Nine Marks of an Abusive Church

"…experience with authoritarian leadership is, unfortunately, not unusual for people who have been a part of spiritually abusive groups. 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 and those who consider leaving their flock."

Churches That Abuse (page 42)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churches_That_Abuseamazon.com

This post was first published here at TWW on December 17, 2010.  Since the inception of The Wartburg Watch, Dee and I have been passionate about calling attention to various forms of abuse.  Our readership has grown significantly since that time, and we thought it might be beneficial to share this important information once again.  We are grateful to Dr. Ronald Enroth for making his book available in its entirety online (see the links at the end of the post).  


How can you spot an abusive church? Do you know the “red flags”? Dr. Ronald Enroth, is a leading scholar on cults and cultism, and his special perspectives have proven beneficial to both the secular and the religious society. Dr. Enroth is a professor of Sociology at Westmont College (Santa Barbara, California) where he has taught since 1965, beginning as a sociology instructor. In 1992 Enroth wrote Churches That Abuse, and it continues to be an important resource nearly two decades later.

Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist and emeritus professor of the University of California, Berkeley, provided her hearty recommendation on the book’s jacket. Here is an excerpt:

“When does a church cross the line between conventional church status and fringe status? What is the nature of the process by which any given group devolves into a fringe church or movement? What are some of the signs or indicators that a given group is becoming abusive of its members and is headed for the margins? When should a member consider bailing out?

Churches That Abuse answers these and other important questions about abusive churches and groups that operate in this country – organizations and churches that are not necessarily characterized by doctrinal deviation but have particular traits that make them behavioral and sociological outsiders. It also helps readers identify and beware of abusive tendencies in more “normal” Christian churches.”

In his classic book Dr. Enroth identifies distinctive traits of abusive churches which should serve as “red flags”. Pat Zukeran, a research associate with Probe Ministries, has written an excellent review of Churches That Abuse, and we will be sharing excerpts from his article “Abusive Churches”, along with quotes from the book, to explain some of these identifying traits or “MARKS”.

(1) Control-oriented style of leadership

Pat Zukeran explains: “The leader in an abusive church is dogmatic, self- confident, arrogant, and the spiritual focal point in the lives of his followers. The leader assumes he is more spiritually in tune with God than anyone else…. To members of this type of church or group, questioning the leader is the equivalent of questioning God. Although the leader may not come out and state this fact, this attitude is clearly seen by the treatment of those who dare to question or challenge the leader…. In the hierarchy of such a church, the leader is, or tends to be, accountable to no one. Even if there is an elder board, it is usually made up of men who are loyal to, and will never disagree with, the leader. This style of leadership is not one endorsed in the Bible (emphasis mine).”

“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,” explains Ronald Enroth in Churches That Abuse (p. 80).

(2) Spiritual elitism
 
Abusive churches see themselves as special. In his book, 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 teachings and practices is to invite rebuke.”
 
(3) 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,” explains Dr. Enroth on page 103 of Churches That Abuse.
 
 
According to the Probe Ministries article: “Abusive churches are characterized by the manipulation of their members. Manipulation is the use of external forces to get others to do what someone else wants them to do. Here manipulation is used to get people to submit to the leadership of the church. The tactics of manipulation include the use of guilt, peer pressure, intimidation, and threats of divine judgment from God for disobedience. Often harsh discipline is carried out publicly to promote ridicule and humiliation.
 
Another tactic is the “shepherding” philosophy. As practiced in many abusive churches this philosophy requires every member to be personally accountable to another more experienced person. To this person, one must reveal all personal thoughts, feelings, and discuss future decisions. This personal information is not used to help the member but to control the member.”
 
(4) Perceived persecution
 
To explain this identifying mark, Zukeran writes: “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.”
 
(5) Lifestyle rigidity
 
Zukeran explains this mark as “a rigid, legalistic lifestyle of their members. This rigidity is a natural result of the leadership style. Abusive churches require unwavering devotion to the church from their followers. Allegiance to the church has priority over allegiance to God, family, or anything else. There are also guidelines for dress, dating, finances, and so on. Such details are held to be of major importance in these churches.
 

In churches like these, people begin to lose their personal identity and start acting like programmed robots. Many times, the pressure and demands of the church will cause a member to have a nervous breakdown or fall into severe depression."

On page 135 of Churches That Abuse, Enroth writes: “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.”
 
(6) Suppression of dissent
 

Abusive churches discourage questions and will not allow any input from members. The “anointed” leaders are in charge, PERIOD!

Enroth explains in his book that: “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)

(7) Harsh discipline of members

Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied impose 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,” writes Dr. Enroth (p. 152).

Enroth also states: “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,” writes Enroth (p. 157).

(8) Denunciation of other churches

According to Zukeran’s article on Enroth’s book, “abusive churches usually denounce all other Christian churches. They see themselves as spiritually elite. They feel that they alone have the truth and all other churches are corrupt…. There is a sense of pride in abusive churches because members feel they have a special relationship with God and His movement in the world. In his book Churches That Abuse, Dr. Ron Enroth quotes a former member of one such group who states, “Although we didn’t come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there was 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.”

(9) Painful exit process
 
Finally, Zukeran explains that abusive churches have “a painful and difficult exit process. Members in many such churches are afraid to leave because of intimidation, pressure, and threats of divine judgment. Sometimes members who exit are harassed and pursued by church leaders. The majority of the time, former members are publicly ridiculed and humiliated before the church, and members are told not to associate in any way with any former members. This practice is called shunning.

Many who leave abusive churches because of the intimidation and brainwashing, actually feel they have left God Himself. None of their former associates will fellowship with them, and they feel isolated, abused, and fearful of the world.”

We want to conclude with these important words from Dr. Ronald Enroth in Churches That Abuse (pp. 174-175). He explains:

“…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 mainstream 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 experienced 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 environments, 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 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.”

Dr. Enroth has made Churches That Abuse available in its entirety online.

You can also access Churches That Abuse at the Apologetics Index website.

Lydia's Corner:   2 Kings 10:32-12:21   Acts 18:1-22   Psalm 145:1-21   Proverbs 18:1

Comments

Nine Marks of an Abusive Church — 95 Comments

  1. My youth group in my high school years used the Sonlife curriculum to manage everything. All of the points highlighted were used to keep everybody in line. The anger and time it took for me to overcome it was sparked by my old church started shifting over to neo calvinism. Being burned once by an all encompassing curriculum kept me from going through it again as an adult.

  2. Great post Deb. “Churches That Abuse” is in my library and an excellent read. I highly recommend it for everyone.

  3. The last 2 paragraphs of this post are of utmost importance. It can take years to process what happened to you at one of these churches. And the worst part is that because it was also the person’s social life, often there are few people they can turn to for support. And quite frankly, it can take a long while for one to process what exactly happened. That is because lots of deception is used in these abusive environments.

    “The events they have just been through are as unbelievable to them as they are to their listeners”

    This especially stood out to me. So often the behavior of leaders toward people is behind closed doors in star chamber environments where few know what happened and pew sitters always believe the leaders. You can start to doubt yourself in that situation. Because one has allowed their “normal” to be your normal.

    The best thing is to get as far away from it as possible. Only then can one see the absolute deception and wrongness of their behavior. Then you can start to trust your gut. I always say the folks who come out of these churches are the most healthy out there even if they are going through a hard time. There was some reason you were targeted and that reason is often because you are more healthy spiritually and had the nerve to disagree or question.

  4. I hate the “never question leaders” thing. This is going on in my work right now & it is extremely oppressive. Everybody knows the problem, but they are too afraid to say anything. It is an unhealthy situation and I’m not quite sure if I need to look for something else or not. I’m very thankful for my department and my direct team. But, our administrator is very emotionally abusive and it is effecting my overall health and depression.

  5. Tammy wrote:

    But, our administrator is very emotionally abusive and it is effecting my overall health and depression.

    Tammy — That is very frustrating, and it makes you feel really helpless. I’ve known people who stay just to shield their direct reports, but they sacrifice their own mental health. Is there anything that keeps you from polishing up your resume?

  6. @ SeanR: Thankfully you learned the first time through. I am not familiar with the Sonlife curriculum. Could you elaborate? It might make for a good post.

