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On “Toxic” Churches & Church Attendance

I posted the following on Facebook Sunday morning, left for church, and when I returned, was a little surprised by some of the reactions. I’ve been wrapping up my current non-fiction project and this was a summary of the section I was polishing:

Being able to go to ANY church prevents us from growing in any SPECIFIC church. I mean, w/ so many churches available, people can easily avoid the problems and challenges of diversity. If a church doesn’t match our ethnic profile, we just find another church. If the pastor challenges some of our personal beliefs, we just find another church. If certain relationships are tedious or annoying, we just find another church. As a result, what often happens is that we Christians cluster in theological and demographic ghettos. We attend those churches that reinforce, rather than challenge our point of view. We find those churches that make us feel good, rather than challenge or stretch us to do, be, or believe something different than we expected. It could be that the N.T. church was so alive precisely because they did not have the luxury of going to any church they wanted.

About an hour after this update, a friend posted another thread on Facebook, partly in response to mine, suggesting that people who have not lived in emotionally toxic relationships/churches “really have no business at all chastising those” who choose to avoid church.

Over the years, I’ve learned that “church attendance” is a very prickly issue for many Christians. Especially when it’s suggested that church hopping or non-attendance is an excuse to “avoid the problems and challenges of diversity.” Nevertheless, when I see responses like the one above, I often wonder: At what point does having undergone real spiritual abuse become an excuse to disavow church attendance?

Now, before you skewer me, let me clarify a couple of things.

First, I realize that “church attendance” is an amorphous subject, and that the expression itself requires some specificity. Loving God and following Christ are not synonymous with going to church. A person can follow Jesus and not attend a church. A person can attend a church and not really love God. “Wherever two are more are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “there I am in the midst.” So any gathering of saints, whether in a coffee shop, house, or houseboat, can be a legitimate replica of the Church. I get that.

Secondly, everybody’s situation is different. Like Edyth’s who commented on my thread:

My church changing has more to do with whether the church can handle my special needs kids.

Edyth’s situation is illustrative of the issues many beloved saints face when approaching church attendance. I have the luxury of showering, shaving, dressing myself, getting the truck keys, and leaving for the second service. I do not have to deal with a handicapped child, spouse, or relative, or navigate a personal handicap. Staunchly towing the “church attendance” line without acknowledging the difficulties — if not impossibilities —  some face, is just thick-headed.

Thirdly, real spiritual abuse occurs in some churches. This is undeniable. In addition, subtle forms of manipulation, coercion, and control happen frequently in churches under the guise of “spiritual direction” or “submission to authority.” Not only do I believe there are “toxic churches” and “toxic relationships,” I’ve been in them (which I’ll elaborate on in a sec).

Fourth, the contemporary American church model is flawed. On many levels. Evangelicalism’s embrace of modernistic methodology has been well-chronicled. Celebrity pastors, performance-oriented church services, and Christian consumerism are indications of a warped, Americanized version of things. The fact that we have come to define “church” as simply a building, rather than a body of believers, is evidence of a seriously unbiblical idea.

Having said all that, none of these things are a legitimate reason to disavow church attendance, a commitment to a local body of believers, and/or commitment to building long-term, accountable relationships with other believers.

The New Testament ideal for the average believer regarding affiliation and involvement with other saints is pretty clear:

  • The biblical ideal is for Christians to be in regular, intimate fellowship with other believers.
  • The biblical ideal is for Christians to exercise their gifts in the context of a larger body of believers.
  • The biblical ideal is for Christians to be discipled by more mature Christians, and to reciprocate by discipling others less mature than themselves.
  • The biblical ideal is to seek out and submit to wise, good, godly spiritual teachers and leaders.
  • The biblical ideal is to find healing and release healing in the community of the saints.

These are biblical ideals. They are realities for which every Christian should strive — even Christians who have been in toxic churches / relationships. Will the realization or pursuit of these ideals look the same for everyone? No. How could they? Everyone’s background and situation is different. Not to mention, the Body of Christ is much bigger than the chapel on the corner or the mega-church in the valley.

