Warning signs of abusive churches

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the church had been infiltrated by people who had corrupted the gospel message and were seeking to add law onto grace. 

In Galatians 5:1, Paul said for freedom, Christ has set us free. 

Sadly, many churches fall into similar problems today with authority that is not Biblical and which brings its own form of slavery rather than the freedom Jesus died to give. 

Here are six warning signs, in a list which is by no means exhaustive. 

1. The leadership is authoritarian 

If you have a pastor – or leaders in general – who are not accessible or accountable, it’s creating the conditions for problems. Other signs of authoritarian leaders: a leader who never admits that he or she is wrong, lacks compassion and empathy for others, and is strong-willed to get his or her way. 

If all of the power in the church is effectively given to one person, that’s also a sign of authoritarian leadership. The biggest problem with that leadership style is that it’s not Biblical. 

There have been some high profile instances of megachurch pastors being forced out because of abusive leadership. But those are just the examples we hear about. It can happen in a church of any size. 

An abusive pastor can do tremendous damage. They can hinder rather than help someone’s walk with Christ. They can sour a person on the church. 

But the issue isn’t ultimately THE CHURCH. It always comes back to people, and sin, and adding to the gospel, which brings slavery.  

2. Secrecy 

A church shouldn’t have levels of access. Some churches, people have no idea how that stuff is working. And when churches do that, it can be a symptom of a bigger issue with authority.Because there’s no reason why that stuff needs to be secret. 

Again, I’m not saying it’s always because a church is deliberately doing something inappropriate. But it allows for those conditions. 

3. Every issue is a gospel issue

Some issues are gospel issues. That’s what we see in Galatians. In Galatians, the gospel itself was being undermined. The way in which we can be forgiven by Christ was being undermined. That was a non-negotiable. 

Third warning sign of a church that is bringing slavery over freedom. If every issue becomes a gospel issue, it becomes its own form of intellectual tyranny. 

But if you make everything non-negotiable, you basically crush independent thought, you crush honest conversations, and questions. It’s seeking blind compliance. 

4. If the church makes members prisoners 

If the church calls your salvation into question if you leave it for another church, that’s a warning sign. Because it’s elevating their church to have influence over your salvation. We’re saved by faith in Christ. 

If you’re a follower of Christ, it is important to be part of a church. The New Testament is clear on that. And I’ve before made the commentary that our culture is way too quick to leave good churches for reasons which are not rooted in theology, but which are rooted in personal preferences. 

But sometimes there can be legitimate grounds to leave. 

5. If they have a culture of shame around doubts and honest questions 

Fifth, if you can’t ask honest questions or if you’re afraid to express doubts. Sometimes we go through a spiritual crisis where we’re really struggling. A church needs to be a place where a person can have the comfort to be open and honest about that. Without fear. A church needs to be a place where you can talk about your struggles. 

The Bible does tell us to bear one another’s burdens. Not to be forced into hiding. 

6. Adding to the gospel

The sixth warning sign, if a church makes you feel guilty and like you’re never doing enough, or they’re adding things to the gospel and tying them to salvation. 

If people are led to believe that anyone besides Jesus is their savior, and anything besides the gospel is the means by which they are saved, then it’s a church that has added law onto the gospel. 

That’s not to say that pointing out what the Bible calls Christians to do is legalism or slavery. But when we act like doing certain things in addition to the gospel is contributing to our salvation, we have added works to grace.