  7. Yea, I am considering a move. I just was hoping to stay because we have one of the best rehab teams. But, when the administrator is horrible, it always places me in this torn middle position that is extremely stressful. Fighting to protect my team, our patients and our licenses when the administrator is pressuring for minutes and billing. Bigger picture if he pressures too much, I could turn him into our state regulatory board, but I make the decision based on patient needs and just take his mean words and try to deal with it the best I can. Honestly, I just wish he would leave. Thank you, Janey.

  8. I read parts of “Churches That Abuse” from a link on Barbara Orlowski’s website. My former church actually made the cut and got a mention in the book. So, There’s no question that it falls into the abusive category.

    I agree with Anon1 about the importance of the last two paragraphs of this post. I wish it were so easy to just “get on with it” like some people have said to us. I am finding that it is a process. There are good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks. I do believe we are stronger now than we were a year ago. TWW has been invaluable in helping me work through the emotional damage.

  9. There are obviously varying degrees at which assemblies are guilty of these 9 points, but I had a little difficulty with #7 – “The ultimate form of discipline in authoritarian churches is excommunication or disfellowshipping, followed by strict avoidance procedures, or shunning,” writes Enroth (p. 157).

    I guess the modifier on this one is the ‘strict avoidance procedures, or shunning’ (as opposed to the ‘putting out’ or ‘disfellowshipping’ which the Scriptures seem to make clear)? Leadership goes crazy in specifying what people are to say and do with those put out?

    From what I understand, Wade doesn’t advocate avoidance or disfellowshipping those stuck in sin who don’t respond to the steps found in Mtt. 18. This is confusing to me. I’d like to hear more thoughts on this area. thanks!

  10. @ ken:
    I’ll chime in with my .02. An abusive church can define “sin” as anything ranging from skipping church a few Sundays, disagreeing with your minister, or not obeying every dictate from your minister, to theft, adultery, or fraud. Hence, in an abusive church you can be “disfellowshipped” for not doing something your minister told you to do. (This happened to us when my husband did not agree with our minister over how to restructure his business.)

    I think church discipline has a legitimate place for, say, child molesters in a church. Abusive churches do not limit discipline to its legitimate sphere.

  11. @ ken:

    Shunning in alive and well in many types of churches. If you haven’t been exposed to this dark side of church life, you are extremely fortunate.

    To help you see how it can happen in a congregation, I recommend the following article that appeared last year in Slate magazine – A Shunning in Seattle. It focuses on Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

    You might be interested to know that there is a link to one of our posts in the 9th paragraph of this article. Just look for Bent Meyer’s name. He was one of the two pastors fired by Mark Driscoll, and we were so surprised when he broke his silence on our blog.

    Hope this helps. Please share any other questions you may have and we will try to answer them.

     

  12. I hadn’t heard of this book before but boy did this post resonate with me. Although I’ve never been in what I’d consider a truly abusive church, I’ve identified more than half of these marks in one family member’s situation, in particular marks that show authoritarian, exclusivity and spiritual elitism. It always bothered me but was hard for me to put in a larger context until I read this post.

  13. @ John:

    Thanks for letting us know that this information was beneficial.  Since we began blogging in 2009, Dee and I have noticed a rise in authoritarianism in churches. We are deeply troubled by the cavalier attitudes of some pastors, and we are calling them out because our brothers and sisters in Christ are being hurt.

    I highly recommend that you read Enroth's book as well as The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, co-written by a good friend of Wade Burleson, Jeff Van Vonderen, and Toxic Faith, which we reviewed here at TWW.

  14. These are great points. Thanks for the review of this book. I am going to share it with folks in my church. Fortunately, we do not have these problems (that I know of.)

    But human nature has not changed, and these kind of practices must be guarded against.

  15. @ Anonymous:

    I am grateful that you plan to share this information with those in your congregation. I hope and pray that your church will never have any of these red flags. I believe the best way to avoid abusive church tactics is to expose them, which is what we are attempting to do here at TWW. Blessings!

  16. dee wrote:

    @ SeanR: Thankfully you learned the first time through. I am not familiar with the Sonlife curriculum. Could you elaborate? It might make for a good post.

    I’m not Sean, but I thought I’d respond about Sonlight, if I may. It is a literature-rich “curriculum” popular with homeschoolers (usually Christians). Basically the company tries to make teaching/curriculum planning easier for the parent by pre-packaging books that it pools from a variety of companies and they offer a lot of assistance in planning. They operate on the premise that students learn better through reading “real books” (literature, non-fiction, biographies, historical fiction etc.) as opposed to, for example, learning about history through a dry, boring textbook. You can get more information about them by visiting their website at Sonlightdotcom

    I’m a homeschooler but I don’t use Sonlight, for no other reason other than I piece together my own curriculum and the expense. I know some who have used it b/c they needed a company that did most of the “legwork” for them. I would say that we have to be careful not to assign red flags to something just b/c it has been used by abusive people. There are many good things in our world and abusive people can take a good thing and use if for their own gain*. Satan is an expert at that.

    *An example that came to my mind is the tree…trees provide shade, are used to construct shelter and the leaves filter pollution and give off oxygen. It can be crafted into a paddle to direct you safely to shore… or a paddle for punishment and its branches used as “switches” :( . The most wonderful use of the tree was that God sacrificed His son on a “tree” and gave us the free gift of eternal life.

  17. @ Tammy:

    Same thing happened to me on one job I had. One boss was harassing me the most, and she also harassed other people.

    As a result of that experience, I read a lot of books about workplace abuse, and later in life due to other reasons, books about codependency, which also discuss domestic abuse and schoolyard bullying.

    One thing I learned from personal experience (I was bullied as a kid in school, too), and from reading the books, is that the dynamics of abuse are the same regardless of age and context or type of abuse.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid being bullied by another kid in grade school, as a 30 year old in an office being bullied by a boss, or as an adult by a spouse – the dynamics are the same, and people will blame the victim no matter what.

    BTW, out of all the mountain of books I read about job abuse, they all agree that basically your only recourse is to get a job somewhere else.

    Going to HR to complain about the abuse or for relief/protection is a waste of time. Most HRs exist to protect the company, not you. They (and senior management) will defend the bully, not you.

  18. I’d like to share something I found some months ago that made me pause. It’s from the exmormon dot org website and outlines a Mormon man’s Sunday schedule as a Bishop.
    ***********
    When I was in a Bishopric my typical Sunday schedule:

    5:00a Arise, say prayers, get ready, eat (if time permitted – read scriptures)
    6:30a Goto chapel for meetings
    6:45a Bishopric meeting
    7:45a Leadership meeting (rotated weeks between Welfare, Ward Council, PEC, Missionary)
    8:45a Last minute TODO(s) before Sacrament meeting
    8:55a Sit on stand for Sacrament meeting
    10:10a Greet members, arrange interviews, make sure classes/auxiliaries staffed
    10:25a Impromptu quick interviews (usually to issue callings, set apart people for callings, or temple recommend interviews) or sometimes go give talk in Primary or youth SS class or just visit a youth class
    11:00a Get ready for Priesthood opening exercises
    11:05a Head into chapel for opening exercises
    11:10a Priesthood opening exercises
    11:20a More impromptu quick interviews or visit a priesthood class or YW class or RS or Primary
    12:00p Greet members, arrange interviews, etc.
    12:15p Impromptu interviews (issuing callings, setting apart people for callings or Aaronic priesthood ordinations, temple recommend interviews, welfare interviews or other interviews in behalf of Bishop, youth interviews, etc.)
    1:00p Open up envelopes for Clerks to enter tithing receipts into computer. Prepare deposit for bank. Bishop would regularly step out of his office doing interviews into the clerk office 2-3 times each week he was doing “welfare” interviews with a note having a name and dollar amount. So we’d prepare a check from fast offering funds and me/clerk would sign them, put them in a sealed envelope and hand it to the person in the hall as respectfully and sincerely as possible.
    2:00p After troubleshooting is done, welfare interviews done and deposit done – I’d give one of the clerks a ride home AFTER we went to the bank together.
    3:00p Home at last. Eat something quickly. Spend a few quality minutes with my kids. Talk to my wife briefly about her day at church and problems with kids.
    3:20p On the phone following up on messages, following up on callings’ questions, following up on church activities, following up on missionary activities, following up on getting rides for youth fireside, going home teaching & visiting members, etc.
    5:00p Kiss wife goodbye, off to visit members and home teaching families for 2 hours before fireside.
    7:00p Pick up 2 youth and head to fireside.
    7:30p Fireside
    8:30p Socialize with youth and leaders after fireside.
    9:00p Head home with 2 youth and go to my home.
    9:45p HOME AT LAST!! kids asleep, wife tired, lonely and upset. How could she be upset? I was doing the Lord’s work.

