Abusive Churches

Abusive ChurchIn an article called Abusive Churches, Pat Zukeran lists eight characteristics of an abusive church. A summary of the characteristics in Pat’s words (bold emphasis added by me) is below:

First, abusive churches have a control-oriented style of leadership. Second, the leaders of such churches often use manipulation to gain complete submission from their members. Third, there is a rigid, legalistic lifestyle involving numerous requirements and minute details for daily life. Fourth, these churches tend to change their names often, especially once they are exposed by the media. Fifth, denouncing other churches is common because they see themselves as superior to all other churches. Sixth, these churches have a persecution complex and view themselves as being persecuted by the world, the media, and other Christian churches. Seventh, abusive churches specifically target young adults between eighteen and twenty-five years of age. The eighth and final mark of abusive churches is the great difficulty members have in getting out of or leaving these churches, a process often marked by social, psychological, or emotional pain.

My point in sharing this is twofold:

  1. I want to encourage church leaders to examine their leadership style against this list and see if there are areas in which repentance and reconciliation should take place.
  2. I want to encourage church members / attenders to examine the church they attend in light of this list. If you find that you are in a church that is described by these characteristics, find a new church.

Compulsion and manipulation should never take place in the body of Christ. Either God is in control of a local body or the leader is. There is no shared control. The leader should always keep in mind that he is an under-shepherd who is responsible to the Master Shepherd. The pastor or elder must never lose sight of the fact that he is leading his peers; we are all equal at the foot of the Cross.

I have been in churches that had several of these characteristics but I have never been in one that had all eight. Even so, I have found that the eighth item listed above is especially true. My experience is that coming out of a church that only had a few of these was indeed a painful process.

Satan is shrewd. If he cannot get us to embrace doctrinal error, he will trip us up with spiritual pride. Those of us who are identified as leaders in the church must be constantly vigilant in watching for pride to creep in. As I see it, pride is the foundation upon which the control and manipulation described above is built.

Leaders who walk in humility and submission to Jesus Christ will not fall into the eight errors listed above.

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Mark McIntyre

A follower of Jesus Christ who shares observations about how Scripture should impact the church and the world. Mark is the original author and editor of Attempts at Honesty.
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About Mark McIntyre

A follower of Jesus Christ who shares observations about how Scripture should impact the church and the world. Mark is the original author and editor of Attempts at Honesty.


  1. Jennifer Hatcher says:

    Very good. And succinct. I’m sharing this one. :) Thanks.

  2. Tim Inglis says:

    Hi Mark,

    Having come out of an abusive church I can tell you that you are spot on. The only point this church missed on was number seven and that was only because they targeted anybody they could regardless of age. Like you, number eight was so spot on. In fact the leadership has done a great job of turning family who still go there against those of us who saw their lies and confronted them on it.

    Fortunately God is SO gracious and put us into a church that loves and nurtures its people. He has done so much with my family and me in the last four years and the growth has been amazing for my wife, myself and our kids.

    At the other place I never felt worthy enough of God to even think about ministry. There was always this thing or that thing “over my life” and it could never seem to be dealt with because any little thing that went wrong in life was a direct result of what was over your life (if you were to confront the leader on this you would be accused of “murdering the apostle/prophet” Can you say cult?).

    The good news is that God is bigger than this. We love the church we are in now, but God has other plans. You see, I am worthy enough of Him -or more to the point, through Him- to go into ministry and this is what He has lead us to in a little church about an hour away from where we live. Jesus has healed the hurt that we went through at the hands of the other place and has restored what was taken from us.

    I’d love nothing more than to let others who have been involved in an abusive church know that there is hope for you. God’s love, compassion and grace will get you through it, but you need to trust Him enough to let Him lead you through it (and yes, maybe even trust others again, although this can be more of a challenge).

    Thanks for the post Mark.

    God bless,


    • Tim,

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your story.

      Like you, we have found a good church where the gospel is preached and actively lived out. It is my hope that you, those in abusive churches can find freedom and a loving fellowship.

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