Division and paranoia
Not only are abusive churches marked by misuse of power and distortion of truth, but the literature on spiritual abuse reveals that toxic churches experience incredible division and paranoia. A church that for years has known love, peace, and purpose can be torn apart if one abusive leader takes command and receives significant support. Friends who have sat beside each other for years in the pew may begin avoiding each other in the halls. Families can be split. The unnecessary tearing that takes place in a toxic church creates long-lasting turmoil and heartache.
Division and paranoia begin with church members and leaders ignoring the warning signs. One warning sign often arises when a staff member confronts the senior leader regarding the abusive system. Often the confrontation is ignored or rejected by both the senior leader and the people he has placed around him. The cycle continues and the “abusive syndromes get much worse before anyone seriously wants to deal with the issues.” Much like the story of the emperor who had no clothes, followers choose to ignore the obvious because they have been taught to believe the image rather than the facts. Because people do not want to create more stress, most church members will continue ignoring warning signs until the results are disastrous and irreparable. Marc Dupont provides the classic warning signs that are often ignored:
1. Prevailing attitude of elitism and/or isolation
2. Leaders practicing “cursing” or judging
3. Denial of free will and invasion of privacy
4. Leadership without accountability
5. Hazy boundaries between serving God and serving leaders
6. Legalism and condemnation
7. Scapegoating and denial syndromes
8. A continuous turnover of leaders and staff.
The closed communication and no-talk rule practiced in abusive churches aids the tendency of ignoring the warning signs of trouble. A church marked by a growing number of these warning signs will begin to fray and divide.
Abusive churches experience increased polarization and mobilization. The system will divide between people who support the abusive leader and people who do not support the leader. This polarization may manifest itself visibly, as in two groups sitting on opposite sides of a sanctuary; or it may be not so overtly obvious. Either way, all the way down the organizational chart the church begins to divide. People who have been friends for decades may stop talking to each other. In order to protect himself, the pastor will mobilize his supporters, usually secretly. Political tactics will be used to make sure certain supporters get elected or appointed to key decision-making positions. The pastor will work sometimes feverishly behind the scenes to make sure he can control all key committees, meetings, and votes. It is not uncommon in an abusive church for the pastor and key supporters to plant people who have been drilled about what to say in church meetings. McIntosh and Rima share that “paranoid leaders will often create rigid structures and systems of control within their organization that enable them to keep their finger in every piece of the organizational pie and limit the autonomy of underlings and associates.”
This paranoid network of spies and supporters adds to the division and paranoia of an abusive system by attacking dissenters. Anyone who continues to disagree with the abusive leader, particularly after initial pressure, becomes the enemy. The pastor and his key supporters will secretly but effectively spread the word that he or she is a trouble maker. Members who speak out with genuine concerns about the leadership are considered rebellious and will be scapegoated. References to the dissenter may be that she is sinful, selfish, and unstable and that she is going to hinder the work of God in that place. The opposite of Christian fellowship occurs; the leadership will consistently discredit and discount the persons they view as the enemy. If necessary in an abusive system the leadership will destroy the reputation of the persons with whom they disagree. Arterburn and Felton call this process labeling: “Once the label is in place, it becomes more difficult to see that person as a human with real needs and the potential for good judgment. . . . Disqualification by labeling hurts the victims and allows persecutors to continue in their toxic faith. It is sheer poison.” Unhealthy leaders will even aim their venom at their sub-leaders and get rid of them quickly if they pose a threat in his mind to his personal success. This divisive practice illustrates the destructive nature of an abusive system. Political processes replace biblical community, leaving excessive carnage.
Bloomer writes, “I have known people and situations where the abused parties were afraid to confront the abuser about his actions because ‘questioning the man of God’ released a torrent of correction designed to pound them back into line. People have been suspended from worship teams, banned from prayer meetings, and set down for hours-long talks with leaders who spend the whole time discussing the supposed attitude of the person who dares question his leaders.” Bloomer, 69.
Adolf Hitler used the same tactic in an attempt to discredit and destroy the Catholic Church. In a 1933 interview, he said, “We will brand them as simple criminals. I will rip the mask of respectability from their faces. And if that is not enough, I will make them laughable and contemptuous. I will have movies written. We will show the history of the priests in the film. The people can be amazed at the whole mess of nonsense, selfishness, stupidity, and fraud. How they stole money from the peasantry. How they tried to outdo the Jews. How they committed incest. We will make it so exciting that everyone will want to see it. The people will stand in lines outside the theaters. And if the hair of the pious citizens should stand on their necks, so much the better. The youth will understand it. . . . I guarantee . .. if I want I could destroy the Church in a few years.” Commenting on the interview, David Burchett writes, “You will notice that he never challenged Christ. His focus was the church. And his strategy was to make them laughable. A joke. Fools.” Dave Burchett, When Bad Christians Happen to Good People (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2002), 122-123.
The Bible itself is very clear on the existence of what the Spiritual Abuse literature has defined as the hallmarks of spiritual abuse: legalism, authoritarianism, spiritual intimidation, manipulation, excessive discipline, to name a few -- in short: the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship. The Bible does not mince words when it informs us that these signs are clear and identifiable. In addition: both church history and the history of Israel testify abundantly that all of these issues have been perennial problems ever since God began calling people to walk with Him.” Ron Henzel, “The Bible and Spiritual Abuse,” Rest Ministries, Copyright 1997, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/9575/biblespirab.html (accessed 20 April 2007).