No one ever wakes up one day and says, “Hey, you know? I think I’ll shame and abuse the flock today,” or "I think I'll become a cult leader." Instead, gradual changes take place, usually involving the lure of power that slowly takes hold.
If you study spiritual abuse, you can get a feel for how this happens: Despite differing manifestations of abuse in churches, there are common denominators. Several sources cited on this site point out the following traits and show just how it is a church can move from a healthy body to a dangerous one.
One common finding in cults and spiritually abusive groups is something called “elitism.” It’s a feeling that your vision for the church is superior to that of others. Though most churches and leaders, feel that they are on the right path, that their doctrines or practices are what God wants, that alone isn’t elitism. Elitism happens when you look at other churches or individuals and believe that your vision or your practices are among the very few that really please God. It is comparative. It is a superiority complex. This initial pride and puffing up – that can begin so very subtly -- ends up justifying any abusive behavior that follows.
Another common denominator in cults and abusive groups is something called milieu control. It is an attempt to control the environment of members, and especially the information members are exposed to. This may start out as an innocent desire not to have heretical teachings invade the body. But this control becomes deadly in abusive groups. Before long, only those things approved by church leaders, and only material that portrays the church or leaders in a good light are encouraged. Information is censored. Everything concerning the church must go through the leader to make sure it is "appropriate," "healthy" or “not divisive.” Material brought in from outside is frowned on and sometimes actively condemned.
In the worst cases, such material is simply not allowed.
This discouraging or forbidding of outside sources can lead to tight control of information and eventually isolation from society at large, as much information is deemed unholy or worldly and a danger.
Anything the leadership wants you to believe is allowed. Anything that doesn't support the leader's position or perspective is discouraged or banned. If it is something harmful to the image of the church, no matter how accurate or useful, it is kept from members. In some cults, only certain translations of the Bible are allowed. In others, only “correct” interpretations of scripture are tolerated. In some groups any information not originating from the headquarters is deemed unsafe.
When you hear pastors or leaders complaining about "murmuring" or "gossip" in an abusive church, it can sometimes be nothing more than fear that reliable information unfavorable to the leadership is leaking out. Some leaders will actually use the pulpit to denounce the free flow of information, but they will call it something negative and preach against it.
How does this start? How does this control over others’ lives and minds begin?
With a desire to control. It may perhaps at first be only a healthy desire to keep doctrine pure – but control over information and thoughts escalates and gets out of hand.
Sometimes it begins as a shortcut to keep the hassles from members to a minimum. Innocent beginnings, but they can lead to tragic endings.
Image, image, image
Milieu Control is strongly related to another red flag: Image Consciousness. Abusive churches are concerned about image. Sometimes, image is everything. This church has a vision superior to other churches. To preserve that lofty status, anything negative must be quashed immediately, even if it is true. If a leader is caught in sin, the sin is quickly swept under the rug. If many members have left, no one is allowed to talk about it. The church “represents Christ to the community” and you can’t let the public know that the church has a problem or people will think Christ does. This is COMMON practice in abusive churches and is close to idolatry, equating the church, or church leaders, to Christ himself.
Shame, flattery and manipulation
Image Consciousness, in many abusive churches, leads to harsh treatment and manipulation of members. To keep negative information from leaking out of the body, members are sometimes shamed or spoken against -- sometimes from the pulpit. Ministries are whisked away from those who begin to ask questions, and ministries are used as rewards to “loyal” members who know how to keep quiet about the misdeeds of leaders, or who prove useful through slavish work or flattery of leaders. And in abusive groups, flattery goes both ways. Leaders know how to flatter selectively. They flatter those they can use. But they also shame. They will use flattery and shame very deftly to keep the image of the church polished and gleaming and to keep in total control.
Authoritarianism: I'm in control; You shut up
Another red flag is authoritarianism, the concentration of power in the hands of a few or sometimes even one person. That power can start out used well. The maxim “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is especially true in churches. It corrupts leaders in different ways.
Two kinds of corruption
Some are lured by the financial aspects of power and begin to lavish on themselves gifts and luxuries. How does this happen? Possibly, these once godly leaders have sacrificed much over the course of their lives while watching other Christians live luxuriant lives. When the church begins to do well, they see this as a sign that it’s “their turn now,” that they deserve some blessings because they have served so long and so hard for very little. Soon, that feeling of dessert takes over and they feel entitled to more and more. Eventually some may even feel they deserve other men’s wives or multiple wives.
More dangerous, though, than leaders who fall to hedonistic ways are those who believe that because their vision for the church is unique, superior and direct from God that God’s mind and their mind are becoming fused. They soon begin to see their own actions as God’s. Anyone who opposes them is opposing God. When this happens, watch out! They won’t phrase it that way. They may not even realize what they are doing. They feel they have a special place as God’s best spokesperson. Because they are so special, they will steamroll over anyone in their way. Because they are anointed, they soon feel they have a role in rooting out imperfections among lesser Christians, and they can do it with gusto.
Excellence, or legalism?
These leaders can become more than just haughty; they can become harsh and demanding. They look down on others around them and puff themselves up, all the while stressing the need for humility. They begin to practice a perfectionism that kills. It won’t be called perfectionism. It might be called “striving for excellence” or “pursuing a holy life” or “giving God His due.” It becomes legalism and it drains the life out of individuals and churches, as members try harder and harder to meet standards that become out-of-reach. While members are whipping themselves for failing to perform, the preaching will be on grace. While members are burdened and shackled to legalistic aims, the sermons will be on freedom. But members are not feeling free or forgiven. They are loaded down with guilt and work and feelings of failure.
Calling concern "divisiveness"
Another red flag is a false call to unity. When authoritarian pastors want to quell dissent, they label even legitimate questions “divisive.” You are interfering with the unity of the brethren if you raise issues of concern. This tactic ensures a lockstep, zombie-like following and cements the cult leader or abusive pastor into his place at the top. Who wants to be divisive? Who wants to cause trouble? Who wants to be spreading heresy or harboring a critical spirit or injecting division? (These are common phrases used against those expressing concerns about abusive leadership, and they serve as giant, fluttering red flags.) Most humble, sincere Christians concerned about wayward leadership will be cowed by such tactics. The abuses of the leader will continue unchecked.
When people slink out
The final red flag in this short overview is the telltale indication of trouble signaled by people leaving a congregation. If spiritual abuse is taking place, you might not catch on right away. People in manipulative groups will have been warned – subtly or otherwise – not to talk about church problems. They will be called weak or gossipers or immature if they mention why someone left. Those who leave also may suffer residual effects of controlling mechanisms in the church and say little about why they left.
If you notice an exodus of people from a congregation, it’s a sign to dig further and check for other signs of spiritual abuse.
These are just some of the roots of spiritual sickness to watch for in your congregation, but they seem the most common.