In this post I’ll be wrapping up my review of Ronald M. Enroth’s book Churches that Abuse, I have some final thoughts, admonitions and hope for this series. I hope that someone may recognize the characteristics of an abusive church and know how to stand against them. It is also an admonition and warning those that continue in and support these churches to stop supporting them and work toward change or leave them. Since the garden, Satan has been working to disrupt and distract from the simplicity of the gospel message. Christ has established the church to bring glory and honor to Himself and the adversary is constantly working to distract us from the gospel message. Let us not forget it is Christ’s church.
Pastoral abuse can be spotted quite easily, at least in its advanced stages. Abusive religion substitutes human power for true freedom in Christ. Unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are its hallmarks. Leaders who practice spiritual abuse exceed the bounds of legitimate authority and “lord it over the flock,” often intruding into the personal lives of members. God’s will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know. Abusive leaders are self-centered and adversarial rather than reconciling and restorative.
God’s sheep can experience abuse, but they can also be complicit in the act of abuse; Paul warned Timothy these things would happen. Paul’s warning against “easy believe-ism” in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 applies just as much to conservative churches.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4
Notice, Paul writes about people having teachers “to suit their own passions…” Have you ever known a legalist? They love legalism.
Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to leave an abusive relationship?
Abused individuals sometimes turn away from listening to the truth and they prefer myths. There becomes a level of comfort with the situation. The Stockholm Syndrome can become a very real thing. Abusive teachers stay in power because the people either tolerate them or even celebrate them.
What protects sheep from abuse? Who monitors them? Biblically, a plurality among leadership is helpful except when they all believe and support the same theories or have one dominant personality or confrontation and disagreement is not allowed.
Confessions of faith are a safeguard, yet even confessional churches can fall into the trap of authoritarianism. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 offers a remedy:
Chapter 26 – Paragraph 15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned;29 howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.30
29 Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23,25
30 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 John 4:1
It’s important for local churches to have other local churches that come together and solve problems that have moved beyond the singular local church. But is it even possible for abusive churches or authoritarian leaders to seek and follow counsel from outside sources? Notice the purpose is not “to impose their determination on the churches or officers” but to counsel with them. Authoritarian, abusive leaders don’t take counsel from others.
Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war. – Proverbs 20:18
Most of the abusive churches I have studied are independent, autonomous groups. They are not part of a denomination or network that could provide checks and balances or any kind of accountability. As we have seen over and over again in these pages, their leaders are accountable to no one and resist any outside scrutiny.
Author, blogger and open-air evangelist Peter Boland made the observation that, “Some of the issues are fairly widespread. It seems to have crept into the Reformed camp due to an overreaction regarding church membership. It’s an overreaction to ‘easy believe-ism’ and the ‘no commitment’ church attendance of the 20th century. So now there is this strong emphasis on the membership submitting to the authorities and powers that be, in order to prove, that we are somehow wiser and holier, and that we have more of a ‘healthy church,’ than those mainstream Evangelical churches of the 20th century.”
Abuse can happen on all levels but as people seek a deeper understanding of Christianity, they seek Bible teaching, they affirm and long for more than a surface level faith, and there can be an overreaction. Sometimes young or growing Christians can swing the pendulum in the other direction. The Marrow Controversy of the 18th Century exemplified some of the very same issues as Sinclair Ferguson has so eloquently written about in his book, The Whole Christ.
In the well-known sermon Ten Shekels and a Shirt, Paris Reidhead describes the prophet seeking a place to fit. He was willing to settle for a paycheck and a garment of clothing. He wasn’t terribly interested in pursuing the best interest of his congregants and ultimately the Lord. While he may have thought he was, he had an ulterior motive.
Today’s abusive pastor has an ulterior motive. His life doesn’t match his words. As John MacArthur describes, “he’s a moral heretic.” When power or position has been achieved, it’s difficult to let go. It’s difficult for an authoritarian man to face the truth that his life doesn’t match his speech. Is the expectation perfection? Of course not! But these men are called to a high standard and blatant hypocrisy should never be accepted.
As long as Satan prowls around seeking whom he may devour, there will be abusive churches.
Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. Acts 20:31
The antithesis of the misuse of power is gentleness, which is best seen and understood within the framework of strength. Gentle leaders, pastors, or teachers do not force their insights and wisdom on the unlearned, nor flaunt their gifts before those in need. They are patient. They take time for those who are slow to understand. They are compassionate with the weak, and they share with those in need. Being a gentle pastor, shepherd, leader, or teacher is never a sign of being weak, but of possessing power clothed in compassion.
This [gentleness] is in stark contrast to the style of abusive leaders, who, as we have seen, often lack compassion and a gentle spirit. Power has a way of blinding the conscience so that those who spiritually and psychologically abuse others (like abusive parents) show little sign of remorse and repentance. They deny any guilt for what they have done to people. And they project their own weaknesses onto others.
Be ever watchful dear friends, know the signs of an abusive church, know how they operate, and be aware. The greatest defense against abuse is a knowledge of how abusive churches and leaders operate, and most importantly, having an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures. May the Lord bless His sheep and keep them by His grace.
 Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 217
 Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 217
 Harrold Bussell, Unholy Devotion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 70
 Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 219