But this doesn’t diminish the ideal.

Someone might counter, None of these things require me to join and attend an organized church. And you’re probably right. They don’t. Question is, Are you pursuing the biblical ideal?

I visited with some friends this weekend, Roy and Zita. They used to attend the same church as me and remain devoted Christians. However, they do not attend a traditional church. They’re leaders in a network of house churches. They meet weekly in the homes of various friends and neighbors to study Scripture, pray, worship, and fellowship. They do not meet on Sundays in a church building.

To some, Roy and Zita are not attending a “real church.”

But if that were the case, then the entire first century church is in trouble because they mostly met in houses. When persecution arose, they met in hiding, in catacombs and such. It wasn’t until Constantine became a believer that Christians built “churches,” and things sort of went downhill from there.

Does this mean that church buildings are evil and that Christians that meet in them are equally bad? How could it? Whether it’s a catacomb or a cathedral, the important thing is the nature of community that meets there.

But despite the multiplicity of ways “church” can happen, some people still tend to get defensive when you suggest that maybe they’re just making excuses to avoid attending church. Especially if that “excuse” involves having been part of an abusive church or in a toxic spiritual relationship.

Again, before you get angry, allow me to clarify: I believe real spiritual abuse occurs in churches. One of the reasons I believe this is from personal experience. I was a staff pastor for over a decade before leaving the ministry. The church I was in basically imploded. Part of that implosion was the result of a senior pastor who was overly-controlling. Before the church collapsed, I was publicly disciplined, demoted, stripped of my title as associate pastor, prohibited from preaching for one year, and received a pay cut. It was one of the most difficult times in my life.

Pastors are usually portrayed as abusers, not victims. But the truth is that shepherds can be just as hurt and emotionally wounded as any congregant. Perhaps even more so. For some reason, we don’t talk too much about that.

Anyway, after the church disbanded, I wandered spiritually. I stopped exercising, gained weight, wasted time, felt sorry for myself, got angry, suffered depression, and basically sunk into bitterness. And, oh, I absolutely refused to attend church. I was still processing everything that went on and slowly came to the realization that I had been part of a very toxic, dysfunctional church and relationship. You should know, I’d been raised to be a survivor, so attaching the label of “victim” was incredibly hard for me. It still is. Nevertheless, that’s what I was / am.

And I knew I couldn’t stay there. Why? The biblical ideal is to work through the spiritual / emotional wreckage, whatever that might be, and return to fellowship. Remaining calcified in unforgiveness and hate would have been a win for Darkness. I knew I had to move on. I could not allow someone else’s “toxicity” to become mine.

Expecting a person to transition immediately from a toxic church / relationship back into another church / relationship is ludicrous. My daughter recently adopted a lab puppy that’s apparently come from an abusive situation. It has some scars on its head and I can’t approach that dog without it cowering and pissing all over itself (and me!). Can you blame it? I so want that dog to know I’m not like its other masters. But that will take time.

Likewise, it is understandable that someone who’s been in an abusive environment / relationship will, like that puppy, cringe at the prospects of developing relationships or attending another church.

Every outstretched arm carries the possibility of pain for a victim.

Nevertheless, the ideal is for the Christian who’s been in a toxic relationship and/or a toxic church to return to Christian community. In whatever form that works best for them. This could mean a small support group, a Bible study or prayer group, even just a long-term relationship with another person in which they can process their issues. The important thing is not that they’re simply “going to church,” as if that’s some magic formula, but that healing is being sought, issues are being addressed, and they are moving into integration with the larger community.

All that to say, when I see Christians react so angrily to the notion that being in regular Christian community (and all that means) is the ideal, when I see them vent at every mention of church attendance, I can’t help but wonder if they are on a dangerous path, the path to becoming toxic.

