Nine Marks of an Abusive Church

“Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.   CS Lewis-Screwtape Letters


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.

This post is a harbinger of future topics here at The Wartburg Watch. As Dee has already mentioned, we will continue to focus on spiritual abuse in the New Year. Stay tuned… 

Lydia’s Corner: Exodus 30:11-31:18 Matthew 26:47-68 Psalm 32:1-11 Proverbs 8:27-32


Nine Marks of an Abusive Church — 26 Comments

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    (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….”

    Seems that the author knows CJ Mahaney…..

    (2) Spiritual elitism

    If special means that we are “The happiest place on earth”, then guilty as charged.

    (3) Manipulation of members

    But if you leave SGM, then you will be outside of your God ordained covering. Did you know that puts you back into Satan’s domain?

    (4) Perceived persecution

    Of course everyone hates us, that is proof that our message is right on, as the true word of God is in opposition to the world.

    (5) Lifestyle rigidity

    What is ridgid about watching your time, media, sports, apparel, words, accountability checklist, 11 mandatory meetings a month, 3-5 conferences a year, and serving on four different “ministries“? They gave me the checklist and schedules I needed to make it happen. Nice people.

    (6) Suppression of dissent

    They were always so kind to point out that I should be more concerned with my own sin. That’s where the real problem was. Turns out it was a lack of trusting God that brought on my questions, not any actual mistakes or wrongful actions on the Pastors/Churches part.

    (7) Harsh discipline of members

    Public announcements of someone’s failings are the best way to let us know who to avoid. I can find the time to get to Care Group, why couldn’t they have done so.

    (8) Denunciation of other churches

    If the other churches were actually honoring God, rather than spreading heresy, there would be no need to denounce them.

    (9) Painful exit process – All joking aside – I have literally buried friends who could not withstand the exit process, the “loving” pursuit, or the loss of family and friends who ignored them for “The Gospel.” Ever see a grown man weep and tremble with fear simultaneously? Ever need to put a GPS blocker on your car?

    SGM, you are 100% affirmative with this list.

    I am sure that is was all a matter of “misapplication”, as Josh Harris says.

    Could really use a barf emoticon about now.

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    I’ve experienced EVERY.SINGLE.ONE of the marks listed above. *sigh* Number 9 describes *exactly* what I’ve been going through lately. :/ I need to go read that book…

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    In reference to the CS Lewis quote:

    I am a great fan of Lewis and am especially fond of The Screwtape Letters.

    I feel like I am the character in Princess Bride saying “I don’t think this means what you think it does.” The context of the Lewis quote is this. A demon, Screwtape, writing his nephew demon, Wormwood, with advice as to how to tempt believers and thwart God’s (the Enemy’s in his vernacular) plans.

    What Screwtape is saying, is that their evil work is derailed by a Christian who, despite going through times of discouragement and not seeing any tangible evidence of God in his life, still obeys God.

    Lewis is encouraging us as Christians. It is easy to obey God when things are going great and we are on the spiritual mountaintop. But it is powerful when we obey God in the midst of trial and when it seems that God has hidden His face from us. In this sense, blind obedience TO GOD is admirable…we know what is right…what pleases Him…and we do it. It is a testimony to God changing our hearts.

    This quote has nothing to do with blind obedience to earthly leaders which is dangerous.

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    “(3) Manipulation of members

    But if you leave SGM, then you will be outside of your God ordained covering. Did you know that puts you back into Satan’s domain?

    Unassimiated, Are you serious? They really teach this?

    I suppose this has changed now. Al Mohler, CJ”s new best friend used to be in Satan’s domain but now isn’t? Ligon Duncan? Mark Dever? The SBC?

    And the excuse for the evil is the “misapplication” of what? Scripture?

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    Other than the quote thing, this really hits home with us.

    In looking at the book, I see the example of an incredible abusive cult. SGM folks might say “we aren’t like that” and I hear the voice of Yoda saying “you will be…you will be.”

