Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse July 15, 2012

Some time ago someone here asked me to comment on the phenomenon of “spiritual abuse.” After a recent lengthy phone conversation with a young man who is in his first full time pastoral position at a large evangelical church, I’m ready to comment.

It seems to me that the concept “spiritual abuse” can be over used. And because it has been stretched to cover too much (e.g., all strong religious leadership), many have abandoned it. I don’t think that’s justified. The proper response to abuse of a good term is not abandonment but correction. I don’t know what else to call the phenomenon I experienced in my twenties and saw first hand during my first teaching job (in a large Christian university).

So far as I know the pioneers in identifying spiritual abuse were David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen–then co-pastors of a large suburban evangelical church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The church was known for being a safe place for people who had experienced spiritual abuse. Johnson and VanVonderen wrote a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse that is still in print. I highly recommend it.

After their book was first published in the 1980s many Christian counselors jumped on the bandwagon and began talking about things like “toxic faith.” But I don’t think spiritual abuse and toxic faith are quite the same thing. I would say that toxic faith is the atmosphere that breeds and enables spiritual abuse.

Over the years I have met and counseled dozens, maybe scores, of students and others who suffered spiritual abuse.

One of the most recent cases was a young couple who sought me out for informal counseling (not psychotherapy). They told me about their home church and the circumstances surrounding their leaving it which was extremely painful. As is often the case with spiritual abuse, their home church was their extended family. But they began to notice some unethical conduct among the church’s leaders and tried to point it out. They were labeled “the problem” and shamed for daring to speak up about the ethical problems. Soon they were ostracized and they eventually, sadly, left the church.

I have experienced that myself, many years ago, in the denomination, college and church of my youth, so I know it is a real problem. I personally saw and experienced unethical, immoral and even illegal conduct by religious leaders to whom I was subordinate and was expected to be submissive. When I dared to speak up I was shamed even by those who knew very well that I was right. It was simply not my “place” to talk about it. One powerful pastor told me that my role was only to pray for those God had put over me in God’s chain of command and not to speak about their conduct no matter what.

Over the years I have come to believe that this problem of spiritual abuse is rampant in certain segments of American Christianity and I will dare to identify Pentecostalism, fundamentalism and the charismatic movement as those segments. What I am saying is not that these are bad movements; I am saying they tend to be breeding grounds where toxic faith and spiritual abuse can grow. Too often the leaders do not address the problem because the underlying ethos is authoritarian and the people engaging in spiritual abuse are powerful and influential.

But most often, in my experience, there’s nothing anyone can really do (except run) because the spiritual abusers are autonomous; there is no one over them to hold them accountable. They are religious entrepreneurs who have a solid grip on their churches and organizations. In many cases they own them outright or have set them up so that nobody can challenge their leadership.

So, finally, what is spiritual abuse? How is it detected? And what should a person do about it?

Put most simply, spiritual abuse is the control of people by manipulation of their religious needs or sensitivities by means of shame.

This usually takes place in a hierarchical religious context led by unaccountable spiritual leaders of dubious morality and/or dominating personality.

In such a spiritual context, it is usually an unwritten rule that members will submit unquestioningly to the leaders and turn a blind eye to any unethical, immoral or abusive conduct.

In such spiritual contexts, leaders will often select a person perceived as not totally submissive (to the leaders or the system) and subject him or her to special negative treatment to force the person “into line” or out of the organization.

The tool most often used in spiritual abuse is shame. A person who dares to ask a question that might be perceived as critical of what a leader is saying or doing is shamed as unspiritual. For example “God is doing a mighty work in this place and who are you to question it or slow it down?” Often questioning the leaders is turned around so that it is made to be questioning God.

Usually the shame is implying that the insubordinate or nonsubmissive person is unspiritual–simply by virtue of daring to question or point out a real problem.

I’m not talking about church discipline. Spiritual abuse can happen under the guise of church discipline, but it’s something else. It’s almost always aimed at protecting the religious system and/or its leaders.

