You have highlighted a major reason why I am happy to be part of a larger denomination which holds me accountable as a pastor and the congregation that I serve as well. And having seen it myself, I agree that an independent church with a charismatic individual at the helm could lead to spiritual abuse… Those are two of the key elements in the formation of a cult.
It is important to look at groups within a church as well. For example the Legionaries of Christ within the Catholic Church fit much of what you describe in this video. Warning signs are present such as: no one can question leadership, charismatic personality who runs the show, sexual abuse victims come forward and are demonizied.
In the ultra-traditional movement in the Catholic Church I find that group loyalty and unity are highly esteemed. Often I find people are screening others to determine whether they are in or out of the circle. So highly esteemed is group loyalty that anyone who questions the hierarchy/Magisterium is blacklisted. At least this has been my experience in Catholic cirlces that I run in. It took me a long time to realize that alot of what I have experienced in the church is spiritual abuse.
I experienced spiritual abuse at a church which is part of a larger denomination. The pastor is charismatic. It seemed like the members were more concerned with the pastor’s words than Jesus’ words. Attendance, salivations, and baptisms were rising rapidly, so you didn’t dare question what the pastor was teaching. I finally got the courage to get out, and never felt more free in my life.
I will be tuning in for the other signs. I don’t think my nondenominational bible church is abusive, but it does have a gregarious and charismatic preacher who started the church…thanks EE for he heads up.
It would also be good to add characteristics of an emotionally/spiritually unhealthy church. Maybe it can’t be defined as abuse but the elitism found in my parish and much of the ultra-conservative Catholic presence in the church is not healthy or good.
In thinking further, any church whose leaders claim to be able to pronouce anything infallibly is something that I will not accept. It took me decades to realize this and admit it but I don’t think God has decided to speak the Truth to elderly, celebate males ot the exclusion of others. God is much bigger than the Catholic Church. The certainy was a great plus. It gives us a great deal of security/superiority when we feel we are the ones in the One True Church but I can no longer (honestly) tow that rope.
Now that I can see my parish more objectively I am realizing I was part of a very unhealthy church. Now that I have broadened my circles it gives me a much better perspective.
I was a part of an abusive church, and then I was a part of a mainstream church that was heavily complementarian. I can definitely make the argument that leaving that second church was necessary because that was an unhealthy environment for me. However, no member while I was there tried to compel me to give money, harassed me about attendance, controlled where I lived and who I associated with. When I left no one told me I was going to hell, refused to speak to me, etc.
I guess what I am saying is, I can see a difference in “the way this church operates is suffocating to me personally” v. “this church is abusive”.
It is true there is a difference between abuse and unhealthy. The Catholic Church does teach if people leave the church (as a whole) it is a mortal sin and they are going to hell.
Sadly I can’t get the video to work. We just left a church we considered to be spiritually abusive. It’s so hard, I’d been there for 34 years since being a young child. It’s like I need to learn what Christianity is really all about as I have only ever known the brand my now ex-church taught.
I feel broken.
I got the video to play, the unity thing was a real problem for me. The situation in our own church was the leader was a very charismatic preacher who was obsessed with being ‘one’ and unity. The unity being that we had to agree with everything the leader preached, he said that if we wanted to please God were were to ‘just say yes!’ If you disagreed you weren’t punished but you were most likely to be preached about the next week referring to ‘petty arguments’. It was people who weren’t ‘one’ who were stopping the sick getting better (and many other things).
my husband and I are in the same boat… the church we left was home for 37 years for him and 20 years for me. we feel like we are questioning everything we have been taught, fearing it was all a bunchof bull shit. broken is a good description…
It’s so hard to go through. I waver between relief and anger; then fear that I’m totally wrong and my old church was right and God is disappointed in me. I carry my shame.
These are good points. In our abusive group the leader claimed Churches with pastors were abusive and his church had many leading brothers that were accountable to each other. We thought he was accountable to them. He said they counted the money and made decisions on what to do with it. We trusted this system because the brothers were very honest and committed. They let us down by not making the leader accountable. He must have intimidated and brain washed them. They know they were victims but they did not protect the people. They were deceived by him also.
i would agree with what the things you mentioned and add…in a large church these type of men surround themselves with other pastor/leaders that are young/inexperienced, often prefering that they have not been to Bible school/seminary at all. They also tend to “rescue” divorced ex-pastor’s, those who have been fired etc. as they will be only grateful and willing to overlook any “bully”ing and evil going on. it is so HARD to go through this. I realize we are all sinners and in equal need of grace, but these men are truly wolves and harm and destroy.
this is gonna be good… thanks!
EE, could you offset your Top 10 with healthier church practices that people can look for? For example, in this post, you could say that churches with “checks and balances” tend to be healthier — such as an elder board who actually has voting power in which direction the church takes, a willingness to be held accountable (i.e. undergoing the same kinds of financial auditing that many nonprofit organizations do), or a relationship with a healthy “parent” church that has mentored the head pastor. Another thing to watch for in a healthy church is a pastor who talks about his/her own sins or mistakes from the pulpit — true humility/honesty and cults don’t mix very well. Our church was started by a man who is a great public speaker, and it’s grown a lot in the past 2o years . . . but we have these checks in place, so it’s a pretty healthy spiritual community.
For people who have been in unhealthy churches (as my denominational church was, growing up — headed by an alcoholic priest) it can be helpful to also have signs of health to look for. Thanks for posting about this!