    Praise Jesus!! My day of rest!!

    ***********
    We think it’s just the “usual cults” that have lives like this, but many Christian churches can easily take over a family’s week with all their activities. Example: You are either overtly or covertly required to participate and told you are not doing enough (either directly or through remarks intertwined with the sermon) if you don’t meet the quota of required participation. Fellowship turns into “familyship” whereby you are encouraged to view your brethren as your real family and make them a priority. Individuality is discouraged as there is no such thing as a “lone Christian” (you’re behaving selfishly).

    How can you be doing the Lord’s work if most of your time is spent fulfilling someone’s vision and you’re not listening to the Holy Spirit’s call on *your* life? Jesus said, “Follow me.” (John 10:27; 12:26)

    Never forget that the veil has been torn and we have direct access to a relationship with our Holy God. Jesus makes us worthy! I encourage everyone to read your Bible regularly so you will be armed with the sword of the Spirit and able to discern truth.

  19. @ BeenThereDoneThat:

    Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve experienced first hand what you refer to as whimsical/arbitrary/bogus qualification of sin from leadership, so I agree with you here that this is abusive, but my concern is for legitimate sin that professing believers are unwilling to repent of (I Cor.6:9-11, Gal.5:19-21, et al)..much more than just child-abuse listed here.

    Enroth doesn’t make a qualification as you suggest in the #7 statement that he is refering to bogus standards (Mtt.7), but it seems he is talking in general about those groups who avoid/stay away from the so-called brother in order to shame them as in II Tim.3:5, I Cor.6, et al.

  20. ken wrote:

    From what I understand, Wade doesn’t advocate avoidance or disfellowshipping those stuck in sin who don’t respond to the steps found in Mtt. 18. This is confusing to me. I’d like to hear more thoughts on this area. thanks!

    Ken, Just my 2cts…what sorts of disfellowshipping examples of sin do we find in the NT? If you look, you will find drastic examples. 1 Corin 5 is a good example. We don’t even see John insisting Diotrephes be disfellowshipped, but he does issue a warning to others about him.

    Matt 18 is not really a good example and is overly quoted for “church discipline” by leaders. Many adding a step that is not in there so they have control. There are many reasons for it not always being a good fit for what is church discipline today, one being that is for “personal offenses” between brothers or sisters and there being several steps to go through before it ever gets to the church. And Matt 18 is before Pentecost. It helps to study it starting with verse 1 and never forgetting that right after those verses Peter asks about how many times to forgive someone.

  21. “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 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.”

    I think that this advice is very important for pastors and anyone to remember. I understand that there are a lot of people that will simply bend a pastor’s ear and take up an inordinate amount of time just to secure the pastor’s attention on them and that can make a pastor also act unfairly to people who simply need to process their last church or childhood church experience so I give my pastor some grace when I share the following…
    I had a question for my pastor one day after service because he used some terminology that was very familiar with what I had been reading on SGMsurvivors and I also wanted his advice for my daughter who was dating a CLCer. I also had been raised with spiritual abuse and that was why my radar was so in tuned to my daughter’s situation. But my pastor (who was brand new to our church and didn’t even know me yet nor was I sure of his doctrines yet) made a mistake with me IMO by ‘reprimanding’ me by saying that I, and I quote “shouldn’t bristle every time I hear certain words.” I don’t think he really meant it the way he sounded, I think he may have meant it as he thinks so differently from the abusive churches that we talk about here and maybe he was trying to assure me of that. But it sounded so ‘pastor-ese’ that that in itself made me bristle.
    We have understanding for vets who bristle at fireworks, molestation victims who bristle at a touch, crash victims who bristle during a car ride.
    Spiritual abuse victims will bristle in church! A little understanding can go a long way.

  22. Long post incoming…

    Thanks for revisiting this older post. It’s very helpful for those of us who haven’t been reading TWW for that long and it’s always good to remember all these points about abusive churches. I’ve just finished reading it and, well, I could recognise my experience in many of those points. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church until a few years ago.

    The particular congregations I attended in several countries weren’t necessarily abusive, at least on purpose… Many of my experiences were good. And I’m certain that many members were real Christians, who loved Jesus and tried to do their best with what they knew… But I do think that the belief system and the general church culture could be defined as abusive.

    The “authority” was not the pastor or other local church leaders (although that can also happen, as in any other church), but one of the founders of the church, who is considered as a prophet. She’s been dead for nearly 100 years but her writings are followed in a way that does not differentiate from what happened when she was alive. Criticising her or her writings could be considered by some as a sign of going against God. Many of the stories you can hear about the way she acted go in line with what it says here about control-oriented style of leadership.

    There was spiritual elitism and denunciation of other churches, as well. We saw ourselves as God’s remnant church on Earth and generally considered all the other churches as wrong. Of course we thought we were persecuted, as the prophecies written by the prophet said that would happen. There are some who actually believe that there is a Jesuit conspiracy to infiltrate the SDA church and destroy it from inside, by killing leaders and replacing them with Jesuits who look similar. Really, not making that up.

    Also, there was a permanent sense of fear about last-time events… Many historical and current events were interpreted to mean that the end was close and somehow fulfilled the prophecies given by the prophet. The lifestyle can be very rigid as well, with an overemphasis on health issues, vegetarianism, and what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath. We were generally discouraged from reading any material that was not produced by the church or by people associated to the church.

    With respect to discipline, maybe it wasn’t too bad… Can’t remember a single case of a member being disciplined (shamed) in public. Disfellowshipping can happen, but I think it mostly was done to people who were unrepentantly sinning (e.g. people committing adultery and not wanting to stop it). Shunning is not taught or promoted, although I know that it can happen in an “unofficial” way. I’ve heard of people who left due to doctrinal disagreements and were treated quite badly by their families or their former church.

    Finally, the exit process was somewhat painful for me. The “administrative” side of things (sending a letter asking to be removed from membership) was easy and done promptly, so no problems on that side. The “painful” bit was emotional. For a long time I wondered if, perhaps, they were right and if I would be lost. I had been a member for more than 20 years and a lot of the things taught by the church were ingrained in me… Where do you go when you’ve always heard that all the other churches are wrong and we are the true church, but you honestly cannot stay where you are? It certainly wasn’t easy.

    As a caveat, I’ll say that not all congregations are the same. Some are really strict and legalist, while others tend to be more free and grace-based. I think that the latter are considerably better. However, there are certain points of the belief system and the church culture that pervade everything and you cannot avoid them even there.

    Despite being more than 4 years since I left the SDA church, I still wonder how much those experiences have affected the way I currently see and experience church. I know I’m having many struggles with different aspects of my faith and at times it feels pretty hopeless… But I still think that moving on was the right decision. My relief is to think that whatever I am now (my struggles, my lack of faith, my discouragement), I am not necessarily going to be it in the future. I do not need to be hopeless simply because now I am discouraged.

  23. ken wrote:

    Enroth doesn’t make a qualification as you suggest in the #7 statement that he is refering to bogus standards (Mtt.7), but it seems he is talking in general about those groups who avoid/stay away from the so-called brother in order to shame them as in II Tim.3:5, I Cor.6, et al.

    Interestingly enough, 2 Timothy applies to many leaders we see today in Evangelicalism. Have nothing to do with them. I am not convinced that passage is teaching us to stay away from them in order to “shame” them. But as a protection. I am not sure those types could be “shamed”. :o)

  24. @ Deb:

    thanks. I am well aware of what’s happening in Mars Hill…with Andrew and with one of the elders and his wife. Have seen it up close too many times.

