|The Barnabas Ministry
|David Johnson, Jeff
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
Healing Spiritual Abuse
Combatting Cult Mind Control
|A place of blessing and
refuge for those in need. A place people want to go. Lives
||A place of slavery. A place
people want to leave. Lives are embittered.
|Benevolent leadership genuinely concerned about the welfare of those it leads.||Malevolent leadership
concerned about control over those it leads.
|Leadership concerned about
loyalty to the people.
||Leadership concerned about
the loyalty of the people.
|Devotes the system to meet
the needs of the people.
||Exploits the legitimate needs of people for its own ends.|
|Leadership builds up the
||Leadership tears down the
|Healthy structure established
for order and taking care of the people. Whole structure
works for the good of all.
established 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,
afraid of outsiders and disloyal members.
|Contributions made willingly
||Contributions made under
|The good of all is what
||The system and one's position
in it are what matters.
|The system serves the people.
||The people serve the system.
|Leaders serve the people.
||Leaders control the people.
|Hardships related to the task
inflicted by the leadership
|Negative aspects of system
discussed and 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
|Welcomes helpful changes.
|Prayers of thanksgiving and
||Prayers of anguish and pain.
|God leads people to go there.
||God leads people to leave
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 even saved. 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 or vague, 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 lead others to Christ 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, "Are you having your quiet times?," 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.
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: