Churches and groups which become cult-like and eventually, perhaps, full-blown cults share some common characteristics. It is of note that many have a traditional evangelical source and that their leaders often come from separatist, pious, fervent religious groups. Our pastor was brought up in a religious community isolated from the rest of the world (similar to the Hutterian Brethren) which, by his description, exhibited strong cult-like tendencies.

Our church developed these well-documented and common characteristics:

  • One-man-at-the-top 'Moses-style' Pastor (self-appointed, accountable to no group, organisation or congregation and unable to receive advice or correction)

  • One or more enablers, very close to the pastor, proclaiming rallying cries of obedience and submission.

  • A board of trustees with a history of dependence on and compliance to the Pastor.

  • Highly mitigated speech towards the leader by those closest to him, resulting in important issues being raised only indirectly and vaguely, especially if these relate to the leader's own performance.

  • Consistent pattern of 'table-turning' when concerns are raised. Those bringing correction are considered 'messengers of Satan'.

  • Character of those who raise concerns brought into question publicly. Insinuations made against them.

  • A largely subliminal 'no-talk' rule which isolates members and prevents important concerns being aired without accusations of criticism, failure to honour authority, dissension.

  • Huge attention being paid to newcomers (looks like 'love-bombing')

  • Legalistic preaching that speaks of grace but insists on merit.

  • Coercion into a 'one-size-fits-all' worship style, with accusations against unsatisfactory participation.

  • Manipulation through the presentation of false dichotomies. (either you are at this meeting or you are in rebellion)

  • Accusations of rebellion in the form of sermons about Miriam / Korah / Ananias & Sapphira

  • Disparagement of other churches and notable church personalities

  • A sense of paranoia (both in the pastor and in the flock)

  • Restriction of external information highlighting shortcomings in the group.

  • Threats that harm will come to you if you leave.

  • Threats of loss of relationship with God if you leave.

  • Total shunning once you leave (if in a responsible role and had raised concerns)

The following generic 'Red Flags' describe these and other typical traits of abusive church leadership in a little more detail:

"Leaders who become abusive

Dangerous leaders include those who believe that because their vision for the church is unique, superior and direct from God that God’s mind and their mind are becoming fused. They begin to see their own actions as God’s. Those who oppose them are opposing God. When this happens, watch out! They won’t phrase it that way. They may not even realize what they are doing. They feel they have a special place as God’s appointed spokesperson in the congregation. Because of this they begin to steamroll over anyone in their way. Because they are anointed, they soon feel they have a role in rooting out imperfections among lesser Christians, and they can do it with gusto.

Excellence, or legalism?

These leaders can become harsh and demanding. They look down on others around them all the while stressing the need for humility. They begin to practice a perfectionism that kills. It won’t be called perfectionism. It might be called “striving for excellence” or “pursuing a holy life” or “giving God His due.” It becomes legalism and it drains the life out of individuals and churches, as members try harder and harder to meet standards that become out-of-reach. While members are whipping themselves for failing to perform, the preaching will be on grace. While members are burdened and shackled to legalistic aims, the sermons will be on freedom. But members are not feeling free or forgiven. They are loaded down with guilt and work and feelings of failure.

Calling concern "divisiveness"

Another red flag is a false call to unity. When authoritarian pastors want to quell dissent, they label even legitimate questions “divisive.” You are interfering with the unity of the brethren if you raise issues of concern. This tactic ensures a lockstep, zombie-like following and cements the cult leader or abusive pastor into his place at the top. Who wants to be divisive? Who wants to cause trouble? Who wants to be spreading heresy or harboring a critical spirit or injecting division? (These are common phrases used against those expressing concerns about abusive leadership, and they serve as giant, fluttering red flags.) Most humble, sincere Christians concerned about wayward leadership will be cowed by such tactics. The abuses of the leader will continue unchecked.

