Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.
Observer, 1992, Volume 9, No. 4
It is common practice
for churchgoers in American society to refer to their own congregation
as their “church family.” Students
away at college make reference to their “home church.”
Church people sing hymns about being part of “the family of
God.” Parents often employ family imagery to convey spiritual content
to their children.
As behavioral scientists
remind us all too often, that most basic of social institutions—the
family—is increasingly subject to frailty and failure.
The label that is currently popular for unhealthy families is
sociologists of religion (as well as many ex‑members) know that
some churches are also
dysfunctional, even to the point of being spiritually abusive.
If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion,
some churches would be required to display a sign reading: “Warning:
this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological
Not if my own research of the past few years has any validity at
all. Sadly, spiritual and pastoral abuse is more prevalent than most
people believe. Like child
abuse, it often goes undetected, or else it is strongly denied.
Spiritual abuse is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect
and honor in society by virtue of their positions of religious authority
and leadership. When such
leaders violate the sacred trust they have been given, when they abuse
their authority, and when they misuse their ecclesiastical office to
control their congregations, the results can be catastrophic.
What are the hallmarks
of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The
key indicator is control‑oriented leadership, ministers who have a
need to “lord it over the flock.” Abusive leaders demand submission
and unquestioning loyalty. The
person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not “get with the
program” is cast aside. Guilt,
fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable
members, especially those who have been taught to believe that
questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.
Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a
spiritual tyrant? I believe
it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise
power over people. Each of
us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of
spouse, teacher, or parent. An
excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can
lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.
More than any other age
group, young adults are attracted to abusive churches, their seemingly
dynamic programs, and their “take charge” leaders.
Such churches often target young couples during the crucial
child‑bearing years. As
a result, the energy needed by these young couples for legitimate family
interaction is siphoned off into a high intensity cause.
Family obligations are sacrificed, and children’s developmental
needs are neglected.
How can we recognize a
healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy
church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist.
Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family
commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions
from members without threat of reprisal.
Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will
establish checks and balances.
Choose a church
carefully and prayerfully. Remember,
not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial.
M. Enroth, Ph.D.