Recovery From Toxic Faith

Religious addiction (Toxic Faith) is a terrible problem.  How sad that so many waste their efforts chasing an illusion rather than seeking a genuine relationship with the true and living God.  And just who is responsible for this deception?  The "angel of light" — Satan himself!


One of our loyal readers from the West Coast, Muff Potter, responded to our previous post as follows:


"My son and daughter in law were involved with a toxic faith system out here in the Bible Belt West. It was one of the McMega-Biggie congregations (approx. 12,000 souls). It took awhile to get them de-programmed on account of the fear, guilt, and rigid authority structure they use to maintain a strangle hold over parishoners.

It was especially hard for my daughter in law because of the way she grew up. Abuse both corporal and sexual were facts of miserable life for her during childhood. One abusive structure got replaced with another. Like Jefferson, I have sworn eternal hostility toward any form of tyranny over the mind of man (anthropos)."


I am praying that Muff Potter's son and daughter-in-law are well on their way to a full recovery from the toxic faith system that ensnared them.  


How does the recovery process begin?   According to Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, "The number one objective in the recovery of the religious addict is to break through the denial that addiction exists."  (p. 226)  When "religion" can become so toxic that it damages relationships with family and friends, it's time to intervene. 


If the addict denies that the problem exists, there is little hope for recovery.  As the authors of Toxic Faith explain, "Once the addict can identify how the religious addiction is abusive and destructive to relationships with God, self, others, the number one objective is achieved."  (p. 226)


Before we discuss treatment and recovery, let's review the rules of a toxic faith system.


Ten Rules of a Toxic Faith System  (p. 223)


1.  The leader must be in control of every aspect at all times.

2.  When problems arise, immediately find a guilty party to blame.

3.  Don't make mistakes.

4.  Never point out the reality of the situation.

5.  Never express your feelings unless they are positive.

6.  Don't ask questions, especially if they are tough ones.

7.  Don't do anything outside of your role.

8.  Don't trust anyone.

9.  Nothing is more important than giving money to the organization.

10.  At all costs, keep up the image of the organization or family.


How does a religious addict break free from a toxic faith system?  


Victims of TOXIC FAITH suffer from TOXIC THINKING.


Arterburn and Felton explain it in this way:


"Toxic thinking is one key way the addict maintains a delusional reality.  Quite frankly, the religious addict's thinking is disordered.  Treatment involves confronting toxic thoughts and replacing them with thoughts based on reality."  (p. 229)


Here are some common toxic thoughts and thinking patterns:


Thinking in Extremes


"Toxic thinkers believe that people and issues can be viewed totally in terms of white or black, all good or all bad, completely right or completely wrong.  This thinking drives the religious addict and fuels crusades against the corrupt."  (p. 229)



Wrong thinking must be confronted.  Religious addicts have to be reprogrammed (as Muff Potter shared). 


As Arterburn and Felton so aptly point out:  "Sin is an act; it is not a description of every facet of your character.  You do not have to be perfect to be good.  You do not have to be perfect to be accepted.  God does not accept you based on your perfect performance, and it is futile to attempt to gain further acceptance from him.  God is interested in a relationship, not hard word or trying harder.  God cares about you.  You, with all of your imperfections, are the focus of God's love.  These thoughts must replace the extremes of toxic faith."  (p. 230)


"Religious addicts are very hard on themselves and everyone else and are driven by their all-or-nothing thinking.  They must have mercy on themselves and others.  The must relax their perfectionism and allow it to be replaced with an acceptance of their humanity."  (pp. 230-231)


Other forms of toxic thinking include:     


Drawing Invalid Conclusions

Faulty Filtering

Invalidating the Positive

Discarding the Negative

Thinking with the Heart

Surrounding Oneself with "Shoulds"

Maintaining Hyper-Responsibility


Please consult the book for descriptions on these other forms of toxic thinking.  Before we move on, let's take a look at last item in this list — maintaining hyper-responsibility.


Arterburn and Felton explain hyper-responsibility as follows:  "Religious addicts will take responsibility for anything.  Pastors will feel responsible for the problems and sins of the whole congregation.  Parents will feel responsible for their adult children, even though they have been out of the home for years.  Every terrible thing that someone else does provides an invitation to personalize the act, take responsibility for it, and feel shame over it.  This compounds the low self-worth that plagues the addict."  (pp. 236-237)


Reprogramming with New Information


No doubt you're familiar with the acronym "GIGO" — "Garbage In, Garbage Out".  Religious addicts have been unknowingly deluded by propaganda from their toxic faith leaders.  Information is power, and the most effective way victims can combat false teaching is to consult materials that will explain the dynamics of addiction.  There are excellent resources on the market (including Toxic Faith) that can help one overcome religious addiction. 


