How To Spot Religious Abuse

by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

The shadowy reality of religious abuse is all too obvious in today's world. We see the bitter fruit of it all around in shattered lives, wrecked homes and the proud arrogance manifest by the cultic movements and abusive churches about their right to control and dominate all around them. 

But recognizing it before it becomes a spiritual bondage to those involved with such religiously abusive institutions is the real challenge. In our increasingly secular and sterile world, those who wish to pursue sound fellowship and healthy communal spirituality with like minded people are faced with a profound challenge by religious abuse. How to seek and find a fellowship or a gathering of  individuals who are both authentic and balanced in their approach to a shared faith that doesn't rely upon control, manipulation or abuse and which also reflect the doctrinal and practical commitments that they hold to as well is truly a difficult task in the best of circumstances. When you factor in the sobering reality that religious abuse is an equal opportunity social blight that can be found everywhere and that institutionalized forms of abusive control can occur anywhere, it understandably turns many people off to the church and faith itself. 

People cease going to church or be involved for many reasons, and that's an issue for discussion in another forum, but the reality of and even the memories of how religious abuse poisoned their lives or the lives of others around them is a major factor of the decline of church attendance and membership today. No one wants to be involved with a fellowship, a group or ministry that is based upon authoritarian control and twists the Bible and socializing pressure to unquestioningly submit to their questionable leadership. It's far easier to be commitment free to churches then even if, as many might say, they still cling to a faith in God and a belief in right and wrong - but at the cost of real spiritual growth in a faith community that should be a place of sanctuary and nurture.  

Knowing how to recognize the warning signs of religious abuse in any seemingly safe religious environment is the goal of this article, based upon our years of observation, experience and interaction with abusive religious circles for the past thirty years. We hope it will help those confronted with questionable spirituality in their life to make an informed choice, to affirm their ability to recognize red flags that should alert them, and to encourage them to not give up in seeking good Christian fellowship if that is their desire. As a Christian ministry dedicated to serving the Body of Christ, we have consistently asserted that there are indeed many fine, balanced and healthy Christian churches and associations where wholesome and uplifting spirituality serves as the foundation for their activity, ministry, and contribution to society as a whole. Their ministries are based upon the mandate of the Christian Gospel to serve all regardless of their creed. The presence of a few bad apples must never lead one to believe the entire tree itself is corrupt. Finding fellowship is a vital part of the Christian life - spotting religiously abusive ones, however, is a vital act of spiritual discernment and self-preservation.

Religious Abuse: A Recognizable Reality

Sadly, there have been far too many of these groups that look the part but which have lost their balance and focus, becoming spiritually toxic places where many people and many communities were adversely and irreparably turned away from Christianity itself. Who would want to trust in a faith where God's love was seemingly quite conditional, where hypocrisy and judgmentalism were quite visible, and where salvation came at a price of divided families, alienated neighbors, and self-righteous parishioners? This has become a serious thorn in the sides of the Christian church which no serious believer can ignore any longer, especially when such sinful excess has only served to alienate men from God. Yet the problem is made worse tenfold when the congregants of an abusive church seem, at first and even several glances, to be upright, sincere and responsible people to the casual observer who knows nothing of their group dynamics of control and abuse. 

How can you tell whether a church or other group is religiously abusive? Several subtle yet unmistakable warning signs can help you identify places of spiritual worship, vocation and social activity that are likely to be of questionable integrity. We now will endeavor to share these with you, yet a very careful qualification must be made here before we begin:

It is essential to keep in mind one major principle when seeking to define the spiritual state of any given church: the occasional faults and weaknesses of spiritually sound, even spiritually struggling Christians in various situations can be easily mistaken for these danger signs. It is vitally important, therefore, to realize that seeing the failures of Christians in a given church you may be wondering about does not necessarily mean that their fellowship is unsound and religiously abusive. Mature judgement and careful examination, along with counsel received from other mature Christians from outside the given church. such as the pastors and pastoral staff of a sound Christian church, must be deliberately pursued first before arriving at any conclusion. We at Spiritwatch Ministries are not interested in initiating witch hunts nor scandalizing finger pointing at any church or church leader, and disavow any attempt to do so. However, we are attempting to share with you some sound guidelines that will help you arrive at informed, rational and fair choices and decisions regarding any group you may find that seem questionable.