    It is like this. If a convoy of ships were leaving a harbor and given the compass bearing to get to a destination. If one of the ships is just one degree off, at the beginning of the trip, it will look like it is on course. The further it goes, the more off course it gets. That is the story of Sovereign Grace. Their Shepherding Movement influences, superstar leader focus, etc. were not cause for concern at first. Now at this point, we see how off course they are.

    Can they make mid course corrections and obtain a correct fix? That is a big question.

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    Free from KWCC

    Actually, this quote by Lewis is exactly what I meant to say. You said ” But it is powerful when we obey God in the midst of trial and when it seems that God has hidden His face from us.” This was a quote of encouragement to my brothers and sisters who have gone through trials in the church, particularly SGM, since we are doing this series.

    I often joke that we here at TWW are the Fellowship of the Wounded. That, if you have read our stories, includes your glamorous blog queens.

    Lewis’ quote is a way to say, hang in there. Keep believing. Obey God; not man. It will get better. In eternity, this time will be a jewel in your crown in heaven. Could it be that our hurting friends will receive a reward that is far above those “anointed” leaders?

    I am currently reading a book about spiritual abuse recovery and will be writing about it in the new Year. There are many professing Christian who walk away from the faith after instances of abuse. However, there are many of us who have found a deeper faith in the midst of pain.

    I don’t believe in blind obedience. When God seems far away, I still remember and proceed. It is often in the aftermath that we see that God was very much present. Obedience is based on an encounter and experience with God that sustains us in the worst of times.

    This quote is not meant to be a manipulative command. It is meant to say “persevere.”

    To all our readers who were wounded by SGM-Continue on the faith and live in the freeing grace which is found in Jesus, not some arrogant men.

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    The thing that concerns me about SGM and tis ability to change is this. Mahaney has been doing this gig since the 1970s. It is what defines him as a person. We have written about the church and pedophilia on this blog due to some personal encounters with churches who do a horrendous job in handling this issue. Did you know that the re-offense rate of pedophiles is in the 80-90% range even with intensive help?

    I believe that spiritual abuse may be rooted in some compulsion for power and control that can be indicative of a difficult up-bringing. Also, he has readily admitted involvement with drugs which can cause brain chemistry issues.

    So, short of a miracle, I do not anticipate any major change by Mahaney in this life. Any change should be viewed with suspicion-being sure, over a period of several YEARS, that it is not merely window dressing.

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    I agree. For SGM to change, they have to repent and go back to where they went off course. This would admit to abusive behavior which would open themselves to lawsuits.

    In any case, I hope they realize that they are doing something wrong, but it would take a miracle.

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    “I agree. For SGM to change, they have to repent and go back to where they went off course.”

    To the 1970’s? CJ started “off course”

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    My quote is paraphrased, but the SGM teacing where a departure from SGM covering putting one into the domain of the “enemy” was CLC 2004. I am in the process of moving, will pull the message CD and mail it in when I unpack.

    I would hope that it change, but as long as SGM Pastors serve as a covering, the belief is still there.

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    9 Marks is a Mark Dever and friend production. Not sure how deep CJ is
    in the group, he has many articles on their site, and has served as a speaker.

    I could not help but to associate the “9 Marks” of a supposed “healthy church”
    with the 9 Marks of an abusive one. Eight of the nine matched up well, I will
    withhold my conclusions.

    Here is the comparison:

    (1) Control-oriented style of leadership – Leadership

    The Bible teaches that churches should be led by a plurality of godly, qualified shepherds. What does it call them? Elders

    Preaching –

    Want to know how to be utterly counter-cultural and culturally-relevant at the same time? Try opening God’s Word, taking the main point of a biblical text, making it the main point of a sermon, and applying it to life today.

    (2) Spiritual elitism – Biblical Theology

    Sound doctrine—a church can’t live without it.

    (3) Manipulation of members – Discipleship

    Christians learn by instruction and imitation, which means that churches are where both should happen

    (4) Perceived persecution – Evangelism

    Biblical evangelism means (i) sharing the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection with non-Christians and (ii) calling them to repent and believe.

