The Christian church is to be loving and grace-filled, a place people can go to for encouragement and support in their spiritual lives. Unfortunately, instead of love, many have experienced harm; instead of grace, abuse. The prevalence of the #churchtoo movement testifies to this sad reality. Abusive churches, acting in the name of Jesus, do not reflect the Church for which Christ is the head (Ephesians 1:22). These communities are insular, toxic, and spiritually destructive. They are the antitheses of the Christian community.
Abusive churches cannot be explained away by the rhetoric of “the church isn’t perfect, just forgiven!” True, no community is perfect. No community ever arrives at a point where it no longer needs healing and grace. A church community that is naturally imperfect, however, is not the same thing as a church that actively harms one’s emotional, spiritual, and psychological health. Abusive churches are not simply imperfect, they are destructive. Upon their parishioners, they inflect feelings of oppression and judgment.
So, how might we know if we belong to an abusive or toxic church? What are some signs that illustrate abusive behavior within the community? Below are 5 signs common to abusive churches.
1. Abuse of any kind.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but sadly, abuse is often explained away. Abusive behavior is termed a “misunderstanding,” or worse yet, part of “Godly discipline.” There is no truth in this. Abuse of any kind is antithetical to the gospel of Christ.
Spotting abuse can be difficult as there are several different types of abuse. We are eerily aware of horrific reports of physical or sexual abuse within the church. The violence of any kind is unwarranted in the community of faith. Sexual abuse ranges from rape and pedophilia to extramarital affairs between church leaders and parishioners.
Emotional or psychological abuse is when the community deliberately strips away a person’s self-confidence, identity, or independence. Receiving God’s love becomes wrapped up in the need to obey the rules and demands of the community. Disobedience, or failure to act in perfect righteousness, coincides with the threat of judgment. Such judgment can only be alleviated by placating the demands of the church leadership.
Another form of emotional or psychological abuse is when a leader becomes too emotionally invested in a churchgoer, using the person to prop up his/her own emotional wellbeing. The leader may over-share deeply personal or intimate details of their lives. Or perhaps they request the individual to disclose secrets themselves. Such sharing may not be sexual in nature but will undoubtedly result in the creation of a co-dependent relationship between the leader and the churchgoer.
Financial abuse is when a community demands financial benefits at the expense of an individual’s own livelihood. Financial abuse goes beyond the call to tithe. Giving is often exorbitant and tied to receiving “special blessings.” When these blessings do not materialize, however, this is rationalized by declaring the individual did not give enough.
2. Questions are met with hostility.
Abusive communities do not like questions or criticisms. Importantly, it matters not what question is asked. The question may be as simple as the type of music to be played in worship, to how the annual “Friendship Bazaar” is to be structured. Questions that pertain to why something occurs are often met with vague appeals to “how it always is” or “everyone just knows how to do things.” Suggesting a different course of action, or worse yet declaring that one disagrees with an action taken, is met with hostility and judgment.
In abusive communities, questions and criticisms are seen as a direct attack against the church leadership. They are out of line and deserve to be punished. Individuals who question church practices are ridiculed or negatively branded. He or she is declared problematic, disruptive, or worse yet, “not a real Christian.” The person may even be ejected from the community under the rhetorical of “expel the wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:13). In the end, the community rallies to protect themselves rather than engage in a frank and honest discussion.
3. An “Us vs. Them” mentality.
Abusive communities are insular in nature. They define who is “in” and who is “out.” This goes far beyond identifying who is on the parish roll. The sanctified “in-crowd” is in direct conflict with those who are “out.” The community is seen to be engaged in a type of holy war. Being outside the community is synonymous with being outside the kingdom of God.
Abusive communities perpetuate this clash between the “in” and the “out.” Any association with “them” is seen as a direct attack on one’s holiness. Thus, personal relationships with someone who is “out” are often forbidden. One is exhorted to step away from all previous associations lest they be tempted by the enemy. The spiritual life is a constant battle. This holy battle dominates sermons and teachings in abusive communities.
