I am going to show my cards more than I usually do in a blog post (deep breath). I am passionate about helping individuals and communities live out healthy spirituality. One of my areas of focus as a therapist is working with victims of spiritual abuse. I believe that spiritual and sexual abuse (which are often co-occurring) are the two most heinous and damaging forms of abuse. They poison the most intimate parts of our humanness: our sexuality and our spirituality. Spiritual abuse angers me more than maybe anything because my faith is one of the most important parts of my life. It has made me who I am and changed me for the better. I believe faith can be a positive force in anyone’s life. But what if that faith has been tainted with selfish agendas set by unhealthy, egotistical leaders? What if because of distorted teachings, your faith produces shame, depression or anxiety within you instead of love and peace?
I am thankful to have had mostly healthy experiences with leaders and spiritual communities that encouraged me and helped me grow in positive ways. I know that this is not the case for everyone. I will be honest and say that my experiences and knowledge is mostly in Christianity but I also have the unique experience of being raised in a spiritually pluralistic home with a Father who practiced Buddhism and a Mother who explored New Age spirituality my whole life. That said, most of my examples will draw from the Christian traditions and scriptures but I believe that these principles can be applied to any spiritual belief system.
Just as in an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to see the signs of dysfunction and abuse when you are in it. So here are 5 signs that you may be in a toxic faith community. If you think any of these are present in your current community, seek help from a trusted person outside of your community or schedule an appointment with me to begin healing and return to the heart of your spiritual beliefs without the dysfunction.
1. Leaders are authoritarian and dictatorial
There is a big difference between having authority and being authoritarian. All leaders have been given authority in one way or another. The hope is that our leaders, spiritual or other, use their authority for the benefit of others and remain trustworthy enough to continue deserving that authority. Unhealthy, authoritarian spiritual leaders subtly or overtly give off a vibe of “my way or the highway”. Authoritarians answer the question why with: “because I said so.” These leaders are not open to feedback, criticisms, concerns, objections, disagreements or even questions. They do not earn your trust and allegiance, they demand it. Since they are not open to questions or anything resembling a challenge, there is little to no accountability for these leaders, which gives them more space to manipulate their followers and abuse their power.
Often followers can elevate their leaders to an unhealthy position without the leader doing anything to cause that. This is also dangerous and unhealthy. All spiritual leaders, no matter how wise, loving and good, are imperfect humans. If we elevate our human leaders to be untouchable, thinking they can do no wrong, we will be sorely disappointed. Both leaders and followers need to be aware of his or her humanness.
Good leaders listen to and value input from their followers. They may not agree with everything their followers say or make changes based on them, but they need to be receptive and teachable. Teachers and leaders are held to a higher standard and need to be open to self reflection and opportunities for growth since they are just as susceptible to corruption and selfish motives as any other person or leader. Simply assuming that someone has integrity and is trustworthy because they are a pastor, rabbi, teacher, etc. is unwise and unrealistic.
2. Us vs. Them mentality
Often in toxic faith communities, everyone outside of this group is seen as a threat to the mission and ministry of the group. Outside views are rejected without conversation or healthy debate. Leaders and members may use labeling to easily and quickly discount outsiders that threaten their beliefs or teaching. Arterburn and Felton describe labeling like this in their book Toxic Faith: “Labeling attempts to dehumanize critics so that dismissing them or their opinions becomes much easier. The religious addict chooses not to address a critic individually but places a negative label on all who would disagree with his or her personal habits. . . Once the label is in place, it becomes more difficult to see that person as a human with real needs and the potential for good judgement.”
If everyone outside of the toxic faith community is invalid with nothing of importance to say, it is much easier for any distorted spiritual beliefs or practices to continue because there is nothing or no one challenging them. In addition, the community may pressure anyone with close relationships outside of the community to sever those ties in the name of protecting themselves from being deceived and negatively influenced. In order to be accepted and to continue to be accepted by this group, you must fit into the narrow idea of what a “true follower” is.
At least in the Christian tradition, believers are called to be a part of the world around them, not isolated from or fearful of it. The ultimate leader and teacher in Christianity, Jesus, spent time with people from all walks of life; people who agreed and disagreed with him. This included religious zealots, Roman officials who were part of the oppression of his people group, prostitutes, social outcasts of all kinds, and many more. Jesus’ final command to his closest followers, the disciples, was what Christians often refer to as “The Great Commission” in which he tells his followers to go out into the world to share his message. Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, ESV)
It is entirely possible to be in close relationship with people outside of your faith tradition without compromising your beliefs. Most faith traditions I am familiar with emphasize loving others. It is hard to love people whom you are afraid of, invalidate and see as less than.
3. Members are asked to give an overwhelming amount of time and service
Often when someone first enters an unhealthy spiritual community, they feel excited, accepted and purposeful. They volunteer their time out of a sense of gratitude for all the community has done for them and from a place of wanting to serve others and God. Over time, however, more and more is asked of this person until most if not all of their free time is filled with church/community activities. There may be subtle or overt judgment for not attending every midweek event, not serving at every opportunity or attending an event or activity outside of the community instead of one within the community. Not giving %150 to the community may be labeled as unfaithful or a lack of commitment to God.
