Toxic Churches

By Rich DuBose

Photo by Pixabay

There is no such thing as a perfect church. Because churches are comprised of imperfect people, it makes sense that churches are likely to be imperfect as well. While most understand this and make allowances for human frailties, some are surprised and angry when they find problems in the church and will even suggest that this is evidence that God isn't there. However, I believe the critical question is not, "can we ever be perfect?" but can we learn to accept our weaknesses and allow God to transform us as he desires?

If we are upset that our church isn't perfect, then we may be part of the problem. When our expectations of others is higher than is humanly attainable, we set ourselves up for disappointment and alienation. A church is a network of relationships that requires human interaction, understanding and forgiveness. When we become a member of a local congregation, we expose ourselves to a depth of richness and joy that can only be found when we share life together. But the potential for increased heartache and disappointment is there as well.

Every church family has blind spots and areas that need to be improved, and it is the work of pastors and local church leaders to nurture their flocks toward health and healing.

Having said this, some churches exceed the normal limits of imperfection and display the troubling symptoms of dysfunction and major illness. Unfortunately, such churches are actually capable of doing more harm than good.

A chorus of writers and church leaders have referred to such religious environments as toxic.

In a broader sense, the word toxic refers to something that is (1) poisonous—a material especially capable of causing death or serious debilitation, such as toxic waste. (2) Something that exhibits symptoms of infection or toxicosis (such as a patient whose condition becomes toxic). Or, (3) Something that is extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

What is a toxic church?

Several months back I asked my Facebook friends to complete the following sentence. Here are a few of their responses:

A church is toxic when…

- When people are critical and judgmental of others who are different.

- It is focused on perpetuating itself rather than uplifting Christ.

- It is always right (in its own eyes)

- It is intellectually closed.

- Its leaders lead by power over instead of servant leadership. And where abusers are protected while the pain of victims is ignored.

- Members squabble over power.

- It is divided.

- The members are without love and unity for/with each other.

- Members mix politics and religion from the pulpit and try to knock down the wall separating Church from State.

(Facebook survey 2014)

A Word to the Wise

While we don’t often think of churches as toxic or dangerous places, some caution that we should not automatically assume that every church is healthy. Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton wrote about this in their classic book, Toxic Faith, where they identify 10 negative traits in churches to watch out for.

· The members of the toxic-faith system claim their character, abilities or knowledge make them "special" in some way.

· The leader is dictatorial and authoritarian.

· Religious addicts are at war with the world to protect their terrain and to establish themselves as godly persons who can’t be compared to other persons of faith.

· Toxic-faith systems are punitive in nature.

· Religious addicts are asked to give overwhelming service.

· Many religious addicts in the system are physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually dead.

· Communication is from the top down or from the inside out.

· Rules are distortions of God’s intent and leave him out of the relationship.

· Religious addicts lack objective accountability.

· The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the religious addict.1

The Truth Will Set You Free

Christian author and speaker, Philip Yancy, had a church experience that was anything but positive.

"I joke that I’ve been ‘in recovery’ from a toxic church ever since childhood, and I sometimes threaten my publisher that I’ll write a book called, Lies My Church Told Me. I grew up in a fundamentalist, racist, legalistic church in the American South. Lots of heavy breathing and yelling, and lots of talk about Hell. In various books I recount the process I went through in realizing that the Gospel presented in that church was bad news, whereas the real Gospel is good news. Jesus said the truth shall set us free; well, if it doesn’t set you free, then it’s not the truth.

I wrote a book with the title, The Jesus I Never Knew, because I got to know a very different Jesus than the one my childhood church had portrayed. I wrote, What’s So Amazing About Grace, because I’ve never recovered from that first gulp of God’s grace, so different from what I had experienced in my childhood church. If Jesus can make prodigals, beggars, prostitutes, and Samaritan half-breeds the heroes and heroines of his stories, then maybe there’s a place for me."2

Your Response

What should you do if you discover that your church is sick and that people aren't being nurtured in love? Now comes the hard part. There are no easy answers because each situation is uniquely different. Understanding the problem may take months or years. Sometimes the toxicity of a situation is leadership oriented, and the pastor is either the problem or plays a role in perpetuating the problem. But it can also be driven by a small group of members who view themselves as the real power brokers. Some refer to these as patriarchs or matriarchs who typically believe they have "earned" the right to lead. It can be an individual, a handful of members, or a group of families who stealthily commandeer the leadership positions of the church and pretty much call the shots. Such a scenario can lead to toxicity and congregational abuse.

As individuals, when we find ourselves in abusive spiritual environments, we can prayerfully talk with church leaders about what we are experiencing (which is the course that Matthew 18 prescribes). But if this has been tried and there is no change, or worse yet, matters deteriorate, the best course is often to just leave and go elsewhere. This is problematic if there are no other Adventist churches nearby. We want to be true to our faith, yet we don’t wish to remain in an environment where abuse and negativity persists.

If you are a leader of an Adventist church that has become toxic, you are in a position to suggest and possibly effect positive change. Praise God, and ask Him for guidance as you approach your fellow leaders to talk about the problem and the future of your church.