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{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Mir November 5, 2013, 7:12 AM

    One of our mutual online friends–who had a toxic experience–and I discussed this once, and I said pretty much the same thing. Have a home church. Enter one of the network of home churches. Or find a traditionally functioning one that isn’t toxic. They exist. I’ve been in them over the last almost 40 years. Leave if it turns toxic.

    I’m not so cynical as to think all or most churches are toxic. But some are. Trauma can make us think the danger is everywhere, when it’s not.

    I have reasons why a regular church is difficult, but I want and need the Body, and I think the only way I’ll be able to protect myself (physically, not emotionally) and still be able to do the give and be given, learn and pass on learning, enter the accountability and power which is in that corporate worship/learning situation is a smaller group, whether independent or with ties to a larger non-home church. It took me 10 months to recover from the illness/sequela I picked up last time I went to the actual building, so for now, hubby and I stream worship service live. But the hole is there.

  • Morgan L. Busse November 5, 2013, 7:39 AM

    “Pastors are usually portrayed as abusers, not victims. But the truth is that shepherds can be just as hurt and emotionally wounded as any congregant. Perhaps even more so. For some reason, we don’t talk too much about that.”

    That is our story. My husband was let go of one church, then fired from another for no reason. After the second time, I was shattered. I seriously thought I would never be able to trust another Christian again, or set foot in another church. Which is really bad when your husband’s gifting, calling, and occupation is a pastor lol.

    The one thing that stopped me from going all toxic is knowing that what I had seen in the Christian community was not God. So I clung to the God I knew from the Bible.

    We also had two friends who came to our house the day my husband was fired. This is what they told us: “We know you many never want to go to church again. But you need fellowship. So we are going to come over every week and fellowship with you.” And they did for an entire year. Sometimes we played cards, or watched a movie, or talked about deep issues. They loved us, prayed with and for us, and helped us heal.

    A month later, we went to church again, one in another town. I sat in the back and couldn’t hardly look at anyone. I hated Christians. But I went because I knew my kids needed God. Each week, I slowly thawed. I started remembering that not all Christians were like the ones who had hurt us. And it put a burning desire in my heart to be the type of Christian I had not seen: the one who loves, and forgives, and gives grace, and follows Christ with all my heart, soul, and mind.

    I am now at a wonderful, messy, growing church that I love dearly. We have broken people come through our doors all the time. What my family has been through prepared us for this church and these people; we can minister to them because we have been broken too.

    • Mike Duran November 5, 2013, 8:24 AM

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Morgan. I really wish we’d focus more on stories like yours, and your path toward healing, rather than the constant barrage of negativity we so often see. Godspeed to you and your husband on your trek to wholeness.

  • Thea van Diepen November 5, 2013, 8:20 AM

    “All that to say, when I see Christians react so angrily to the notion that being in regular Christian community (and all that means) is the ideal, when I see them vent at every mention of church attendance, I can’t help but wonder if they are on a dangerous path, the path to becoming toxic.”

    They might be, or they might still be working through the initial process of healing. I mean, you break an arm, and it’s going to hurt for a while. Depending on how verbal people are when it comes to pain, you might get anything from silence to a steady stream of swearing. That doesn’t mean that the arm is never going to heal, just that it’s not healed yet.

    On the other hand, it’s possible that they *are* on the path to toxicity. But I don’t think that’s the point. They’ve been hurt. So, we treat them with love, with gentleness and compassion, and promote healing. Part of that involves giving them time.

    Another thing is that, while angry comments aren’t exactly the best way of handling situations, an important realization many people have had is that there’s more than one way to “do church”. Community with fellow believers doesn’t have to be going to church once a week, doesn’t even have to involve that. For some people, that realization is freeing, because they realize that they can follow their passions when it comes to ministry without lacking in fellowship. Or it’s freeing because it means that they can heal in an environment that they feel safe in. They just might not be very good at putting this to words because the anger at having been hurt is still alive and strong -so much so that they may not even realize that they’ve been hurt, only that something is wrong, something that they might only think is external at this moment in time.

