Churches That Abuse – Part 2


Today I will continue a blog series on the book Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth with a focus on control-oriented leadership and spiritual elitism–two hallmarks of abusive churches.

What is it that makes a church a “special” place for its members?  Charismatic leaders have an influence on people, sometimes for good, but in the case of an abusive church, disastrous.  These leaders control the vision for the church through persuasive speech and bold proclamations.  This is how Pastor Barnett built his church.

If there is just one word to describe Don Barnett and his church, it would be “control” –autocratic control over the lives of the individual members.  Barnett’s pastoral “concerns” went so far as to dictate how close together people should sit in the pews of his church…[1]


Most members experienced a totalitarian system of control in which all free time, outside of employment, was given to the “assembly,” or church….   It was not unusual to spend five or six nights a week in church.  When asked what members did for fun, Robin responded, “That is what we did for fun, we went to church.”  [2]

As we’ve seen above Pastor Barnett had total control.  Often, new believers are easy targets, and while they may be familiar with the bible they don’t always have a good command of the bible.  They can be swayed by the truth with a slight degree of error.  Truth mixed with error is error and the subtle errors are the most difficult to detect.

The tragedy of Community Chapel goes back to a misplaced loyalty.  People, thinking that they were placing their allegiance in the Word of God, were actually placing their allegiance in a man and his interpretation of the Word of God.  That is crucial to understanding why people were so easily deceived.  They thought that they were really obeying the Word of God.


The comments of a former elder who was associated with the church for eighteen years before resigning are insightful: “As I look back on it now, it is clear that, subtly at first, there began to be a feeling of superiority and exclusiveness among the people.  This was more evident in some than in others, but I think we all were affected by it.  There began to be a feeling that this church was unique, and that while we loved other brothers in Christ, to leave Community Chapel would always be a step down spiritually.


The pastor rarely had other preachers in to minister to us, feeling that they really couldn’t add anything to us, and might only foster divisions and problems.  I feel that this is one of the critical factors in the sad things that happened later: no checks and balances with the rest of God’s people, and no accountability to other men of God outside our own little circle.[3]

Controlling leaders able to articulate the “specialness” of the church, create a buy-in process for the membership and future members.  “We’re unique! There’s no one else like us! We’re faithful!”

You will hear things like “Other people really wish they had a church like this…”

“I just don’t hear about the type of love we show one another…”

“Some may think this is legalism, but it’s really a desire to pursue a higher level of holiness…”

Spiritual elitism can be fostered through daily life and it is often controlled through a systematic message, consistently fostered through the leadership.  We are the “Special Forces” of the church world.  We take it to a whole new level, exemplifying the Christian pursuit of Christ’s calling.

As one ex-member put it, “We believed we were on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the world.  I looked down on people who left our movement; they didn’t have what it took.  They were not faithful to their commitment.  When everyone else got with God’s program, they would be involved in shepherding just like we were.”


Community Chapel’s Pastor Barnett regularly reminded his followers that their church was special.  “We’ve got to go on into a new thing that God promised in his Word that no church has ever come into yet…. Do you know of any other church in which people are loving each other with that same kind of unconditional love?  I don’t.”  [4] 

Spiritual elitism convinces members that their families need special attention.  They have not heard, nor have been under, the teaching of these leaders, they are certainly a lesser Christian if even a Christian at all. Barbara explains her experience:

Because she came to believe that her whole family would be lost if she didn’t try to convert them (the Boston churches constituted the only “true Church”), Barbara was constantly speaking to them about their salvation.  Her family grew tired of the spiritual barrage, as did her old friends, so Barbara ended up moving into an apartment with four other women from the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ.[5]

There is an intense pressure to save those we love and, as Barbara stated, “She constantly felt guilty.”  Christians don’t desire to see their loved ones suffer in Hell; and their salvation can only come by a prescribed manner consistent with the abusive church.

The Spiritual Elite Churches place a high emphasis on evangelism and efforts are commended where many are reached for the lost through passing of pamphlets and tallies of the amounts that went out.  The modern church is an easy target to setup the elitism because there is a seeming lack of passion for the lost. In elitist churches, unhealthy expectations and feelings of guilt are entrenched if members are not working for God to bring the lost to Christ in the way they’ve been instructed to do so. After all, they wouldn’t want to be like all the other so-called Christian compromisers out there.

Spiritual elitism, fostered by control-oriented leaders, leads to churches that abuse because at the root of the problem is spiritual pride.

One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor (Proverbs 29:23).

Next time, we will discover that maintaining control requires a system of reporting and monitoring of the sheep through what’s called “the shepherding movement” and Here.



[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 37

[2] Ibid – Page 38

[3] Ibid – Page 48

[4] Ibid – Page 118

[5] Ibid – Page 112

6 thoughts on “Churches That Abuse – Part 2

  1. Good article
    It seems as if it would be difficult to detect if they are in an abusive church. A believer has a desire to grow in sanctification and entrust themselves to the leadership. The word is used, others are fully into the church.

    Also It seems as leadership loses sight of whose church it ultimately belongs to which is Christ, not the pastor or overseers of the flock.

    1. I agree Jeff, it can be difficult to detect. It seems for those in churches that have these tendencies to rely on the Spirit of God and the word of God.

      Learn these tendencies and be able to identify them as they seem to be consistent.

      1. Hey Kevin! How’s it going? Just saw this and thought of a few situations that fall into this category. It has been my experience that most of the time people have some type of inclination that some situation is ‘off’ or even very wrong. They may not know in the moment at hand how to articulate the error or be able to put their finger on it exactly… But they know. Often when they look back, they say something like, “It was right in front of me and I did not see it.” Or “I knew something was off, I just didn’t understand it at the time.” I think we all have a responsibility to press into God’s Word and the Holy Spirit during these moments and seek the truth. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and hope for the best without due diligence. I do believe in commitment, loyalty, and mercy/love that covers multitudes of sins but not to the extent that they replace the pursuit of Jesus, Our Father’s wisdom, and sound doctrine. Anyway, I don’t actually think that most people find it difficult to detect… They/we usually know… They /we just might find it hard to do something about it.

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