Category: Churches That Abuse
Unhealthy, authoritarian leadership encourages people to place their pastors on pedestals. This is illustrated by the comments of one ex-member of a church located in a major mid-western city. "Little by little this man became the standard by which we all sought to live. The wisdom that poured forth from his lips left us in awe."
An ex-member of an east-coast fringe group commented that her tiny church was believed to be the full expression of God and had the mind of Christ. "When the leadership said something, it was taken very seriously as the absolute truth. I was part of what I totally believed was a sold out, godly, and committed church. However, after I left the church, my life was totally shattered."
This is Chapter 4 from the book, "Churches That Abuse," by Dr. Ronald M. Enroth.
Chapter 1 of the book, "Churches That Abuse," by Ronald M. Enroth.
An introduction to the problem of abusive churches and spiritual abuse.
The entire bestselling book is available here, courtesy of the author.
The key to understanding the phenomenon of abusive churches is within the human psyche -- the desire to control others and to exercise power over people. That has always been a part of the human experience and it will continue to be.
All of us have been exposed to the temptation of power, whether as parent, spouse, teacher, or worker. It has been said that human nature is always ready to abuse its power the moment it can do so with impunity. It should not be surprising, then, that the will to power sometimes invades the religious realm, and specifically the church.
One of the pressing needs of the Christian church is to assist in the development of discernment skills among believers so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or a false doctrine is diminished.
The stories in this book point to the need on the part of Christians for discernment. At what point does biblical authority turn into spiritual violence? When does a church cross the line between conventional-church status and abusive-church status? What are some signals or indicators that a given group is headed for the margins?
Dr. Ronald M. Enroth:: "Leaving a restricted and abusive community involves what sociologists call the de-socialization process whereby the individual loses identification with the past group and moves toward re-socialization, or reintegration into the mainstream culture. There are a number of emotions and needs that emerge during this transition process. How one deals with these feelings and affective experiences has a significant impact on the overall healing that is required.
Many have described the aftermath of abusive-church involvement as comparable to that of rape victims, or the delayed stress syndrome experienced by war veterans. It is recovery from what might be called spiritual rape. You feel like something has been lost and you will never be the same again."
Dr. Ronald M. Enroth: "Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied impose discipline, in one form or another, on members.
A common theme that I encountered during interviews with ex-members of these groups was that the discipline was often carried out in public-and involved ridicule and humiliation."
While mainstream evangelical churches have always encouraged a life of holiness before the Lord and urged moderation in dress and other aspects of life-style, authoritarian churches demonstrate an excessive focus on such concerns. The restricted life-style and limits on personal freedom that follow are just other examples of the need to control that all abusive churches exemplify.
If life-style rigidity is a characteristic of most abusive churches, the role of subjective experience is equally crucial in understanding how such groups drift toward religious marginality.
The spiritual elitism of abusive churches can be seen in some of the terminology they use to refer to themselves:
"God's Green Berets," "God's End-Time Army," the "faithful remnant," the special "move of God." As one ex-member put it, "We believed we were on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the world. I looked down on people who left our movement; they didn't have what it took. They were not faithful to their commitment. When everyone else got with God's program, they would be involved in shepherding just like we were."
A former member of a group known as The Assembly (headquartered in Fullerton, California, and discussed later in this book) said, "Although we didn't come right out and 'say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there was no place in the world like our assembly. We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch."
Traditional evangelical churches value and respect individual differences. For the most part, they encourage people to become unique persons in their own right, not mere photocopies of someone else.
Authoritarian, manipulative fringe groups, on the other hand, encourage clones and promote cookie-cutter life-styles.
Flavil Yeakley, in his book The Discipling Dilemma, suggests that such groups value conformity, not diversity. "They tend to make people over after the image of a group leader, the group norm, or what the group regards as the ideal personality …. They are made to feel guilty for being what they are and inferior for not being what the group wants them to be."
People have always struggled with the same needs-to be accepted by their friends and family, to find their way to God, and to make a contribution to their world. Humanity's fear of loneliness and hope of salvation were no less real to people in the previous century than they are to us today. Unfortunately, there have also always been charismatic figures ready to take advantage of those most afraid and most hopeful.
One nineteenth-century religious community, in particular, has many similarities to modern manifestations. There are other examples of authoritarian abuse but, perhaps, none as intriguing. It is not representative of all turn-of-the-century Protestant sects, but it is a good example of an extremist community based on the near worship of a single man. Frank Sandford's community at Shiloh offers insights into an abusive fringe church from its conception in the late nineteenth century to its "scattering" in 1920.
It has been said that commitment without careful reflection is fanaticism in action.
In Chapter 2 of his book Churches That Abuse, Dr. Ronald Enroth describes a church where people -- thinking that they were placing their allegiance in the Word of God -- were actually placing their allegiance in a man and his interpretation of the Word of God. That is crucial to understanding why people were so easily deceived.
They thought that they were really obeying the Word of God.
When does a church cross the line between conventional church status and fringe status? What is the nature of the process by which any given group devolves into a fringe church or movement? What are some of the signs or indicators that a given group is becoming abusive of its members and is headed for the margins? When should a member consider bailing out?
Churches That Abuse answers these and other important questions about abusive churches.
Important notice regarding the content and formatting of the online version of Churches That Abuse
Information about the printed edition of Churches That Abuse, by Ronald M. Enroth
"This has been a difficult book to write because it is a book that is critical of other Christians. One always runs the risk of being misunderstood and labeled "judgmental" or arrogant when you make evaluative statements regarding Christian believers and organizations outside your own immediate circle. The book is about churches and other Christian organizations that inflict psychological and spiritual abuse upon members through the use of fear, guilt, and intimidation."