Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Are You in a Red Flag Church?

Spiritual Abuse Basics: Are You in a Red Flag Church?

 Take heed that no man deceive you. Mt. 24:4
Do you attend a church where everything is seemingly great, but leaves you wondering and empty inside? Does everyone seem to enter into worship and seem to be satisfied, but you're not? If you have a nagging feeling that something just isn't right but you can't nail it down, you may be in an abusive church. Satan masquerades as an angel of light and will come looking like a ministry full of light and life and all things wonderful. But underneath is nothing more than control masked as protection.

Red flag churches aren't obvious. They have a very slick veneer of spirituality that deceives those who attend into thinking they are in a solid fellowship. The truth isn't apparent until you've been there for awhile and start to see the junk that goes on underneath the surface. Scripture is twisted to meet the requirements of the assumed authority of the leadership, but just enough truth is preached to keep people hooked. The doctrines promoted in these churches place huge stumbling blocks in the path of those searching for the truth, deceptive doctrines that essentially pull people into seeking the honor of men rather than the honor of God.

If you have been attending a church that leaves you feeling empty, confused and feeling guilty, and if you feel like something is wrong, but you just can't put your finger on it, you may be in an abusive church. The main problem is that as long as you are in a church like this, the only thing that you will recognize is the nagging feeling that something is just not right. The bewitching influence of the false doctrine preached in these churches blinds their members to the truth so that getting through to those under this influence is a bit of a trick.

Another problem is in seeing the situation as actually abusive. I was very slow to acknowledge the abusive nature of the church I was in, mostly because I knew that the pastor's intent was good, that he was a "nice guy", and that much of what went on in the services had enough truth in it to keep most of us hooked for years. I left out of frustration, but it took a good year or so to come to terms with the fact that it indeed was both a cult, and abusive. The terminology put me off for a long time.
 In my research after pulling out of that church, I found that the whole basic setup we call "church" is mostly traditions of men. The structure that is adhered to in any traditional church is the basic "one man rule" setup that puts one man, woman or couple in charge, leaving everyone else dependent on them for a "word from God". The Church was never intended to be patterned off man-made power structures in the first place. We are to be led by the Spirit, not some man-appointed leader. Jesus even told us in Matthew 20:26 that "it shall not be so among you." Paul said, "But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you." (1 John 2:27) 
But walk into any church in any town, and that's what you'll see- some man or woman set up as the spiritual authority, and the rest relegated to sheep status. And in my opinion, this is the basic problem that lends itself to abuse so very readily. We are too programmed to submit to a man-made authority without testing the spirits, without being led by the Spirit. Would that I had been led by the Spirit when I first walked in those doors. Maybe Christians are just too gullible.

Because you are reading this, I assume you have questions concerning the church you attend, or perhaps one that someone you know attends. I can't stress enough the subtlety of spiritual abuse; if you have any doubts at all, the chances are great that the church you question is not right. This post will give you a quick overview of what to look for to identify an abusive church. If you want more information, a free download of my book Red Flag Churches: Distinguishing Protection from Control is available at

The Spiritual Covering Doctrine

Absolute Authority, Submission and Obedience

In abusive churches, submission to authority is the main theme of most sermons and something that is always lurking around in the background. In their estimation, the dumb sheep need their leadership and oversight because they are more "spiritual" than the rest of us. They have the calling, they have the training and possibly the education, and so they are qualified to lord it over the congregation.

One of the main tenets taught in these churches is that you must be submitted to authority to have authority, a concept taken from a Watchman Nee book, Spiritual Authority. Beware of any church that uses this book as required reading for any leadership training. Out of this concept comes the whole spiritual covering doctrine, a doctrine that essentially says that you can't leave their oversight or evil will befall you- a neat little controlling mechanism. Any church that uses this book as required reading is more than likely abusive- a red flag church.

Submission IS a biblical concept, but not the way it is demanded in abusive churches. Submission in biblical context is mutual with submission to one another, not the very one-sided version found in these churches. Along the same line are the armor bearer books. These books promote a position of servitude to a leader, but with a façade of honor. These so-called armor bearers are people that follow the leaders around like puppy dogs doing their bidding, and not just in church. This extends into their personal lives as well, doing errands and whatever else the controlling leadership desires. Serving is one thing, but requiring servitude from someone to prove their loyalty is entirely different. Beware of any church that uses these books as required reading. I don't really know if the author's intent is biblical or not, I just know how controlling leadership uses these books for their own purposes.

