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Cultic Studies Journal

Churches That Abuse


Psychological Manipulation and Society

Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society

Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992

Churches That Abuse
Ronald M. Enroth. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, 227 pages.
Reviewer: Maxine Pinson

In 1989, after undergoing a traumatic experience of spiritual abuse in a mainstream Protestant church, I needed help. Once I categorized my experience as spiritual abuse, I made a trip to a Christian bookstore to purchase anything I could find about this type of abuse. The bookstore was well stocked, but I left empty-handed. The clerk informed me that numerous books were available on abuses from A–Z. But "spiritual abuse?" Sorry, she had just never heard of that before.

I was appalled to discover that particular bookstore was not an exception: books on spiritual abuse were simply not available. "Oh, we have books on cults. Is that what you mean?" clerks asked. Their blank looks fed my frustration as well as my determination to discover a book on spiritual abuse. I began scavenging the catalogues of Christian book clearinghouses, certain that a book must be available on spiritual abuse somewhere. Certainly this most vicious form of abuse—the bruising of one's soul—was not being ignored by Christian authors. My search was in vain.

When I learned in mid-1991 that Dr. Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College and a committed Christian, was writing a book on abusive churches, I knew my search was over. Not only was a book being written validating the reality and shocking prevalence of spiritual abuse, but it was being authored by one of the nation's foremost authorities on American religious movements.

Dr. Enroth tackles spiritual abuse head-on in his introduction: "Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority." Churches That Abuse is a powerful, well-documented expos� about "battered believers and abused Christians," most of whom define themselves as "born-again Christians," individuals spiritually abused by churches and leaders that are evangelical or fundamentalist in theological orientation.

Abusive churches, according to Dr. Enroth, are not a phenomenon peculiar to current times. Paralleling abusive churches of the past with those of today, Enroth presents characteristics that serve as reliable warning signals:

There is strong, control-oriented leadership.

The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation by the leadership to manipulate members and keep them in line.

Followers led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs, and that God has singled them out for a special purpose.

Other, more traditional churches are put down as being less "holy."

Subjective experience, especially public or group testimonials (sometimes coached), are encouraged and emphasized.

Many areas of members' lives are subject to scrutiny, and the church standards established are usually based upon the life-style adopted by the leader.

Rules and legalism abound.

Members not following rules established by the leadership (or threatening exposure of the manipulation and abuse) are often labeled "reprobates" or "dupes of Satan," and are dealt with harshly. Ostracism of former members and excommunication of dissenters are common.

For members choosing to leave a spiritually abusive church, returning to the realm of normalcy is difficult.

Effectively elaborating upon each abusive element, using illustrative case histories, Enroth explains how each victim was initially deceived, the abuse experienced, and the aftermath of the individual's experience with toxic faith. The tragedy of spiritual abuse is explained as a phenomenon often resulting from unhealthy leadership styles, even when the church is one that is Bible-based and, for the most part, theologically sound.

Dr. Enroth realistically warns that abusive churches will always exist. With this in mind, how can abusive churches be recognized, avoided, and deterred from spreading?

According to Enroth, unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are the hallmark warning sings. "Abusive leaders are self-centered and adversarial, rather than reconciling and restorative," writes Enroth. He points out that most of the abusive churches in his study are independent, autonomous groups that are not part of a denomination providing checks and balances or that do not have any kind of accountability for those in charge. Rather, they establish their own rules of discipline and church courts. Numerous case histories are cited in his book providing examples of these abusive leadership styles. Dr. Enroth concludes his book with a challenge to the Christian church encouraging "the development of discernment skills among believers so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or a false doctrine is diminished."

How can the effects of spiritual abuse be understood by one who is unfamiliar with this phenomenon? How can victims of spiritual abuse be helped?

Dr. Enroth compares individuals injured by a spiritually abusive environment to rape victims or those suffering from the delayed stress syndrome experienced by war veterans. He explains that recovery from "spiritual rape" is a long and painful process, even if the exposure to the influence only lasted a few months or less. According to one victim, "The complexity of the experience is so great that it is impossible to adequately communicate it to someone who has not gone through it."

Though it is possible to heal from spiritual abuse without a support system or professional help, it is difficult. It is also difficult to help someone when the dynamics of an experience are not understood. Churches That Abuse is a long-awaited book, providing empathetic insight into a spiritually abused victim's plight; it is also a valuable resource providing guidelines for those wanting to reach out to a victim. Reading this book will help to authoritatively define and validate the reality of spiritual abuse for victims who have felt "crazy" because of their inability to define their problem adequately. It is a book that boldly exposes the insidious dynamics and ramifications of spiritual abuse for those who have not experienced or been exposed to such abuse. An enlightening book for pastors, church leaders, church members, and those in the helping professions, it is also recommended as a must-read educational resource for members of all faith communities.

As one who has personally dealt with the paralyzing effects wrought by an abusive church environment, I heartily endorse Churches That Abuse and strongly encourage the addition of it to church, professional, and personal libraries. Until the reality of spiritual abuse is recognized and acknowledged, this heinous form of abuse will continue to be swept under church pews, sowing havoc in Christian churches—and, as Dr. Enroth's book reveals, no church is immune. Even more tragic, toxic faith and spiritual abuse that are not confronted will continue shattering the lives of unsuspecting, trusting Christians who turn to such churches for refuge, hope, and spiritual nurturing. Understanding the scope of a problem is the first step in curtailing or stopping it. Churches That Abuse provides this crucial understanding.

Maxine Pinson
Publisher/Editor, Savannah Parent
Savannah, Georgi

Book Review by Margaret Thaler Singer


Other books by Ronald M. Enroth available from Barnes & Nobel:


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