Characteristics of Unhealthy,
Abusive and Cultic Church Environments
What is an unhealthy or
abusive church environment, and why would anyone care? Well, the
last question is easier to answer than the first one. People
involved in a church situation that 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 a new church a family member has started attending.
Hopefully this 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 to decide?
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 environment,
such a perfect environment could only exist in theory. On the
other extreme would be an abusive, exploitative, dishonest,
utterly 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
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?
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
For 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 for 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 the group 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 a person 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
Each individual has the task (indeed, the 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 concerned 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 links 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
Power of Spiritual Abuse
- Power-Posturing- leaders spend
a lot of time focused on their own authority and
reminding others of it, as well.
- Performance Preoccupation- In
abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and
authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are
preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience
and submission are two important words often
- Unspoken Rules- people's
lives are 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 that they're there until you break
- Lack of Balance (Extreme Objectivism or Extreme
- Paranoia- there is a sense,
spoken or unspoken, that "others will not understand
what we're 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
- Misplaced Loyalty ("We Alone Are Right", Scare
Tactics and Humiliation)- a misplaced
sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. 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 religious system being secretive-- watch out.
People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what
- Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority
on their position or office rather than on their
service to the group. Their style of leadership is
- 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 light.
- 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 themselves.
- They major on minor issues to the neglect of
the truly important ones. They are conscientious about
religious details but neglect God's larger agendas.
- 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 process.
- Emotional Control- using affection, guilt and
fear to manipulate people into loyalty and devotion.
Barnabas Ministry Criteria
In my own experience and studies, I have come up with my own
criteria for determining whether a group is unhealthy or
In the article Egypt, O Egypt,
I identified several characteristics of a healthy environment
compared to an unhealthy or abusive environment. Granted, the
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
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.
genuinely concerned about the welfare of those it leads.
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 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 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, 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 intransigent 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
- Did you do it for
some ulterior motive, such as receiving praise from others
- What would have
happened if you didn't do it? Would you have been shamed or
gotten in trouble?
- Were you ashamed of
what you did?
- How would you feel if
your parents, siblings, co-workers or peers outside of the
group saw it? How would you feel if it was broadcast on the
- 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 seriously?
- Do you find yourself
making statements and positions of the leadership more
palatable for others?
- 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 better?
One might consider writing down the "good points"
and "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 terms 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 or Abusive?
Do the "good" things outweigh
the "bad" things for you?
Only you can make
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
God would help you know what to do and how to do it.
As far as I can tell, you
have four options:
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
feelings and 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,
perhaps carving a small niche of safety for yourself in the
- 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 values.
looking 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 desired. This can give you a good basis to
see if there are other churches that will better reflect your
values and beliefs.
What is important at this stage is to tell yourself the truth
about your own church-- is it unhealthy, abusive or cultic for