Authority is never really delegated in these churches because absolutely everything goes through the leaders anyway. They bestow title and position, but there is no real authority that goes with it. Those that receive these honors are just people who rubber stamp the leadership in whatever they decide they want, and any challenge to their authority is deemed a challenge to God Himself. One of their favorite Bible verses is Psalm 105:15- "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm." That one is trotted out regularly to threaten anyone that might take issue with them. "Mine anointed" creates the aura of holiness that builds the intimidation factor- "I'm holy and you're not, so you can't touch me."

Titles are very important to these kinds of leaders, titles and image. Everything is a façade with image being the overriding priority in their thinking. Because image is so important, they will lie from the pulpit to protect it. You will not know why people have left unless you actually go to the ones that left and ask, and that is actively discouraged. An ex-elder once told me that they were instructed by the pastors to make them look good. That was the only reason they were bestowed with the title "elder". Red flag, perhaps??

See my post The Spiritual Covering Doctrine for more information.

Religion- The Stumbling Block

Works, Works and More Works

Abusive churches are run by a system that promotes works and rules that are both spoken and unspoken. To gain the attention of the leadership and possible ministry position, people jump through hoop after hoop of works to prove their loyalty. And abusive leaders love loyalty.
Religion is works and works will bewitch those under its influence, and I can speak from firsthand experience when I say that you just don't see it until you get out from under it. It wasn't until I left that I realized everyone in there was consumed with brown-nosing to gain position and power.

These churches are psychological pits of codependency- people in leadership that need to prove themselves with works, and those that choose to submit to their authority and are willing to play the game. It is a sick treadmill in which the people are completely dependent on the leadership for everything, and some of the people want it that way.

Never forget- religion bewitches. Works bewitch. Under its influence you no longer see things as they are.


Worshiping Men and Money

Your loyalty is gauged by your performance, so as you begin to be consumed with proving your loyalty to the leadership, your focus shifts more and more away from pleasing God to pleasing men.

The intimidating nature of the leadership lends itself very readily to encouraging idolatry, with loyalty oaths and statements being rather common in these churches. These contracts or whatever you care to call them are statements of allegiance to men and lead to ungodly soul ties and idolatry. (For more information about soul ties, get the book Breaking Unhealthy Soul Ties by Bill and Susan Banks.) When this kind of commitment is made, leaving becomes much more difficult, and the draw back into the controlling environment becomes very strong. If you are presented with one of these contracts, DON'T SIGN!! Then sit back and look for other red flags.

Along with the idolatry aspect goes the whole atmosphere of covetousness. The prosperity doctrine is preached and people are encouraged to "use their faith" to obtain the bigger houses and better cars that consume the desires of the leadership. This blatant conspicuous consumption is actively encouraged and considered the "blessing of God". This leads into the demand for the tithe. They twist arms by threatening people with the curse if they don't tithe, something that is completely unbiblical. And they are told that their giving determines their blessing from God, essentially throwing grace out the window. Giving becomes yet more works. Since leaving this church, I have also rethought my position on the tithe. If you are interested, check out To Tithe or Not to Tithe where I have also included links to several good books on the subject. Tithing is a touchy subject but one that needs to be openly discussed and not just accepted.

Silence, Secrecy and Information Control

NEVER Expose the Problem!!

It is absolutely against the unwritten rules to speak against the leadership in any way, shape or form. One never, never questions anything they do. This is the rule that enforces complete silence and it is this rule that allows the leadership to run completely unchecked. They do what they want with no accountability whatsoever. The concept of accountability is a very one-sided process in these churches, with the congregation thoroughly accountable to them, but they are accountable to no one, even though they may say they are. The accountability our pastor claimed was back to the pastor that taught him all this mess in the first place, making it completely worthless. And realizing that the mess goes back to their home church drives home the extent of the problem. Those people have "sent out" other preachers to propagate these dangerous doctrines in other parts of the country.