Bearing in mind the "seven bars" of spiritual prisons we discussed, these are observable characteristics of domination, manipulation and intimidation that former members of religiously abusive groups have recognized "from the inside." These five warning signs will enable you to spot religious abuse that can be identifiable by even outsiders to them. 

Ron Enroth's excellent book Churches That Abuse (Zondervan) has provided insight into these warning signs, from which we will now share:

The Five Warning Signs Of Religious Abuse

1) Unchecked Authoritarian Leadership

The first danger sign of a religiously abusive group, Enroth explains, can be seen through the absolute control of it's leadership's authority over the lives of its members, which often appears unnervingly legitimate to all under their control. And the source of it's claimed authority can be sobering: 

"Spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation. .. Authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks or balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. To put it crudely, they operate a one-man (or one-woman) spiritual show. And God help the person who gets in the way or makes waves."  

Such group models of power are functional hierarchies in which the top leader and / or their leadership team wield a total control and a rigid influence over the hearts and minds of their followers. They readily dictate how members should live, think with a firm lifestyle dictation: they make detailed demands on how a member is meant to live, relate to others, spend their money and time, think, etc. Enroth continues: "Yes, sometimes they will point to a board of elders or its equivalent, but more likely than not, this turns out to be a faithful inner circle of clones that implicitly accepts all that the leader sets forth. .. Abusive pastors often come from troubled backgrounds and are very insecure persons despite the 'take charge' image they may project. They are power hungry people who crave visibility. Leaders who inflict spiritual violence often hide behind the smoke screen of authority to gain power."  (pp. 203, 217, 219 ). 

It is important to understand that religiously abusive church leadership is most visible when it demands public and private attention to be given to the authority exercised over the flock by it's spiritual leader - be they a prophet, pastor or band of deacons, board of elders. etc.   In religiously abusive settings, the leadership is invested with a divine authority that can not be defied or questioned. This is not an easy thing to discern, and yet, it is frequently one of the danger signs that are too easily overlooked. Such a hierarchy of leadership can readily cover each other's tracks when trying determine who really is in charge by outsiders. But when leaders seem too quick to chastise members, often using harsh forums of public rebuke and continually stressing the need for submission to their authority, they wave a red flag that warrants even greater attention for other warning signs.

2) Imbalanced Congregational Life

Secondly, the congregation's social life and the quality of their interaction provide danger signals as well. Religious abuse is powerfully magnified by imbalanced congregational social circles. 

Enroth points out that "membership of authoritarian churches is frequently comprised of young, spiritually immature Christians. This kind of church is successful because it is meeting basic human needs - the need to belong, the need to be affirmed, to be accepted and to be part of a family. It is not unusual for the leaders to assume the role of surrogate parents, especially for those young adults who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds" (p. 216). 

It is just this sort of yearning need and sincere zeal that the aberrant church pastor uses to exploit his flock through manipulative control. Mr. Enroth explains that abusive church leaders "foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority. They create the impression that people just aren't going to find their way through life's maze without a lot of firm directives from those at the top" (p. 217). 

These firm directives are fleshed out in a demanding lifestyle rigidity that is actually a form of controlling and abusive legalism. A black and white view of the world is the mentality that is created in the minds of the abusive church's congregation. Do's and don'ts found in church-supplied codes of conduct are taken so seriously that they have a stifling effect upon the spiritual liberty that Christians should enjoy and impose a dangerously controlling conformity upon the congregation. A major component of such control is the usage of unspoken expectations: moral directives that everyone in the group knows are "the law", the way "things are", but which are never explicitly spelled out until one haplessly breaks one of them. It is then that punishment or sanctions are imposed.