The following steps may be useful, but should not be viewed as a cure. There is no magic bullet. Large amounts of prayer, dialog and sharing are needed to restore a church back to health.

1. Read and Pray - Members of the Board of Elders and the Church Board should read through Toxic Faith, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, then spend intentional time in prayer and open dialog.

2. Seek to Understand - Invite a guest speaker or ministry consultant to come and address the Board of Elders and Church Board. You want them to help you identify the issues that are triggering the negative behaviors. You probably need to survey the board and church members at large to understand the perceptions that exists. Actually, it wouldn't hurt to do a wellness exam on your church about every two years. The NCD (Natural Church Growth) material may be a helpful tool to consider.

3. Acknowledge Your Condition - Step three is probably the hardest. Once you have surveyed the leaders and members, if the results show that your church is spiritually toxic and abusive, the pastor and church leaders need to acknowledge it to themselves and to the entire congregation. The healing begins when we clearly state, "this is what we are like." 

There is no guarantee that things won't get uglier before they get better. Some may continue to fight or complain that things aren't going their way. And some may decide that the drama is more than they bargained for and leave. But God has promised to bless us when we seek Him with open hearts, and that's something we can hold onto.

Bart Breen highlights some of the identifying traits of churches that are healthy and toxic. While his definitions cannot be viewed as a definitive guide, they provide us with markers that can be great discussion starters.

1. A healthy church multiplies its leaders; a toxic church revolves around a few who control access to leadership and protect against others challenging or participating in it.

2. A healthy church identifies congregant’s gifts and equips and frees them to function. Toxic churches place people in positions without regard to gifting because the task is more important to forwarding the goals of the organization regardless of its form.

3. A healthy church has a strong percentage of its people involved in ministry outside their doors, while a toxic church worries primarily about internal appearances and functions.

4. A healthy Church sees people as vital like organs within a body. A toxic church sees individuals as expendable and sacrifices them when necessary to promote the needs of the organization.

5. Healthy Churches promote healthy relationships between all in fellowship, including congregants and leaders, even where there are positions and hierarchy. Toxic churches focus on hierarchy, one way accountability and place leaders on pedestals where they cannot be criticized or challenged without those doing so being ostracized regardless of the legitimacy of their concerns.

6. Healthy Churches focus upon what draws people closer to God personally and to one another to grow in spiritual maturity and freedom. Toxic Churches tend to focus more upon what ties people to the institution and makes them dependent upon the organization and less likely to leave.

7. Toxic church leadership operates from the position, implied or openly stated that leadership’s character, abilities or knowledge makes them “special” to where their leadership decisions descend to their followers through them from God. Healthy Church leadership, even where this exists in hierarchical organizations, recognizes that the position or functioning within the body of Christ to lead is ultimately one of service and requires a willingness to submit and listen to the responses of others regardless of organizational position and delegated authority. Efficiency does not justify the nullifying of the priesthood of all believers.

8. Toxic Churches focus on punishing and pushing others away in order to maintain “purity.” Healthy Churches focus on restoring and bringing others in, in order to extend the Love of God and with one another.

9. Healthy Churches know how to work to meet collective goals and also when to rest while not fearing that the God who implemented the Sabbath practice and principle is now impatiently fuming over any momentary inactivity and time for restoration. Toxic Churches demand incessant service from staff and core volunteers, sanctify it as God’s due and then make nowhere near the same effort to minister to the fallen after they have burned out and their service is no longer available, instead seeking to find the next person “called” to replace them.

10. Healthy churches have open doors and welcome people regardless of where they are in their lives. People who enter their circles are loved first and accepted with a view to building relationships before seeking to correct or change things in their lives and even then, their acceptance is not contingent on how well or quickly they change or grow. Toxic churches have doors guarded by gatekeepers who seek to identify people coming in by categories and labels, and on that basis determine if they are welcome, or what they must do before they can be accepted.3

This is not to say that everything that goes on in church should make us feel warm, fuzzy, and happy. Growing physically and in the Lord has its painful moments! Sometimes we hear things that rub us the wrong way and make us conflicted. The test is not whether we are asked to do something we don't want to do, but how are we treated in the growth process? How do we as a church treat people? Jesus was a patient and tender Teacher with His hearers, and in some cases it took years for them to arrive at where He wanted them to be. Peter was a disciple of Jesus for three years before he was converted!

Summary

Healthy Christians do not intentionally highlight the shortcomings and failures of their fellow believers. When Jesus reigns supreme in our hearts, we don't go around looking for problems in the church or in other people's lives. But sometimes the problems are so obvious they cannot be ignored. How do we deal with conflict in the church--individually and corporately? How do we as a church remain healthy and strong? What happens when a church becomes sick? Even, toxic?

We should not assume that every church is healthy, no more than it should be assumed that every person we meet is healthy. Just as we need to take care of our personal health and undergo periodic testing, so every church should be periodically examined to make sure it is healthy and spiritually balanced.