    I decided not to got to a seminary, thank God, (long story…got chronically ill…started questioning a lot I believed and why I believed it), but rather spent a ton of money and traveled for 10 years or so between 2000 and 2010 in the states and Canada visiting all sorts of assemblies looking to build relationships in order to discern truth and let go of the baggage I grew up with. So I know/have known a lot of these people and/or people closely associated with these groups that you are spotlighting. My wife and I have seen and have experienced a lot of pain like many who post here.

    My concern is that I’m reading statements in Scripture that seem to tell us clearly to stay away from certain people who are on one hand, claiming allegiance to Christ, but on the other, are clearly stuck headlong in sin (legitimate) while consistently being unwilling to repent of it (the so-called brother). Do you hold to a legitimate use of staying away/shunning/disfellowshipping? Thanks!

  25. I could be totally wrong here, but I don’t think Sean was referring to SonlighT curriculum, but something altogether different. We used SonlighT for a number of years before my kids went to public school, and it was (in my view) a very good, thorough, open-minded and non-legalistic curriculum, at least in the earlier years. I learned more world and US history than I ever had in high school or college (which may just say something about my high school or college!). I’m just capitalizing the T on the end of the word to differentiate between it and Sonlife.
    With all that said, it wasn’t until an experience with an abusive, narcissistic pastor a few years ago coupled with shunning from “religious” family members taking place at the same time that led me to sites like this, and whaddaya know! When I started reading this post I recognized one of the earliest church experiences from childhood and the influence and effect it had on my family’s life for decades afterwards! Oh, that authoritarian pastor! He was a former military officer, and his word was Law. His books and tapes were full of a unique vocabulary peculiar to his doctrinal teaching. We moved away in the late 60′s but managed to find another affiliated church in our next city, complete with Greek classes. This man had an influence on countless lives, and the wreckage left in the wake can be found all over the country. Sorry to be so long-winded, but this subject is really hitting a nerve and I’m having some real A-Ha moments regarding family issues! Thanks, Deb, for the post and info.

  26. @ KayJay & ForgivenMuch:

    Yes, I agree, I suspect Sonlife and Sonlight are two different things. Sonlight’s mostly literature so I’m not sure how it could be used to control anybody. Also John Holzmann (whose family created Sonlight) was kicked out of the CO state homeschool convention a few years back for not being stridently extreme YEC. Really my only criticism of Sonlight is that they sell R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North (I assume in an attempt to be balanced).

  27. I am finding myself somewhat afraid of church. Part of it is a result of some bad experiences like mentioned in this post. I would really love to see a post listing some signs of a healthy church. We are searching for a new church home right now and I am feeling so suspicious and nervous about trying again. And yet I want and need the lifestyle of belonging in a community of believers. I am suspicious of certain words and phrases now that never bothered me in the past.

    Our problem seems to be we have in the past allowed our church involvement to take over every aspect of our lives, and when we have pushed against that and tried to find more balance, have found ourselves on the outside looking in. We live in Mars Hill land and have friends who we have “lost” to that system and we have tried to warn them. The problem I am having now is that I have a hard time trusting any pastor at all simply because he is a pastor. I am so leery of the power given to a few. I long for a place where Jesus’ teachings of what it means to lead/serve in the Kingdom of God are honored.

    My whole idea of church and what it is meant to be has been reshaped over the past year and I am beginning to fear I will never find a place to belong and just be able to exist there. I long for a place where I can worship and fellowship and serve Him, but I also cannot look the other way on teachings that grate on me.

    Our last church was not authoritarian or abusive as described here, but they did hire a new, very young hipster pastor who is radically changing every aspect of the church. Apparently, the ways we did things before he arrived wasn’t good enough. Although he is somewhat progressive in his theology and I was actually hopeful that it would be good, the changes have caused many of our friends to leave and we ourselves left out of place, when my husband was a significant member of leadership before. It turned out, at 46, he was too old to have a platform ministry. The “vision” of the new pastor is to reach the under-30s. We believe the church is meant to be for everyone, young and old. My husband’s former position was then given to an inexperienced 19 year old and you can imagine the result. People have left in droves. He and two of the elders are the ones in power. Any concern on the part of anyone in the congregation has been dismissed with a strident “we are your leaders, you have to trust us”. Um…no.

    So…how do we do it? What do we look for? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me and that I will never be able to belong to a church I love again. Why is it so hard? I feel so lonely and friendless at times but don’t know how to open up to another group of believer’s. Any advice?

  28. ken wrote:

    @ BeenThereDoneThat:
    Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve experienced first hand what you refer to as whimsical/arbitrary/bogus qualification of sin from leadership, so I agree with you here that this is abusive, but my concern is for legitimate sin that professing believers are unwilling to repent of (I Cor.6:9-11, Gal.5:19-21, et al)..much more than just child-abuse listed here.

    I agree that legitimate, unrepentant sin should be dealt with. I just used child-abuse as an extreme example, because it is a topic that comes up frequently on TWW. The examples in 1 Cor. 6:9-11 are just as legitimate examples as child abuse. Oddly, many of the sins listed in Gal. 5:19-21 (idolatry, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, envy) take place in many churches among both the clergy and the laity on a regular basis and are never addressed or dealt with. (And in an abusive church, if you try to point out those problems you may find yourself considered to be the problem!)

    In #7 in the post above it doesn’t appear that Enroth addresses the legitimate use of church discipline. Perhaps he does elsewhere in his book? Or perhaps his focus (and the focus of this post) is the increasing use of unwarranted discipline by authoritarian churches. May have to read more of Enroth’s book for further insight on that.

  29. Glad for this book’s exposure again. It is a classic. The title alone is enough to get people to ponder if they might be in an abusive church situation or not.

    There are many phases that people who have been spiritually abused go through on their journey of processing what exactly has happened to them. I have a number of articles on my website particularly geared for people processing their distress.

    Topics include: recognizing spiritual abuse, feeling so alone, through the coping phases, why other people left their churches, linking other abuses, and when do I need a professional. Articles include how women are treated in churches and how people who have experienced spiritual abuse in the past can benefit the church. Check out: ChurchExiters .com

  30. @ Anon 1:

    Not sure I could file Mtt.18 in the ‘before Pentecost’ file so that it alleviates any (or most) personal responsibilty that I may have towards what Christ is saying. Grew up in the Chafer/Ryrie camp, so I’ve seen the systematic gymnastics in which groups use to ‘rightly divide’. I seem to gravitate towards more of a New Covenant Theology these days, though I’ve lost much of my zing and zeal during this season of my life in Christ to sort through these issues.

    I remember reading straight through the NT years ago and taking note of verses that were clearly stating for those that love Christ to come away from, avoid, or have *nothing* to do with those who say they love Christ, but are clearly denying him via a pattern of life – seems like there were 6 to 8 passages that spoke towards this topic. The words and ideas used do make it seem drastic.

  31. @ ken:

    Ken, I hear ya!

    Just to clarify, I was juxtaposing Matthew 18 as it is so wrongly used with “before Pentecost”. I have seen Matthew 18 applied in the most ridiculous situations over the years. My favorite examples come from para church organizations… so whose church do they go before if they follow the process since the parties do not attend the same church? That sort of thing. And what is even more interesting is many apply Matthew 18 with a “clergy/laity” paradigm that does not fit since there is no laity in the priesthood of believer.

    I hope I am not communicating that I think church discipline is never warranted. I just think the examples in scripture are pretty obvious and not about those who disagree with the pastor/elders. btw: Who “disciplines” them? :o)

  32. @ ForgivenMuch:
    Sonlight Homeschool Curriculum is not what Sean’s comment was referring to. Sonlight is actually a well balanced (in my opinion) curriculum that seeks to teach students to think about issues critically. I believe that Sean mentioned a curriculum named Sonlife.

  33. @ Anon 1:

    Thanks for the clarification…that helped. I agree.

    “Take it to the church” = “take it to the elders and let them handle it”. Scratch my head. :)

  34. For a sympathetic and first-hand look at some difficulties of the desocialization and resocialization processes I recommend Monica Baldwin’s book “I Leap Over the Wall.” You can check her out on Widipedia. She is not about abuse, but rather about going from a controlled and restrictive environment where someone else made decisions for her to being on her own in a different environment.

    I notice that some of the things that were not considered abusive in pre-Vatican II religious communities would be considered abuse in protestant churches today. I have no opinion as to what that may mean or not, it is just interesting to note.