The lifecycle of the religiously abused church's congregation is therefore aimed at providing an environment where the the individual member's mind and worldview is comprehensive reformed to conform to its proscribe ideals.  Behind the seemingly ordinary matters of faith and devotion as expressed in their gatherings, relationships and social life there is a subtle staging of powerful influences meant to remold them after the agenda of the leader and according to the plans of his lieutenant. This "hidden curricula" is the pattern for living that these unspoken expectations define in detail (and can also be understood as "insider doctrine").  This is a form of influence that is an unwritten yet potent source of tradition that the group scrupulously follows as an infallible pattern which every member is to follow And every familiar touchstone of human society is used - members are enjoined to view their group as a family in every real sense of the word, call one other "brothers" and "sisters" and view their authority figures as parental in nature, deferring to their authority, discipline and dictates as quickly as a real child might to their mother or father. 

While many sound Christian churches incorporate this kind of congregational dynamic quite legitimately, the religiously abusive group abuses the trust of its social circles to reinforce an expected total submission of their members' wills to their leading - in an often intrusive and deeply disturbing manner and often at the expense of personal conscience, liberty and spiritual autonomy. Such a sign must not be ignored by those seeking to spot religious abuse.

3)  Conscious Threats Of Discipline And Disfellowshipping

"Another sign of impending trouble in a church is an obsession with discipline and excommunication. Beware of churches that warn of certain doom if you leave their 'covering,' or if you 'break covenant.' Once banished from the group, little compassion is shown the wayward one." Again and again, it has been observed that former members of aberrant churches, when contemplating leaving the group, were issued dire warnings that they were backsliding, compromising and facing judgment from God. Church members who are seen as stepping out of line will find themselves being shunned or criticized by the so-called "true believers" in public, and will usually face much harsher treatment in the larger abusive church congregation. Demeaning public rebuke, even ridicule from the pulpit is one means of religious abuse disguised as "discipline."

But more often such power ploys are extended across the congregation or congregations in question through even subtler and indirect ways. As a means of preemptive control, the public teachings and private social life are regularly used to deliver indirect, yet unmistakable hints to potential "troublemakers" and the membership at large that one could never gain the same depth of spiritual truth anywhere else. Only among the group could true insights into life be found, the real interpretation of the Bible be discovered, the closest and deepest fellowship be experienced. With such carrots dangled on such long sticks for all to see, the reinforcement of the group's exclusivism is accomplished, making the fear of exclusion from such a group so close to the "ultimate truth" an ultimate horror to be avoided at all costs.

The uncomfortable concept of being publicly shamed or sanctioned by a group you've consciously joined for personal development and fellowship is a tough enough one to deal with at the receiving end of it. But when it is advanced as a punitive action to truly dread and even fear at the cost of one's spiritual destiny, it's not difficult to see how easily it can be misused and therefore impose a religious abuse that is fearful to hear and behold in the lives of those who've experienced it. Our article on life in a toxic and religious abusive community of faith  helps bring a bit more detail on this to bear. But a clear sign of religious abuse is when a group's members make clear that there can be no salvation, enlightenment or hope outside the "ark" of their chosen group - and when they fail to meet a standard or violate a rule, they will have to endure an exquisitely demeaning abasement to pay the price for acceptance in the group or face the unspeakable horror of being cast from it. The fear members labor under over such a concept is yet another red flag for real concern.  

4) Deliberate Disruption Of Personal Relationships

A fourth sign of aberrance in a church is when the church encourages complete isolation or strong distancing of it's membership from family and friends not involved in the group. Enroth observes that even family relationships within the group become severely disrupted and strained, since the demands for attention to be given to the "spiritual family" become all important. 

As we have observed, this is a tragic warning sign that is all the more visible when the imbalanced congregational influence of the religiously abusive group has come to dominate their member's lives. Parental and marital bonds may be strained or shattered over the need for individual family members to more fully identified with the church group, and non-member relations outside of the group are often stunned at how cold and distant their once loving family members became when they "got religious." 