Church discipline is requiring repentance or departure by someone who has knowingly violated a community norm (that he or she knew about when joining).

If that “community norm” is “protect the leader(s) no matter what” and/or “never question anything” with the threat of spiritual shame or possible expulsion, then that “church discipline” is, in my opinion, spiritually abusive.

In a toxic spiritual context, new rules, new community norms, are often invented for no other reason than to force conformity and submission. In that case, what is happening is not church discipline but spiritual abuse.

My advice to everyone who feels caught in such a spiritually abusive context is: run! Get away as fast as you can. Don’t linger or hope to change things. Get out.



"Do you mean they shoot them dead or they shoot tear gas at them? There's ..."

“Something There Is That Doesn’t Love ..."
"I don't see how your view differs from mine. "God forsakenness" is (IMHO) what Jesus ..."

The “Judge Judged in Our Place”: ..."
"But there is much that the Spirit led the apostles to believe and teach that ..."

The “Judge Judged in Our Place”: ..."
"I'm not sure why you think I might disagree. I agree completely. We (American citizens) ..."

“Something There Is That Doesn’t Love ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Molly

    This is the reason why I have a huge problem with the fact that most fundamentalist churches (Baptist or otherwise) do not have some kind of higher governing authority. I’ve seen the idea of the autonomy of the local church used well, but most of the time it just gives the pastor a free ticket to do whatever he wants, because he is the highest governing authority. The people that attend these types of churches tend to believe that since their pastor is anointed of God that he’s almost as infallible as the Pope. He has no accountability. Thank you for your insight.

    • John Inglis

      Abuse happens as well in bureaucratic churches, and can become even more entrenched and protected because of the bureaucracy and the inability to escape that bureaucracy. Witness the Catholic church and pedophilia, financial scams, etc.

    • David

      Molly, what you say is definitely true, however, there are plenty of Baptist churches which are congregationally governed and where the pastor is accountable to the membership. I don’t know if there’s been any research done to confirm this, but my personal theory is that abuse is far less likely in such churches as there should be a good number of checks and balances. The situation churches where a pastor or appointed (not elected) eldership is in charge of a church is a disaster waiting to happen, and yes, it is found in IFB, pentecostal, and charismatic churches.

  • Amen, and amen! As a pastor, I feel the temptation to use shame in an unethical way. This temptation of manipulation seems to be around every corner.

    Lord, help those of us in Leadership to love your people, not to see them pawns in the game of growing organizations.


  • Dan

    Open Door. I knew it well – I attended the church where Johnson/VanVonderen pastored for nearly 10 years! Given its reputation as a “safe” place, in retrospect I’d say the church created something akin to an unwritten creed or ethos with a list of pithy truths that summarized aspects of living the Christian life. I can still rattle off many of them, though in retrospect some of them seem silly. In all honesty, relating with some of the folks there, even though I learned a fair amount, was a bit like picking up a porcupine! In a paradoxical way, with all of the talk about abuse and dysfunction, it could be an “unsafe” place for people who’d never grown up in such shame-based environments and churches. But I don’t want to take anything away from Johnson and VanVonderen, as they were very adept in spotting and addressing unhealthy patterns in human relationships; while I was there, the church was growing faster than its ability to assimilate anyone, and there were certainly growing pains as a result.

    I’m not sure what the best preventive measure there is against “spiritual abuse” in churches, but certainly the things that come to mind to me are sound doctrine regarding God, Man, Sin, Salvation and the Church; the teaching of the entire Word of God; and above all, a spirit of humility and servanthood. I believe the answers do lie within Scripture itself, in regard to how we are to relate to one another, and how leaders are to rule. If churches pay enough mind to simply teaching what is in Scripture and submitting to God’s authority, then much of the unhealthiness can be avoided. Churches do need checks and balances, and built-in accountability among leadership, to protect against such abuses of power.

  • Thank you for posting this, Dr. Olson. You’ve provided an extremely helpful overview.

