Abusive Churches

By | July 5, 2014

“The older I get the more I believe it is not the strong with the answers who we should be listening to. But the weak who’ve had to ask all the hard questions in search of strength beyond themselves.”
-Matt Redmond


“Nowhere in the New Testament to do we find anyone ‘submitting’ to a pastor, tithing their money at weekly Sunday services, asking permission of a spiritual leader in order to engage in ministry, or being told that unless they have a ‘church home’, and are under the authority of pastors and elders, that they are not being obedient to the call of Christ.

All of this, and much more, is the fabrication of the human ego, desperate to maintain security and control over the human resources of the masses. It is a serious and historic tragedy. It has reduced adult believers from living confident lives in the understanding of their spiritual identity, to stumbling along like toddlers, always needing the helping hand of the spiritual parent, from whom they must never stray.”
The Glass Pastor

Patrick Zukeran has written an excellent article titled “Abusive Churches: Leaving Them Behind – A Biblical Perspective.” It can be read in its entirety here.

After reading the article I was left wondering if perhaps Zukeran is a former member of the United Christian Church of Dubai; in the section titled “Discerning Good from Abusive” he describes John Folmar, senior pastor of UCCD,  to a tee.  Following are some characteristics Zukeran describes of abusive church leaders:

First, does the leadership invite dialogue, advice, evaluation, and questions from outside its immediate circle? Authoritarian pastors are threatened by any diverse opinions whether from inside or outside the group. Group members are discouraged from asking hard questions. The rule is, don’t ask questions and don’t make waves. A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions, whereas in an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered disloyalty and is virtually equal to disobeying God. Spiritual language is used to disguise the manipulation that is going on. Questioners are labeled rebellious, insubordinate, and disruptive to the harmony of the body. Attempts are made to shut them down. The only way to succeed is to go along with the agenda, support the leaders, scorn those who disagree.

Second, is there a system of accountability or does the pastor keep full control? Authoritarian pastors do not desire a system of accountability. They may have a board but it consists of yes-men whom he ultimately selects.

Third, does a member’s personality generally become stronger, happier, and more confident as a result of being with the group? The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation is likely to produce members with low self-esteem. Many are beaten down by legalism, while assertiveness is a sign that one is not teachable and therefore not spiritual.

Fifth, does the group encourage independent thinking, developing discernment skills, and creation of new ideas? Abusive churches resort to using pressure to have followers conform, and there is a low tolerance for any kind of difference in belief (of a non-essential nature) and behavior. There is a legalistic emphasis on keeping the rules, and a need to stay within set boundaries. Unity is defined as conformity. These leaders evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own prescribed system.

Finally, is there a high rate of burnout among the members? In order to gain approval or prove you are a “true disciple,” abusive churches require levels of service that are very taxing.

If these are character traits of the group you are attending, you may be in an abusive church and should consider leaving the organization.

Zukeran closes with some good advice:

When you realize you are in an authoritarian church, it is best to leave and make a complete break. Many members remain, thinking their presence will help change the situation, but this is highly unlikely. In fact, remaining may perpetuate the existence of the organization.

…Renew your walk with God again. Admit that you acquired a distorted picture of Him, and focus on regaining the proper biblical understanding of His attributes and character. Don’t give up on the true church despite its imperfections. In fact, I encourage you to visit numerous healthy churches. It is refreshing to see how diverse the body of Christ is, and that there are many different ways to express our love and commitment to Christ.

Those who find themselves in authoritarian churches often remain despite the difficulties because there is an underlying hope that the church can change. Even after they leave they often remain keenly interested in the affairs of the former church because they hope restoration will still occur.

Can abusive churches change? Although with God all things are possible, it is my opinion that it is highly unlikely that this will happen. Although a few have, they are the exceptions.

Why is change in these organizations so difficult? One reason is that change usually begins in the leadership. However, the leadership structure is designed so that the leader has control over the personnel. Although there may be a board, the individuals on the board are ultimately selected by the authoritarian leader. He selects men and women loyal to him, who do not question him, or hold him accountable. Therefore, he insulates himself from dealing with difficult issues or addressing his unhealthy practices.

One major take-away I gained from my time at the 9Marks United Christian Church of Dubai is that I will never again join a church that requires a “membership contract” or “membership covenant.”  You will find these covenants are being pushed by organizations such as 9Marks and are becoming ever more prevalent among evangelical churches.  I do not believe that they can be justified biblically. The main purpose of these contracts seems to be to discipline members who have fallen out of the good graces of church leaders.  They particularly like to utilize the clause “We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.” I have had this used against me when I quit UCCD over issues of conscience.  UCCD church leadership did not want to remove me from their membership roster because I chose to attend an Anglican church.  I was told by a UCCD elder that the Reverend of the local Anglican church was not even a Christian and therefore I was not in compliance with this clause!  In the end common sense prevailed and they backed down from this crazy accusation.  However, I have another friend who asked to be removed from the membership roster of UCCD because he no longer believed the institutional church was biblically correct.  He chose to go to a home church.  It boiled down to an issue of conscience.  UCCD excommunicated him, essentially proclaiming they have the right to bind a man’s conscience.

A friend and fellow blogger wrote an excellent critique of membership covenants which can be found here. I encourage all to read it.

My friends at The Wartburg Watch have also written a great article on the problems with membership contracts which can be found here.

8“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.9And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.10And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.11The greatest among you must be a servant.12But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
-Matthew 23:8-12 NLT



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