I had a client whose youth Pastor criticized her for missing the midweek youth group during basketball season because she chose to play basketball for her school. It was for a limited amount of time and she still attended church every Sunday and spent time on her own reading, praying and growing in her faith, yet this unhealthy leader saw her interests outside of the church as a threat to her faith. Or so he said. More likely, he saw her outside interests as a threat to his ability to have control over her as the sole role model and voice of authority in her life.
I believe service is an important part of any faith. Giving to others is a common theme throughout many faith traditions. However, it is also okay to take care of yourself and not work yourself to death. In a toxic faith community, members are not allowed to have personal boundaries by saying no to a request for service. If they do they may be shamed or shunned in one form or another. While I believe service is important, I also believe based on my study of scripture, that God is infinitely more interested in who we are than what we do. If our service is not transforming us into better people on the inside while truly helping others who are in need, it really is not valuable.
4. Rules are emphasized over relationship
Most religions have a list of tenants, guidelines or commands for living. I sincerely believe that the “rules” set out in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible were given by God out of love for us. Like a loving parent sets boundaries and rules for their child to help them navigate the world and make good choices that will give them a good life, God gave his people commands to help them survive and thrive in the world. But while these laws have importance they are not the focal point of Christianity. Again, Arterburn and Felton state, “Faith has always been more than a list of dos and don’ts. Standards make up only one part of faith. When they become the main focus, faith grows rigid and legalistic.”
In toxic faith communities, the rules are often distortions of tenants from the religious text and teachings. They carry a hint of truth from the original teaching but are twisted to serve the agenda of the unhealthy leader or organization. For example, I have had friends who share that they have been in Christian circles that claimed if you could not speak in tongues (a spiritual gift outlined in the New Testament) you were not truly a Christian. While speaking in tongues is A spiritual gift, it is not THE ONLY gift. All passages about spiritual gifts in the New Testament emphasize the importance of variety and diversity in a group of believers’ giftings. Nowhere does it say that all believers will have this one gift in common. And more importantly, the Bible is very clear that what makes one a Christian is faith in Jesus and his sacrifice of dying on the cross so we could have right relationship with God. Any Christian community that says otherwise is ignoring the core doctrine and teachings of Christianity.
Healthy faith communities of course have hard conversations and people who are in the wrong are corrected. However, this is done in a way that leads to greater joy, peace and freedom in the end even if there is some appropriate guilt that leads to healthy change. Healthy spirituality builds up while unhealthy spirituality beats down, inflicting inappropriate shame and guilt.
5. Wrongs committed by leaders or key members of the community are not addressed and made right
One of the most painful and distressing ways I have seen this play out is when a member of a faith community shares about being abused by another member or a leader and is silenced instead of heard. Often the justification is that this news would negatively affect the ministry and hinder the good work it is accomplishing. From this perspective the ministry is serving a corrupted leader or system instead of the people it is meant to serve. When there is disease and dysfunction in a community, the truly loving thing to do is call it out, acknowledge it and figure out how to heal the perpetrator, victim and the community. In unhealthy communities, victims may be pushed into quick and half hearted forgiveness for the sake of maintaining the peace. But this is not true peace that God calls us to, it is false and contrived. The prophet Jeremiah addressed this issue in his day: “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14).
A telltale sign of a toxic faith community is when actions that are against what that faith teaches are not addressed for the sake of keeping face. A faith community cannot thrive if it is not in line with the values it claims to uphold. For example, if a church preaches sexual purity but then does not address sexual abuse perpetrated by their members or leaders, it is not in integrity. If a faith community is not in integrity it cannot reach its full potential as a force for change in their community. When leaders are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, the community is no longer about others, it is about that individual’s platform and ego. Good leaders are open to taking responsibility for their actions because they know that is how they can remain effective leaders and in right standing with God and their community. In the Christian faith, these leaders also know, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body (community), whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) While toxic faith leaders may sweep injustice under the rug, God does not. If that is the God a leader or community claims to believe in, they should follow suit.
Healthy spirituality involves authenticity and honesty. At the core of the Christian faith is God’s unconditional love. This means that once we accept God’s grace and acknowledge our need for His forgiveness, nothing can separate us from His love. At the same time, being under God’s grace does not make us immune to the consequences of our behaviors. God holds His people accountable but at the same time, no moral failing, however great, disqualifies us from being His children. This belief empowers us to be honest with God and others about our mistakes and failures. We confess our failings not to be shamed but to be restored and healed: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed…” (James 5:16)
Spirituality is meant to be a positive part of our lives. It is not always easy or comfortable but it is good. If you have been feeling more guilt, shame, fear and anxiety about your faith or community than you have been feeling love, peace, belonging and joy, there may be some distortions either in your own beliefs or in what your community is teaching. If you have been hurt, abused or shamed by your community or a leader at some point, I hope and pray that you do not attribute that to God. I hope and pray you do not give up on your faith but that you find a healthier community and start the work of uncovering the lies you have come to believe about yourself, God and your faith.
It is not easy to untangle the web of deceptions and manipulations created by being in a toxic faith community. This is why it is so important to get support whether from a trusted spiritual leader or mentor, friend or therapist. Do not struggle alone! Call or fill out the form below to connect and begin your important, sacred work. I would be honored as your therapist to empower you to heal from the wounds of your toxic community so that you can live in freedom and truth as God intended.