    I know from first-hand experiences whereof you speak. I participated in Dr. Barbara Orlowski’s doctoral research project on church leaders and spiritual abuse (findings published in her book, *Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness*). As a result, I spent considerable time analyzing a series of church splits and wounds inflicted by malignant ministry leaders and church planters which I survived over the past 40 years in theological conservative church circles. Several of them were before any major resources were available on “spiritual abuse,” so all I had available to help me figure out these horrific experiences were a few close friends and the Bible.

    I basically agree with all you’ve said, and would add some notes to expand on it.

    It’s not always evident immediately that a ministry environment is toxic. It’s not necessarily that we who end up victimized are utterly stupid or undiscerning or naive. Authoritarian leaders are often quite skilled at the art of personas and facades, and drawing people in. Especially vulnerable to their victimizing wiles seem to be those with a high “EQ” – emotional quotient. When a leader shares stories about being an underdog or misunderstood or marginalized, it elicits compassion from such people. And that initial compassion is often the glue that bonds people to leaders who have no conscience. This may also help explain why shaming and shunning are particularly effective tactics to keep certain people under control; they represent the threat of emotional pain and loss of relationship.

    Also, everything can all seem genial and healthy on the surface of a malignant ministry … but inevitably the noose will tighten as authoritarian leaders charm their way into the hearts of many to create a “team” of active enablers who protect them and carry out their will (“plausible deniability” is not used just by politicians!), and passive excusers who see things go astray but say nothing. Once abusive leaders solidify their team, it’s usually too late to change course because the toxic trajectory is locked in.

    Sadly, in 40 years and multiple instances, I have not observed ANY confirmed “overlording” leaders undergo personal transformation to the point where they finally met the biblical qualifications of Christlike character for leadership. NEVER ONCE. It seems that the underlying personal factors and choices that go with someone becoming authoritarian are so insidious and so deeply rooted that they are immensely difficult to choose to overcome. This doesn’t mean there are no consequences for abusive leaders who attempt to maintain their power. I have witnessed disqualified leaders:

    * Fired from a position for lying about their credentials.

    * Asked or forced to leave a ministry for not dealing with issues of anger, control, etc.

    * Blocked from new positions by people who expose their abusive tactics with documentation and personal testimonies.

    * End up in an obscure job or location where the damage they can inflict on others is limited, or where they are eventually found out and removed from ministry.

    I hope those who read your article will have a deeper sense of how devastating abuse can be. God really does care about all of us, even those who’ve intentionally inflicted this kind of harm on others. Personally, I’ve generally found it difficult to work through being wounded and getting to a place of praying for and forgiving the wounders. For most survivors of spiritual abuse I’ve known, this process of overcoming the trauma and self-doubts and spiritual numbness takes a significant amount of time and compassionate understanding. It’s a spiritual discipline we didn’t want to have to learn, but now that we’re in it, it’s one we cannot avoid if WE want to follow Christ and become more like Him …

  • Rob

    Let’s admit it. The source of toxic faith and spiritual abuse is the doctrine of eternal punishment.

    • rogereolson

      That seems like a huge leap–from the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment to spiritual abuse. I don’t think you quite understand the nature of spiritual abuse. This is stretching it to cover too much.

  • Dr. Olson,

    You have a keen eye for singling out pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and the charismatic movement in general as the main breeding grounds for spiritual abuse.

    My first spiritually abusive church was a good mix of pentecostalism and fundamentalism. After some years, I broke free but ventured into the charismatic movement. And some years later I’ve decided to leave there as well for various reasons, one of them being the spiritual abusiveness.

    I would include the Word of Faith movement. They and the Charismatics are sympathetic toward each other and frequently overlap, but i do think a distinction should be made in spite of that.

    now the question becomes, why is it mainly those groups/movements that have the tendency toward spiritual abusiveness?


