The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse
Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton (Shaw Books, Colorado Springs, CO. 1991, 2001). 268 pages.

Toxic Faith addresses healing from unhealthy religious activity from the perspective of understanding it as an addiction. According to the authors (founders of counseling clinics), involvement in these faith systems may be seen as an avoidance response to pain. While those perpetuating toxic faith systems have varying degrees of culpability, the individuals seeking recovery need to face the negative experiences, inner pains and losses that drove them towards unhealthy faith in the first place.

The authors draw a clear distinction between overcoming problems through healthy faith and a relationship with God versus investing oneself in a toxic faith system while remaining unhealed. This book discusses why unhealthy spiritual systems have such an appeal to those enmeshed in them, in spite of their inability to really deliver on the things promised. Here's a short sampling of topics discussed:

  • Characteristics of a Toxic-Faith System
    • The members of the toxic-faith system claim their character, abilities, or knowledge make them "special" in some way
    • The leader is dictatorial and authoritarian
    • Religious addicts are at war with the world to protect their terrain and to establish themselves as godly persons who can't be compared to other persons of faith
    • Toxic faith systems are punitive in nature
    • Religious addicts are asked to give overwhelming service
    • Many religious addicts in the system are physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually dead
    • Communication is from the top down or from the inside out
    • Rules are a distortion of God's intent and leave him out of the relationship
    • Religious addicts lack objective accountability
    • The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the religious addict
  • Rules of a Toxic-Faith System
    • The leader must be in control at all times
    • When problems arise, immediately find a guilty party to blame
    • Don't make mistakes
    • Never point out the reality of the situation
    • Never express your feelings unless they are positive
    • Don't ask questions, especially if they are tough ones
    • Don't do anything outside of your role
    • Don't trust anyone
    • Nothing is more important than giving money to the organization
    • At all cost, keep up the image of the organization or family
These discussions help the readers to evaluate to what degree they and their faith systems are toxic or healthy. At the end of the book, the authors provide a questionaire to identify which toxic faith elements are in the reader's lives:

o 1. Has your family complained that you are always going to a church meeting rather than spending time with them?
o o 2. Do you feel extreme guilt for being out of church just one Sunday?
o o 3. Do you sense that God is looking at what you do, and if you don't do enough, he might turn on you or refuse to bless you?
o o 4. Do you often tell your children what to do without explaining your reasons, since you know you are right?
o o 5. Do you find yourself with little time for pleasures of earlier years because you are so busy serving on committees and attending other church groups?
o o 6. Have people complained that you use so much Scripture in your conversation that it is hard to communicate with you?
o o 7. Are you giving money to a ministry because you believe God will make you wealthy if you give?
o o 8. Have you ever been involved sexually with a minister out of wedlock?
o o 9. Is it hard for you to make a decision without consulting your minister? Even over the small issues?
o o 10. Do you see your minister as more powerful than other humans?
o o 11. Has your faith led you to lead an isolated life, making it hard for you to relate to your family and friends?
o o 12. Have you found yourself looking to your minister for a quick fix to a lifelong problem?
o o 13. Do you feel extreme guilt over the slightest mistakes or inadequacies?
o o 14. Is your most significant relationship deteriorating over your strong beliefs, compared to those of a "weaker partner?"
o o 15. Do you ever have thoughts of God wanting you to destroy yourself or others in order to go and live with him?
o o 16. Do you regularly believe God is communicating with you in an audible voice?
o o 17. Do you feel God is angry with you?
o o 18. Do you believe you are still being punished for something you did as a child?
o o 19. Do you feel if you work a little harder, God will finally forgive you?
o o 20. Has anyone ever told you a minister was manipulating your thoughts or feelings?

If you answer yes to three or more of these questions, they suggest you contact them at I recommend anyone answering yes to any of these questions to contact a professional counselor.

The authors discuss several helpful techniques towards recovery and healing from toxic faith practices. A primary need is to overcome the denial that a religious addiction exists. Until people can recognize that an unhealthy faith system has taken over their lives, dealing with the underlying causes of the behavior is not possible. Group therapy, support groups, and a twelve-step program are all tools the authors advocate that can help bring about healing. The authors know we need healthy interactions with other people and reliance upon God to heal and recover.

I'm not convinced that every person caught up in an unhealthy or spiritually abusive situation is automatically a religious addict running from pain, a "churchaholic." Sometimes it is just a matter of being caught in a spiritual "trap" or unhealthy church situation. Yet, it cannot be denied that 1) everybody has pain in their lives, 2) running from pain is a natural response, and 3) some faith situations create an artificial "escape" from problems. Thus, anyone would benefit from reading this book and evaluating their circumstances to consider whether or not they have a religious addiction. Has your faith system really helped bring about intimacy with God and healing from those past pains, or just left you unfulfilled? Has it made things even worse? Everybody owes themselves an honest answer to these questions. Even if you don't have a religious addiction or aren't in an unhealthy religious environment, the ideas mentioned here can help you and those you love steer clear of unhealthy spiritual traits and dynamics.

Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.

Comment via email