How to Recognize a Toxic Church (by Shelley Bates)
As I worked on The Black Cloister this year, a friend (thanks Kelli!) suggested I read Shelley Bates’ Elect Trilogy. I discovered three powerful, redemptive stories about young women trapped in a toxic church. Shelley’s latest book, Over Her Head, is about a “perfect” Christian mother whose daughter becomes a suspect is a murder, and I couldn’t put that book down either.
Following is Shelley’s story and her list on how to recognize a toxic church:
My Elect Trilogy deals with toxic faith in detail, because those books were part of my journey out of an underground house church–and, as it turns out, became part of my parents’ journey out of the same group, which they’d been in for sixty years.
My new release, Over Her Head, treats the subject a little more gently. My heroine, Laurie, suffers from the insidious toxicity known as “salvation by works.” Her life is crowded with works–for her family, for the church, for others–but at the core is an empty hole where God should be. In her journey, she learns to make her way through that crowding and discover
what her soul needs most.
As you can probably tell, this subject is very close to my heart, because one of the hallmarks of a toxic church is an emphasis on working one’s way to salvation instead of rejoicing in the grace that is ours because of the sacrifice of Jesus. During my journey to discovering grace, I read the book Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, which contains a list of the many ways to recognize a toxic church. So, here’s my boiled-down Top Ten:
1. The members claim their character, abilities, or knowledge make them “special” in some way.
2. The leader(s) are dictatorial and authoritarian.
3. Members have an “us” versus “them” mentality toward people “in the world.”
4. These systems are punitive in nature.
5. Members are asked to give overwhelming service.
6. Many in the system are physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually dead.
7. Communication is from the top down or from the inside out.
8. Legalism prevails. Rules are distortions of God’s intent and leave Him out of the relationship.
9. There is no objective accountability—”We are accountable only to God.”
10. Labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the system (“She has a bad spirit” … “He’s deceived”).
When I was still in the church and read this list, my eyes popped … because it matched what was going on! After that, my guilt and fear about leaving just dissolved.