    • rogereolson

      That’s a good question and one a social psychologist would be better equipped to answer. I assume it’s because so many pastors and leaders in these movements are totally unaccountable. But I suspect it also has to do with an unbalanced emphasis on “authority.” In all three of these movements there is often the assumption that a spiritual leader has some spiritual experience or knowledge (e.g., insight into Scripture) not available to ordinary people.

      • I agree with you, Roger. However, I would point to another factor I think is a major reason why many of these groups/movements tend to get caught up in spiritual abusiveness. I think the doctrines of Continuationists as it pertains to many of the miraculous gifts is a contributing factor.

        A Cessationist is not immune to fall into spiritual abuse but since s/he believes the supernatural is no longer for today one would have greater difficulty getting away with things in the name of “God told me…”. By contrast, a Continuationist will lend you a listening ear if you tell him or her “God told me…”.

        I am still a member of the Pentecostal denomination I grew up in. However, I have gone through so much spiritual abuse that I can perhaps write a book about it (Indeed it is a dream of mine to one day write about the strengths and awful weaknesses in Pentecostalism among Hispanics. I just don’t want to reinvent the wheel!)

        I am not a Cessationist but I am often tempted to be one in practice, while not being one in doctrine. I know that makes me sound like a hypocrite, someone who does not practice what he preaches/teaches. However, I have seen the Pentecostal/Charismatic circles get away with too much simply because of an unhealthy emphasis so many put on the supernatural works of God. I once saw a spiritual leader force someone to marry his daughter simply because “God told him”.

        While I would caution anyone from throwing the baby out with the bath water (i.e., rejecting the miraculous not because one has come to that conclusion while reading God’s Word, but rather because some people have abused the belief), I would love to see a stronger focus on what one believes the Bible teaches as opposed to what one believes the Holy Spirit is telling you that someone else should do.

        All in all, I think belief in the gifts for today can be dangerous and that is why those denominations/movements sometimes are breading grounds for spiritual abuse.

        • rogereolson

          I’m in general agreement with this.

        • David, Why don’t you even ebook it or write it on a blog. Also check out the wartburg watch which is always challenging abusive Christian groups. Take care.

          • rogereolson

            The mention of the Wartburg Watch here does not imply my endorsement of it. I don’t know enough about it either to endorse it or not. I trust my blog readers to decide for themselves.

  • Powerful post. The best, clearest I have read on this difficult, painful subject. Thank you, Roger, for sharing it.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Roger, I’m a great fan of this blog and have learned a great deal from you. Thank you for addressing this topic. It hits home for me. Without getting into specific details, I’m belong to a church that has a reputation for practices that many hve seen as abusive. Leaders have never wanted to address these things, and they have reacted in all the ways you have named in this article. But, for various reasons, I have not followed your advice. I have not left the church, because I don’t think God has called me to leave. I think he has called me to stay and challenge the status quo and help make positive changes, even though that is a very difficult position to be in. I want to work toward a new culture of real ethics and accountability. And now there seems to be a brief window of opportunity to do it. My question to you is this. Do you know of any real examples of churches which have successfully turned themselves around i this regard and established a new culture of ethics and accountability? Many people say it’s impossible and that it would take a miracle. But I happen to believe in a God who’s in the business of miracles.

    • rogereolson

      Of course it’s possible. My advice to “run!” was intended for people being victimized by spiritual abuse who feel helpless to do anything about it. I admire your desire to stay and help turn the situation around and only suggest you be very careful. I tried to do that once and the spiritual abuser managed to convince a great number of people (who I thought were my friends and loved ones) that I was the problem, not him. The damage to myself and my family was not worth the effort. Later the man was completely exposed as a phony, a hypocrite, and went to prison. Almost nobody came to me and said “Wow, Roger, you were right.” So my advice is just to be cautious and protect yourself and count the possible cost.

      • J.L. Schafer

        Thanks. I guess I needed to be more specific. These are the questions on my mind. Can you name an example of a church with acknowledged patterns of abuse that was able to right itself? What did the process of righting itself look like? Once the number of members and leaders who desire reform achieves a critical mass and the church reaches a tipping point, what kinds of actions can be taken to foster a culture of accountability? I realize that these are huge questions, and I don’t expect you to give me any lengthy answers. But are there any books, articles or resources that you could recommend?

