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:
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
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.
Unhealthy, authoritative leadership encourages people to put
their leaders on a pedestal. This type of leader is eager to
place people under them þ under their word, under their
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
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.
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 þ 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 þ 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
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 þ 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 þ because they will then be outside too.”
As one former Boston Church of Christ follower said, “To leave
the Boston Church of Christ þ even to leave for another
congregation of the Church of Christ þ 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.
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
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” þ
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
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 þ 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