Arterburn and Felton highly encourage support groups, and they emphasize that recovery cannot be done alone.  Please consult their book or other resources online for additional information on recovery.


Here are some encouraging words from the authors of Toxic Faith:


"Healing from religious addiction is the detoxification of faith.  Through Bible study, church attendance, prayer, communication with other believers, and time, toxic faith can be purified into a healthy faith.  Through recovery, the addict attains a new knowledge of God and develops a strong healthy faith.  When faith is healthy, the individual's dependency on God becomes a godly dependency."  (p. 247)   


The seventeen characteristics of a healthy faith (which have been further developed in Arterburn and Felton's book More Jesus, Less Religion) are: 


Focused On God



Free To Serve





Relationship Oriented





Reality Based

Able to Embrace Our Emotions

Able to Embrace Our Humanity



We leave you with some snippets from the conclusion of Toxic Faith that we pray will be an encouragement to those who need it:


"Developing a healthy faith in God is the achievement of a lifetime."  (p. 261)


"God wants us to seek him as he seeks us." (p. 262)


"I pray that you will grow strong in your faith.  I hope that your search for profit, power, pleasure, and/or prestige will end as you find God to be your source of fulfillment.  The wounds of addiction do not heal quickly.  Be patient with yourself and give yourself time to heal through God's love.  As you heal, remember that you are still susceptible to balling back into your addiction.  You are vulnerable to false teachers and false teachings.  I encourage you to consider the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:21:  "Test all things; hold fast what is good."  As you grow in faith, test the faith and teachings of others so you will no longer be led astray."  (p. 262)


God loves you and wants you for his own.  The more you give of yourself to him, the more joy you will have.  God bless you on your journey of faith as you seek to find God as he is."  (p. 262)



We echo the sentiments of Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton.  We are praying for those who have fallen victim to a toxic faith.  May they overcome their addiction by trusting in God alone.


Recovery From Toxic Faith — 5 Comments

  1. I know this is a little off topic, but I also think it’s somewhat relevant, in response to the general conversation about the good, bad, and ugly of church life.

    I just baptized my son this past Friday. It was a wonderful and meaningful event for my son, for me, and my whole family. I’m writing to encourage others, with so much writing about our priesthood of believers on this blog, to exercise the same privilege with members of your family.

    We often abdicate our spiritual responsibility in our kids’ lives by letting some, “elite,” minister, who is, “ordained,” as if we’re not, to baptize believers. That has to stop. But, we must step up to the plate and not give up this privilege to others, empowering them and not ourselves, giving them authority that is ours, as believers. With all the griping about hyper-authoritarianism, do something about it and assume the ministries that God has given to you. Lay hold of what God is calling you to do. Stop waiting for permission from some, “elite,” within your church.

    Although I baptized my daughter, as well, my former church, (the church that later terminated my membership when I pointed out that our, “pastor,” was lying), would not allow me to baptize her without an, “ordained minister,” participating. Although my wife led my daughter to the Lord and I led my son to the Lord, somehow, we’re not as anointed as the, “ordained,” to baptize them? Hogwash!

    This time, we invited a group out to the lake and baptized my son there. It was awesome.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for sharing this heart-warming event in the lives of your family. Baptism is such a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate obedience to follow Jesus Christ. I’m so grateful your son and your daughter have been baptized in such a special way.

    With regard to hyper-authoritarianism, we ALL must do something about it. Dee and I are trying to get the word out to the Christian community through The Wartburg Watch. I have come across some alarming information about hyper-authoritarianism which I will share soon.

    Blessings to your wonderful family!

  3. Deb:

    Thanks. You’re right, we must ALL do something about hyper-authoritarianism, and I am so grateful you and Dee are doing such a great job letting others know about it.

  4. Michael

    We have a lot in common. Pete Briscoe, a former pastor, encouraged families to baptize their own children. My husband baptized all three of our children during a church-wide service in two different churches. Pete also said it would be fine for me to baptize them as well. I was so overwhelmed at the time, dealing with my daughter’s brain tumor, that I asked that my husband do so.

    I agree with you. We have a hold over from the preReformation days that only “proper” pastors should administer the sacraments as if they somehow are able to pass on a special blessing that is not available to the common Christian. In fact, I like what you said so much, I might feature it on Friday as a sort of question. It is too important to be relegated to the comments.

  5. Dee:

    Thank you for your comments. I love that you were in a church where they actually encourage families to baptize their own children. In light of our recent conversations, I regretted not having my wife participate with me, but we had already planned something else.

    Thank you for passing my encouragement along, because this is one small, easy, way for believers to start exercising and stepping into their priesthood responsibilities.