Usually, the non-member of the group is given a certain space and time to reconsider their noncommitment by their loved one who has chosen to involve themselves with it. Then the inevitable comes when the pressure to break away from their nonconformist family member mounts. The religiously abusive church's "spiritual family" then appear to become the recipients of the warm family ties and affections that group members have withdrawn from their own family. And it will only escalate until the point that even the dissolution of lifetime family, marital and parental relationships becomes a reality of dulled and at times soul-shattering horror when so much is on the line. The religiously abusive authority of the group makes such compliance by the object of their social pressure a condition of the restoration to "normal" of what they've just lost.  

It's impossible to understate how this is the most heartbreaking and shattering consequences of religious abuse dispensed by aberrant churches and a clear warning sign. We know of many, many people who have suffered unspeakably agonizing losses of their marriages, children and parents at the behest of abusive group leaders who deemed their members' relationships with them far too spiritually polluting, smothering and destructive. A marriage of twenty years in Tennessee was abruptly ended by a divorce initiated by the pressures placed upon the couple by an abusive church through its leadership, simply because the husband left the Polk County "church" where both he and his wife were members. In Northwest Indiana it's no different. Children have never seen grandparents as a result of this. Parents have cut off contact with their children or siblings.  Brothers have turned on brothers and abandoned their family ties. Such unbelievable occurrences are all too frequent and too real to ignore. And they are encouraged at the behest of religiously abusive leaders who think such dissolution of family ties to be the highest form of a warped spirituality.

If you are within the social sphere of a group where divorces and absences of family members seem to occur with a regularity that isn't explained, you had better look again and find out why, in a place where "love abounds" so much pain is beheld, and how it is explained. No clearer red flag of religious abuse can be seen then this one.

5) Withdrawal And Isolation From The "Outside"

Yet another sign of abusive behavior in a religiously abusive setting according to Enroth  is it's tendency towards isolation from other churches. There is a conscious effort to limit input and contact with thoughts and ideas from outside the church's own circle. "Beware of the church, " he writes, "where outside speakers are consistently denied access to the pulpit, and where other Christian churches are regularly denounced, belittled or ridiculed." 

News events, local happenings, and even personal events are reinterpreted by the church leadership in such a way so as to lead the congregation to see the world as they wish it to be perceived. Bible verses are misquoted as divine sanction for these actions, citing the need to be separate from the doomed and satanic world order outside of the group's domain.

This contributes to the construction of a completely sealed society of people who effectively shut out the world from among them, even though they may continue to move within it. In fact, they appear to be completely integrated and connected members of it  even though they literally have nothing to do with it. Freely scanning newspapers, television programming, and even ordinary social interaction with other members of the larger culture become strongly discouraged if not smotheringly controlled and qualified by group leadership. The issue goes way beyond a pious avoidance of tempting imagery and thought but actually is a means to stifle and control the thoughts, consciences and spiritual autonomy of the individual member. This marks the final terrifying descent of a group of zealous Christians under the corrupt leadership of manipulative mentors into full blown

Such astonishingly effective disconnection of the group from the world outside it is also called "milieu control" as described by Dr. Robert Lifton's cult mind control model. It is achieved by the endless teaching and preaching of religiously abusive leaders that demands group member intentionally leave off their association with as much of their past doings in the outer world beyond their four walls. I call this "isolation through indoctrination" and it is seen when group members are seen and heard continually qualifying why they reject one aspect of life outside their group after another to a degree that seems inplausible and unthinkable to outsiders, but not to their zeal for purity.  

Religious abuse is one of the dark secrets of the religious world and the Christian church is hardly any , a serious problem that for too long has remained overlooked, ignored, and neglected by much of the Body of Christ. Abuse in the name of the one true God who is the embodiment of love and grace is certainly one of the great tragedies of our time that have both broken His loving heart and aroused His wrath upon the false shepherds who have savaged his flock. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ can never be served or proclaimed where fear, coercion, and outright spiritual trauma is inflicted in the name of His Father. Sadly, too many people equate the church with the religiously abusive hammer that abusive groups have recast it. Only the cause of religious tyranny and megalomania is advanced. It is our prayerful hope that this brief overview can help you avoid such pitfalls.

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