    And, although I’m saying “they” all through here, I know that I’ve gone through this as well, though possibly less vocally than many. Due to the hurt I received, I needed to know that people would still accept me and love me in Christian community, so long as that community wasn’t a church right then. I needed to know that people were actually listening to me and that they were interested in what I had to say, and I needed to know that I could belong, that I wouldn’t live my life as the perpetual outsider. And, through taking advantage of an opportunity God put in front of me, and then obeying when he spoke to me so obnoxiously clearly one time when I was about to let one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent years pass me by.

    For those who are in that position where every mention of church attendance causes them to vent: Stop. Stop letting yourself be hurt over and over again. Trust God that he will bring you through this, that he wants only the best for you, and that he has healing for you. Vent to family and friends you trust to listen to you without judgement. Let the weeping run its course. Joy will come in the morning.

    • billgncs November 5, 2013, 10:19 AM

      What a beautiful last paragraph… lovely and wise.

      • Thea van Diepen November 5, 2013, 9:41 PM

        Thank you. It took me a long time to learn what I said in it. I hope that God puts me in situations where I can use what I’ve learned to make that healing process easier and shorter for those who are still grieving.

  • Jim Hamlett November 5, 2013, 9:23 AM

    One of your best posts ever, Mike! And spot on. Couldn’t agree more with the notion that things went downhill after Constantine.

    But–and you made this point very well–they don’t have to spiral downward. If we are “in Christ” and truly “walking in the Spirit,” we should be able to have a decent (but not perfect) church and use our gifts for the benefit of all so that we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Again, well done! Looking forward to reading your upcoming book about your experiences in the ministry. I trained for the ministry but didn’t go. What I saw as “the ministry” and what I was reading in the Scripture raised questions in my mind about “the calling” (if there is such a thing). The one thing I didn’t want to become was a “prophet who ran but was not sent.”

  • Jill November 5, 2013, 9:41 AM

    I vacillate between cynicism at the way so many people appear to be “special” victims whom nobody else could possibly understand (“nobody knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes”), and more honest assessments that allows for the way different people react differently to grief. For some, working through pain is a slower process. In addition, I’m not that terribly into institutionalized church settings. I simply don’t care whether people attend them, so long as they’re not eschewing relationships.

  • michelle pendergrass November 5, 2013, 9:53 AM

    What I actually said was, “People who have not lived in emotionally toxic relationships/churches really have no business at all chastising those who choose safety over poison.”

    There is a difference in what I said compared to what you interpreted as “who choose to avoid church.”

    • Katherine Coble November 5, 2013, 10:41 AM

      Right now I’m in an online Bible study with Michelle. I’ve also communicated with her prayerfully several times in the last three months.

      Michelle is not avoiding Church. She and are often gathered in His name. Michelle is avoiding a specific type of environment that has been repeatedly painful for her. God has blessed her by giving her these other options.

      By changing the thrust of her words you do your readers a disservice.

    • Mike Duran November 5, 2013, 10:51 AM

      Hm. My initial post had to do with church attendance. You seemed to springboard off that on your post, and went on to comment (if I remember right) about how all church hoppers aren’t just trying to avoid relationships or take the easy way out. To which I agree. They’ve been genuinely wounded. Choosing “safety over poison”could mean avoiding church for some, no?

  • Katherine Coble November 5, 2013, 10:11 AM

    Why is “toxic” in snide quotes in the title? I’ll be honest; I’m having a hard time getting past that at the moment. Because it takes this very sensitive issue and _starts off_ with what reads as a mocking tone.

    • David James November 6, 2013, 6:50 AM

      How can you judge the meaning behind “quotes”? You interpret them as snide, so therefore perhaps you went into reading this post of Mike’s in a snide way your own self. I didn’t interpret the quotes as being snide but to indicate that he was using someone else’s word when they were describing that type of church. Check your self.

      • Katherine Coble November 6, 2013, 11:37 AM

        You don’t get to speak to me that way. I’m not sure why you think you have the right. But you don’t. I’m a fellow human being, a fellow believer and a worthy person. I’m not in a relationship submissive to you.