    Evangelism is simply telling non-Christians the good news about what Jesus Christ has done to save sinners. In order to biblically evangelize you must:
    – Preach the whole gospel, even the hard news about God’s wrath against our sin.
    – Call people to repent of their sins and trust in Christ.
    – Make it clear that believing in Christ is costly, but worth it.

    (5) Lifestyle rigidity – Membership

    Church membership isn’t just names on a list or an emotional attachment to your childhood church. It’s attending, loving, serving, and submitting to a congregation of people.

    (6) Suppression of dissent – Conversion

    God must act, and people must act. God must give life to the dead. People must repent of sin and trust in Christ

    (7) Harsh discipline of members – Discipline

    Should the church look different from the world? The fact that Jesus and Paul commanded churches to practice discipline tells us the answer is “yes.”

    8) Denunciation of other churches – The Gospel

    The difference between a church and a non-church is whether or not it believes, teaches, and lives out the message of the gospel


    I will say that evangelism may seem an odd match to perceived persecution, but when one understands that evangelism, already being the area of Christian life where ones faith is tested and challenged, is defined by SGM as church planting. Thus it is not the lone Christian that gets the blows, but the entire institution that they belong to.

    Also, I am not denouncing good practices, just trying to illustrate where
    abuse creeps in.

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    Off topic… Earlier today my husband and I attended the funeral of a young soldier (23 years old) who died in Afghanistan last Sunday along with five other soldiers. The tragedy was widely reported in the national news.

    We know his father who is a wonderful Baptist pastor near our farm in the northeastern North Carolina. Hearing Taps and watching his dad salute his son at the graveside was extremely emotional. Please keep this family and the families and loved ones of the other five soldiers in your prayers. Thank you.

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    I know others could add to the nine characteristics. My additions would be that the pastor is a nut case because he has a hard time remembering all the lies he has told in order to cover for them. The second addition is that the “leaders” are just plain dumb, need to be told what to think, and spend all their years in search of their backbone.

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    Here’s a painful comment that I just read over at SGM Refuge. My heart breaks for those who have been spiritually abused.

    34. No longer Deceived says:
    December 16, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    “New Here. Have no idea where to post.

    I have recently left my SGC of 12 years. I cannot even begin to tell you the pain I am in. It is making me literally ill. I am waiting on my phone NOT to ring. Sure hope I am ready for this. God is with me. God is with me. God is with me. This I know. This is my only hope. Please tell me there is life after SGM. I am not convinced yet. I don’t know that this pain will ever leave, but if not, I pray I will learn to live with it. I have no other choice!~”

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    OT for this thread, but the blog queens might be interested in this article about how a church managed to hire a convicted murderer with a history of shady dealings as their pastor alongside of dealing with some fairly heavy-handed elders (who happened to end up opposed to the pastor). A really interesting look for people who think “it can never happen in my church” that someone who shouldn’t be allowed in leadership is placed there.

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    Your blogs have been such a blessing. I only just now discovered the Coral Ridge fiasco that took place and see SO MANY PARALLELS between it and the CURRENT discussions of a potential “merger” (more like hostile takeover) taking place at my church!

    And the odd thing is, a “merger” (of a friendlier, godlier sort) was initially suggested by our current pastor, only to have the suggestion be overturned into a campaign to OUST him and reconsider “his call.”

    (Long story, and it’s not over—but thankfully, it seems as though the initial takeover idea is off the table.)

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    Remember, Prays Mill? Mike Everson?

    This is sounding very familiar.

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    Important post clearly defining what an abusive church is like. Sometimes these churches can start out well but like the Galatians ‘go bad’, deceived by Satan spirits.It is difficult for them to break out of this mold as self righteousness,selfishness,stubborness and of course pride will militate against it.Keep up the good work in helping the wounded sheep escape from abusive churches.I was hoping to repost a summary of this post on my own blog at some stage in the future. Would you mind if I did?

