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How to Spot an Abusive Church

Cult-watcher Ronald Enroth exposes the six manipulative tools some church leaders use to control their flocks.


Is your church spiritually abusive?

According to cult-watcher Dr. Ronald Enroth in his just-released book Churches That Abuse, controlling, authoritarian church leaders have a grip on countless congregations all over the world. How can you recognize abusive tendencies when they surface? Enroth points to six key characteristics of abusive churches. Read about them in this excerpt from Churches That Abuse:


Abusive churches foster unhealthy forms of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority. They create the impression that people just aren't going to find their way through life's maze without a lot of firm directives from those at the top. They promote what former Great Commission International member Jerry MacDonald calls a form of "learned helplessness."

He writes: "Remarkably, many intelligent Christians actually enjoy being told what to do. In GCI churches, people seek the elders for permission to go home and see their parents or friends, and to inquire for how long they may stay; they go to them for permission to go to a party with unbelievers..."

The disquieting truth is that many Christians do indeed fall into the trap of authoritarianism because of an inclination toward the black and white mentality that abusive churches cater to. If you have the type of personality that is drawn toward groups that offer wrap-around security and solutions to all your problems, you are vulnerable to spiritual abuse.


The discerning Christian must also be aware of the trap of legalism. Preoccupation with keeping Christian rules enhances guilt feelings in members, and it acts as an effective control mechanism for power abusers. "Legalism is never corrective church discipline. For legalism pulls us away from following Christ toward another gospel, another gospel that says the cross is not enough."


Another quality that can lead to abusive behavior in a church is the tendency toward isolationism, a conscious effort to limit input from outside the church-in other words, information control. Beware of the church where outside speakers are consistently denied access to the pulpit, and where other Christian churches are regularly denounced, belittled, or ridiculed.

It is my opinion, based on extensive research and informal observation, that authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks and balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. To put it crudely, they operate a one-man (or one-woman) spiritual show.


Another sign of impending trouble in a church is an obsession with discipline and excommunication. Beware of churches that warn of certain doom if you leave their "covering," or if you "break covenant." Once banished from the group, little compassion is shown the wayward one.

An overwhelming majority of the ex-members I have interviewed expressed the opinion that abusive leaders are cold, almost cruel, in the treatment of people who leave-whether that departure was voluntary or involuntary.

Disrupted Family Relationships

A sure sign that a church is headed for the fringe is when family relationships are significantly disrupted and the leadership encourages the severing of ties with relatives outside of the group. "Be prepared to switch your loyalty from your natural family to God's family," advises Marie Kolasinski of the Body of Christ Fellowship. "Those blood ties are filthy rags unto God. So if you are experiencing great upheaval in your well-ordered natural family, BE OF GOOD CHEER."

When a Christian is asked to sacrifice family relationships for church loyalty, it's time to bail out.


When a church institutes a surveillance system and encourages its members to keep close tabs on one another, it's time to look for another church.

A former member of the Boston Movement describes a scenario common to most abusive churches. "Everyone's Christian life was under scrutiny by someone, assigned by some level of authority; each member was confronted with observed faults, issued counsel, and followed up; each was encouraged to know the true state of his own soul, its sins and weaknesses, and to confess these openly and honestly to others who have ministry and authority over him."

Group Magazine, March 1992