This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote for a domestic abuse shelter a while back.
A Christian church functions somewhere on a continuum from healthy to cult-like. A healthy church is one in which all members, including leaders, love and help each other.
Among other things, a healthy church will have an awareness of the dynamics of abuse. They will understand how to protect the vulnerable against oppressors.
A cult church is one in which the oppressors are actually in positions of leadership. In cult churches, horrific deeds regularly take place in darkness, even while a smiling face is presented to the public.
Every church and every Christian organization is somewhere on a continuum, from healthy to cult-like. Here are a few of the dynamics to watch for to help you know if a church or Christian organization is approaching cult-like-ness to a greater or lesser degree.
I want to emphasize that as long as things are going well in the life of a church-goer, these rules for the most part won’t be tested. It is usually only when there are problems in a person’s life that these negative characteristics will become noticeable.
Obedient Robot Christianity
This pressure to obey church and family authorities is a crucial lynchpin to keeping all kinds of abuse in place within the church setting (mind control, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse).
When authorities are unquestioned in significant areas, abuse can thrive.
Blog posts I’ve written on this topic include:
That “Obey Your Leaders and Submit to Their Authority” Scripture: Examining Hebrews 13:17 A close examination of an oft-quoted Scripture. This eventually became a chapter in Untwisting Scriptures #2.
Your Pastor Isn’t Moses: A Response to John Bevere’s “Under Cover” John Bevere’s book has been purchased by the case, to help church members get “under” the “cover” of their pastor as unquestionable boss. What does it really say? This blog post eventually became a chapter in Untwisting Scriptures #2.
What does it mean for a wife to show “pure and respectful” conduct toward her husband? Encourages wives to take the action they need to take to keep herself and her children safe in the case of a cruel and destructive husband.
The Vision of James MacDonald, Mega-Church Pastor Who Sues Bloggers’ Wives An analysis of a “vision” sermon by a mega-church pastor whose church later imploded.
The “Slippery Slope” of Victimization How silent obedience can lead to the facilitation of all kinds of evil.
What does it mean to “serve the church”? Encourages Christians that when a “spiritual authority” demands all their free time, they can step outside of that abusive authority.
An Authority Covering Umbrella of Protection parable Addresses the false teaching that because every authority over you is responsible to God, that means that you are not, drawing the false conclusion you should obey your authority without question.
This is a pejorative term for the teaching of self-degradation, common in conservative Christianity, springing from writings of a few Puritans, who wrote much about how we Christians are all worms.
This teaching is important to maintain in the atmosphere of an abusive church, because the oppressors will mouth it hypocritically, while the victims and potential victims of abuse will take it to heart.
These blog posts are responses to either the general teaching of “worm theology” or specific sermons or blog posts written by others. This false teaching permeates many churches and allows for great destruction.
Should you love yourself? A response to Desiring God : Responds to a popular conservative Christian blog site to find a balance regarding the old question about self-love, with truth from Scripture.
Nothing like The Sheep Sermon to make you feel stupid, disgusting, and useless : Responds to a much-used sermon outline that is commonly used to keep Christians feeling ashamed, with truth from Scripture. This post eventually became a chapter in Untwisting Scriptures #4.
“Jesus as Intercessor”: barely restraining God’s wrath? :Responds to a common false teaching that God the Father doesn’t have a stance of love towards His people.
Rethinking the idol factory: challenging the “idol” construct as the explanation for all sin in the lives of Christians : Responds to another extremely popular teaching in conservative Christianity (used to make Christians think that they are constantly idol worshippers with every sin they commit, even a small one), showing truth from Scripture.
Four ways teaching Christians to embrace “I’m the worst sinner I know” is harming the church : Responds to a teaching that has been very popular in conservative Christianity, showing truth from the Bible.
The No-Speak Rule
This rule shows up variously as “don’t gossip,” “don’t complain,” “don’t make false accusation,” “don’t take up an offense for others,” “don’t contaminate others with your stories or make them feel uncomfortable,” “don’t divide the church,” all with several Scripture verses. So the Bible seems to be used effectively against the oppressed and in favor of the oppressor. But this is not what the Bible teaches.
Here are a few blog posts addressing the no-speak rule.
The double standards in the “no gossip” admonition : Double standards regarding gossip are rampant in churches. This post explains some of those.
Pronoun Trouble that can keep the oppressed in a place of bondage : An analysis of a particular passage of Scripture that seems to tell readers not to speak about the wrong others have done against them.
That “innocent until proven guilty” question : Explains why we don’t all have to keep our mouths shut until after the trial.
