Reformed Theology

The Marks of an Abusive Church

Before I discuss the marks of a healthy church, which I will do in my next post, I need to go into some background a little bit. I have a lot of baggage when it comes to churches. Through several years of chaos since experiencing a painful church split a decade ago, and then having to leave a few others, I’ve become sort of an unwitting expert in what’s right or wrong about churches, and contrary to what many would think, it doesn’t boil down to musical style or baptismal practices. Though I will relate some personal experience here, my attribution of these qualities as “abusive” is not completely subjective or arbitrary. Ronald M. Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College, wrote a book called Churches That Abuse (which is available for online reading), in which he relays the experiences of many individuals he has interviewed from abusive church backgrounds. As I read each chapter, it was scary how often I found myself identifying with the stories he presents.

Some abusive churches sound almost cultic. But you don’t just need right doctrine to avoid abuse; you need a right ecclesiology, and a right polity. Enroth writes, “A central theme of this book is that spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation.”

A lot of the churches I have been involved with have had an overdeveloped eschatology, and a very underdeveloped ecclesiology, with authoritarian structures with no accountability or elders. Either no membership whatsoever, or a heavily policed membership in which speaking to outsiders about church matters was forbidden. I’ve experienced too much emphasis on experience and receiving direct “words from the Lord” on one hand, or too much emphasis on a movement’s senior pastor’s dogmatic interpretation of God’s word on the other. Completely cessationist on one hand, or so seemingly powerful in the spiritual gifts that I’d confess all my sins to someone in leadership because I was convinced they already knew because of their “word of knowledge.” Blaming the devil for everything, or completely lacking any confidence in man’s sinful nature that all things secular were denounced and the world was seen as “out there” rather than something we’re part of. “Faith healing” services where we were made to feel like the only reason we had to wear contacts was because we didn’t have “enough” faith, or feigned differences in leg length allegedly went away as legs grew before our eyes in response to fervent prayer.

I’ve been involved in churches where earthquakes and billboards were seen as the voice of God, and others where the clear teaching of Scripture was dismissed just because it didn’t fit with their man-made dogmas. I have been spiritually violated by those I trusted, and suffered psychological manipulation. There was confrontational intimidation when you expressed opinions not in line with their dogmas, or if as a musician, I found myself too stretched, unable to commit to a new “worship” band when I was already in two others, or unable to attend prayer meetings because I needed to focus on school. I was in financial bondage as well, told by well to-do pastors that I had to tithe even off of my unemployment insurance payments. (So much for separation of church and state… The church was funded by the EDD!)

Abusive churches tend to take a few verses in particular and elevate them above all the rest, as a sort of trump card. One of them is “Don’t touch the Lord’s anointed.” Yeah, can’t argue with that, can you? The problem is, in context, this statement had nothing to do with the church, but politics, with David talking about deposing the king, practicing great care to guard against his own presumption or the pressure of his followers. The Bible tells us all over the place to guard against abusive shepherds, but it says in Romans 13 that our political leaders are put in place by God.

If people are able to leave an abusive church and go somewhere else, often the verse of choice preached to those who remain is, “They went out from us that it would be clear yet were never of us.” This was spoken by the apostle John in another particular context, regarding particular people two thousand years ago. But many abusive churches take this verse and make it their own any time a member decides to leave and become part of the universal church, causing all their friends to shun them as if they are now unbelievers.

Another mark of an unhealthy church is isolationism, which I mentioned in my last post as a non-Reformed idea. One of the triggers of our recent migration away from conservatism and fundamentalism was the death of Lydia Schatz. I have written about the Schatz family before. They could definitely be described as isolationist. They used to attend a tiny church I had helped plant. Lydia’s father was a fan of perfectionism, and he even expected it from his little ones. The church was so small, lacked a broad-based educated congregation or seminary-trained leadership or other denominational resources that could have spotted the warning signs, and it makes me sick to my stomach to think that if I had recognized the signs I could have said something to authorities or encouraged some accountable fellowship around him that could have steered him into a less isolationist direction.

The Schatzes left that church, and so did we. Our family ended up at another small church that was equally low on resources, and evidently, at least as isolationist. The morning after the event, the news about it had already spread, and here was a perfect teaching opportunity. Perhaps someone could express alternate exegesis of the meaning of “rod” in the Old Testament, or explain how maybe beating your children isn’t necessarily a Christian thing to do. But no. Instead there were prayers from the pulpit that God would deliver this “Christian brother and sister” who were “falsely accused”, being “persecuted by the world for being salt and light”.

Pat Zukeran, in an article summarizing Churches That Abuse, wrote, “Abusive churches usually denounce all other Christian churches. They see themselves as spiritually elite. They feel that they alone have the truth and all other churches are corrupt.” According to this definition, until now I have only been to two non-abusive churches in my life. (Interestingly, these two churches are actually partnered together for missions and outreach ministries.)

At core of all of these churches’ issues is a lack of continuity with church history, and a lack of accountability with the body of Christ at large. One of the manifestations of this incongruence can be found in the aberrant doctrine of dispensationalism, which directly contradicts what the rest of the Christians in the rest of the world had believed for 1,900 years before its invention. The local Calvary Chapel pastor was interviewed on the local news a few weeks ago, explaining why he thought Harold Camping is a crackpot, but Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalist eschatology doesn’t fare much better. Camping’s view is tragic because it leads to poor people selling their earthly possessions and ending up destitute. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, breeds environmental exploitation and debt (because “it’s all going to burn” anyway), leads to a war-mongering U.S. foreign policy which causes the deaths of thousands of Christians and Muslims in the Middle East by supporting a racist Israeli government at all costs, and wants to artificially induce the fated “Battle of Armageddon” in order to “hasten the day” of Jesus’ Second Coming. (In stark contrast, the Presbyterian Church encourages divestment in companies that do business in Israel, hoping to pressure them into adopting a more human-rights-oriented stance towards their neighbors.)

There’s something to be said for ecumenism, denominational accountability, and church councils.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss some characteristics of healthy churches. Yay! (Lord willing it will be a little more upbeat…)


2 thoughts on “The Marks of an Abusive Church

  1. Pingback: I Have Issues With… | I must follow, if I can

  2. Pingback: I am a victim of church abuse. | I must follow, if I can

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