Excerpts from Enroth’s “Churches That Abuse”

January 4, 2008 in Sovereign Grace Ministries


Ronald M. Enroth (who, according to his book jacket’s bio, is “a leading scholar and national resource on cults and cultism…”) has authored several books about spiritual abuse. 

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading his work entitled, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan Publishing House, 1992).  While I don’t know that the specific stories contained in this book are applicable to our discussion here (as these anecdotes are extreme examples of churches where both the teachings and the practices had deviated from the Bible in major and obvious ways), many of Enroth’s general observations about what he terms “controlling ministries” have been very thought-provoking for me.

Here are a few of these general observations:

“Sociologists look for patterns in human behavior and in social institutions.  [Krismum’s note:  Enroth is a sociology professor at Westmont College, an Evangelical Christian college.]  As you read the following pages, a profile of pastoral and spiritual abuse will emerge.  Abusive churches, past and present, are first and foremost characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership.”  (page 31)

“Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes.” (page 31)

“…dissent is discouraged.  Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny.  Rules and legalism abound.  People who don’t follow the rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly.  Excommunication is common.  For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult.” (page 31)

“Unhealthy, authoritarian leadership encourages people to place their pastors on pedestals.  This is illustrated by the comments of one ex-member of a church located in a major midwestern city.  ‘Little by little this man became the standard by which we all sought to live.  The wisdom that poured forth from his lips left us in awe.’  An ex-member of an east-coast fringe group commented that her tiny church was believed to be the full expression of God and had the mind of Christ.  ‘When the leadership said something, it was taken very seriously as the absolute truth.  I was part of what I totally believed was a sold out, godly, and committed church.  However, after I left the church, my life was totally shattered.'” (pages 81-82)

“Jesus Christ is to be our ultimate role model and our only Shepherd.  Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11).  A good shepherd leads rather than controls his flock.  I have talked to many former members of what is commonly referred to as ‘the shepherding movement,’ and they all share the opinion of one man who said, ‘If your shepherd said jump, your only response was, “how high?”‘  It is indeed ironic that an honorable biblical concept like shepherding has taken on such distorted and abusive meanings in some Christian circles.” (page 88)

“Sometimes, ‘shepherds’ see their umbrella of oversight extending to the most mundane of life experiences.” (page 89)

“An obvious form of control is the teaching or preaching from the pulpit.  According to a former member of the shepherding movement, so-called because its members had ‘shepherds’ who required full submission and taught the need for ‘spiritual authority,’ these ‘leaders had the true story of what was going on.  Pastors exercised control and manipulation through their sermons.  Certain themes came through regularly:  covenant, authority, obedience, submission, serving, honoring…'” (page 107)

And here was the quote that perhaps jumped out at me the most:

“Traditional evangelical churches value and respect individual differences.  For the most part, they encourage people to become unique persons in their own right, not mere photocopies of someone else.  Authoritarian, manipulative fringe groups, on the other hand, encourage clones and promote cookie-cutter lifestyles.  Flavil Yeakley, in his book The Discipling Dilemma, suggests that such groups value conformity not diversity.  ‘They tend to make people over after the image of a group leader, the group norm, or what the group regards as the ideal personality…They are made to feel guilty for being what they are and inferior for not being what the group wants them to be.'” (pages 104-105)

Thoughts, anyone?


Here are some additional quotes I forgot to include…

“One of the other areas in which manipulation is exercised in a number of the groups discussed in this book is dating and marriage.” (page 103)

“Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied impose discipline, in one form or another, on members. A common theme that I encountered during interviews with ex-members of these groups was that the discipline was often carried out in public – and involved ridicule and humiliation. Discipline resulting from the infraction of rules or ‘failure to keep with the program,’ as well as ’spiritual disciplines’ imposed for one’s spiritual betterment, have been reported…” (page 152)

“Members of all abusive churches soon learn that the pastor or leader is beyond confrontation. As one former member of an abusive congregation put it, ‘Since no one in the church was allowed to murmur and complain, or to disagree with the pastor, there were many, like myself, who suffered in silence lest we incur God’s anger.’ All problems that befall the group are the fault of members who violate the infallible rules. Accordingly, members experience increased self-doubt, helplessness, and insecurity.” (page 156)

“Oftentimes the deviant is barraged with attempts to get him to admit that he is guilty of crimes that he does not see. If he says that he is doubting the leadership, he has sinned because you are never to doubt the leadership. If he has talked to someone else about his concerns, he has sinned because you are never to plant ’seeds of doubt’ in others’ minds about the leadership and/or the sect. If however, the deviant does not agree with the definitions of his behavior that is placed by the group, he is immediately considered ‘unrepentant’ and ‘unsubmissive.’” (page 156)

“The ultimate form of discipline in authoritarian churches is excommunication or disfellowshipping, followed by strict avoidance procedures, or shunning. As MacDonald correctly notes, ‘Once the deviant is labeled as factious and is denounced, he is cast aside as thoroughly as one would throw out a dirty diaper…’” (page 157)

Once again, thoughts, anyone?

© 2008, Kris. All rights reserved.