Also, the first chapter of Untwisting Scriptures #3 addresses gossip at length.
The Rule of Suffering
Though the Bible does teach that God refines us through suffering (as we look to Jesus Christ in the midst of our dark circumstances), some Christian churches teach that suffering is actually to be desired and perhaps even sought out. Some will tell wives when they come for help with their abusive husbands that they are “called to suffer” in their marriages.
Here are some blog posts addressing that false teaching.
Is God Glorified Through Our Suffering? An examination of what church leaders sometimes teach about this concept and what the Bible actually says.
No More Karma Christianity Examines the concept of paying for your sins from the past, sins you don’t even know about.
Dear Christian, your marriage is not supposed to kill you Addresses the false teaching of “daily dying to self,” which can lead to actual physical death in a marriage.
In which I have a small argument with a Puritan about suffering Since many in my religious world read the Puritans, I sometimes need to interface with Puritan teachings and compare them to the Bible.
Does God crush you like a rose to make perfume? A popular but unbiblical teaching is analyzed according to the Bible.
“You just need to be content” The admonition of “contentment,” no matter what your marriage is like (that is, even if it is abusive) is analyzed according to the Bible
Don’t be a martyr, but do suffer in your marriage to an angry husband (and other “Biblical counseling”) A popular conservative “Biblical counselor” and speaker has disseminated some harmful advice, which I dissect according to the Christian Scriptures.
Teaching that All Anger is Sinful (aka, “you have no rights”)
“Better Than I Deserve” A hard Biblical look at the catchphrase promoted by the likes of Dave Ramsey and CJ Mahaney.
Righteous anger or sinful? A response to the Women’s Study Bible : The Women’s Study Bible is a Bible with interlinear commentary written by prominent women leaders in the conservative evangelical world. This blog post analyzes what they have written about anger (it is always sinful) and explains Biblically that they are wrong.
Dear Michael Pearl, this is what righteous anger looks like : A response to a popular teacher in the more fringe fundamentalist branch of Christianity
In my world Christians have been told that if they’re angry, it’s because they haven’t given up some of their rights, and they ought to give up all their rights. They’re also told that if they’re angry, that means they’re bitter, and bitterness is a sin. All of this is addressed in my first Untwisting Scriptures book.
A Faulty Understanding of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation
Christians who have been offended, sinned against, treated cruelly, and harmed are told that first and foremost, they need to forgive. Then they need to be reconciled to the offender. Sometimes this is without the offender even offering any show of repentance. But sometimes he does offer a show of repentance, and then the pressure on the harmed one to reconcile is even greater.
These blog posts examine Scripture to look at these often abusive practices in churches, knowing that God wants to protect the oppressed.
Assuming that the One Who Wants Help is the One with the Sin Problem
There is a style of counseling in the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical world that calls itself “Biblical counseling” (formerly “nouthetic counseling”), which regularly points the finger at the one asking for help, no matter how dire her situation. Though this counseling method is actually based on the teachings of one man, Jay Adams, it has been so propagated, with so many Bible verses, that many have simply assumed to be true.
I’ve written several blog posts to refute this style of counseling; here are just a few of them.
Teaching that Righteousness is an Outward Thing (appearance, activities) instead of an Inward Thing (fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, etc)
Wolves in sheep’s clothing and shepherd’s clothing love to hide in churches in which they can easily appear godly through their noticeable church activities, their “anointed” preaching style, their exalted prayer, and even their saintly (or hipster, or friendly, or humble) demeanor. Here are a few posts on the topic:
My heart, as a Christian, is for other Christians to know the true Jesus Christ, the one shown us in the Scriptures, not the unrecognizable one as He is presented in many, many churches and other Christian organizations today.
Without doubt there is value in obeying non-abusive authorities . . .
just as there is value in guarding our tongues and hearts and speaking carefully and judiciously . . .
just as there can be a strengthening and maturing that comes through suffering . . .
just as there is value in truly forgiving and reconciling when possible . . .
just as it’s important for Christians to repent and walk in righteousness.
But the Bible teaches that the heart of God is for His people who are being oppressed and His heart is opposed to the oppressor. This is true even and especially when the oppressor is in a position of religious authority.
I pray that many, many more Christians will come to acknowledge this truth. I pray that instead of silencing and shaming the victims and telling them just to forgive, they will truly feel and show the care and concern for those who have been harmed, the care that reflects the heart of their Father and Shepherd.
This is a huge part of what a healthy church will look like.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.