How Do Abusive Churches Learn to Abuse?

I have been long interested in the characteristics02379ef5c4d8bc577dc7234eb6ccf0d9 of abusive churches. But in addition to the characteristics of abusive churches, I am interested in how abusive churches have developed their methodologies. It has long been noted that the behavior of many abusive churches mirror some of the sophisticated methods used by repressive governments and ideological organizations. Some of these include methods that are loosely termed “brainwashing,” as well as utilizing methods of peer group shaming and breaking up of relationships that hinder total loyalty to the organization. I can’t really imagine that some church leaders read up on the methodologies of rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and espionage organizations to be inspired in how to run church. Admittedly, I have heard some pastors with abusive tendencies speak fondly of other pastors or denominations who are authoritarian. That suggests that there may be some cross-pollination of ideas, but that does not seem to be the entire answer.

Obviously, regional culture or sub-culture has an effect.  Some cultures promote strong authoritarian structures, or promote unilateral submission over mutual submission or mutual accountability. In some ways, other religious and other institutional structures can act as a model. The clericalism that developed in the 4th century church was strongly influenced by Roman religious (“pagan”) and government structures. Some churches today are strongly influenced by business models or even the military (or at least a caricature of the military) in establishing tasks above people, and organization above organism. One might add spiritual warfare too, as churches fall into the devilish trap of desiring to be “great” rather than “good.”

However, the biggest influence in how churches “learn” to develop abusive practices, I believe, is:


To hopefully illustrate this point, I will take a quote from Esther Schubert’s article “Current Issues in Screening and Selection” (for missionary candidates) in the 1992 book Missionary Member Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelism (Kelly O’Donnell editor)

Most family systems that work effectively provide maintenance…. and guidance …. Healthy families provide safety, security, and stability. In contrast, dysfunctional families are ruled by rigidity, isolation, denial, and shame. They are unstable, and produce insecurity and pathology in their members. When children of dysfunctional families become adults they continue to see their world through the filter of dysfunction.

…. Children in a dysfunctional family grow up in a closed system, one that teaches rigidity of roles and rules that must be played out in order for the family to survive. Beliefs about people and the outside world are distorted. The outside is viewed as an unsafe place. The child learns “don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust.”

The boundaries that form structure, certainty, and consistency within functional families are distorted or non-existent in dysfunctional families. These boundaries are of three kinds: individual boundaries, inter-generational boundaries, and family boundaries.

Individual boundaries are crossed when children do not have privacy, when they are abused, or when they feel their only worth is based on what they can produce, not who they are. ….

Family boundaries can be extremely rigid in which no one in the family is allowed to communicate with anyone outside the family for fear that family secrets and myths will be discovered …

Boundary violations in dysfunctional families damage children, create a high tolerance for abnormal behavior among the victims, and decrease the inability to distinguish between healthy and dysfunctional behavior.

This section could almost be read by replacing the term family with church, and child with member. This suggests that the Biblical metaphor of the church being a family has a deeper relevance. People tend to relate in church much like they relate in family roles.

Add to this the fact that dysfunctional/abusive leaders (compulsive, or narcissistic, or paranoid leaders as described in MacIntosh and Rima’s book “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership“) develop much of their patterns and motivating trauma in their childhood.

This suggests that dysfunctional/abusive families create:

  • Leaders driven to abusive behavior from learned patterns and traumatically developed insecurities
  • Members that tolerate and eventually embrace abusive behavior
  • Patterns of behavior that are mimicked by churches.

Some solution seems to be:

  • Promote healthy families. This is more than wistful calls for a return to traditional godly families, or wishful calls for reestablishing extended family structures. It involves training today’s generation to have families that are cohesive and godly, with structured flexibility and healthy boundaries.
  • Screen leaders. Leaders, under stress, will revert to old patterns… often the very old patterns of the families they were raised in. This is not to say that a leader should be rejected simply because he or she comes from a dysfunctional family. But the past must be explored and addressed. Ignoring will not make it go away. Chances are it will come out, eventually.
  • Pastoral care for members. Church members need appropriate pastoral care to address the past, make healthy choices in the present, and create a healthy future. Listening to preaching, singing songs, sitting in Sunday School or Bible study, reading the Bible, praying, and the like are not certain to deal with the past effectively.

Noting the last one, pastoral care must be done both individually and corporately. Churches and Families are systems, and need to be dealt with systemically. In fact, only dealing with members that show symptoms of problems may be the wrong approach. They may simply be early evidences of a problem elsewhere, including a systemic problem (much like a sick canary in a mine evidences a problem in the mine system, so treating the canary doesn’t really solve the problem).


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