        You will speak with me respectfully or not at all.

        • David James November 7, 2013, 12:04 AM

          Just responding to how I saw you responding to Mike. I don’t know you, but I’ve been reading Mike’s blog and his Facebook posts for a good while, so I felt you should have talked to him with respect as well, and frankly that’s how I treated you. Your response to me proves the testiness that was already there. My apologies to Mike for enhancing anything on his blog which shouldn’t have been enhanced.

          • David James November 7, 2013, 12:08 AM

            To clarify, I felt I had treated you with respect since I had felt you hadn’t done that with Mike. Upon reading my comment after it was posted I saw that part seemed a bit ambiguous, so I wanted to make sure I cleared it up in case it was to others.

  • Katherine Coble November 5, 2013, 10:38 AM

    Okay. Now that I’ve read the entire piece I think I need to address some of the things you say. First off, for those of you who don’t know me or have forgotten what you know, I don’t attend a Sunday Congregation for health reasons. Autoimmune disorders and their treatment leave me unable to go to a church (or a movie theatre or many restaurants) without getting very very ill. So I don’t. That being said, I’m also married to a Preacher’s Kid who has psychological and spiritual issues from Sunday Congregations that are as real a barrier to that style of fellowship as my physical health.

    That being said, we fellowship. We fellowship with one another, we fellowship with other believers who are kind enough to communicate with us on a regular basis. Our fellowship is very much like the first century church in that instead of being something penciled into Sunday morning and the occasional Wednesday it permeates our life. We live as full-time Christians. I’m not saying that those who choose Sunday Congregation do not. But after years of hearing relentless marketing pitches for “come back to church!” (as though by not going to your social organisation I am not a part of the Body of Christ!) I need to make it very very abundantly clear that fellowship can and does AND OFTEN SHOULD exist outside the culturally emphasised “norm” of Sunday Congregations.

    I am very much aware of the bleed between Sunday Congregations and fiscal enterprise. I live in a community where many people make a handsome living off Sunday Congregations. I don’t wish to deny them their callings or their incomes yet I find it very difficult to see the nicest homes in the area owned by country music stars, physicians, music executives and…LifeWay Executives. Every time I hear someone advocate Sunday Congregation attendance they are _a person who makes a living off church attendance and offerings._ That leaves me feeling very much as though the concern and study about spiritual well-being is not fully sincere. People we once saw as spiritual mentors broke fellowship with us (not only my husband and I but several others from a core group) when we asked to study a topical book in Sunday School instead of using the materials sold by LifeWay. For one quarter. That was an incredible eye-opener for me and is but one example of the rot I see in many SCs.

    The nice thing about a permeating fellowship is that it isn’t driven by money. We have our jobs and sources of income but those jobs don’t depend on our fellowship. It feels much more HONEST to me. The people who pray for me do so because we have a spiritual bond, not because they are paid to.

    Furthermore, another benefit of permeating fellowship–the most important benefit–is that I don’t have the “let the lackeys do it” mentality. For YEARS (oh, let’s say six) no one from the church we were members of offered to bring us communion. Yes, I’m housebound. But no one did because every one thought it was someone else’s job. The Sunday School teacher thought it was the Visitation Pastor’s job. The Visitation Pastor thought it was the Shut-in Ministries’ Coordinator’s job. And so forth. Repeated requests to be served communion were shuffled through levels of red tape that would rival the government. In the end I’ve quit asking because my anger over it leaves my heart out of right fellowship for the Lord’s supper.

    But I don’t run into that with other Permeating Fellowship believers. Because we know that we are one another’s responsibility and we check on and care for one another.

    I apologise; this comment is way too long and yet I could write another fifty thousand words on the topic.

    • Mike Duran November 5, 2013, 3:40 PM

      Katherine, I can’t imagine going through what you have. It’s neat to hear how, through it all, you’re still striving forward to find fellowship and minister to others. I’m praying God continues to bring people your way, and you theirs.

