What is an unhealthy or abusive church environment? Do such things even exist?

Unfortunately, yes, they do exist. People involved in a church situation that just doesn't seem quite right might be wondering if anyone else has ever had similar experiences. Or, family members may pick up on odd characteristics or behavior and wonder if something is amiss with a new church a family member has started attending. Hopefully this article will equip people in those situations to make an assessment of the church in question.

High-Level View of Churches

Imagine for a moment a continuum. On the one extreme would be the absolutely perfect environment. Since people make mistakes and people would be part of any church environment, such a perfect environment could only exist in theory. On the other extreme would be an utterly abusive, exploitative, dishonest, destructive group with no redeeming values whatsoever. Hopefully, the only place a group like this would exist is also in theory. Between these two extremes, there is every other church environment. All church environments are a mixture of good and bad things.

Evaluating specific church environments is difficult for several reasons. Since there are many areas of consideration (e.g. teaching and doctrine, potential for growth or service, leadership style, church culture, etc.), weighing each of these elements would have to be taken into account. Not only would the actual evaluation of each of these areas be unique to each individual, the relative importance of each area also would be unique to each individual. There is no fixed system or criteria for making these evaluations.

For example, two people in the same church can perceive the exact same thing differently-- one could think it is terrible, the other could think it is great. I once heard a sermon that I thought was absolutely, embarrassingly terrible, and the first person I talked with after the service was a first-time visitor who thought it was great and wanted to know if that speaker spoke every week!

But there is something here that is more weighty than simple sermon criticisms. The intent of this article is to address how churches operate, and identifying traits and characteristics that make healthy or unhealthy church cultures.

Let me define some terms here:


Many authors and researchers have attempted to describe unhealthy and church environments. What follows is a summary of these data-driven observations for analysis and comparison. (The links point to Barnabas Ministry reviews of each book considered. The reviews generally elaborate on these criteria, and these books are highly recommended by the Barnabas Ministry.)

Author (s) Criteria
David Johnson, Jeff VanVonderen The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
  1. Power-Posturing- leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.
  2. Performance Preoccupation- In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.
  3. Unspoken Rules- people's lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don't find out that they're there until you break them.
  4. Lack of Balance (Extreme Objectivism or Extreme Subjectivism)
  5. Paranoia- there is a sense, spoken or unspoken, that "others will not understand what we're all about, so let's not let them know-- that way they won't be able to ridicule or persecute us." There is an assumption that (1) what we say, know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened that others; (2) others will not understand unless they become one of us; and (3) others will respond negatively.
  6. Misplaced Loyalty ("We Alone Are Right", Scare Tactics and Humiliation)- a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We're not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.
  7. Secretive- When you see people in a religious system being secretive-- watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.
Ken Blue Healing Spiritual Abuse
  1. Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.
  2. Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds do not match.
  3. They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no effort to lift those loads. You know you are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.
  4. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.
  5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
  6. Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.
  7. They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God's larger agendas.

Lessons From Egypt

In the series of studies "Egypt, O Egypt," I identified several characteristics of a healthy environment compared to an unhealthy or abusive environment. Granted, the situation with the Israelites in Egypt wasn't a Christian church, and the Egyptians were not Christian leaders. But there were so many similarities between that situation and my own experiences in an abusive and unhealthy church that the application seemed quite natural.

These ideas are expressed in terms of contrasts. Interestingly, the environment for the Israelites in Egypt changed from being healthy to unhealthy and abusive, and this can often happen in unhealthy or abusive churches as well.

Healthy Unhealthy or Abusive
A place of blessing and refuge for those in need. A place people want to go. Lives are blessed. A place of slavery. A place people want to leave. Lives are embittered
Benevolent leadership genuinely concerned about the welfare of those it leads. Malevolent leadership concerned about control over those it leads.
Leadership concerned about loyalty to the people Leadership concerned about the loyalty of the people.
Devotes the system to meet the needs of the people. Exploits the legitimate needs of people for its own ends.
Leadership builds up the people. Leadership tears down the people.
Healthy structure established for order and taking care of the people. Whole structure works for the good of all. Unhealthy structure established to control the people. "In" groups, rivalries, favoritism, rewards and punishments to ensure loyalty to the leadership and system.
Leadership is secure, welcomes outsiders. Leadership is paranoid, afraid of outsiders and disloyal members.
Contributions made willingly. Contributions made under compulsion.
The good of all is what matters. The system and one's position in it are what matters.
The system serves the people. The people serve the system.
Leaders serve the people. Leaders control the people.
Hardships related to the task at hand. Hardships arbitrary, inflicted by the leadership.
Negative aspects of system discussed and corrected for the good of the people. People who identify problems are put in a position to address these needs for the good of all. Negative aspects of system silenced. People who identify problems are viewed as a threat. They are marginalized, stigmatized and cast out of the system.
Welcomes helpful changes. Resists changes.
Prayers of thanksgiving and praise. Prayers of anguish and pain.
God leads people to go there. God leads people to leave there.

Based upon my own experiences, I have made the following additional observations about unhealthy and abusive church situations.

