1. Abuse of any kind.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but sadly, abuse is often explained away. Abusive behavior is termed a “misunderstanding,” or worse yet, part of “Godly discipline.” There is no truth in this. Abuse of any kind is antithetical to the gospel of Christ.

Spotting abuse can be difficult as there are several different types of abuse. We are eerily aware of horrific reports of physical or sexual abuse within the church. Violence of any kind is unwarranted in the community of faith. Sexual abuse ranges from rape and pedophilia to extramarital affairs between church leaders and parishioners.

Emotional or psychological abuse is when the community deliberately strips away a person’s self-confidence, identity, or independence. Receiving God’s love becomes wrapped up in the need to obey the rules and demands of the community. Disobedience, or failure to act in perfect righteousness, coincides with the threat of judgment. Such judgment can only be alleviated by placating the demands of the church leadership.

Another form of emotional or psychological abuse is when a leader becomes too emotionally invested in a churchgoer, using the person to prop up his/her own emotional wellbeing. The leader may over-share deeply personal or intimate details of their lives. Or perhaps they request the individual to disclose secrets themselves. Such sharing may not be sexual in nature but will undoubtedly result in the creation of a co-dependent relationship between the leader and the churchgoer.

Financial abuse is when a community demands financial benefits at the expense of an individual’s own livelihood. Financial abuse goes beyond the call to tithe. Giving is often exorbitant and tied to receiving “special blessings.” When these blessings do not materialize, however, this is rationalized by declaring the individual did not give enough.

2. Questions are met with hostility.

Abusive communities do not like questions or criticisms. Importantly, it matters not what question is asked. The question may be as simple as the type of music to be played in worship, to how the annual “Friendship Bazaar” is to be structured. Questions that pertain to why something occurs are often met with vague appeals to “how it always is” or “everyone just knows how to do things.” Suggesting a different course of action, or worse yet declaring that one disagrees with an action taken, is met with hostility and judgment.

In abusive communities, questions and criticisms are seen as a direct attack against the church leadership. They are out of line and deserve to be punished. Individuals who question church practices are ridiculed or negatively branded. He or she is declared problematic, disruptive, or worse yet, “not a real Christian.” The person may even be ejected from the community under the rhetorical of “expel the wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:13). In the end, the community rallies to protect themselves rather than engage in a frank and honest discussion.