How to Recognize a Toxic Church (by Shelley Bates)

 In Black Cloister, Personal Stories

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:

Shelley Bates
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.

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Showing 11 comments
  • tasra

    Wow! Been there, done that, got the Sunday school sticker. Thanks for sharing that list. I hope it encourages someone who might be in a situation like that to find the courage to move on.

  • Stolmit

    I could write my own book on this topic. I wanted to comment on each point you listed, but won’t. Good post, Melanie. Hope life is treating you well out there on the coast.

  • Anonymous

    Want to see a top notch Toxic church in action? Visit Family Worship Center in Cairo, GA. The pastor appreciation “day” has evolved over the years into a two week extravaganza. Thousands of dollars collected from strapped members to glorify the man. He is actually the overseer of his own Pastor Appreciation Committee! His wife and mother hold the two other high paid positions at a church where the pastor’s salary “is nobody’s business”. Every day brings new revelations of just how deep this oozes. They make an “A” on every sign of toxic churches.

  • Karen

    We were in a toxic “church” for only 2 1/2 years & left 20 years ago but we still suffer somewhat from them. It was called Canaan Land Ministries for Girls aka Living Waters Church aka Canaan land Christian Academy and now is something else for women, led by Ed and Valeta (Bunny) Bush in Marbury (or White City), Alabama. Their motto: “Rebellion to authority (their authority because, don’t you see, they are ORDAINED by God) is as the sin of witchcraft, witches go to hell; therefore, if you rebel against us, you’re going to hell.” Although my husband & I were volunteers there for 2 1/2 yrs (I did EVERYTHING – secretary, bookkeeper, pianist, teacher, general “smoother-over of parents’ so-called fears”, they labeled us as “The Freeloaders”. Huh? It wasn’t free.

  • Anonymous

    A toxic church is hard to pinpoint for the members. They are so busy trying to “be committed” that they can’t see the truth. We gave 10 years away to a church that loves to “scare” people into believing in hell. Jesus is mentioned occasionally. If God had not told us to leave (when we finally allowed ourselves to listen) we would still be there. Wheres the love? Thats the only way to see if it is toxic! There is one in winchesster ky.

  • Beverly

    I am in the process of writing my own book. Did not realize there was other books out there on this subject except for Stephen Arterburn’s Toxic Church’s I was involved in a very legalistic and dominating church for several years of my life. When I did leave I had nightmares and was a nervous wreck. God has set me free and I am now part of an Outreach Ministry and feel led to put my book out there after all this years.Enjoy reading your blog. Bev.

  • Derik Girdwood

    Another good book on this subject is The Church of Jezebel, Hijacking the Gospel.

  • Anonymous

    I just recently left a toxic church in McAllen, TX. The Youth and Family Minister is not certified and not even educated. St. Johns Church used to be a great place to attend. But now there are several women who have hijacked it and men that do not have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and say something. I will continue to pray for them. I am so glad I found this blo.

  • Anonymous

    St. Johns McAllen, TX= Toxic church! such a relief to find this blog didn’t know there were others!

  • Anonymous

    Please pray for me and many others who are still under “obedience”. It is not easy to leave. Heather

  • Anonymous


    I appreciate your article. It is well written and can be a huge help to many.

    You might be interested in my doctoral research on the topic of spiritual abuse.

    My book is called: Spiritual Abuse Recovery.

    My website is:

    We live in the Great Pacific Northwest too.

    All the best.

    Barb Orlowski, D.Min.

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