        • rogereolson

          The only example that comes to mind is the book Transformed by Truth by Joseph Tkach, leader of the Grace Communion International. It’s about the transformation of the Worldwide Church of God (after Herbert Armstrong’s death) into an evangelical denomination (now a member of the National Association of Evangelicals). I don’t have answers to your questions as I have never personally experienced or known of such a church transformation without the departure of the abusive leader(s). Usually, in a context of toxic faith with spiritual abuse, the leadership has the congregation so under his (but could be her) thumb that there’s very little anyone can do to turn the situation around until the leadership changes to new hands. The only thing I can suggest is for a group of like-minded individuals to coalesce and confront the abusive leadership. I know of one instance where that was done, but not until the associate pastor and some elders had specific, concrete evidence of immoral and illegal activity on the part of the pastor. The church blew up. The pastor resigned (under pressure), went to prison and the congregation divided. Many people in the congregation were so devoted to the pastor (and this is typical of such situations) that they wanted him to be forgiven and left in leadership in spite of irrefutable evidence of terrible things he had been doing over a long period of time. One man who left told me “I’ve never met anyone who was so gifted at evoking spiritual feelings as he was.” True, but he was a hypocrite and abuser. That didn’t seem to matter to about half the congregation. (It’s hard to tell how many or what percentage thought that way, though, because many simply left without specifically explaining why.) The church survives but much diminished in numbers. It’s a healthier church, though, with the abusing pastor gone. I think a church (maybe every organization) needs a clear mechanism by which members who see a problem can point it out without fear of punitive action. I’m not talking about doctrine here; I’m talking about problems that have to do with immoral and/or illegal activities and/or clear abuses of power and authority.

      • I totally agree with Roger. It can seriously damage you. You must be really sure if you are going to stay.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Good article, Roger. However, I would like to suggest that the source of spiritual abuse is not just a subjective thing, i.e., dominating and authoritative religious leaders, but also, often, unscriptural church doctrines and dogmas. For an example, one of your responders (Rob) suggested that the “doctrine of eternal punishment” is a huge contributing factor in spiritual abuse. I think Rob is on to something. Think about it: In the end, it comes down to “Believe everything you’re told or else!” It’s been my experience that to question hell in an evangelical church or denomination is to put one’s faith, loyalty and, even, salvation in doubt. An evangelical church or denomination leadership will fight like hell to defend hell. What’s the difference between a dictatorial church pastor who won’t tolerate any questioning of his authority, as compared to a church denomination that won’t tolerate any questioning of their questionable doctrines? The end result is the same: “You’re out of here!” Isn’t that what happened to Martin Luther?

    • rogereolson

      I think there is a difference between spiritual abuse and church discipline, at least when church discipline is done out of love and not anger or fear.

  • Mike Anderson

    Church discipline is requiring repentance or departure by someone who has knowingly violated a community norm? Really? Should community norms be normative? I thought it was insightful that you elsewhere wrote of factions within the Body of Christ as concessions to our weak flesh natures, much like divorce. It is permitted, the lesser of evils in some cases, but not generally normative. So also the distinctions in belief and practice that divide the body of Christ probably shouldn’t. I don’t see (Apostle) Paul even permitting division as the lesser of evils. An Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church I attended yesterday would like to divide over standards in music, dress, and dancing, viewing these as encroaching worldliness, the wiles of the devil. But Paul instead instructs us not to offend the weak brother for whom these are real temptations, that the strong and weak in faith need to bear with each other in community. Likewise many conservative churches divide over spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, suspecting some of them to be Satanic deceptions. But Paul speaks to those abusing spiritual gifts as brothers, even as he downplays the role of tongues in the church and redirects them to love the brothers. No separation there either.

