes. There might be front organizations and secret doctrines or practices that are not normally revealed to outsiders. Frankly, there is so much dishonesty in unhealthy and abusive churches that people may not even know they are being dishonest. The ability to "spin" things to make the system look better or to get people to conform becomes a second language to members.
6. Law or Performance Orientation. This is not the normal obedience that accompanies Christian faith (Romans 1:5), but a whole system where certain behaviors are rewarded and others are punished. Rewards may include salaries, perks, position or status in the system. It is true that there is right and wrong behavior in Christianity; the problem with an unhealthy system is that they have a closely-held subset of values superimposed upon truly scriptural Christian values. Other virtues go ignored or might even be punished, and other sins may be ignored or even encouraged. This may even result in a "poisoned well" where even good things become corrupt at the motive level because the perception of performance is so important. For example, members may want to convert people in order to advance in the system, not so that converts will be saved. Members might read the Bible daily so they can say they did it if challenged, not because they are actually wanting to learn something. Actions in unhealthy and abusive churches are often motivated by selfish ambition, compulsion, guilt or the desire to avoid trouble with leaders, not by faith, love, grace or concern about God. The possibility of being shamed publicly or in front of one's peers for any failure manipulates people to work their hardest in doing what the leaders tell them and to avoid getting on their bad side.
7. Thwarts Individual Growth: The objective of the system is to glorify the system and maintain dependency upon the leadership, not to train members into mature spiritual adults. Unhealthy systems continue to treat even mature Christians as though they were children. The system short-cuts growth by demanding certain behaviors without concern for the correct motivation or spiritual depth. Then it points to that behavior to glorify itself.
There is a kernel of truth behind almost all abuses, and churches are good at using certain scriptures to support their positions. The problem isn't the kernel of truth, the problem is when these things get out of balance or get warped to an extreme. These problems may not be seen until a system is in place for several years and its long-term fruit is seen in the destruction of people that have been a part of the system. Unhealthy churches may have problems with some of these issues I've discussed. Abusive churches will have more severe, deliberate and intransigient problems with these issues.
Evaluating Your Church
One way to evaluate your church is to consider how many of the various unhealthy or abusive traits are present in your church, and to what degree and length of time they have been present. Another might be to ask questions like these:
The interested reader can even
add things to this list.
- What did you spend your
time on this week with regards to the group?
- Did you really want to
do it, or did you do it only because you were told to do it?
- Did you do it for some
ulterior motive, such as receiving praise from others or advancement?
- What would have happened
didn't do it? Would you have been shamed or gotten in trouble?
- Were you ashamed of what
- How would you feel if
your parents, siblings, co-workers or peers outside of the group saw
would you feel if it was broadcast on the evening news?
- Did you manipulate
anyone? Did anyone manipulate you?
- Did you "filter"
anything from a higher-up to a subordinate?
- Do you see problems with
the system? Do you have any way to bring these up and have them taken
- Do you find yourself
making statements and positions of the leadership more palatable for
- Do you really want others to have
what you have concerning your church?
- What is your chief
frustration with the system? What do you think can be done to make it
One might consider writing down the "good
"bad points" in terms of the health of the church, perhaps using some
of these guidelines above for ideas. These items should be ordered in
of their importance to you. This way, you can see the most important
elements on the "good" and "bad" side of things.
Don't worry about the ramifications of your evaluation at this stage.
Try not to consider the opinions and perspectives of others at this
stage either. This is your
evaluation, what do you think?
What Do You Do If Your Group is Unhealthy
Do the "good"
things outweigh the "bad" things for you?
you can make this decision.
You might make this evaluation and find many bad things, but that the
good outweighs the bad for you. That's OK-- that's your decision and
evaluation, and you can be secure that you came to that conclusion
after an honest evaluation.
But what if the the bad outweighs the good? Now what do you do? I'd
suggest reading scriptures that address
these issues, and praying
that God would help you know
what to do and how to do it.
As far as I can tell, you have four
There are pros and
cons to each of these options, though a more extensive
discussion of these options is beyond the scope of this article.
- You can ignore
what you know, ignore your
conscience, and maintain the status quo.
- You can accept
the bad as part of the "package" and resign yourself to dealing with
the ramifications of it.
- You can confront
the "bad" issues by speaking
with leaders and
attempting to make changes.
- You can look
for another church that better
reflects your own
for a new church, this is beyond the scope of this article. However,
most churches provide a statement of beliefs and values on a
church website or on brochures readily available at the building.
Further, you can choose to visit other churches, perhaps during
alternate service times, while you continue with your existing church.
You can also speak with ministers or members from these churches if
can give you a good basis to see if there are other churches that will
better reflect your values and beliefs.
is important at this stage is to tell yourself the truth about your own
church-- is it unhealthy, abusive or cultic for you?.