Traits of Unhealthy and Abusive Church Environments | Notes of an Imperfect Christian

(This is a direct sequel to the entry Is my Church a Cult.)

Nobody likes it when they were told their Church is a cult (or slowly evolving into one). Due to the derogatory and destructive potential of the 4-letter C- word, the reaction we get is almost analogous to when we hear the term “alleged child molester”.

Hence before we delve into this very sensitive topic, we must first understand in detail the Continuum of Environments as proposed by John Engler.

Many authors and researchers have attempted to describe unhealthy, abusive and cultic church environments. Below is a summary of these data-driven observations, still lifted from the Barnabas Ministry website.

Church Environment Criteria
Unhealthy Church
  1. Power-Posturing- leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.
  2. Performance Preoccupation– In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.
  3. Unspoken Rules people’s lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don’t find out that they’re there until you break them.
  4. Lack of Balance (Extreme Objectivism or Extreme Subjectivism)
  5. Paranoia– there is a sense, spoken or unspoken, that “others will not understand what we’re all about, so let’s not let them know– that way they won’t be able to ridicule or persecute us.” There is an assumption that (1) what we say, know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened that others; (2) others will not understand unless they become one of us; and (3) others will respond negatively.
  6. Misplaced Loyalty (“We Alone Are Right”, Scare Tactics and Humiliation)- a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We’re not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.
  7. Secretive – When you see people in a religious system being secretive– watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.

– David Johnson, Jeff VanVonderen The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Abusive Church
  1. Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.
  2. Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds do not match.
  3. They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. 
  4. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.
  5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
  6. Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.
  7. They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God’s larger agendas.

– Ken Blue Healing Spiritual Abuse

Cultic Church
  1. Behavior Control– warped emphasis upon unity and conformance to group behavior.
  2. Information Control– information enables people to make decisions; hiding information prevents sound decision making and leads to manipulation.
  3. Thought Control– internalizing group teaching, simple answers to complex questions, and using “loaded language” to shunt the thinking process.
  4. Emotional Control– using affection, guilt and fear to manipulate people into loyalty and devotion.

– Steven Hassan Combatting Cult Mind Control

Yes, at this moment some of you could be gasping in disbelief, “Ah, my Church falls into the Unhealthy/Abusive category!” That was also my reaction. Or maybe some of us are already thinking of a few “other Churches” that fall into these categories. But allow me to plead to you, do not judge, less you be judged yourselves.

The purpose of this research work is not to cast shadows of doubt into the pristine image of your Church (or other Churches), or load you with hard evidences that seems to validate your suspicions that your ex-Church is obliviously walking down Cult Avenue. I am still convinced that all Christian Churches, even the well-meaning ones who started great, can slide to and from any of these environments during her existence on Earth, in as much as we, the individuals who make up the Church, do not always meet the standards of the Most Holy God. But the Church I know is not perfect, but is constantly made righteous and holy.

I am pleading to the readers to use this as health-check, and for leaders to be open-minded. But more importantly, to stand up together and help the Bride to avoid the common pitfalls.

But if anyone will use this for any purpose other than building and strengthening the Body of Christ, may the Lord hold me unaccountable for whatever unChristian things they are about to do.


11 thoughts on “Traits of Unhealthy and Abusive Church Environments | Notes of an Imperfect Christian

  1. Correct, a good church should be honest and humble to enough to assess and evaluate itself from time to time. A church that is always defensive to criticisms, even positive/constructive ones, already reflects a questionable mindset issue that we must confront.

  2. Haha thankfully, not. But it is a danger that everyone should always be vigilant about. A church doesn’t become unhealthy, abusive or cultic overnight; it happens when we let little things corrode our Biblically-sound church cultures.

  3. kuya tanong ko lng po, mo po sa itaas ung obedience and submission. dba po since may mga taong mas nkakataas sa atin o yung mga leaders po natin kailangan po natin sumunod at magpasailalalim sa kanila, pero syempre po may karapatan din po tayong tumanggi kung hindi natin kya ang isang obligasyon na ibinibgay nila sa atin ‘di po ba? ito po yung tanong ko po kailan po ba nagiging abuso o sobra na ung paggamit sa word na “obedience and submission” God bless po!!

    • Hi jeff, pasensya ka na kung natatagalan ang post ko about sa tanong mo. Medyo sensitive kase ngayon ang topic ng obedience at submission sa Church, so nagre-research muna ako tungkol dito. pero makaka-asa ka na kagaya ng dati, balanseng pananaw ang ibabahagi ko. salamat sa pangunawa.

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