    It’s easy to oversimplify issues of separation, as for example we are told to separate from unrepentant sinners who call themselves brothers (1 Cor 5) and heretics after due admonition (Tit 3:10). I think the issue is complicated because the Body of Christ is united by an invisible Spirit, but the visible church is an imperfect mixture of man and God’s government, and should we treat all in the visible church as believers in need of redirection or repentance as Paul did, or at other times a corrupt place to call the true believers out of (Rev 18:4)?

    Your desire for unity of belief and purpose among evangelicals is, I think, not much different than mine, judging by your rejection of the village green metaphor. But if community norms should be grounds for departure by those who reject them, then we are again left with a village green and our separate communities.

  • Thanks for this, Dr. Olson. Your level-headed view is greatly appreciated.

    I have given a cursory treatment to this issue on my blog, should you desire to review: http://www.ironstrikes.com/2/post/2012/06/religious-bad-boys.html

  • Craig Wright

    Power is a temptation in all religious contexts.
    Nobody has to stay in an abusive situation, but it is hard to leave when you sincerely want to do right.
    Maturity and experience help. I agree with Roger–“Run!”
    We were in a church that had a new pastor that was obviously self-promoting and narcissistic. He was surrounded by a group of “yes-people.” Since leaving, there has been a web site formed for people hurt by this person, yet he appears in advertisements for pastors’ conferences in CT magazine, and is featured in a midwestern seminary for being an expert on culture (“a cultural architect”).
    Would that people were strong enough to get out.

  • Good article Roger. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that spiritual abuses that are met by silence or a polite dress down, in order for a leader to avoid the central issue, are no less ostracizing and harmful in more mainline or liberal churches. The abuses you’ve identified aren’t confined to just the Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic realm.

  • Steve Dal

    Been there done that.

    • Steve Dal

      I meant to add something but my computer lost the plot. When you have people who preach and teach as if they are RIGHT all the time and that their people just need to listen and take it on board, coupled with the threat of excommunication if they don’t conform and throw in a little bit of intimidation and bingo…you have a recipe for spiritual abuse. The antidote to all of this (are you listening pastors and teachers) is to ensure the leadership has their egos in the right place, teach your people to be in the Word and finding out for themselves what it says, to actively read widely with regard to possible alternative hypotheses what is being said as absolute truth and finally to learn to disagree but keep the dialogue open. It takes courage and experience but it can be done.

  • Rora

    I was involved in a church plant and another subsequent church that had issues of spiritual abuse in the late 80s and early 90s. In each instance the senior pastor was very charismatic and charming, which, IMO, led to a type of celebrity worship among the congregants. On top of this, they had no senior accountability group separate from the congregation where they could be both held accountable and vulnerable, asking for prayer and guidance in staying grounded. If I am searching for a new church home, one of the first questions I ask pertains to where does leadership go to be descipled?

  • Dan

    There may also be a good bit of spiritualization in such churches, born out of improper bible interpretation or making up analogies or allegories out of context from a passage. If one is repeatedly reminded that “the wolves are in the church” (from Matthew), then taken apart from Scripture and carelessly applied, that is and was such a catch-phrase that people got hurt with. The very things my church cared about preventing and overcoming, via such phrases, became a form of “counter-abuse” from people who were in recovery from past abusive environments.

    Hell is certainly biblical; what abuse does, is deflate the Gospel by minimizing, ignoring, or altering biblical doctrines such as justification and adoption. God may have “began a good work in us”, but then the message becomes more that we must complete it by ourselves. There becomes a bait-and-switch from God’s free grace extended toward an unredeemed person, to a works and performance-based ethic. That is one thing that I believe Johnson and Van Vonderen recognized very well.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, they wrote another book about it called Tired of Trying to Measure Up? I don’t remember the subtitle, but the book was about high demand churches and how they abuse people.

      • Dan

        Dr. Olson, yes you are correct. I know that I had copies of the two books you mentioned as well as “Families Where Grace is in Place”; he authored those by himself and has at least two or three other books. I quickly perused “Measure Up” (subtitled “Getting Free from the Demands, Expectations, and Intimidation of Well-Meaning People”) on Amazon and it refreshed my memory that he’d grown up in a high-demand Fundamentalist church.

