The following questions come from the book:
Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Grand Rapids,
Michigan, Zondervon, 1994.
that Abuse People
1. Does a member’s personality generally become stronger,
happier, more confident as a result of contact with
In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation
to control members is likely to produce members who have a low
self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been
taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual.
One of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported
by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a
noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.
2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family
Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize the commitments
of their members to their family, especially parents.
Young people may be told that they now have a new “spiritual”
family, complete with leaders who will “re-parent” them.
Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments
are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.
3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the
development of discernment skills?
Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think,
although the process is so spiritualized that members usually
do not realize what is going on.
A pastor or leader is viewed as God’s mouth piece, and in varying
degrees a member’s decision making and ability to think for oneself
are swallowed up by the group.
Pressure to conform and low tolerence for questioning make it
difficult to be truly discerning.
4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief
and behaviour, particularly on issues of secondary importance?
A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the
need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in
unhealthy spiritual envionments.
Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increase a member’s guilt
feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity
is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not
receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.
5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among
members and between members and non members?
In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations,
the official, public proclamations usually place special value
on high moral standards.
In some instances, there is a double standard between
those in leadershp and those in the rank and file membership.
Abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct
more often than most conventonal churches; leaders sometimes
exhibit an obsessive interest in matters relating to sex.
6. Does the group’s leadership invite dialogue, advice and
evaluation from outside its immediate circle?
Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any outside
expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside
the group. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit,
they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the
Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well
in a structure of accountability.
For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are
accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board
is composed of “yes-men” who do not question the leader’s authority.
7. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs?
Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of
any belief system different from its own.
They tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian
spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system,
adopting an “us-versus-them” mentality.
8. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of
A cardinal rule of abusive systems is “Don’t ask questions,
don’t make waves.”
A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy
church disagreement with the pastor is considered to be disloyalty
and is tantamount to disobeying God.
People who repeatedly question the system are labelled “rebellious”,
“unteachable”, or “disharmonious to the body of Christ”.
Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as
being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or
9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if
it is outside their group?
Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view
themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups.
This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences.
There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the
leadership will say, really don’t understand what is going on
in the ministry anyway.
10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially
as it tries to win them to the group?
Sometimes abusive groups illustrate a “split-level religion”.
There is one level for public presentation and another for the
inner circle of membership.
The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the
latter a reality level experienced only by the “true believers”.
Recruitment tactics are usually intense, even if they are not
actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or
Sometimes high pressure religious groups are evasive about
there ture identity: “We really don’t have a name, we’re just
A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about
revealing who it is and what its intentions are.
11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with
the larger society that are more than self-serving?
First impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact
with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern
that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified.
Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign
up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection,
appear to maintain the system and serve the needs of the
Abusive churches thrive on tactics that promote dependency.
Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders,
these churches often require a level of service that is
overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and
Henry G. Sheppard|
PO Box 101, Kaniva, VIC 3419
Last update: 15 May 1997
Copyright (c) Henry G. Sheppard 1997