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Part I

So how do you know whether a church has come under the influence of a controlling spirit? There are some clear warning signs that can signal an atmosphere of abuse.

Power Positioning

There is certainly a place for biblical teaching on spiritual authority. But if a pastor preaches on this subject every Sunday, constantly reminding everyone that he is in charge, you can be sure that trouble is around the corner.

In an unhealthy church, the pastor actually begins to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives. Commonly, people are told they cannot leave the church with God’s blessing unless the pastor approves the decision. The implication is that unless they receive pastoral permission, not only will God not bless them, but they will also be cursed in some way, resulting in sure failure. Controlling spiritual leaders use this kind of reasoning to manipulate people.

We must understand the process a church goes through to reach this point of deception. Because many pastors measure their success through church attendance, they may become disappointed if people leave their church. If they are insecure, they may actually develop a doctrine in order to stop people from leaving. They may preach sermons about unconditional loyalty, using the biblical stories of David and Jonathan, or Elisha and Elijah.

By using examples like these, the leader can actually gain “biblical” grounds to control even the personal areas of his parishioners. A controlling leader may also attempt to instill a sense of obligation by reminding his congregation of everything he has done for them.

This kind of preaching causes church members to seek a position of favor with the pastor rather than a proper desire to “please God and not man.” Jesus also condemned such man-pleasing when He told the Pharisees, “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me … How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (John 5:43-44).

When we pursue the honor of men, we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. If we continue to do so, gradually men will take the place of God in our lives. An unhealthy soul tie is created, and our sense of confidence is determined by our standing with those in leadership. This kind of control will destroy people spiritually!

A healthy church will not allow genuine pastoral concern to cross the line into manipulation or control. A true shepherd will use his influence to draw church members into a close relationship with Jesus, who is the only “head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). A true shepherd realizes that the people in his congregation don’t belong to him – they are God’s flock.

Unquestioned Authority

In an unhealthy church, it is considered rebellion when someone questions decisions that are made or statements that are said from the pulpit. Granted, there are those who constantly question the leadership in any church – but often such constant questioning comes from an individual’s critical attitude. Pastors must learn to deal with such questioning in a compassionate, positive manner. However, in an unhealthy church, any and all questions are considered threats to the pastor’s “God-ordained” authority. Members who do dare to question their leaders or who do not follow their directives often are confronted with severe consequences.

A man from one church told me, “We were told that it is more important to obey leaders than to question what they are doing.” He went on to say, “It was unthinkable to question the motives of the pastor.”

For example, one couple, members of a church on the West Coast, decided to take a family vacation. This couple purchased their airline tickets and finalized the rest of their plans. They were looking forward to their long-needed time off. Once the pastor discovered their plans, he rebuked them for not getting his permission first and warned them not to go on the trip. They went anyway. Shortly after they returned, they were visited by some of the church’s leadership. They were informed that by going on vacation against the pastor’s wishes, they were in rebellion. To enforce the pastor’s authority, there had to be some form of punishment applied. This couple was then informed that no one from the church was permitted to speak to them or have any contact them for a time determined by the pastor. Even their children were not permitted to play with any of the other children from the church.

Pastors operating under a spirit of control are often convinced that they are the only ones who can accurately hear from God. Under the constant exposure to this spirit, members often become convinced that they indeed need their pastor to think for them. In essence, their personal fellowship with the Lord has been abdicated for a relationship with a man. As a result, they lose their confidence in being able to discern the will of God for their lives.

An Atmosphere of Secrecy

Once a church member surrenders to a system of control, the leader gives limited information to each individual, carefully monitoring each relationship. As a result, each member is only able to relate to other members based on the information he receives from the leader.

In this way, if the church staff or pastor determines that one of the members has become a “threat,” they have a strategy in place to maintain the control they believe is required. Consequently the church can sever relationships when necessary and keep this process cloaked behind a veil of secrecy.

This is not limited to members of the congregation. I know a pastor who did this with his staff. In casual conversations he would make a comment that would result in one staff member becoming suspicious of another. Or he would say something to cause one staff member to feel superior.

This atmosphere fueled selfish ambition and competition among the staff. It became the pastor’s way of maintaining control and ensuring that his staff could never challenge his authority. In time, the assistant pastors discovered what was happening, and eventually they all left.

Secrecy may also cloak the area of finances. Pastors may make brazen appeals for money, yet offer no assurance that the finances of the church are handled with accountability and integrity.

I have actually heard pastors tell their congregations that the financial decisions of the church do not become a public matter because “the congregation doesn’t have the spiritual insight or maturity to understand the dynamics of church finances.” Have you heard this line of reasoning?

Some pastors actually preach, “It doesn’t matter what we do with your money. Your responsibility is simply to give.” However, the Bible commands us to be good stewards – and part of good stewardship is making sure that proper systems of accountability are established to handle tithes and offerings. (See 1 Peter 4:10.)

It is very simple – money represents power. Ultimately, control comes down to issues of power. Therefore, it should be no surprise that controlling leaders will use unbiblical means to manipulate people into giving.

As good stewards, when we become aware of financial mismanagement, we are responsible for where we sow our financial seed. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to continue to give money after becoming aware of the misuse of funds. However, if the approval of those in leadership is more important to a person than financial integrity, that person might still feel compelled to give – even if misuse of funds was involved.

An Elitist Attitude

The deadly trait of elitism produces an “us and them” mentality. A church with an elitist attitude believes “no one else” is really preaching the gospel – except that church. Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are!

An elitist spirit discourages church members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn’t attend their church. If anyone visits another church, he is viewed as a dissident.

“Everything you need can be found within the framework of our group,” this spirit says, adding, “Everything you need to know, you will receive from the pastor and his teachings.” Consequently, there is little respect, if any, for other denominations or church groups.

One individual, in speaking about the elitist attitude within his church, said, “Although we didn’t come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt there was no place like our assembly. We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch.”

Another man from the same church said, “When a well-known evangelical speaker was preaching in another church in the area, the leaders would discourage us from attending. Also, if the leaders found out that members were considering visiting another church for any reason, they were called in and chastised. ‘You don’t need to be going to those other churches,’ they would tell us. ‘The ministry here is rich enough. Isn’t the Lord feeding you here?’”

A healthy church respects and celebrates the other expressions of Christ’s many-membered body. A Jesus-centered church realizes that no one denomination or local church can win a city, regardless of how large it is. Christ-centered leaders who are clothed with humility recognize that the small church is as significant as the large church, the Baptists are as vital as the Charismatics, and every racial group has a place at the Lord’s table.

A healthy church will promote other churches in the city, rather than simply promoting its own events and agendas all the time. A healthy church will promote spiritual renewal in all churches rather than further the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal superiority. A healthy church will exude the attitude described in Philippians 2:3-4:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also the interests of others.


Part III

Copyright 2001 Mike Fehlauer. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer. Mike Fehlauer is pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas. He is also the founder and director of Foundation Ministries. He travels extensively throughout the United States and the world, sharing God’s message of love, hope and restoration. He and his wife, Bonnie, also hold marriage and family life conferences. They have two grown children.

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