Does your leader ill-treat Church members in the guise of promoting spirituality? If you find any of the signs of abusive churches mentioned here in your church, it’s time you rescued yourself from such an atmosphere! A Summary of Enroth’s book, Churches That Abuse.
I just read Ronald Enroth’s “Churches that Abuse.” For those who may not be able get hold of Enroth’s book, I have summarized the message of the book. My prayer is that pastors who inadvertently or intentionally lead their churches in abusive ways will repent and adopt a more biblical and Christlike leadership. I hope Christians who find their churches abusive will opt out of such churches without any delay or hesitation.
The author says that he found it very difficult to write this book because it’s all about the negative traits of some abusive churches. If writing negative things is not an easy task, reading such a book is equally difficult. The stories of people who were trapped in abusive churches are so heart wrenching. The author warns us that the tendency to become abusive is very much real and ever present in the Christian world.
The abusive churches mentioned in the book are in the US. If Enroth had made a trip to India, I am sure he’d have discovered that most congregational churches in India are abusive at least to a certain extent.
How can educated, enlightened people get attracted to such abusive churches? How can one continue in an abusive church once they realize that something is amiss there? The answers don’t come easily. One thing to note is, it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in an abusive church. Chances are that people who get sucked in sink deeper in because they tend to ignore the warning signs or ‘lights’ that go off in their minds.
Marks of an Abusive Church
If any one or more of these signs are seen in an church, you can be sure that it is an abusive church.
- Excessive CONTROL of members by leader(s)
- Pastor(s) remain accountable to no one and are beyond confrontation;
- Leaders use guilt, fear, shame, punishment, etc., to enforce obedience or compliance to their standards;
- Those who disagree with the leadership are subjected to public rebuking and humiliation;
- Members are not expected to think on their own or contradict the leaders. Critical or logical thinking, and skepticism are branded as works of the flesh or of demons;
- Members are told not to rely on their feelings, emotions or intuitions;
- Attendance at church meetings is mandatory;absence is not tolerated;
- Members have to seek their pastor’s permission before they do anything—go on a vacation, build a house, plan a wedding, choose a life-partner, etc.
- The pastor or his wife gives detailed instructions to members regarding matters of personal discretion: clothes, food, weddings, sexual relations between married couples, management of finger nails, nail polish, beards, under-garments, etc.
- Members are encouraged to spy on each other and to report to the leader. This can take the form “confessing of one’s sins” to one’s personal mentor. A chain of reporters is thus created.
- “Potentially abusive churches foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority.”
- ELITISM: Members are taught that their church is superior to all other churches. Going to any other church is pictured as a backward step.
- Members are encouraged to cut off ties with spouses, relatives and other churches;
- In abusive-church situations, the “spiritual family” often displaces the biological family, and church leaders assume the role of surrogate parents;
- Some churches keep their members in special homes, cut off from the rest of the world.
- Teaching is based on experience and special revelation rather than sound interpretation of the Bible;
- Congregation has to “swallow” what is preached, and “follow” the leaders;
- Undue emphasis is given to any one doctrine or to the supernatural gifts such as prophecy, exorcism, and healing.
- Members are encouraged to mingle with members of the opposite sex. Spiritual reasons are given to encourage such intimacy with people who are not married.
- Spiritual reasons are given for the leaders attempt to get physical proximity to women members.
- ASCETICISM and Rigidity in lifestyle:
- Renunciation of wealth and property: Often members had to donate proceeds to the church
- An emphasis on harsh and long periods of fasting
- Rejection of good clothes, jewelry, TV, stereo systems, etc.
- Rejection of socially accepted customs (such as dating, in the West)
- Double standards: Leaders live in comfort while they enforce harsh living conditions on members.
- Members may get punished for disobedience. Punishment may include beatings, humiliation, stripping, etc.
- Even children are forced to fast for several days and are subject to severe beatings;
- Denial of medical aid to sick adults and to children in the name of faith. When these lead to death, these abusive churches attract the attention of law enforcement, and of news media.
In the light of these signs, I would like to point out common abusive practices in many of India’s congregational (Pentecostal, Brethren, Charismatic or non-denominational) churches. My association has largely been with congregational churches of Kerala or Kerala origin. I have seen these signs of abuse in many churches.
- Abuse of the Pulpit: Pastors and preachers take pleasure in attacking individuals through sermons, derogatory remarks, twisting of scriptures, etc. to target a person or group;
- Anti-intellectualism: Commonplace rejection of logical thinking, higher education; disparaging remarks about those who secure degrees and higher education;
- Exclusiveness: Pastors teach members that their local church is superior to all other churches—including those in their denomination! People are encouraged to travel long distances to attend one particular church even though they have churches of the same denomination in their towns/cities.
- Autocratic Pastors force congregation to submit to whatever they teach or command. Examples from rebellion are commonly quoted from the Bible (Korah, Miriam) to win unquestioning obedience.
- Gag Order: No amount of criticism is tolerated. Members are not expected to question the character, doctrine or judgment of their leaders or founders. People who think differently often keep quiet because they know that it is impossible to force their church to rethink on important matters.
- Strict control over matters of personal discretion: Conformity to “acceptable standards” are achieved through pastoral directives and peer pressure.
- Enforcement of uniformity in dress (white clothes, for example)
- Preachers are not allowed to tuck in their shirts; they are forced to wear white shirts! Preachers who turn up in coloured shirts are forced to change into a white shirt. Those who refuse can return without preaching!
- Facial hair: mustache, beards, sideburns; some churches do not serve the Lord’s Supper to those who sport a mustache or beard!
- Prohibition of jewelry, cosmetics, nail polish, etc.
- Some Pentecostal churches prohibit members from seeking medical treatment
- Women’s clothes: Pastors issue directives against certain women’s dresses just because those are from a different region or a different culture.
- Pastors or their wives decide what a bride or a groom should wear for their wedding!
- Matters of private discretion are discussed in public to humiliate people
I know a church where visitors from other churches are not allowed to pray for fear that they might carry “infestation of demonic forces.” Worse still, people are not allowed to pray or sing in a voice that is louder than the pastor’s voice! No one is allowed to question the pastor or his ways. The list could go on and on!
Antidote to abusive leadership
“Church leaders must be accountable both to God and to the congregations that they lead,” notes Enroth.
“It is important to recognize that leadership depends on followership, and from a truly Christian perspective, that means cooperation with the leader rather than domination and control by the leader. The source of legitimate Christian leadership therefore lies in entrusted authority. The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.”
“They must strive to exemplify the qualities of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘that great Shepherd of the sheep.’ Leaders are meant to be facilitators not despots. Their role is essential. But they must use their authority in the way Jesus did.”
Enroth thus makes a distinction between leaders who force themselves on the people whom they lead and leaders who elicit a warm response through good influence.