Symptoms of a Spiritually Abusive Church
#1: They oppose critical thinking instead of allowing people to think for themselves. Critical thinking is objective—it evaluates information received (not the same as a critical spirit).
Abusive Churches: Their members must accept what the leader believes without ever challenging their doctrines. They do not want their members to think critically for themselves.
The Bible: We must all test each teaching that we hear in the light of Scripture. Do not receive a teaching that you cannot see with your eyes in your Bible. Do not quickly accept new ideas before examining them. Loyalty to a ministry involves humbly challenging it when needed. Do not say, “Our leaders say…,” but, “The Bible says…” Test all things; hold fast what is good. (1 Thes. 5:21)
The Bereans only accepted Paul’s teaching when they saw it in the Scriptures. They [the Bereans] received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
Christians are exhorted to test the spirits—to discern the spirit behind a teaching. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 Jn. 4:1)
#2: They dishonor the family unit instead of insisting on the Biblical priority of the family unit.
Abusive Churches: Children are taught to be more loyal to the leaders than to their parents. Women are taught to be more loyal to the leaders than to their husbands, and husbands are taught to accept this as normal. The leader seeks to take the place of fathers, mothers, or other authority figures. The members are often required to cut ties with their family.
The Bible: Our first relational commitment is to spouse, children, and parents. Our family is far more important than the ministry we are involved in. Teaching that undermines the sanctity of the family unit is unbiblical. Scripture urges us to seek reconciliation and to mend broken family relationships through love, humility, and forgiveness (as far as it depends on us).
Those who obey Scripture will seek to communicate with and honor their families. Jesus insists that people honor their parents with integrity (Mark 7:9-13).
Before becoming responsible adults, children are commanded by the Word to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3). Yet the commitment to love and communicate with one's family is not the same as needing to receive their “approval” to obey the Scripture (Lk 14:26). However, even if our family disapproves of us doing God’s will, we must still continue to reach out to them in love and seek to communicate with them. In other words, our obedience to Jesus and His Word has priority over any of our ministry commitments, personal agenda, or even our family ties.
#3: They isolate members and reject them for leaving instead of helping them do God’s will.
Abusive Churches: They isolate their people from their families, the Church, and society. They reject any who leave and warn them, saying that they will be judged by God and will lose God’s best if they leave. People are taught to make lifelong commitments to the group. Some groups teach that their members must get permission to join another ministry.
The Bible: A leader’s concern is to help people succeed in doing God’s will for their own lives, regardless of whether it means joining another ministry. The foundational value is that God owns the people, not the leader of a ministry.
#4: They promote inappropriate loyalty and connection to the abusive leadership instead of to Jesus.
Abusive Churches: Abusive churches seek to connect their members to the leader and require loyalty to him instead of to Jesus. Loyalty is defined as not questioning the leader. It is very dangerous when the leader cannot be questioned.
Faithfulness is defined as supporting the leader, rather than obeying Jesus.
Abusive leaders warn their members to not touch “God’s anointed.”
The Bible: Our first loyalty and connection is to Jesus (Col. 2:19). Faithfulness is defined as loyalty to Jesus and obeying His Word and will. Holding fast to the Head [Jesus], from whom all the body…grows… (Col. 2:19).
#5: They cross Biblical boundaries of behavior instead of walking in purity and integrity.
Abusive Churches: Abusive churches cross Biblical boundaries of behavior, especially in immorality and finances. They twist the Scripture to validate their impurity and lack of financial integrity. False teachers can be detected by their covetousness and immorality (2 Pet. 2:3-18).
By covetousness they will exploit... having eyes full of adultery…heart trained in covetous practices... They allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness. (2 Pet. 2:3-18)
They usually insist on owning or controlling the money and property of members who “join the community.” They often promote unethical ways of gaining money (e.g., lying about collecting money for charities that do not exist).
Some abusive leaders claim that God directed them to have sexual relationships with “spiritual partners” for the benefit of the movement.
The Bible: Scripture teaches sexual purity and the private ownership of property. In Acts 4:32-35, the disciples laid their money and property at the apostles’ feet as a one-time free-will offering, not as a permanent economic arrangement.
#6: They separate from the Church instead of promoting a culture of honor toward the Church.
Abusive Churches: Abusive churches separate from the wider Church, believing that they alone have a special status with God. They criticize the rest of the Body of Christ and often claim to be the only ones truly saved. They view all other ministries and denominations as being in error.
The Bible: We love Jesus by loving the whole Church according to that is so dear to Him. We cultivate a culture of honor by loving the whole Church. Loving the Church is not the same as agreeing with the practices of each local church in the body of Christ. It is biblical to identify compromises being promoted in the Church but without criticizing specific ministries by name unless going through the biblical process (Mt. 18:15-17)
There are times to bring judgment to ministries that have destructive doctrines and behavior (Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-11; 2 Cor. 11:12-15; 1 Thes. 5:14, 21; 2 Thes. 3:6- 14; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20). We must do this in the right way and with a right spirit.
The Bible requires God’s people to take a stand against compromising trends or doctrines in the Church without dismissing the whole Church as participating in them. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus identified compromise in five of the seven churches. We must take a stand against issues that Jesus took a stand against, but we must not assume that “entire” denominations or “streams” in the Body of Christ are in error. Millions of believers worldwide are faithful to Jesus and refuse to compromise.
We all have deficiencies or weaknesses in ministry, and we need other ministries to express the fullness of Christ. We are to bless the budding virtues of other ministries, regardless of their deficiencies (weaknesses), and without needing to point out their differences in ministry focus, style, and standards of excellence.
#7: Emphasizing special revelations that contradict Scripture instead of honoring the Scripture.
Abusive Churches: Abusive churches emphasize the special revelations of their leader that contradict Scripture.
The Bible: We emphasize the infallibility of Scripture as the final authority of truth. We emphasize the main and plain themes of Scripture, such as the supremacy of Jesus, the two great commandments, the Great Commission, the Sermon on the Mount lifestyle, prayer, reading the Word, winning the lost, healing the sick, serving others, etc.