  35. @ Harbor Girl:
    “So…how do we do it? What do we look for? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me and that I will never be able to belong to a church I love again. Why is it so hard? I feel so lonely and friendless at times but don’t know how to open up to another group of believer’s. Any advice?”

    First, I’m sorry you are going through this. I feel your pain. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. I know there is information on this blog about the stealth takeover of churches by authoritarian pastors. You are not alone in this experience.
    I’ve found it helpful to read and participate here at TWW. (There’s also eChurch :-) ) ChurchExiters.com also has a lot of helpful info for processing what you’ve been through. Reading others accounts will help you to not feel so alone. In time, you may feel more confident to try another church.

  36. Harbor Girl wrote:

    The problem I am having now is that I have a hard time trusting any pastor at all simply because he is a pastor.snip snip So…how do we do it? What do we look for? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me and that I will never be able to belong to a church I love again. Why is it so hard? I feel so lonely and friendless at times but don’t know how to open up to another group of believer’s. Any advice?

  37. woops…wrong button. My wife and I are in the mid forties. We’re trying hard not to be too cynical or suspicious of “church” and “pastors”, but we kept hitting the proverbial brick wall – so we quit trying. We’re resting in Jesus to be all we need for the moment, being social outcasts “church-wise”.

    Sum up the entire book of Scripture and boil it down to ‘Loving the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself’…that’s what we’re focusing on for the past several years. So we’re involved in giving up our time and resources in loving our immediate neighbors around us, and using the opportunities to plant Gospel seeds. He brings along refreshing glimpses of fellowship with other Christ-lovers here and there, but nothing in the realm of a body yet.

    We feel your pain. Here’s a good song my daughter gave us: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUEy8nZvpdM

  38. @ Harbor Girl:
    I got very lucky finding my current church. It isn’t perfect, but they are really open to letting me be me and ask whatever questions I want. How I found it- well, I was actually looking for a PCA church because my last PCA church was good (I was only there for a few months). Unfortunately, it seems that the PCA is hit or miss- it’s the individual congregation that matters.

    I will say, one thing that has been important is that the church has respected my choices for level of involvement without making me feel like an outcast. That’s an essential I think. How to find it? I don’t know.

    But I think it’s worth noting that if you read the NT there was plenty of corruption within the church even in the early days. A lot of the warnings in the epistles were about corrupt churches. So perhaps the idea that it should be easy to find a good church is something we take for granted but isn’t true (with so many around me, it feels like I should be able to throw a stone and hit a good church). It’s a battle, and once you realize it is, looking for a church doesn’t look the same anymore :(

  39. Martos wrote:

    I’m having many struggles with different aspects of my faith and at times it feels pretty hopeless… But I still think that moving on was the right decision. My relief is to think that whatever I am now (my struggles, my lack of faith, my discouragement), I am not necessarily going to be it in the future. I do not need to be hopeless simply because now I am discouraged.

    Yep. My therapist once said, “There is only one thing you can rely on regarding emotions, and that is they will change.”

    Bad experiences sometimes throwing everything we thought we knew upside down. It can take a long while to sort it through. Be gentle and patient with yourself. I wish you well.

  40. Hester wrote:

    Yes, I agree, I suspect Sonlife and Sonlight are two different things.

    Oops! My mistake for confusing Sonlight with Sonlife (which I’ve never heard of). See, that’s how rumors get started. ;-) As Emily Litella would say, “Never mind!”

  41. Harbor Girl wrote:

    So…how do we do it? What do we look for? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me and that I will never be able to belong to a church I love again. Why is it so hard? I feel so lonely and friendless at times but don’t know how to open up to another group of believer’s. Any advice?

    We are still looking also. There is nothing wrong with you. We left a church that devolved because of similar generational issues (young hip pastors took over, etc.). We tried a small church plant but never quite fit in, and the main pastor was so often gone on bigger assignments for the church planting organization that there was no continuity or level of pastoral concern or care. We felt like we were valued only for what we could contribute. That was well over a year ago. We are now wanderers in what internetmonk calls the the “post-evangelical wilderness.” It’s a strange place but at the same time an increasingly crowded one. You are not alone.

  42. ken wrote:

    verses that were clearly stating for those that love Christ to come away from, avoid, or have *nothing* to do with those who say they love Christ, but are clearly denying him via a pattern of life – seems like there were 6 to 8 passages that spoke towards this topic. The words and ideas used do make it seem drastic.

    I think those who leave abusive churches are exercising discipline. They terminate membership, shake the dust from their feet, and by refusing future association, shun those who they believe make a mockery of Christ’s life.

    Drastic steps.

  43. @ Patrice:
    We sometimes forget that we ourselves are the body of Christ, the church. You. Me. Harbor Girl, Martos, Anon 1, John, etc. It is not that thing over there with name, organizational structure, IRS tax-exempt number. “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there.” God is in the midst of this comment section and so we function here as a facet of the church. In that context, excommunication has broader meaning. I’ve seen Deb/Dee apply its principles on this blog (very kindly and clearly too).

  44. @ Harbor Girl:

    “My husband’s former position was then given to an inexperienced 19 year old and you can imagine the result.”

    Please tell it’s not the pastor who’s 19. In my denomination that KID would have to go through years of vicarage, and maybe associateship too, before being made a senior pastor. (I’m 23, BTW, so I’m not speaking as an “old fuddy duddy.”)

    The idea that what’s new/young is automatically good, is just as much of a fallacy as what’s old is automatically good.

  45. @ Harbor Girl:

    Harbor Girl,
    I live south of Mars Hill epicenter but we still lose young people to the aggressive satellite in my town. if you want to email me it’s Patti j 553 no spaces at hot mail. My daughter and her husband like a church on Queene Anne hill and the pastor there does not appreciate Mark Driscoll’s philosophies.

  46. Hello, Harbor Girl! Thanks for sharing about your church situation and the factors which caused you and your husband distress enough that you decided to bail. It is good for us to hear your story and your desire to find a place to belong. This is what many people innately desire.

    I trust that you are encouraged by the heartfelt words and advice here. Are you hearing the recurring theme: ‘That you are NOT alone?’ So many people have gone through this valley. Sooner or later there is a realization that they are not alone and that their experience, though personal, is not unique.

    Right now I think that you are beginning to process the fact that your situation is part of a larger picture and that there are ‘patterns’ that are coming forward in your understanding of church life. This is both good and bad. Good, because the light is shining in dark places and you are being stretched by this new awareness. Bad, because when you see that there is an unhealthy system in so many places, you feel hugely ripped off and disheartened.

    There are healthy churches out there. A number of us have found them. Our antenna is still on and we continue to assess as well as be thankful for a church that ‘gets it’.

    I also live in the Pacific Northwest. I have contact with some churches and groups that may be helpful for you to check out. Others here have also made some suggestions. If you like, you can contact me at: info@ChurchExiters.com

  47. @ JeffS

    Jeff, I liked your last paragraph. It was quite insightful. Your imagery of throwing a stone and finding a healthy, that is, a non-toxic church, was a good one. Being aware of the factors that might be lurking in church communities is a huge starting point in seeking to find a home church. You need more info than a quick skim of the church website, their doctrinal statement, or a few visits!

    Agreed, we often forget that the letters written to the NT churches were provided because of one or more issues that this particular church was dealing with. There are also many more warnings and scenarios in the NT that begin to stand out as our awareness is increased about ‘what could go wrong’ in the local church.

  48. ForgivenMuch wrote:

    Fellowship turns into “familyship” whereby you are encouraged to view your brethren as your real family and make them a priority.

    That’s actually the model put forward in the Bible: Christ taught you are to put fellow believers on par with, or ahead of, your flesh and blood relations.

    What happens in a lot of churches today is the opposite is encouraged: place fleshly ties first, so that anyone who is divorced, single, etc, in a congregation goes overlooked, eats alone on holidays, etc.

    One role of the church is to provide companionship for all members.

    Some Christians go home to an empty apartment: they don’t have a spouse, don’t have any aunts, no brothers, no sisters, no living grandparents or parents, and no (to few) friends.

    I don’t think churches should create problems for nuclear families, but the idea that nuclear family comes first, and the attitude of ‘who cares about widows, the never married adults, the divorced, etc,’ is the opposite of Christ’s teachings.