This naturally changes the community’s sense of ministry and mission. In abusive communities, mission and ministry are combative in nature. Rather than attempting to establishing lasting relationships, rooted in love and respect, ministry becomes a call to confront the other. Evangelistic crusades aim to convince others of their errors and faults. Often these ministries are fueled with anger, judgment, and condemnation.
4. The cult of the leader.
Abusive communities often have a dynamic leader. They appear personable and engaging. They command attention and energize a room. They teach with authority (often quite loudly) and employ a multitude of scriptural references. At face value, it appears as if their leadership is biblically based and divinely blessed.
While the teachings of the leader may appear biblical, there is often little discussion of the biblical text in its historical or theological context. Scripture verses are used as proof-texts alone. Teachings are designed to illustrate the leader’s special knowledge or experience. Either by prayer or personal study, the leader is deemed to understand the correct application of Scripture, an application that others fail to notice. Importantly, as the leader alone holds this secret knowledge, individuals are dissuaded from asking questions or researching the topic themselves.
These dynamics create an exalted status of the leader. In abusive communities, the leader is to be followed blindly. His or her leadership is understood to be divinely ordained. Questioning the leader, therefore, amounts to questioning God’s holy and unalterable word. The continuous message to the community is “be like the leader” rather than “be like Jesus.”
5. A myopic spirituality.
Because abusive communities often depict themselves as the faithful remnant in an ungodly world, there is often a particular emphasis on sin and condemnation. The message of God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy is rarely heard. These are replaced by the constant cry of judgment upon the sinful and condemned. Teaching that focuses more on sin than salvation, condemnation more than Christ, and judgment more than Jesus, is a key sign of an abusive community.
Of course, all church teaching is to tackle such hard topics from time to time. The Bible speaks openly about sin, judgment, and condemnation. These are biblical realities to be examined and prayed about. Abusive communities, however, never move past these topics. Nor do abusive communities temper judgment with mercy, or sin with forgiveness. Rarely do abusive communities rally around a message of grace for all.
Furthermore, abusive communities often highlight one topic over others. This topic becomes symbolic of the overall godlessness of the world. Whether it be a specific sexual sin, a stance on abortion, or a particular political party, this one topic dominates the teaching of the community. The spirituality of the church members, therefore, becomes dominated by this one view. Abusive communities believe in a one-to-one relationship between the Christian faith and a particular issue. To be a Christian is to belong to a certain political party; to be a Christian is to think a certain way about abortion, or sex, or whatever highly charged and divisive topic dominates the community. This creates the inability to listen to others. There is no room for argumentation or difference-of opinion. In abusive churches, it is unthinkable that two people could love Jesus but hold different points of view.
What do you do if you suspect that you belong to an abusive or toxic church? Firstly, it is important to speak about your concerns or questions. Gather supports around you; seek out a trusted Christian brother or sister outside of the community and ask their opinion. If there is a denominational structure to your community, seek out a higher authority, and ask whether your experiencing is true doctrine and practice. Be open about your church’s practices, leadership, and teaching.
Speaking openly about your experience is important because abuse thrives in secrecy. The traits of an abusive community are all designed to stop the individual from talking about, or questioning, toxic and destructive behaviors. The best way to dethrone the power of an abusive church is to bring its destructive patterns to the light.
Secondly, if you believe you belong to an abusive church, it is important for you to remove yourself from the community. Leaving a community is never easy. Such a decision will always be emotional. However, God never calls us into an abusive community. God never desires you to be ridiculed, judged, or condemned. Such things work against the grain of the Holy Spirit. God’s desire for you is to be spiritually healthy, happy, and whole.
Abusive communities directly contradict Christ’s call to love. The Christian church is called to be a body of love, healing, and reconciliation. As the body of Christ, we are commanded to “bear one another in love, forgiving as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13), and to continually “encourage one another towards love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25). As Christians, we are called to live out that which we have received from our Savior. We love as we have been loved. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We are gracious just as He is gracious. This is Christ’s vision of his body, the church, and it is this that Christ desires us to experience within it.
If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, please reach out to your local authorities or call the local helpline. People are willing and waiting, to help.
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.