Nothing is ever done in the church without clear, specific approval. Without that permission granted from on high, you are in danger of committing grave sin, the sin of offering "strange fire", another doctrine that is twisted to serve their own agenda. As stated before, absolutely everything is directly managed by the leadership. We sat through plenty of  "sermons", a.k.a. brainwashing sessions, on offering strange fire that further instilled fear of ever questioning, let alone crossing, the leadership.

The basic characteristics of witchcraft are manipulation, intimidation and domination. If you see these operating in your church, run!! Control is the name of the game, and submission to authority is the chief doctrine that is continually preached- witchcraft indeed. They will do what they have to in order to manipulate, intimidate and dominate their way into your life.

One of the truly aggravating aspects of these churches is the whole atmosphere of secrecy that permeates the place. No one knows anything and this is the way they want it. Information is tightly controlled so that if you want to know anything you have to find it out from the leadership. In the church I attended, even the lady that answered the phone had no clue about anything. She had to field calls all the time from people asking about things she was never told about by the leadership.

Idolatry in the form of the worship of man and the atmosphere of covetousness permeates these places and opens the door to every evil work (James 3:16).


Then there's the rule that says that thou shalt never visit another church. You will receive all you need from them, so you don't need to go anywhere else. Other ministries are regularly denigrated and ties to the outside are cut off. This kind of secrecy and isolation create a great deal of frustration, but of course you're not allowed to talk about it.

I specifically remember the sermons built around the symbolism of a tree- if you pull up a tree by the roots to transplant it regularly it won't ever bear fruit. Right? The illustration was complete with visual aids in the form of a blackboard with a chalk drawing of a tree. We were told that if you don't "get planted" in a church, if you don't quit jumping around, you'll never bear fruit. 
This was just another angle on the move to convince you that you can't leave the place. We got the blackboard lesson at least once a year, and every time it was preached it built the walls around the place a little higher and a little thicker. And the irony was that even though you never left the place and stayed dutifully planted as taught, you weren't going to produce fruit. These places drain you, they don't feed you. 
They are essentially fruit robbers- there is no love, joy or peace in these places. Instead, they promote confusion, frustration and upset. And the longer you stay planted in such an environment, the worse it gets.

The Borg

or Mind-Numbed Robots

In abusive churches, you are expected to go to the leadership for everything; they want to do your thinking for you. Often you are told that you don't hear from God accurately, undermining your confidence. You never make your own decisions in a place like that because you're just dumb sheep that don't have the sense to come in out of the rain without being told. If they know you do hear from God, that would threaten their position of authority, so your confidence will be attacked.

Leadership presents themselves as more spiritual than the masses, and you are continually told to trust them. Dependence on them for everything is the goal, of course. A friend of mine likened it to The Borg on Star Trek- your independent thinking disappears and is taken over by the collective thought of the leadership and all those duly brainwashed into their vision, their goals, their ministry. 

There is no such thing as a vision apart from the "vision of the house". Everything is geared toward that end. Churches that operate biblically will do their best to help you work toward the vision God has given you, lifting you up and promoting you in the process. This will never happen in an abusive church. You are only there to be used by the leadership to promote them and their goals. "Vision of the house" is one of those catch phrases bandied about regularly. It's not found in the Bible.

If you aren't a Star Trek fan, you can read about The Borg at Wikipedia.

Let the Peace of Christ Rule

Peace Should Be the Deciding Factor

And let the peace (soul harmony which comes) from Christ rule (act as umpire continually) in your hearts [deciding and settling with finality all questions that arise in your minds, in that peaceful state] to which as [members of Christ's] one body you were also called [to live]. And be thankful (appreciative), [giving praise to God always]. Col 3:15 AMP

This is such a crucial point- ALWAYS follow peace. If you have no peace in your church, it's time to consider finding another one. Abusive churches will leave you feeling frustrated, unspiritual, joy-less and confused, in other words, in a state that is anything but peaceful. According to the Word, allowing your peace to be taken from you will set you up as a target for the devil:

And God's peace [shall be yours, that tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and being content with its earthly lot of whatever sort that is, that peace] which transcends all understanding shall garrison and mount guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Phil 4:7 AMP

You will guard him and keep him in perfect and constant peace whose mind [both its inclination and its character] is stayed on You, because he commits himself to You, leans on You, and hopes confidently in You. Isaiah 26:3 AMP

The longer you stay in a place where you have no peace, the more access the evil one will have to your mind. Your protection is in peace, it is not in submission to the authority that hangs the spiritual covering doctrine over your head.

