What do Churches and Cults Have in Common?...


Written by: Hux, Clete    Posted on: 05/01/2003


Category: Cults / Sects / Non Christian Religions and Topics


Source: CCN


What do Churches and Cults Have in Common?

                  Spiritually Abusive Systems
                          by Clete Hux

(Adapted from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen).

The authors of the above book have done the body of Christ a great service. Through their discernment and collective experiences, they have distinguished seven characteristics which can be found in all spiritually abusive systems.

One might expect to find such characteristics only in cults, however, as we shall see, these are unfortunately found in some Bible based groups, movements and churches. These are:


Power Posturing

This means that the leaders spend a lot of time focusing on their own authority and reminding others of it as well. This is a necessary trait in such a system because their spiritual authority isn't real or genuine so it has to be postured if there is to be any. The leader subtly replaces Christ or God over one's conscience.

A church leader or pastor might say: "In this flock, I'm the chief shepherd!" Such an attitude really assumes the place reserved only for the King of Kings. Christ is the Chief Shepherd and the head of the church. Jesus says in Matthew 28:18, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth."

Ronald Enroth in his excellent new book Churches that Abuse, documents a perfect example of such abuse by Pastor Phil Aquilar of Set Free Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California.

In addressing his flock, Aquilar has said, "You need to trust God through me; I know what's best for you." In discussing his responsibility as shepherd of Set Free, he tells his church, "People in this church, don't you say anything about each other. I can say anything I want. I can call you anything I want because I have the responsibility and the accountability according to God's Word for each and every one of you. I can say what I want. You don't have that responsibility and accountability. I do" (p. 81).

Unhealthy, authoritative leadership encourages people to put their leaders on a pedestal. This type of leader is eager to place people under them under their word, under their authority.


Performance Preoccupation

In an abusive spiritual system, those running such a system will be preoccupied with the performance of their members: worthiness = performance (often perfectionistism).

There are many churches where the leadership of those who serve require the servants to document how they spend their time every day, including how much Bible reading is considered enough, how many hours were spent witnessing, and even going so far as being confronted for spending 15 minutes instead of 10 taking a bath.

This system doesn't really foster holiness or obedience to God, it merely accommodates the leaders' interpretation of spirituality and their need for control. It distorts God's unconditional love.

Obedience and submission is important. Such passages as Romans 13:1; I Peter 5:5; and Hebrews 13:17 stress both. For the purpose of balance, we have to add what Peter says in Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than men."

Johnson and VanVonderen correctly add, "Out of context, obedience to leaders looks like good theology. Add the larger context and you will see that it is only appropriate to obey and submit to leadership when their authority is from God and their stance is consistent with His" (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 66). It is not to be lorded over them.


Unspoken Rules

These are rules which govern unhealthy churches or families but are not formally stated or written. Since they are not spoken verbally, you do not find out that the rule(s) exist until you have broken one.

The unspoken rule may come across like this: Do not disagree with the church authorities especially the pastor or your loyalty will be suspect. Silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor's power position from scrutiny or challenge.

Of the unspoken rules, the can't talk rule is probably the most powerful. The thinking of this rule is: The real problem can not be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change, so it must be protected behind walls or silence (neglect or by assault legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated.

A good example of this can't talk rule would be the phrase touch not the Lord's anointed. According to John Avanzini, Dr. Walter Martin (a cult apologetic expert) died because he spoke out against some of the Word-Faith teachers and their messages (John Avanzini with Paul Crouch, Spring 1990 Praise-a-thon, broadcast on Trinity Broadcast Network).

Again, Enroth gives an example of the same thing which happened with Pat, a former youth worker at Phil Aquilar's Set Free Ministries. Six months after having left Set Free, Pat came back to visit her sister in law. Aquilar met him and began calling him names. A few minutes later, Aquilar's secretary shows up and joins in by telling Pat that he's treading on dangerous ground and that God would probably take Pat's life because he was "messing with a man who was anointed by God" (op. cit.).

Speaking up or against spiritual abuse is not the problem. The real problem is if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior.


Lack of Balance

Many times this characteristic shows up in one extreme or another in trying to live out the truth of Christian life. The first extreme is that of extreme objectivism, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. This can be seen in those whose religious systems theologically acknowledges the Holy Spirit's work but on a practical level appears to ignore Him.

All too often this type of extreme limits God to act only those ways we can explain or understand. In some respect this is like the Jehovah's Witness who doesn't accept the doctrine of the Trinity and other orthodox teachings because they reason if they can't understand it, it must not be of Jehovah.

The second extreme is that of extreme subjectivism, which is deciding what is true based upon feelings and experiences rather than what the Bible teaches. In such a system, people are led to believe that they cannot understand Scriptural truths until the leaders receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord and impart them to the people. Such is the case with the revelation knowledge that many Word-Faith teachers claim. Much more will be said about this in future articles.

Words of Wisdom and Words of Knowledge can come from God through spiritually sensitive people today. However, these words do not supersede the authoritative weight of the Apostles. The only real way to be sure that a word from the Lord is for you, is if it's the Word of the Lord, that is, Scripture. And yes, even in this, Scripture is not to be used to manipulate people.



When the church or family is spiritually abusive, there will be a sense (spoken or unspoken) that "others will not understand what we're about so let's not let them know that way they won't be able to ridicule or persecute us."

Jackson and VanVonderen make the point that in such a system persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. The reason is that the evil, dangerous or unspiritual people outside the system are trying to weaken or destroy "us." They go on to say, "This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, making it more difficult for people to leave because they will then be outside too."

As one former Boston Church of Christ follower said, "To leave the Boston Church of Christ even to leave for another congregation of the Church of Christ was not a recognized option; to leave was a weak, sinful thing to do, tantamount to opting for perdition" (op. cit., p. 203).

A self contained spiritual system can be a very harmful thing because it keeps people wounded.


Misplaced Loyalty

In a spiritually abusive system, a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. Loyalty not to Christ but to an organization, church or leader. Because authority is assumed or legislated, and therefore not real, following must be legislated as well.

We see this very clearly with the Jehovah's Witnesses with their blind loyalty to whatever the Watchtower says. This is true for all cults because of the tendency to divide loyalties.

Included in this is the attitude that "we alone are right" something the leadership projects. So many groups have this in common. When Hobart Freeman began Faith Assembly (not associated with the Assemblies of God) loyalty to him and his teachings were to be accepted without question. To question Freeman, a self-acknowledged "prophet of God" was to risk the charge of blasphemy.

In such a spiritually abusive system, manipulation certainly takes place, especially in the area of dating and marriage. Leaders of groups keep members in check by forbidding them to date. Some of this can be seen in Maranatha Christian Ministries, as well as other groups.



There is no reason to hide what is appropriate, only what is inappropriate. When you see people in a religious system being secretive WATCH OUT!

Perhaps one reason spiritually abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. People in these systems cannot even live up to their own performance standards so they have to hide what is real.

When these characteristics exist in a church or Christian group, the result will be abuse. The answer is in the right use of God's Word.