Click here to read the Introduction to The Abusive Church series.

It seems that everyone has experienced some sort of church hurt. And clearly, the Lord knew the day would come. Perhaps that’s why He inspired Paul to tell the Galatians to “do good unto all men, especially those who are of the household of faith” (6:10). Today’s pews are filled with Christians whose spiritual states are scattered across the spectrum from hurt to healed – from wounds inflicted by men and women committing misdeeds under the guise of ministry. You notice the scars on their hands and ask what happened, and they reply, “these are the wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

I decided to begin this series after reading about a book, Churches That Abuse, written by Dr. Ronald Enroth. In it, he discusses eight distinguishing characteristics of abusive churches. According to Dr. Enroth, abusive churches:

  1. Have a control-oriented style of leadership.
  2. Use manipulation to gain complete submission from their members.
  3. Foster a rigid, legalistic lifestyle involving numerous requirements and minute details for daily life.
  4. Tend to change their names often, especially once they are exposed by the media.
  5. Denounce other churches because they see themselves as superior.
  6. Have a persecution complex and view themselves as being persecuted by the world, the media, and other churches, organizations or denominations.
  7. Specifically target young adults between 18 and 25 years of age.
  8. Make it difficult for members to leave.

We’re starting the series with a discussion of the control factor.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., who was serving a two-year sentence in a Georgia prison after being convicted of several crimes that would fall under the “abusive church” umbrella. I grew to admire and respect Rev. Allen for standing up for what he believed in, but after interviewing 13 members of his church (House of Prayer), I couldn’t help but think that these people had really, really been brainwashed. Most of them were inarticulate, having dropped out of high school to marry at 13 and 14 years old. Several had more than ten children before reaching the age of 30 (which, of course, keeps the church quite populated). And in a most eerie way, they all spoke just like their leader and had similar mannerisms.

I remember asking one lady if she didn’t feel as though she had missed out, after dropping out of school in the 9th grade to get married and start a family. At the time, she was in her early 20s and was pregnant with her 7th child. Her mother, who was in her 30s and was pregnant with her 16th child, encouraged her to wed young. Without skipping a beat, the young lady quipped “yeah, I missed out. Missed out on AIDS, missed out on losing my virginity to some boy who don’t care about me, missed out on herpes...”

Then, there was the church from my hometown that didn’t allow members to style their hair certain ways or wear nail polish, or make any major life decisions without getting permission first. The pastor controlled who could praise the Lord and who couldn’t. Who could date whom. Who could marry whom.

Then there are the Tony Smiths of the world, who don’t allow questions (particularly from women) or discussion about anything they teach, however erroneous or outlandish.

In controlling churches, the pastors usually don’t answer to anyone – or when they do, they are accountable to a very detached leader thousands of miles away, or subordinates who serve only as “yes men” and know better than to challenge the leader. In each of the examples above, the members tend to know God through the Pastor. They accept whatever he says, blindly. They trust his “spiritual insight” more than their own. They trust his anointing, his “gift”, his relationship with God more than they trust their own. They fail to realize that we serve ONE God, from Whom all our gifts come and to Whom we all have equal access. Somehow, the pastor is their spiritual focal point, not Jesus Christ. Though they may not realize it, he is their god. And of course, this is how cults are born. Members are expected to accept anything they are taught, without question, or risk being labeled rebellious, a witch, a troublemaker, Jezebel, or unsaved. In the worst scenarios, many are excommunicated from the church completely.

There’s a thin line here, because submission to authority is a Biblical principle. Pastors, Bishops, Overseers, Elders are all Biblically-sanctioned roles that are relevant and necessary for the Church’s health and development. One safe place to draw the line is when the pastor’s rules begin to affect your relationships with your family and friends, or even your personal life outside of the church. Any “rule” that can’t be found clearly in the Bible should be studied and researched. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that Biblical elders governed the private and family lives of the Christian church. And if you can’t find one leader in the Bible who led like your pastor leads, you may have a problem. Pastors should lead like Peter, who told the elders not to be lords over the “congregation” but to be examples for them. Or like Paul, one of the greatest leaders who ever lived, said, “not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy” and told the Corinthians not to tolerate controlling leaders.

Click here to read Part 3 of The Abusive Church – Exposing the Master Manipulator.