Following on from yesterdays’ blog, I have listed some simple questions to assist in discerning whether a church is acting in an abusive manner. The questions come from the book: Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Professor Ronald Enroth, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervon, 1994.
If the answer to a majority of the questions is ‘no’ the church is abusive.....leave immediately. If you are in need of advice contact this blog. Be encouraged, there is life after spiritual abuse.
1. Does an individual’s’s personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with or membership of the church?
In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual.
2. Do members of the church seek to strengthen their family commitments?
Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize the commitments of their members to their family, especially parents. Church loyalty is seen as paramount.
3. Does the church encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?
Controlling leaders attempt to dictate what members think. Where a pastor or leader is viewed as God’s mouthpiece, it minimises a member’s decision making and ability to think for oneself. Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.
4. Does the church allow for individual differences of belief and behaviour, particularly on issues of secondary importance?
An emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments. Lifestyle rigidity in such churches increase a member’s guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.
5. Does the church encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and non members?
In intense churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards but iIn some instances, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank and file membership.
6. Does the church’s leadership invite dialogue, advice and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?
Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any outside expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership’s agenda. Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability.
For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a diaconate of some sort, when in actuality it is composed of “yes-men/women” who do not question the leader’s authoritarian behaviour.
7. Does the church allow for the development in theological beliefs?
Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own. They tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an “us-versus-them” mentality.
8. Are church members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?
A cardinal rule of abusive systems is “Don’t ask questions, don’t make waves.” A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered to be disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God. People who repeatedly question the system are labelled “rebellious”, “unteachable”, or “disharmonious to the body of Christ”. Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or dis-fellowshipped.
9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if it is outside their church?
Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups. This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will say, really don’t understand what is going on in the ministry anyway. Members are actively discouraged from participating in any events and organisations unless approved by the pastor and leaders.
10. Is the group honest in dealing with non-members, especially as it tries to win them to the church?
Sometimes abusive churches illustrate a “split-level religion”. There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership. The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the “true believers”. A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.
11. Does the church foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?
First impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics identified above. Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership rather than carrying out the real mission of the church as outlined in the Bible.