I understand all too well how difficult it is to make the decision to leave, mostly because of the investment made into the place in time and resources. You just don't want to face the fact that you made a bad decision. But there are many, many others in the same boat, and God is more than able to recompense. If your church leaves you in a state of upset, I encourage you to just leave quietly and cut your losses.  It is a command to seek peace. For more on leaving an abusive church, see Making the Decision to Leave an Abusive Church.

Bottom Line

Judge the Fruit

It's so important to judge the fruit, not the gifts, and listen to the still, small voice that is trying to guide you into peace. It's so very easy to be beguiled by the spiritual show, but it is the fruit you must look at very carefully.

First, decide if there is any fruit being produced by the church- are people being ministered to, are people getting born again, is there any ministry being done outside the church, ministry to those in the community? Abusive churches become very closed communities with no ministry outside their own group. 
Also look at the fruit displayed by the leadership- do they walk in love and patience or are they harsh, rude and even mean? To see any negative side to their character, you may have to look behind the scenes. Image is all important, so the oh-so-spiritual front may be all they will display during services, though I am sure there are exceptions to this.

Second, look at your own fruit. Are you in peace and joy when you attend services there, or are you left in frustration, confusion and even anger? If your church does not produce the fruit of peace and joy in your spirit, there is something wrong.

And last, if you begin to look around and see that people around you are merely striving for position, title and power, you are in a place that actively promotes idolatry. Jesus is no longer the Head in a red flag church. Abusive leadership consider themselves as a mediator between you and God, usurping Jesus' role as the only Mediator we need. This is idolatry run amok.

If your church fails these tests, you need to consider moving on for the sake of your own well being and certainly for the sake of your family, especially if you have children that are being influenced by this kind of atmosphere. This post is a summary of my book Red Flag Churches which is available as a free download. I encourage you to get educated- this is the first step in finding freedom and true peace. I have several related blog posts which will give you a good start.

IN [this] freedom Christ has made us free [and completely liberated us]; stand fast then, and do not be hampered and held ensnared and submit again to a yoke of slavery [which you have once put off]. Gal. 5:1 AMP

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. 
1 John 5:21

Cease ye from man . . .

Isaiah 2:22

Recommended Reading

Understanding Is the First Step to Freedom


Red Flag Churches- book recounting my experiences in an abusive church. Available as a free download in several formats at smashwords.


The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by  David Johnson, Jeff Van Vonderen
This is the first book I found that really opened my eyes to the deception going on in the church I attended. This book is very easy to understand and highly recommended; if you don't get any other books, get this one. It is also available for Kindle.

Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer
This is the book written by the man who wrote an article I found online that began my journey out.

Charismatic Captivation by Steven Lambert
This is a very detailed, in-depth look at spiritual abuse. I don't agree with all his points of view, but he goes into great scriptural detail explaining why abusive church doctrines are so wrong.

This is another wonderful text that goes into great detail explaining spiritual abuse and why the doctrines are unscriptural.

Churches That Abuse by Dr. Ronald Enroth  An indepth look at quite a few abusive systems and an analysis of how they operate and what they have in common.

 Blog Posts

 wademullen- This is an entire website devoted to abuse of all kinds.

Key Truths for the exiles scattered by toxic church systems- blog by Deborah Brunt Blog dealing with the abuse experienced in Baptist systems.

How to Deal with Spiritual Abuse Triggers- blog post by Aprille with a lot of very helpful information on dealing with the triggers that result from experiencing spiritual abuse.

More Good Reading

Breaking Unhealthy Soul Ties by Bill and Sue Banks
The whole concept of soul ties is explained, both health ties and unhealthy ones.

Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn, Jack Felton
When the drive to attend church becomes a problem.  Balance is the key.

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
A very thorough reference that explains codependency and how it affects all concerned.

Boundaries  by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Learning how to say "no" to maintain peace.


These websites provide lost of information on church abuse and are all well worth checking out. Some have links to other organizations and websites.

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Are You in a Red Flag Church?

Spiritual Abuse Basics: Are You in a Red Flag Church?   Take heed that no man deceive you. Mt. 24:4   Do you attend a church where ev...