        In retrospect I did learn some very interesting things under the pastoral ministry of those men, but I believe their approach overlooked a lot of necessary doctrinal and theological training in the process.

        ps – I’d not realized that JVV had become a “reality star” on A&E

        • rogereolson

          Nor did I! I heard the name in that connection, but I assumed it was someone else–isn’t it?

          • Dan

            Oh no, that IS the Jeff VanVonderen from my old church who appears on “Intervention” (which has existed w/o my knowledge since, 2005?). I know what he looks like! I believe he had a counseling practice in the Twin Cities while there. It was really a “blast from the past” to see clips from the show online.

            I would occasionally get a chuckle from JVV at church, as he’d talk about how he’d go and do talks at different churches about spiritual abuse and not be invited back! As a 30-ish guy fairly new to the faith but with some prior exposure to a very “conservative” church, that fired me up (which, despite it being no laughing matter, revealed my immaturity).

  • Chris Trees

    I wholly concur with Dr. Olson’s observations and comments, but would add a few of my own.

    First off, I believe that Dr. Olson, is accurate in identifying Pentacostal, fundamentalist and charismatic churches as prime breeding grounds for spiritual abuse, but I’d like to add a subcategory of “fundamentalist”, independent, mega-bible-churches. The founding pastors and elders of these organizations, frequently seem to maintain their autonomy by constituting self-perpetuating “elder governed” hierarchies that effectively rule-out any practical congregational ( or any other) oversight.

    While these governing bodies on the surface seem to be consistant with the biblical example of leadership being comprised of a “plurality of elders” and although they may assert that the elders are accountable to each other and should therefore be trusted, the sad fact is that when they act corporately, this “self accountability” becomes irrelevant. Corporate action without corporate accountability to another group is in practice no accountability at all. Left alone without accountability, these bodies will almost certainly, eventually be corrupted by their power.

    It’s appropriate to consider that when John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” he was referencing Papal authority. In the cases of independent, “Bible” mega-churches, it would seem that the only difference is perhaps only one of scale.

    Next, I have become curious about the nature of men who would deliberately found churches where they would functionally be accountable to no one. For the past 60 or so years, there has been argument in the law enforcement community regarding what is described as the “police personality” i.e. authoritarian, assertive/aggressive behavior. Does the occupation tend to attract people with these personality traits, or does the occupation cause them?

    Could it be that similar questions could be considered regarding men who found these churches? For example, one pastor in particular, of which I am familiar, arguably displays most if not all of the common personality traits of a person with narcissistic personality disorder as listed in the DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)
    A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, lack of empathy, as indicated by at least five of the following:
    1. A grandiose sense of self-importance
    2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    3. Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
    4. Requires excessive admiration
    5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
    6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
    7. Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
    8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
    9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

    In this particular case, while the pastor is a member of an “elder board”, he is considered to be the “first among equals” and for the most part is even immune to meaningful accountability to his “peers”. The question then is, was this man already a nascent “narcissist” or did his prolonged use of unbounded autonomy result in his possible narcissisim?

    While I also concur that the best and perhaps the only practical response to finding oneself in a “toxic” church is to leave, perhaps the best preventive medicine is for people to recognize that any church organization that is constituted without any meaningful oversight and accountability, whether presbyterian or congregational in polity, is at the very least rife for developing into a “toxic church” and should possibly be avoided.

  • Don Scamehorn

    An extraordinary post. This holds true in so many realms, really; anywhere the leadership has the potential to be cut off from the constituents. I’ve seen this sort of abuse in the workplace on a regular basis, but there you (almost) expect to see the “big guy” taking a poke at the “little guy”–it’s in the church where that sort of behavior should not take place. A good companion (or followup?) to this piece might be “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout.

