This helpful excerpt is by author Elizabeth Esther whose excellent book Girl at The End of the World I bought, read, and recommend. Elizabeth Esther’s list is important to keep in mind to avoid an abusive church. – Velour
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: what are some signs of a spiritually abusive church? My book, “Girl at The End of the World,” tells my story of growing up in an abusive church. But I thought it might be helpful if I shared a list of “red-flag” warning signs here on my site as well. Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing. EE.
- Personality Centric: a pastor whose charming, charismatic, intense, persuasive and intelligent personality holds unquestioned sway over his/her congregation. He/she is treated like a celebrity. Not held accountable. Not held to same standard of morality as the rest of the congregation.
- Operates Independently: no oversight, doesn’t answer to an established denomination, there is no way for grievances to be filed or addressed, even in cases of outright abuse the police or civil authorities are not called.
- Engulfment: “true members” of the church devote their WHOLE lives to the church, center all their activities around church activities, discouraged to have friends outside the church, family members who express concern about the church are cut off, leaving the church is the same as leaving God.
- Busyness: a plethora of required/mandatory-without-saying-it’s-mandatory activities that fill up the weekly schedule, giving time and energy for free to various hard labor projects (cleaning and cooking for pastor’s family, for example).
- Stalking: Big Brother-type monitoring is called “just keeping each other accountable.” Calling to “just check in” if a member misses church meeting. Approving clothing, daily decisions, watching online activity for “problematic” opinions and posts–all under the guise of “spiritual care” for the person’s soul.
- Coded Language: an ingrown church has developed a special, insider language/lingo that only those who have been there for a long time understand. Sometimes common, everyday words are given different definitions particular to that church; ie. “keep sweet” is a phrase used in some polygamist circles that means women should behave in a church-approved way.
- Unrealistic Promises: members of an unhealthy church are often seduced by big talk about all the wealth, blessings and riches God will give them if they just devote their lives to this church. Delivery on these promises is rare. Those who do not experience God’s blessings are told they have “weak faith.”
- Courting Rituals: a man must seek leadership approval (above parental approval) before seeking “to court” (or date) a woman, courting couples must follow a prescribed set of rules according to arbitrary traditions established by the church; ie. no kissing until the wedding day.
- Shunning: if someone leaves the church, church leadership requires all other members to ignore this person until they “repent.” New church members are told to shun family members who don’t support the church. Parents are told to shun “rebellious” teenagers. Husbands are to shun “unsubmissive” wives. The church comes first in all relationships.
- “The Ends Justify the Means:” a spiritually abusive church justifies all kinds of oppressive behavior by saying they only desire to truly serve and love God. “We’re doing this for Jesus, so it’s OK!” ; ie. spanking children to “break the will” because the end result is a child who will love and serve God for his/her whole life. Be wary of a church that emphasizes “purity of doctrine” over the WAY it treats people. Methods and processes matter. The ends do NOT justify the means.