    I’d like to see churches in America de-emphasize families and marriage, actually. As it is now, they hyper emphasize both, to the point where singles with no kids (and even married couples with no kids) feel ostracized, or out of place.

    Matt 10 37, Christ:

    “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

    Matt 12 50, Christ again:

    For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

  49. Harbor girl, If it is any consolation at all, just know you are more spiritually healthy than the folks still there. So, welcome to the large club of the Nones. One way to deal with tbis is to get to know Jesus even more intimately. For some reason that always seems to attract people to you for fellowship. :o)

  50. Patrice wrote:

    I think those who leave abusive churches are exercising discipline. They terminate membership, shake the dust from their feet, and by refusing future association, shun those who they believe make a mockery of Christ’s life.
    Drastic steps.

    Absolutely.

  51. Martos, I hope you’ll keep reading TWW as many of us have found great support for one another here. And Dee and Deb have been so wonderful in keeping us informed about abuses in churches and hope for those who have been hurt by them spiritually, emotionally, and sad to say, some physically.

    Thanks for sharing!

  52. I can sympathize with those who’ve experienced workplace abuse. I’m going through it now. Unlike Tammy’s situation, it’s not a case of “never questioning leaders”, but of emotional manipulation. I’ve had to sit or stand through lectures and tongue-lashings. In one of them (an hour long), my superior called me names, accused me of trying to ruin her business, and threatened to fire me without notice. “Guilt, fear, and intimidation”, just like in point three in Deb’s post.

    Needless to say, I’m looking for something new. I hope Tammy does too, and soon.

  53. Patti wrote:

    We have understanding for vets who bristle at fireworks, molestation victims who bristle at a touch, crash victims who bristle during a car ride.
    Spiritual abuse victims will bristle in church! A little understanding can go a long way.

    So, so true! I wish this understanding were widespread.

    I appreciate this post, D&D. Thanks also for the links to your older entries. Very validating!

  54. @ Hester:
    No…it is the worship leader position, but titled “interim” until they found their new guy who is there now. He’s 23.

    The thing is I have no problem with someone younger stepping in. My problem is qualifying someone based on age above spiritual giftings and experience. The new pastor is 30 and just came from a few years as a middle school youth pastor. Even so, we were excited and hopeful to join him in his new “vision” for the church and we were wanting to work with him to be a light to the community. Turns out he didn’t want us along. Not just us. Anyone who was in a position of any kind before him has either left or is on their way out. He is trying to convince the congregation that 100% staff/volunteer turnover is normal.

    Some of my sadness is that this isn’t our first time having to leave a church. We have been in this wilderness before. That is why I’m starting to wonder if it is my new normal.

    Thank you all for your kind and encouraging words.

  55. Great discussion everyone! I felt led to share this older post because so many of you weren’t here back in 2010 when it was first published. The information is timeless.

    I have loved reading the encouraging comments you have posted for one another and for Dee and me. Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.

  56. @ Harbor Girl:

    I long for a place where Jesus’ teachings of what it means to lead/serve in the Kingdom of God are honored.
    +++++++++++++++++++++

    Harbor Girl,

    elastigirl, here. Are you a super, too?

    I’ve had my own number of years in Church of the People Eaters. an idea (which I am not doing but would love to):

    ditch the lead/serve conundrum, and in the cut-loose freedom immediately Advance To Go & get together with friends, sing some songs, connect with God individually & together, pray, read some bible, discuss (not necessarily in that order) and then go to a place in your city that needs help/encouragement:

    (a chemo clinic, soup kitchen, a non-profit that is underfunded & understaffed & discouraged, a domestic abuse shelter, an elementary school in a low income area that could use a flower garden and a vegetable garden for students to care for, impromptu singing on a street corner, new cushy socks to transients,….)

    I love it — so productive! no waste!

    (I mean no admonishment whatsoever)

  57. @ dee:
    Dee

    I think Sonlife is around with a different name. It was popular in the late 80′s in the efree church I grew up in. The system stratified the youth from the “ministry team” down to the rif raff ypu wanted gone. I just don’t care to do the research to figure it out as I am trying to put my past behind me.

  58. Martos wrote:

    The “authority” was not the pastor or other local church leaders (although that can also happen, as in any other church), but one of the founders of the church, who is considered as a prophet. She’s been dead for nearly 100 years but her writings are followed in a way that does not differentiate from what happened when she was alive. Criticising her or her writings could be considered by some as a sign of going against God. Many of the stories you can hear about the way she acted go in line with what it says here about control-oriented style of leadership.

    There was spiritual elitism and denunciation of other churches, as well. We saw ourselves as God’s remnant church on Earth and generally considered all the other churches as wrong. Of course we thought we were persecuted, as the prophecies written by the prophet said that would happen. There are some who actually believe that there is a Jesuit conspiracy to infiltrate the SDA church and destroy it from inside, by killing leaders and replacing them with Jesuits who look similar. Really, not making that up.

    Also, there was a permanent sense of fear about last-time events… Many historical and current events were interpreted to mean that the end was close and somehow fulfilled the prophecies given by the prophet. The lifestyle can be very rigid as well, with an overemphasis on health issues, vegetarianism, and what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath. We were generally discouraged from reading any material that was not produced by the church or by people associated to the church.

    Martos — Thank you for sharing this. SDA is an interesting group because most evangelicals have given Adventists a pass. But it has some very serious problems. Here is a friend’s story of being a life-long SDA and what happened when she left. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SQAI3ej439Y

  59. @ Bridget:

    oh yes.

    & no new taupe carpet & contrasting new chairs to match the new taupe paint to pay for.

    no leaders’ “retreats” to pay for.

  60. @ Harbor Girl:

    “The thing is I have no problem with someone younger stepping in. My problem is qualifying someone based on age above spiritual giftings and experience.”

    Totally agree.

  61. @ Martos & Anon 2:

    Unfortunately I cannot share here the absolutely abysmal experience I had with SDAism because someone involved reads the blog. Suffice it to say, the only SDA I’ve ever known was sweet and nice until you disagreed with her at which point she became an abusive bully. I think she was certifiably, diagnosably crazy. After some research during/following the incident, I’m inclined to think of the SDA church as a cult now.

  62. Hester wrote:

    @ Martos & Anon 2:

    Unfortunately I cannot share here the absolutely abysmal experience I had with SDAism because someone involved reads the blog. Suffice it to say, the only SDA I’ve ever known was sweet and nice until you disagreed with her at which point she became an abusive bully. I think she was certifiably, diagnosably crazy. After some research during/following the incident, I’m inclined to think of the SDA church as a cult now.

    There’s a growing number of people who believe that Christian Research Institute president and “Bible Answer Man” Walter Martin, along with Donald Grey Barnhouse, were misled by SDA leaders in the 1950s to believe that the Seventh-day Adventists had dropped Ellen G. White’s heretical teachings. This is why Walter Martin’s book Kingdom of the Cults gave Adventists a partial pass. Toward the end of his life, however, in the 1980s, Martin became very concerned that they had been deceived.

    Walter Martin said:

    “You know, this stuff that we’re seeing now, indicates that there never really was any change, and that they have not told you the truth, and they didn’t tell Barnhouse the truth, and that ‘you were misled and have got to set the record straight.’

    This article gives a history of the meetings between Martin and Barnhouse, and the SDA leaders. It is my hope that SDA reforms.
    http://www.lifeassuranceministries.org/proclamation/2010/3/waltermartin.html

    Regarding the direction the Adventist Church was taking in the 1970s and 1980s, Walter Martin said:

    “I fear that if they continue to progress at this rate, that the classification of a cult can’t possibly miss being re-applied to Seventh Day [sic] Adventism.” 51

    Following the death of cult leader Herbert W. Armstrong in 1986, his Worldwide Church of God labeled Armstrong’s writings heretical, repented of its errors, and joined the greater Christian community.

  63. @ Anon 2:
    Was there a connectioon between the SDA and the Worldwide Church of God?

    I believe the WCG met on Saturday since they were following the Old Covenant.

  64. @ Deb:

    I don’t know anything about Herbert Armstrong/WCG, but not every group that worships on Saturday is heretical and/or related to SDA (though I think SDAs are the biggest group that do this). Seventh-day Baptists, for example, I think are just ordinary Baptists who happen to worship on Saturday…though I think they’re pretty rare today.