  • B.B.G

    I spent 11 years in a church that went abusive.A pastor with total power and rubber stamp elders er yes men.Its been five years since I left and I never looked back.The pastor had his favorite group and the rest of us were just there.I could write a small pocket novel about my time in that church.GOD has been good to me even thru the worst of times.I have discovered how wonderfull the Grace of God is.

  • Jason Nava

    I came from a church with an Apostolic background and experienced most of this firsthand. The leaders would often cite Romans 13:1-3 as a means of justifying their actions and decisions and as a way of shaming me for disagreeing with them and speaking up about it. I never was quite sure how to reply to this. Were they taking this verse out of context or misinterpreting and abusing it? How would you reply?

    • rogereolson

      Most scholars think Paul is talking about civil authorities in that passage. But what I would ask them (the Apostolic leaders) is: Do you ever question government authorities? I remember when the college trustees (where I went to college) sent an influential pastor to preach to us (students) about submission to authority. He took a page directly out of Bill Gothard. The only problem was, through my parents who knew him, I found out when he was a student at the same college he was quite rebellious and challenged authority a lot. And he did that in the denomination and with respect to government. He ended up running against an incumbent for congress in his district (losing) and leaving the denomination over some dispute. I have always found that spiritual leaders who tell those under them to be submissive and not question their authority have a history of independency with respect to denominational authorities. Anyway, that passage is almost certainly about government authorities and the best exegesis of the chapter is an entire chapter in Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.

  • A. Amos Love


    Much agreement – And I have seen this happen…
    “But they began to notice some unethical conduct among *the church’s leaders* and tried to point it out. They were labeled “the problem” and shamed for daring to speak up about the ethical problems. Soon they were ostracized and they eventually, sadly, left the church.”

    I’ve also had the privilege of ministering to those who have been…
    Burnt – Burntout – Kicked out – and – Crawled out – of Todays “Abusive Religious System.”

    One recommendation for those looking to heal from “Spiritual Abuse”…
    Is – To check out those – who say they are – God Ordained Authority – Pastor/Elders.

    Every believer has this right – to check out the Pastors and the Elders.

    And we beseech you, brethren, **to know them**
    which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord,
    and admonish you;
    1 Thess 5:12 KJV

    Every believer is responsible *to know* –
    If your Pastors/Leaders/Elders – Qualify…. To be an “Elder/Overseer.”

    I had to learn this the hard way. Many years and many tears.

    “Pastors that Abuse” want you to “Pay – Pray – and – Obey”
    And speak a lot about – God Ordained Authority – and often mis-use Heb 13:17.
    But don’t spend a lot of time with, or ignore, or twist, other verses.

    Before trusting a “Mere Fallible Human” who claims authority over you…
    I now recommend the wounded folks to observe, and to ask…

    1 – Are they living examples of – NOT lording it over “God’s heritage?” 1 Pet 5:3 KJV
    2 – Are they living examples of – lowliness of mind? Phil 2:3 KJV
    3 – Are they living examples of – esteeming others “better” than themselves? Phil 2:3 KJV
    4 – Are they living examples of – submitting “One to Another?” Eph 5:21 KJV, 1 Pet 5:5 KJV
    5 – Are they living examples of – prefering others before themselves? Rom 12:10 KJV
    6 – Are they living examples of – being clothed with humility? 1 Pet 5:5 KJV
    7 – Are they living examples of – NOT “execising authority” like the Gentiles?” Mark 10:42-43.

    And – If – these so-called Pastor/Elders do NOT like you asking these questions…

    Run, Run for your life.

  • Mandy

    Funny how pastors have a propensity to abuse power. Funny how especially here in America the church is so infected with this illness, especially considering the definition of a pastor as it exists in the church today doesn’t even exist in Scripture. There is the position of bishop (administrative – like a chief secretary/administrator) and deacon (a sort of community care person). There is no such thing as one person designated to somehow act as some kind of authority, especially spiritual authority. Yes, I said that, and I imagine there are people who would throw me out of their church for it, and keep me from having contact with their children – definitely not love me back into grace…