In 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:
- 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.
- 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.