  65. This sounded familiar:
    Actress Leaves Scientology After 30 Years

    The Post adds that it [the actress leaving scientology] all stems from policies that don’t allow parishioners to question leader David Miscavige’s authority and allegedly force followers to “disconnect” from family members branded as “suppressive persons” if they choose to leave the church.

  66. Harbor Girl,
    I too live in a town south of Seattle. I have many friends who are Mark Driscoll fans.. Depending on where you live, I can give you the name of a couple good churches I know of. I know what you mean about having a difficult time finding a good church. Even though I attend a pretty decent church right now, my radar is always up and on the look out for abusive teachings.

  67. Martos wrote:

    The “authority” was not the pastor or other local church leaders (although that can also happen, as in any other church), but one of the founders of the church, who is considered as a prophet. She’s been dead for nearly 100 years but her writings are followed in a way that does not differentiate from what happened when she was alive. Criticising her or her writings could be considered by some as a sign of going against God. Many of the stories you can hear about the way she acted go in line with what it says here about control-oriented style of leadership.

    Ellen G White. Who rebuilt the Adventist movement into the SDA after it crashed and burned when Miller’s End-of-the-World date fizzled. She is also credited with originating the “Genesis Flood” model of Young Earth Creationist geology.

    There was spiritual elitism and denunciation of other churches, as well. We saw ourselves as God’s remnant church on Earth and generally considered all the other churches as wrong. Of course we thought we were persecuted, as the prophecies written by the prophet said that would happen. There are some who actually believe that there is a Jesuit conspiracy to infiltrate the SDA church and destroy it from inside, by killing leaders and replacing them with Jesuits who look similar. Really, not making that up.

    You find all of these in splinter Fundagelical churches, too. (Like the ones you find written about in all the spiritual abuse blogs.)
    1) Mormonesque idea of church history, i.e. “The original New Testament Church was Just Like Us, but went apostate almost from the word ‘GO!’ And for centuries all was False Church Apostasy until Our Founder was led by God to Restore The One True New Testament Church (US).”
    2) “God’s Remnant on Earth”; related to the above, but best described by “The Trail of Blood”, tortuous historical trace of Landmark Baptists. “Only Us Four, No More, Amen.”
    3) All outside our One True Remnant will Persecute Us for Our Righteousness. Evangelicals’ Persecution Complex is covered in a lot of other blogs. Also called “The Persecuted Hegemon.”
    4) Jesuit Conspiracy(TM). Anyone remember Alberto Rivera?

    Also, there was a permanent sense of fear about last-time events… Many historical and current events were interpreted to mean that the end was close and somehow fulfilled the prophecies given by the prophet. The lifestyle can be very rigid as well, with an overemphasis on health issues, vegetarianism, and what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath. We were generally discouraged from reading any material that was not produced by the church or by people associated to the church.

    End Time Prophecy obsession is by no means limited to SDA (says the veteran of the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay). So is the Christianese Bubble where you only associate with people associated with the church, only read material produced by those associated with the church, “Just like Fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” And TWW’s meat and potatoes, control-freak pastor/dictators and their ever-lengthening lists of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots.

    From my own limited interaction with the SDAs, here’s my take on them:
    1) Heavy-duty Young Earth Creationism. SDAs invented the “Genesis Flood” explanation of geology.
    2) Christology seems pretty orthodox, but then you can have all your theological I’s dotted and T’s crossed and still be overcontrolling and abusive.
    3) As much into End Time Prophecy as any Hal Lindsay or Left Behind fanboy, but with a twist — the SDAs have a unique part-Preterist, part-PostMil End Time Choreography; like Left Behind, this comes from a literal (and some numerological) interpretation of Daniel and Revelation but end up with a totally different Tribulation checklist.
    4) Sabbath Keeping instead of Sunday Keeping, to the point that the Mark of the Beast is a “National Sunday Law” passed by Congress forcing all Americans to worship on Sunday at Tribulation’s midpoint. I chalk this up to Tribal Identity, SDAs worship on Saturday as a tribal identity mark.
    5) Emphasis on Vegetarianism (“No Flesh Foods” in SDA parlance) — this just harks back to the SDA’s 19th Century origins; in that century, Vegetarianism was de rigeur for new religious fringe movements and utopian societies.
    6) Put these all together and you get a very offbeat form of Christianity, but not necessarily a CULT CULT CULT. With a lot of behavior and trappings in common with other 19th Century American new religious movements/variants on Christianity. However, like Fundagelicals, SDA churches can easily cross the border into Cult-land. All you need is a control-freak pastor/dictator.

  68. Daisy wrote:

    ForgivenMuch wrote:
    Fellowship turns into “familyship” whereby you are encouraged to view your brethren as your real family and make them a priority.
    That’s actually the model put forward in the Bible: Christ taught you are to put fellow believers on par with, or ahead of, your flesh and blood relations.

    Yes, I know that and I understand what you’re saying. I’m talking about situations where, for example, you have a sibling, mother, father, grandparent who is ill and you needs tending to, but the church you attend is expecting you to help in the kitchen or bring a meal to someone within your congregation when you have pressing needs within your own extended family. But they are viewed as “lesser than” b/c they may not be a believer and don’t attend your church. Or you have a neighbor who is a believer (but they don’t attend the same church) and you have felt led to help them with a task or provide support to them through the death of a loved one and then your church congregation views that as “putting others before your church family.”

    I don’t think people should be deciding for others what the Lord wants them to do. Either you’re being led by the Spirit or you’re being led by man.

    Let’s imagine this scenario from Luke 10: the Samaritan also passes by the injured man saying, “sorry I can’t help you b/c you don’t go to my church.”

  69. Martos wrote:

    There are some who actually believe that there is a Jesuit conspiracy to infiltrate the SDA church and destroy it from inside, by killing leaders and replacing them with Jesuits who look similar. Really, not making that up.

    With the Mormonesque view of church history setting the True Church (SDA, more generically “Us”) against the Apostate False Church (usually Catholic, more generically “Them”), Jesuit Conspiracy Theories are an obvious next step.

    And casting the RCC as Satan’s False Church(TM) has been a part of Extreme Protestantism since the war propaganda of the Reformation Wars. The SDAs (who are themselves offbeat Extreme Protestants) are just following an old Prot tradition.

  70. ForgivenMuch wrote:

    Yes, I know that and I understand what you’re saying. I’m talking about situations where, for example, you have a sibling, mother, father, grandparent who is ill and you needs tending to, but the church you attend is expecting you to help in the kitchen or bring a meal to someone within your congregation when you have pressing needs within your own extended family. But they are viewed as “lesser than” b/c they may not be a believer and don’t attend your church. Or you have a neighbor who is a believer (but they don’t attend the same church) and you have felt led to help them with a task or provide support to them through the death of a loved one and then your church congregation views that as “putting others before your church family.”

    i.e. “Putting fellow believers on par with, or ahead of, your flesh and blood relations” gone lunatic.

  71. @ ForgivenMuch:

    I’ve just seen a lot of churches and conservative Christians who end up alienating people who don’t have flesh and blood ties, or every few. If you’re divorced, never married, or widowed, it’s like you don’t exist in a lot of churches.

    They like to chase after middle class, young married parents who still have kids at home. I guess because those families are perceived as having more money?

  72. Daisy wrote:

    They like to chase after middle class, young married parents who still have kids at home. I guess because those families are perceived as having more money?

    I suspect it’s because they think of young married couples as the “right kind of Christians.” Marriage proves — in their mind — you’ve arrived at a state of maturity. Wilcox is one of the top researchers in this area, and he points to these factors as key in the decline in the church:

    No Money, No Honey, No Church
    http://www.virginia.edu/sociology/publications/Wilcox_Religion_WorkingPaper.pdf

    I’d recommend reading pages 8-11 and 20 if you don’t have time to read the entire document.

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  74. Daisy wrote:

    They like to chase after middle class, young married parents who still have kids at home. I guess because those families are perceived as having more money?

    I doubt it’s anything so crass as who has more money (at least on the surface). It’s probably more along the lines of the people we are comfortable being around and who we find attractive.

    White upper middle class families with children are attracted to other white upper middle class families with children.