  1. Institutional Pride: The system is never the problem. If something goes good, the system gets credit for it. But if something goes bad, the system is not at fault, but rather some individual gets blamed for it. If anyone identifies problems with the system, that person will be marginalized, put down and discredited. Nobody is good enough to criticize the system. The church may consider itself the best church or perhaps the One True Church, meaning no others are even saved. When pressed about its own shortcomings, the group may reluctantly admit that "no church is perfect" and say it is "changing," but do substantive changes that would improve the health of the group ever take place?
  2. Exploitative: The system uses the people, often abusing them with harsh and demanding treatment. People serve the system and its agenda, not God (indeed, the agenda of the church is equated with God's agenda). Though deliberate efforts are made to make the group meetings appear "fired-up" or joyful, on the inside the people feel sad and trapped.
  3. Leader-centric. Because leaders are the custodians of the system, they are considered superior and often isolate themselves from the members. Leaders usually lead by control and authority, not by nurturing or humble service. Getting closer to the leaders relationally or in the leadership "pyramid" is a goal and sign of advancement in the system; real spirituality and spiritual growth may not be important objectives at all. Subordinate leaders may be more genuine in their faith and approach, but they can be replaced at any time. Look at the highest levels of leadership to see the true values of the church.
  4. Manipulative. The objective of leaders is to advance the system, not to do what is best for individuals. Thus, leadership direction that is given to members is biased towards what is best for the system, not the individual. For example, members may be discouraged from moving simply because the leader loses stature (and maybe even his position or salary) if his membership decreases. Leaders may use a call for "unity" to insist that everyone participate in some event or action, warping the Scriptural idea of unity. Failing to conform will lead to shaming and charges of being "independent," "unteachable" or "not a real disciple." Leaders may draw people close to them with encouragement one minute, then tell them they are terrible the next. This is a control ritual that is designed to make people perform in order to get the praise of the leadership. But alas, the member can never do enough to guarantee that praise; no matter what he does the leader can find something wrong with it if he is so inclined.
  5. Dishonest: The system does not communicate straight. Communications are ambiguous or vague, events are "spun" the way the leadership wants to present them. Pertinent information is hidden from members. Straight answers are not given; different people may be told different things. Dishonesty may show up in deceptive recruiting or leaving incorrect but favorable impressions uncorrected. Finances may be kept secret, with misleading financial statements that hide where the money really goes. There might be front organizations and secret doctrines or practices that are not normally revealed to outsiders. Frankly, there is so much dishonesty in unhealthy and abusive churches that people may not even know they are being dishonest. The ability to "spin" things to make the system look better or to get people to conform becomes a second language to members.
  6. Law or Performance Orientation. This is not the normal obedience that accompanies Christian faith (Romans 1:5), but a whole system where certain behaviors are rewarded and others are punished. Rewards may include salaries, perks, position or status in the system. It is true that there is right and wrong behavior in Christianity; the problem with an unhealthy system is that they have a closely-held subset of values superimposed upon truly scriptural Christian values. Other virtues go ignored or might even be punished, and other sins may be ignored or even encouraged. This may even result in a "poisoned well" where even good things become corrupt at the motive level because the perception of performance is so important. For example, members may want to lead others to Christ in order to advance in the system, not so that converts will be saved. Members might read the Bible daily so they can say they did it if challenged, "Are you having your quiet times?," not because they are actually wanting to learn something. Actions in unhealthy and abusive churches are often motivated by selfish ambition, compulsion, guilt or the desire to avoid trouble with leaders, not by faith, love, grace or concern about God. The possibility of being shamed publicly or in front of one's peers for any failure manipulates people to work their hardest in doing what the leaders tell them and to avoid getting on their bad side.
  7. Thwarts Individual Growth: The objective of the system is to glorify the system and maintain dependency upon the leadership, not to train members into mature spiritual adults. Unhealthy systems continue to treat even mature Christians as though they were children. The system short-cuts growth by demanding certain behaviors without concern for the correct motivation or spiritual depth. Then it points to that behavior to glorify itself.

There is a "kernel of truth" behind almost all abuses, and churches are good at using certain scriptures to support their positions. The problem isn't the kernel of truth, the problem is when these things get out of balance or get warped to an extreme. These problems may not be seen until a system is in place for several years and its long-term fruit is seen in the destruction of people that have been a part of the system.

Evaluating Your Church

One way to evaluate your church is to consider how many of the various unhealthy or abusive traits are present in your church, and to what degree and length of time they have been present. Another might be to ask questions like these:

One might consider writing down the "good points" and "bad points" in terms of the health of the church, perhaps using some of these guidelines above for ideas. These items should be ordered in terms of their importance to you. This way, you can see the most important elements on the "good" and "bad" side of things.

Don't worry about the ramifications of your evaluation at this stage. Try not to consider the opinions and perspectives of others at this stage either. This is your evaluation, what do you think?

What Do You Do If Your Group is Unhealthy or Abusive?

Do the "good" things outweigh the "bad" things for you? Only you can make this decision.

You might make this evaluation and find many bad things, but that the good outweighs the bad for you. That's OK-- that's your decision and evaluation, and you can be secure that you came to that conclusion after an honest evaluation.

But what if the the bad outweighs the good? Now what do you do? I'd suggest reading scriptures that address these issues, and praying that God would help you know what to do and how to do it.

As far as I can tell, you have four options:

  1. You can ignore what you know, ignore your feelings and conscience, and maintain the status quo.
  2. You can accept the bad as part of the "package" and resign yourself to dealing with the ramifications of it, perhaps carving a small niche of safety for yourself in the process.
  3. You can confront the "bad" issues by speaking with leaders and attempting to make changes.
  4. You can look for another church that better reflects your own values.

There are pros and cons to each of these options, though a more extensive discussion of these options is beyond the scope of this article.

What is important at this stage is to tell yourself the truth about your own church-- is it unhealthy or abusive for you?