What are the signs of a spiritually abusive church?
Since I shifted my focus from primarily discussing marriage to including domestic abuse awareness, I’ve been thinking about the red flags I witnessed in the conservative/evangelical churches I’ve been a part of.
Individuals experiencing domestic violence, infidelity, addictions, and neglect in their marriages who approach their pastors and leaders for help often won’t get the help they need.
Instead, many churches will
- Tell them to pray and submit more.
- Ask her to give him more sex.
- Bounce her from one “church counselor” to another (for example., from a small group leader to a pastor to a pastor’s wife to another pastor, etc.), often with the same message, being pressured to pray, submit, sacrifice, love, forgive, stay.
- Shame and guilt them for telling the truth about their marriage.
- Harass with “God hates divorce” messages.
- Pretend domestic abuse doesn’t happen in their congregation and ignore them completely.
- Accuse them of making up the abuse.
Instead of the empathetic, nuanced support they need, most domestic violence victims will encounter spiritual abuse when they go forward.
“Lifeway Research (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) did a survey of church-going Christian divorcees and found that most Christians, nearly 6 in 10 of them, switched churches when they divorced.” Source
And so, all of us must understand the type of church environment we immerse ourselves in.
After all, these are our friends, family, and colleagues. If help doesn’t come from the pulpit or the organization, we can educate ourselves and start to better care for our own.
Below are a few red flags to look out for. The list is not exhaustive, just thoughts to get you started in the right direction.
14 Signs You Might Be in a Spiritually Abusive Church
If your church is
- Big on image and appearance.
- Discouraging or forbidding church members from having a relationship with people who’ve left the church/denomination.
- Keen on “obeying spiritual authority,” “honoring men of God.”
- Majors on telling you what to believe (cultural and individual concepts are added to Scripture and labeled “Biblical.)
- Silent on topics such as divorce, relationship abuse, trauma, accountability, boundaries
- But verbose on other topics such as “boundaries in dating,” purity, forgiveness, reconciliation, respect for men, and submission for women (Psst.. both men and women need respect and love. Throw out that book, please!)
- Heavy on volunteerism; it overworks and overextends people.
- Has a center of power concentrated in a few individuals/family.
- Despite having singles, couples, and families, they have zero systems to educate on how to have healthy relationships and what to do when relationships are toxic and corrosive.
- Heavily family-focused, marriage seems like the ultimate life experience.
- Huge on tithes and offerings.
- Tells people what to think vs. teaching people how to think for themselves and how to go to Jesus (Does not trust people to hear God for themselves but promotes a herd, elitist mentality.)
- Discourages questions and labels those who think differently as “rebellious against spiritual authority.”
- Runs out leaders and members or makes it terribly hard for them to stay when they refuse to toe the official line (which are non-essentials to core Christian doctrine.)
You might be in a spiritually abusive church if you checked most of the things on the list.
Again, the list is not comprehensive, just some ideas for your further consideration.
If you want to dig into toxic church culture and educate yourself about destructive marriages and domestic violence, come hang out with me on Facebook, Intentional Today where I address these topics daily.
If you’re curious about the different types of abuse, there are 13 categories of red flags – and most don’t leave bruises. Check out this handy checklist provided free by the fabulous Sarah McDugal.
We owe it to our friends, family, and community to be better educated about the scourge that is domestic violence, betrayal, trauma, addictions, neglect, and all things coercive control.