  75. Janey wrote:

    I suspect it’s because they think of young married couples as the “right kind of Christians.” Marriage proves — in their mind — you’ve arrived at a state of maturity. Wilcox is one of the top researchers in this area, and he points to these factors as key in the decline in the church:

    No Money, No Honey, No Church
    http://www.virginia.edu/sociology/publications/Wilcox_Religion_WorkingPaper.pdf

    I’d recommend reading pages 8-11 and 20 if you don’t have time to read the entire document.

    So things are breaking down along class lines reminiscent of Victorian times. And the values in churches are aligning with the middle class against the blue-collar situation. (At least in white churches; cultural differences in black churches tend to mitigate the situation.)

    I wish they would have used some other word than “bourgeois”; though it does echo the Victorian idea of classes, the word was hijacked by Marxspeak long ago.

  76. ForgivenMuch wrote:

    Let’s imagine this scenario from Luke 10: the Samaritan also passes by the injured man saying, “sorry I can’t help you b/c you don’t go to my church.”

    Today (Mon 15 July), Internet Monk posted an alternate take on The Good Samaritan. As another example of Christ taking conventional expectations and turning them on their heads:
    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/a-good-samaritan

  77. Martos’ post on Friday really caught my attention. I, too, am a former Seventh-day Adventist. I completely understand all the craziness and confusion that you described, Martos. And yes, while the individual congregations and pastors may differ in what and how they teach, the Adventist “worldview” is consistent among ALL Adventists. In short, it is shaped by the prophetess Ellen White’s book “The Great Controversy”.

    The Adventist worldview believes that in the end, keeping the seventh-day Sabbath will be the marker that divides the saved from the lost. True “believers” WILL worship on Sabbath; those who worship on Sunday will have the mark of the beast (Sunday worship IS the mark of the beast). Moreover, Sunday-keepers (internally called “Babylon” if they’re Catholic or the “daughters of Babylon” or “apostate Protestants” if they’re not Catholic) will be given legal permission to hunt and kill Sabbath-keepers. Those who once kept the Sabbath and left (we former Adventists) will be the worst, most dangerous hunters of all.

    Another universal aspect of the Seventh-day Adventist worldview is that humans do not have an immaterial spirit that exists apart from the body at death. They only have the literal breath in their nostril. When a person ceases to breath, he ceases to exist except as data in God’s memory. Thus, the resurrection is a “re-creation”, not a true resurrection. Moreover, without believing humans have a spirit besides literal breath, they have NO understanding of the new birth. To them, “new birth” is a mystery, sometimes identified with baptism, or with “conversion” to “the Adventist truth”.

    This belief also defines the incarnate Lord Jesus. He, too, was body-plus-breath, and, although the Adventist Jesus is said to be “fully God”, he could have sinned, could have failed, had Mary’s sin-tainted genes in his body, and came to show us how to overcome sin by prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit. His purpose, within Adventism, was to show the law could be kept…and thus to demonstrate that we, too could keep it.

    Add to these issues the fact that in Adventism, Satan is the scapegoat, you have a perfect storm. They use all the right Christian words, but their definitions are wrong. Adventists do not know they mean different things than Christians mean when they use the same words. And Christians don’t know they’re speaking a different language from Adventist-ese, either.

    Martos, your ongoing struggle is all too familiar. The Lord Jesus is bigger than these struggles, though, and it is He who helped you leave. He knows how to help you “unpack” that worldview and become grounded in reality. His word really is reliable and sufficient, and He redeems everything we submit to Him.

    Check out Proclamation! magazine online…www.LifeAssuranceMinistries.org

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  79. I never have been able to talk about this. As a 52 year old male I still have bad memories of Church. My parents left the Appalachians 55 years ago. Their primary interest in life has been to charter a church in S. Cal. Everything was the church– 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. Everything outside the church was evil. It had all of the telltale signs of abuse. Women were not allowed to wear makeup, jewelry, or pants. Children where not allowed to speak. The whole organization shrouded itself in the label of Christianity. And therefore, any criticism of the organization was a criticism of JESUS. The problem with such an organization is nobody of a reasonable and thinking mind is interested. So they abuse the young and the most vulnerable. Yeah, this was the type of church where older men were sleeping with 13 year olds. They constantly preached the story of Abraham taking his children to the alter for sacrifice. And they constantly preached to the young women that they had better pray to God for a husband, because nobody wants them. This is California. which you think is a might be a center of liberal thinking. Rethink that. When a 13 year old gets pregnant in the church, nobody would call the police. No, they would celebrate this as God’s will. I began sneaking away form this church at about 12, when I was forced on a week long camp. Don’t be surprise if I told you men showed up to meet these young people. Yeah a number of the leaders of this church have been married a number of times to underage girls. Because no adult women would be married to them. I finally distance myself from my parents when at the age of 18, I was told their church forbid me from taking a community college course. My parents asked me to leave their house.

  80. This is California. which you think is a might be a center of liberal thinking. Rethink that.

    I live in California. It is not a center of liberal thinking, it is a center of WEIRD thinking, i.e. Granola Bowl time. THE Weird Religion capital of America since the 1960s.

  81. Colleen Tinker wrote:

    The Adventist worldview believes that in the end, keeping the seventh-day Sabbath will be the marker that divides the saved from the lost. True “believers” WILL worship on Sabbath; those who worship on Sunday will have the mark of the beast (Sunday worship IS the mark of the beast). Moreover, Sunday-keepers (internally called “Babylon” if they’re Catholic or the “daughters of Babylon” or “apostate Protestants” if they’re not Catholic) will be given legal permission to hunt and kill Sabbath-keepers. Those who once kept the Sabbath and left (we former Adventists) will be the worst, most dangerous hunters of all.

    Worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday is their tribal identity mark; I’d expect them to enforce it with a LOT of doctrine. As in “Sunday-keeping” as THE identifying characteristic of The Enemy.

    Didn’t know that special demonization of ex-Adventists, but it fits with a high-control church. Leaving the Adventist fold becomes The Ultimate Super-Sin.

    Another universal aspect of the Seventh-day Adventist worldview is that humans do not have an immaterial spirit that exists apart from the body at death. They only have the literal breath in their nostril. When a person ceases to breath, he ceases to exist except as data in God’s memory. Thus, the resurrection is a “re-creation”, not a true resurrection. Moreover, without believing humans have a spirit besides literal breath, they have NO understanding of the new birth. To them, “new birth” is a mystery, sometimes identified with baptism, or with “conversion” to “the Adventist truth”.

    This goes beyond a “soul-sleep” intermediate state (the dead have no consciousness between Death and Resurrection) to a full cease-to-exist and re-creation. Which begs the question (familiar to any Trekkie who’s argued how a Star Trek Transporter REALLY works): Is the re-created person the same as the original, or only a copy? I’d say the second, as there is NO continuous first-person POV trace. The original is DEAD permanently (as in ceased to exist) and the “re-created” copy is a separate person. What a hopeful afterlife belief.

    (Though I could see how they could get the idea about “breath” instead of spirit; from a misreading of some passages in Ecclesiastices and/or misunderstanding of early Jewish beliefs.)

    And that Cease-to-Exist-then-ReCreate idea makes a part of their End Time Choreography really absurd. As I understand it, Adventists believe all the living Righteous (i.e. Sabbath-keepers) will be Post-Trib Raptured into Heaven at the Second Coming while all the living Lost will be “struck down as if by a nuclear flash”, i.e. Killed by the Shekinah. Earth will be uninhabited for the 1000 years of the Adventist Millenium, then God resurrects/Re-Creates everyone who ever lived for the final showdown outside the walls of New Jerusalem. The Saved/Adventists hole up inside while everyone else attacks, only to have God once more destroy the Lost with “fire from Heaven”. At which point, why re-create the Lost? What’s the point?

  82. Janey wrote:

    I suspect it’s because they think of young married couples as the “right kind of Christians.” Marriage proves — in their mind — you’ve arrived at a state of maturity.

    An old Internet Monk essay (or accompanying comment thread) called it “Salvation by Marriage Alone.”

  83. @ Dan:
    How completely awful! Congratulations on remaining upright. Really! It takes amazing strength to get through that and remain sane.

    I hope you are ok.

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