Monday, June 29, 2009

Abusive Pastors--What to look for

I recently came across an article by Dr. Ed Curnella titled "The Yeast of the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors". If you or someone you know suspects they are in a church with abusive leadership or if perhaps you're looking for a church and want to know some danger signs to look for, Dr. Curnella lists twelve traits common to abusive pastors. If more than a few of these are present, I'd be more than a little wary if I were you.

Authoritarianism. Rather than modeling and teaching obedience to God, abusive leaders expect believers to obey them. Councils of elders, deacons, etc., are expected to rubber stamp leaders’ intentions rather than provide accountability. (i.e. Lack of transparency related to financial matters. Let me tell you, if a church leadership team does not offer financial reports to you but instead you have to ask for them, there’s a reason for that and it’s probably because they don’t want you to see something.)

Coercion. Rather than respecting freedom and conscience, as God does, and offering messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason, abusive leaders use strong-arm tactics to coerce believers into overruling better judgment and following their demands. (i.e. A leader might tell someone that in order to love biblically you have to assume the best about someone’s intentions. While that is true most of the time, if your “Spidey-sense” is tingling and they can offer no good or reasonable explanation you may very well be right in your suspicion that something is amiss. Suspension of disbelief is not a spiritual gift.)

Intimidation. Rather than building up the Body in the bonds of love, abusive leaders use threats of punishment, excommunication, and condemnation to force people into submission and continued church membership. (i.e. Being told “Don’t you dare walk away from me” or “I’m the leader in this church”. If a church leader has to say “I’m the leader” they are not exhibiting the qualities of a godly leader.)

Terrorism. Rather than inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and forgiveness, abusive leaders intensify believers’ fear, shame, and false guilt, teaching that problems in believers’ lives are due to the believers’ personal sins.

Condemnation. Rather than refraining from judgment lest they be judged, an abusive leader liberally condemns those who leave his church, outsiders, and those whom he defines as sinners. The message is that believers will join the ranks of the condemned should they deviate from the leader’s teachings or leave his church/denomination. Individual members become the scapegoat when something goes awry in the congregation. (i.e. Preaching sermons from the pulpit that use personal conversations with those who disagree with the pastor as examples. Speaking about members who have left the church with phrases like “God is purifying His church” when there was no sin involved on the part of the person departing. Claiming that their church is the only church doing things “right”.)

Classism. Christ was no respecter of persons. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with power, promoting church hierarchy, referring to and treating people according to their titles and roles. Those lower on the hierarchy are taught that their needs don’t matter.

Conformity. Abusive leaders have the greatest hold over inexperienced, na├»ve, and dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. These individuals suppress their objections to the leaders’ teachings for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Hence, abusive churches often appear unified, but beneath the surface there is discontent, anguish, whispers, rumors, secrets, and a desire among many to leave. (i.e. Calling people “divisive” if they question the leaders and their authority or if they ask other believers in the church for their opinions. For the abusive leader, it is very important to not let congregants “compare notes” so that the folks who have or recognize a problem feel like they are isolated. Further, the elders want to make sure they meet with the malcontent church member one on one so that they can further intimidate the person)

Manipulation. Rather than taking scripture in context, interpreting the Bible with the Bible and according to long-held Christian beliefs, abusive leaders twist scripture to convey their personal opinion rather than God’s intent. (i.e. Doing hermeneutical gymnastics to make 1 Timothy 5:17’s “double honor” mean “high salary”)

Irrationality. Because scripture is manipulated, one interpretation may contradict another. Interpretations may contradict reason and obvious reality. This requires suspension of critical thinking. Some abusive leaders claim to receive direct messages from God about their church or individual members, but these messages typically deviate from Scripture and reality.

Legalism. Rather than treating others with love, grace, and forgiveness, as Christ commanded, abusive leaders offer little grace. They communicate instead that one’s worth and the amount of love one deserves depend on performance and status in their church. Abusive leaders expect believers to make heroic financial, time, and emotional sacrifices for their church and its members.Isolation. Rather than respecting family ties, community obligations, and friendships, abusive leaders are concerned that such influences will interfere with their control over believers, so they encourage isolation from family, friends, and the outside world, and wage war against the outside world as a sewer of sin devoid of anything redeeming.

Elitism. Rather than modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of, “We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any cost.

Ensnarement. Rather than promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably promote self-doubt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence, coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave abusive churches.

Think about a cult, for at its most severe, a spiritually abusive church is a cult. It has so diverged from solid Biblical teaching and grown so warped in the authoritarian rule of one man, that it has become a place of idolatry where God is no longer worshipped. “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough… Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees…” (Galatians 5:7-10, Matthew 16:6).


Chris Johnson said...

Hey Joe,

Do you think those guys really exist... :)

good post...


Joe Blackmon said...


I keep hearing things about folks like this but I think they're really just fairy tales. :-)



Robert (formerly Anon#1) said...

This is scary. It sounds just like CB Scott to me. The resemblence is uncanny.

Joe Blackmon said...

I don't know CB Scott. I mean, I know of him but I don't know him personally.

Thanks for stopping by.

Jackie M. said...

wow~ thank you for the breakdown. It makes me so sad to think of these things but at the same time I praise God for his faithfulness and love to all of us and that even the abusive pastors can be redeemed by the precious grace that only He has given.

Thanks Joe for the insights!


Joe Blackmon said...


Thanks for stopping by. Certainly God's grace is sufficient not only for those abused but also for the abuser. May God give them eyes to see and ears to hear.

Anonymous said...

This is very helpful, thank you. We have no elders or deacons in our 4yr old church, just the pastor who is hurting the sheep.

He has dealt with five people that we know of (including my husband) harshly and out of anger, not with compassion and tenderness and encouragement. These people have shared this with us in confidence. One of those people, a new believer who is a friend of ours, was made to feel unwelcome because he didn't meet up to the pastor's expectations. He hasn't returned.

Everything is secretive, there is no encouragement, and we can't question his authority, or we are called divisive, "carnal" and unsubmissive. We can't speak to anyone else in the fellowship either or we are sinning by "changing their hearts towards the fellowship". We can't leave because he has said "you have a habit of leaving churches". He has openly blamed others (in meetings with my husband) who he has hurt for not coming to prayer meetings anymore, saying they are "carnal" and need to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling".

I just pray the Lord would intervene because there is no-one we can speak to and we can't leave or we will be ridiculed and told "I told you so". But the hurt and anger is there and we need an apology so that there can be forgiveness and healing. For now, this pastor continues to blame everyone else.


Joe Blackmon said...


Just know that you are not alone. Leaving the church we left was the hardest thing I've ever done. There are so many emotions we went through. For us, it came down to the fact that we were going to obey God rather than men. Or more specifically, rather than the man who had set himself up as king over his little kingdom.

I exhort you to get out but I understand why you would choose to stay if you choose to. I will pray for you and your family either way.

You may contact me at