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    Shepherding Survivor,

    We are so glad that the information we are posting is of benefit to you and others. Dr. Ronald Enroth gets ALL the credit for this particular post because we simply reported on his book Churches That Abuse. It’s hard to believe he wrote it almost 20 years ago, and it’s still applicable to current abusive situations.

    You are welcome to repost a summary of this post. Let’s just make sure that Dr. Enroth gets all the credit and that God gets all the glory!

    Blessings to you.

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    This article is so right. I discovered the Wartburg Watch totally by accident while we (my family) were struggling with the teachings and attitudes of the new pastor our Southern Baptist Church hired. I’ve become quite the expert on Calvinism, Young Earth, Inerrancy of Scripture and authoritarian/abusive church leadership over the course of the past year. We were part of a sizeable exodus of many of the “core” members of the church (after over a year of trying to work things out). It’s been many months but we (those who left) are still being used as sermon fodder by the pastor. We supposedly could not handle hearing “the truth” being preached and have left to have our “ears tickled”, whatever that means. We’ve also been told by some of those who stayed that they’re not supposed to associate with us any more because we are no longer active members. Shunning I believe the article called it. Those of you who are in a church that is currently searching for a new pastor heed this warning. VETT THEM THOROUGHLY!!!!!!! ASK QUESTIONS AND DEMAND ANSWERS!!!! DO NOT DEPEND ON PASTOR SEARCH COMMITEES TO DO THAT FOR YOU!!!! My research indicates that many seminaries are encouraging these guys to, let’s just say, “gloss over” their views on these subjects during interviews.

    We learned a valuable lesson about hiring a Godly pastor. Instead we hired an arrogant, leagalistic zealot and the church is now ruined. The only upside is that their finances are in such bad shape they won’t last much longer and the largely empty pews mean the damage is limited to a few. But OUR church is gone. We’ve moved on and reluctantly found a new church home but we were damaged by this. I’m a normally cynical person but now my cynicism includes church leaders. I’m finding it very hard to trust again.

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    Welcome to The Wartburg Watch! We’re glad you found us. Because of your unfortunate experience, you will probably find many of our posts helpful. Check out the articles that focus on hyper-authoritarianism and Calvinism.

    Would you consider writing a guest post about your experience, leaving out names, the identity of your church, etc.? Our readership keeps growing, and your testimony could help alert unsuspecting congregations.

    Hope you will keep reading and commenting.

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    You should hear a few comments made by the pastor about us. He even “reported” us to a church we were considering. I don’t blame you on the trust issue. I found refuge in a previous church were the pastors knew us. We drive a little longer but it is nice to be safe and to be amongst those who actually intelligently look at this issues before delivering a canned, knee jerk, uninformed spiel that is boring and trite.

    I wonder if it would be possible to have people write in with good churches that are theologically careful but not rigid in the things you mentioned. Hmmm, something to contemplate.

    Jerry, there are good folks out there. I pray there is something near you. But know this. You are in solid company here at TWW.

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    Dee and Deb,

    I think I could do both! Write about our family’s experience and about good churches that are theologically careful about these matters. I believe theologically “thoughtful” works better. It implies there’s room for discussion and consideration of another person’s views on these issues. That was the root of why we left our church. Not the theology, but the contepmt for anyone that questions it. I love the way you guys label these as “A” and “B” issues, and I use it all the time now. We modern Christians sure do like to get wrapped around the axle on “B” issues. My Grandfather would say we can’t see the forest for the trees. Give me a week or so to collect my thoughts and I’ll e-mail something to you. Thanks for the offer.

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    Sounds great. I like your term “theologically thoughtful.” In fact, that describes my current church perfectly. I shall adopt said term forthwith!

    Do you know the saying “In essentials, unity; in nonessential, liberty; and in all things, charity?” Many churches today want “In all things, my way or the highway.”

    My current pastor often says “Major on the majors; minor on the minors.” He knows the difference.

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    Jerry, Our SBC seminaries are churning these guys out by the hundreds and have been for 20 years.