Many people who have been subjected to spiritual abuse wonder, in looking back, why they stayed in an abusive church for so long.
Often it turns out that the church in question grew more and more cult-like gradually.
After all, most abusive churches do not start out that way. Rather, through subtle changes they start seeing themselves as special; attempt to isolate their members from friends, family, and outsiders; and misuse spiritual authority by ruling through fear, guilt and threats.
Such churches foster rigidity, discourage or forbid questioning, and make leaving painful. [See the online book, Churches That Abuse, by Dr. Ronald M. Enroth]
People hungry for community — and for leaders who, they think, can help them grow spiritually — tend to not notice negative tendencies soon enough.
Yet an objective look at churches engaged in spiritual abuse reveals that unreasonable demands, inappropriate behavior, and increasingly strict policies are usually based on unsound doctrine, and/or on so-called ‘private words from God.’
It doesn’t help that many Christians do not have enough spiritual discernment to recognize unbiblical teachings and practices.
In addition, many church members wrongly believe that they should not ‘touch God’s anointed’ — that it is not their place to question or judge the teachings and actions of their leaders. Countless false teaches have taught this in attempts to escape being held accountable for their words and deeds.
The Bible says that we should examine everything, and hold on to the good.
The questions in this list help you take a step back so that you can honestly evaluate your church, its leaders, and your church experience.
- Is your pastor fully accountable to a board of elders, presbyters, etc?
- Is loyalty to Jesus and to one’s own calling placed before loyalty to pastor and church?
- Does your pastor encourage questions and suggestions? Is he approachable?
- Does your pastor give equal attention to all kinds of people in his congregation?
- Does your pastor readily admit his errors?
- Does your pastor avoid boasting or hinting at a “special anointing”?
- Is your pastor truly humble?
- Are the sermons based on clear Biblical truths, not on “original revelations” or ax-grinding?
- Does your church interact with other churches?
- Does your church staff avoid secrecy?
- Is power shared in your church (rather than preempted by a hierarchy)?
- Does your church see itself as just one organ of the Body of Christ, and not the main one?
- Is your church truly friendly?
- Does your church emphasize ministry to people rather than church programs?
- Are especially needy people cared for lovingly in your church?
- Are church members encouraged and loved even when they leave?
- Are relationships with former members encouraged or allowed?
- Do the pastor and congregation avoid attacking and using as object lessons, former members or those who disagree?
- Are families encouraged to stay together and spend time together?
- Does your family worship Sunday service include children, at least for part of the service?
- Are you encouraged in your own calling?
- Are pleas for money rare and unemotional?
- Are your children happy to attend church?
- Are you happy to bring unsaved friends to your church?
- Is there a diversity of classes, races, dress styles, ages, and occupations in your church?
- Are people encouraged to hear from God for themselves?
- Is there a single behavior standard for all people in the church?
- Are all types of people considered welcome at your church?
- Is the joy of the Lord present in your church?
- Are you free from fear in your church?
- Do you think more about God and Jesus than you do about your pastor and church?
- Does your pastor include himself in any calls for repentance and forgiveness?
- Are you clear that the pastors and elders never exaggerate or lie to make themselves look good?
- Is your group encouraging of each other and free from gossip and rumoring?
- Is there a humility of doctrine that points to the grace of God and His mercy for sinners?
- Are you encouraged to serve in ministries or missions outside the local body?
- Is there ever any pressure put upon members to give or lend money to leaders for their personal or business use (exclusive of church business or projects)?
This checklist of cult-like tendencies, written by Charles Lesser, was published in the October, 1991 issue of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project Newsletter.
Nowadays many churches require that prospective members sign a membership contract of membership covenant.
Make no mistake: both are contacts.
Some of these legal documents appear quite innocent. Others make you sign away certain rights and/or force you into making specific promises.
All have one purpose: to protect an authoritarian structure.