When people slink out

The final red flag in this short overview is the telltale indication of trouble signaled by people leaving a congregation. If spiritual abuse is taking place, you might not catch on right away. People in manipulative groups will have been warned – subtly or otherwise – not to talk about church problems. They will be called weak or gossipers or immature if they mention why someone left. Those who leave also may suffer residual effects of controlling mechanisms in the church and say little about why they left. " [Provender Clearing House of sources on Spiritual Abuse: Red Flags]

More red flags: (a church doesn't need all of them to be unhealthy!)

  • Frequent equating of the leadership with that of Moses. Disquiet or misgivings concerning the leadership are suppressed through threats of God’s reprisal. Reference is made to the story of Miriam, Ananias and Sapphira, ‘touching not the Lord’s anointed’, the encounter between Jesus and Peter and the instruction in Hebrews to submit to the elders. Agreement is coerced. Loyalty to, and honour of the leadership becomes paramount. Fear prevents legitimate concerns being expressed readily.

  • Teaching frequently highlights that correction in any form is wrong, and as such, is allied with criticism and gossip. The Pastor is not to be corrected, but prayed for. It is not for the congregation to moderate the Pastor. It is taught that if the congregation are faithful and sincere, God will correct the Pastor if needed. Such a Pastor thus insulates himself against any concerns over what he is teaching or doing.

  • Teaching reinforces a concept that if God has anything of importance to say to the church, it will come through the pastor. God talks to the pastor first. Disagreement with the pastor's decisions or actions is therefore disagreement with God.

  • Members are increasingly made sin conscious and manipulated into confessing inadequacies before the congregation. Legalistic perfection is preached, together with unrealistic expectations, as though these come from God Himself. Members of the congregation are required to confess that they have failed to meet these always out-of-reach goals and that, consequently they face the wrath of God unless they beg for mercy. Grace and mercy are indeed preached, but only in this legalistic context.

  • The pastor is not accountable to others, such as a board of trustees, for what he teaches. If a board of trustees exists, it’s members invariably offer blind allegiance to the leader. Questioning of the Pastor’s actions or teaching is strongly discouraged. The church’s structure of leadership places the Pastor in a dangerous and unscriptural position of unmoderated and unaccountable trust.

  • The congregation are made to feel inferior, in comparison to the Pastor, and his hunger for God and his revelation. While confessing that he is the worst of sinners, it becomes difficult to note any specific issue for which he is repenting, other than generalized notions of pride, unbelief or disobedience.

  • Education is viewed with suspicion and analytical, independent thinking is strongly discouraged. The educated are the enemies of ‘revelation’ having, in the Pastor’s opinion, only a divisive and merely theoretical knowledge of Scripture.

  • Abusive Pastors find it difficult to trust others in the congregation with significant roles, especially in teaching and preaching.

  • Scripture is frequently twisted. Doctrine is often formulated from the Old Testament ‘history’ books, with emphasis on holiness, repentance and the wrath of God. Such teaching leaves the congregation in fear, with a warped view of God’s nature. New Testament Truths concerning total acceptance before God, and the work He does in the believer fail to receive adequate emphasis and are eventually sidelined.

  • Members who raise issues or question authority begin to be publicly shamed or accused of pride and divisive motives. Pastors often quote Scriptures about not touching God’s anointed or bringing accusations against an elder. Yet they often confront sin in others, particularly ones who bring up legitimate biblical issues.

  • The Pastor exhibits characteristics of paranoia.Pastors who struggle with deep feelings of personal insecurity are often concerned that people in their churches might silently doubt their leadership ability. They then become paranoid that people are conspiring behind the scenes to undermine their leadership or certain projects they are promoting. As a result, they have a difficult time allowing staff members or even parishioners to maintain a vital role because they are fearful that someone might lead a leadership coup. Thus, perceived dissenters must be removed, and often such removals are orchestrated through clandestine and hurtful means.

  • The Pastor is often an individualist who has a history of failed relationships in team ministry. Insecurities, vulnerabilities, paranoia, narcissism and feelings of inadequacy may contribute to his slide into abuse. As he feels threatened, his behaviour becomes harsher. Many such Pastors were themselves brought up in spiritually abusive environments.

