April 26, 2016: Corruption in Christian Leadership, Part 5


By Dr. David Schnittger

This article is the fifth in a series on the subject of “corruption in Christian leadership.  The purpose of this series is to help you maintain your spiritual freedom by becoming more discerning as to whether corrupt and spiritually abusive leaders have taken over your church or parachurch organization.  We began this series by looking at biblical examples of corrupt leadership, such as Saul in the realm of civil leadership and the sons of Eli in the area of religious leadership.

The second article described the attitudes these individuals had which led to their corrupt actions.  We concluded that their behavior placed them in the clinical categories of “sociopathic” and “narcissistic.”

In the third article I gave examples of Christian leaders I have served under who exhibited these sociopathic/narcissistic behaviors.  This was followed in the fourth article with a description of what corrupt leadership looks like from the vantage point of the boardroom and the pew.  In other words, what does corruption and spiritual abuse look like close up, from the perspective of one in leadership, and far off, from the perspective of one in non-leadership roles in the church or Christian organization?

In this article, I would like to expand on the previous article by giving additional indicators of corruption in leadership, which translates into spiritually abusive churches and organizations.  I am going to borrow heavily from Ronald Enroth’s excellent book, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1992).   I am going to summarize Enroth’s book by chronicling “Nine Marks of an Abusive Church.”

  1. Control-oriented style of leadership

Control-oriented leadership is at the core of all such churches.  These spiritual power holders become strong role models, and their dogmatic teaching, bold confidence, and arrogant assertiveness become powerful forces of influence.  They use their spiritual authority to intimidate the weak. (p. 80)

  1. Spiritual elitism

Enroth explains that abusive churches have an… elitist orientation that is so pervasive in authoritarian-church movements.  It alone has the Truth, and to question its teaching and practices is to invite rebuke.

  1. Manipulation of members

Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members.  In my opinion, the leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority. (p. 103)

  1. Perceived persecution

Pat Zuckeran enlarges on this point, writing… Because abusive churches see themselves as elite, they expect persecution in the world and even feed on it.  Criticism and exposure by the media are seen as proof that they are the true church being persecuted by Satan.  However, the persecution received by abusive churches is different from the persecution received by Jesus and the Apostles.  Jesus and the Apostles were persecuted for preaching the truth.  Abusive churches bring on much of their negative press because of their own actions.  Yet, any criticism received, no matter what the source—whether Christian or secular–is always viewed as an attack from Satan, even if the criticisms are based on the Bible.

  1. Lifestyle rigidity

Life-style rigidity in abusive churches often manifests itself in a curiously reactive mode with regard to sexuality.  Proscriptive measures reveal a sometimes bizarre preoccupation with sex that mental-health professionals would no doubt conclude gives evidence of repression. (p. 135)

  1. Suppression of dissent

Unwavering obedience to religious leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the group would be less easily achieved if analysis and feedback were available to members from the outside.  It is not without reason that leaders of abusive groups react so strongly and so defensively to any media criticism of their organizations. (p. 162)

  1. Harsh discipline of members

Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied imposes discipline, in one form or another, on members.  A common theme that I encountered during interviews with ex-members of these groups was that the discipline was often carried out in public—and involved ridicule and humiliation (p. 152)

In my research of abusive churches, I never cease to be amazed at the degree to which private and personal concerns are made public and brought to the attention of the congregation (p. 137)

The ultimate form of discipline in authoritarian churches is excommunication or disfellowshipping, followed by strict avoidance procedures or shunning (p. 157)

  1. Denunciation of other churches

Dr. Enroth quotes a former member of a spiritually abusive church who stated, Although we didn’t come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there no place in the world like our assembly.  We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch… A church which believes itself to be elite and does not associate with other Christian churches is not motivated by the spirit of God but by divisive pride.

  1. Painful exit process

Leaving an abusive church can be extremely difficult, calling into question every aspect of life members may have experienced for the period of time they were involved.  I want to discuss the range of emotions and issues that ex-members may face when they exit an abusive-church situation.  Then I will provide a general overview of the changing experiences, feelings, and needs that emerge over the course of weeks, months, and even years after departure. 

Leaving a restricted and abusive community involves what sociologists call the desocialization process whereby the individual loses identification with the past group and moves toward resocialization, or reintegration into the main stream culture…There are a number of emotions and needs that emerge during this transition process. How one deals with these feelings and affective experiences has a significant impact on the overall healing that is required.

Many have described the aftermath of abusive-church involvement as comparable to that of rape victims or the delayed stress syndrome experience by war veterans.  It is recovery from what might be called spiritual rape.  You feel like something has been lost and you will never be the same again.  Initially, victims may have a total lack of feeling regarding their experience.  They may not evidence pain, anger, sadness, or even joy at being free.  Such lack of feeling may be a protective mechanism from the strong surge of emotion that is sure to come.  Victims need a safe and secure environment in which to vent their emotions.  Such venting was often labeled as ‘sin’ in their previous environment, and it may take some time until they give themselves permission to allow these feelings to surface.

Whether or not they show any emotion, victims are in great need of empathetic, objective individuals who will not treat them like spiritual pariahs or paranoid storytellers.  The events that they have just been through are as unbelievable to them as they are to their listeners.  They have experienced great social and psychological dislocation.  An open attitude on the part of friends, family and counselors greatly assists the healing process. (pp. 174-75)

Perhaps you recognize that some of these nine marks of an abusive church are true of your church or the Christian organization where you serve.  What do you do now?  Tune in next Friday for the answers to that question.