  • The Pastor bullies and manipulates the flock into obedience, accusing them of wrong motives if they fail to obey. Such Pastors become increasingly judgmental in their preaching, favouring rebuke over encouragement. They increasingly judge hearts, motives and intents, while deflecting any such judgement in their direction as criticism or persecution.

  • Shame, flattery and manipulation: Image consciousness in many abusive churches, leads to harsh treatment and manipulation of members. To keep negative information from leaking out of the body, members are sometimes shamed or spoken against — sometimes from the pulpit. Ministries are whisked away from those who begin to ask questions, and ministries are used as rewards to “loyal” members who know how to keep quiet, or who prove useful through their contribution or flattery of leaders. And in abusive groups, flattery goes both ways. Leaders know how to flatter and how to shame to keep the image of the church polished and gleaming.

  • Pastors insulate themselves from correction by surrounding themselves with sycophantic ‘yes-men’. These are usually needy people who seek much attention from the Pastor and in turn, fill his need for affirmation and attention. An element of co-dependency exists in such relationships. While there may be a board of trustees, the Pastor is not accountable to them for what is preached.

  • The Pastor displays an arrogant attitude of superiority about himself, his beliefs, abilities, opinions, etc. This in turn leads to bullying actions like scornful comments and sarcasm, reviling and mocking, minimizing and invalidating, and other forms of put-downs and control. Surprisingly, those closest to the Pastor and dependent on him often appear to enjoy it when directed at them. In some way, it appears to become a mark of honour and even relished as 'deserved treatment'. Those not 'dependent' simply want to avoid such treatment and are, consequently, compliant.

  • Other churches and denominations are frequently cited as missing God’s best, mired in dead religion, or even denounced from the pulpit. No other church quite has the revelation, understanding or methods of the Pastor’s church. Leaders of other churches are sometimes held up as examples of sin and pride and spoken against.

  • The congregation loses it’s joy and members begin to feel they are ‘walking on eggshells’. If they feel uneasy, they cannot speak to others since the Pastor’s teaching binds them to silence. Any addressing of issues to the Pastor himself must be made in the form of highly mitigated speech which merely hints, indirectly and vaguely at problems and their possible resolutions. This is especially true if the issue relates to the performance of the Pastor himself. All couched in the language of honour and deference to authority.

  • Members of the church are exhorted to sacrificial giving, in many cases for the pastor’s personal business endeavors as well as church projects. Those who fail to give are made to feel guilty.

  • Traditional evangelical churches value and respect individual differences. For the most part, they encourage people to become unique persons in their own right, not mere photocopies of someone else. Authoritarian, manipulative fringe groups, on the other hand, encourage clones and promote cookie-cutter life-styles. Flavil Yeakley, in his book The Discipling Dilemma, suggests that such groups value conformity, not diversity. "They tend to make people over after the image of a group leader, the group norm, or what the group regards as the ideal personality …. They are made to feel guilty for being what they are and inferior for not being what the group wants them to be."

  • Members may be isolated from friends and family. The group becomes the individual's entire world and influence 'from the outside' is seen as harmful.

  • The exit process is extremely hard. Those wishing to leave are told they are ‘missing God’, they are breaking faith with God, and that dire consequences will attend them for leaving. They have fallen prey to the devil and will therefore come to harm. The congregation is made to feel that those who have left in the past have missed God’s will, or that they have done so because of unrepented sin, or because they found the message ‘too hard’. Members are discouraged from fellowship with those who have left. Scriptures are twisted in order to instill fear in those contemplating leaving.

  • Those who have left experience shunning from those closest to the pastor. Pastors preach slander against them, while exhorting the congregation to forgive (thus blackening the name of leavers and justifying those that remain) and forbid the congregation from making contact. No one discovers the real reason why members feel they must leave.

Many Pastors slide into abuse from genuine motives, unaware of the damage they are causing. Their intent is to serve God wholeheartedly. Sometimes the blame may lie with the church for allowing an abusive situation to develop over many years.