      • Katherine Coble November 5, 2013, 4:27 PM

        I realise now after re-reading that I didn’t make it clear that in spite of the things that have rubbed me the wrong way about our church, I still feel the good outweighs the bad and would be there every Sunday morning if I didn’t end up with a fever and vomiting by every Sunday evening.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) November 5, 2013, 10:58 AM

    Hear hear!
    I will never forget the agony and anger I experienced when a church member told me to never bring back my autistic child. I shed many bitter tears before arranging a meeting with the pastor and finally starting a Sunday morning respite program for kids whose behavior was far more than ordinary people could cope with. When we moved, we started such a program in the next church we joined. The next two churches we belonged to (we were in the AF and moved a lot) we were absolutely unable to get a program off the ground and so our autistic, disruptive child mostly stayed home with a respite provider. I liked it that the church before our present one allowed our daughter to visit for fifteen minutes, wandering through the congregation and stealing paper from every bathroom. Our present church is too rigid to allow her to wander in and out of classes. So she doesn’t even enter a church door anymore. But she’s become agoraphobic and doesn’t go into restaurants or stores anymore either, so I guess it’s just as well. Unfortunately our present church also does not have a sound system with individual PAs to compensate for my growing deafness, so sitting in church is an exercise in growing boredom as I wonder what people are saying. When I found out such a system costs over 2 thousand dollars, I gave up on thinking I would buy one for the church. I don’t like the isolation, but sometimes circumstances dictate such.
    For all that, and for whatever hurts I’ve gotten from other church members (because churches seem to be full of people) I’ve never thought that abandoning church was any kind of answer for our seeking to follow God.

    • Mike Duran November 5, 2013, 3:21 PM

      Lelia, thank you for sharing your story. I pray that God blesses your faithfulness and perseverance.

  • Jessica E. Thomas November 5, 2013, 11:35 AM

    I’ve been doing some discernment studies on my own for some time now, and I am grieved by the realization that many more churches are toxic (no quotes) than I realized. If the teaching from the pulpit is theologically warped, a wise Christian should leave that church. Which, in my case means (for instance) if Rick Warren hired on as our new pastor I’d leave.

  • D.M. Dutcher November 5, 2013, 12:33 PM

    It’s hard to say. A problem is that a “toxic church” has a very specific definition that gets stretched some. A toxic church is a co-dependent one; it uses authority and power structures to create co-dependency, martyr complexes, and stress in its members. There’s strong attempts to control people through informal or formal structures, and not in the sense of “you need to leave because you’re sleeping with another man’s wife or having premartial sex.”

    It doesn’t mean an incompetent, overworked, rude, badly managed, or financially mismanaged one. Those don’t try to control you or make you dependent on a narcissistic personality.

    I think what is dangerous is that many believers are seeing flaws in institutions, and in response are fleeing to worse ones with even more potential for abuse. I could never do a house church for that reason; it’s too intimate, and to me the potential for abuse would skyrocket because you have even less distance between you and the group. They’d be far more effective at shaming or creating control structures imo. A good example would be the guys on the web who get disillusioned with republicans, leave them, and the next thing you know they are believing in junk like human bio-diversity (i.e. racism.) or cultic versions of libertarianism like objectivism.

    That’s all I would say, I guess. If you have to heal, heal, but be wary that you aren’t going from a model of more safeguards than less.

  • Kat Heckenbach November 5, 2013, 2:27 PM

    I had to take some time to process this. I have followed much of the conversation–here and on FB. I totally get the toxic church thing. I grew up in one. It was a fire-and-brimstone spouting Southern Baptist, alcohol-hating, all-white-3000-member church full of people cheating with each other (obviously not terribly discreetly if my 13 yr old self knew about it), and full of *mean* kids who either bullied or ignored me because I wasn’t rich and didn’t go to their school. I should have spoken up to my parents and told them how I was feeling (instead, I just told them–truthfully–that I had a stomach ache every Sunday morning), but it *never even occurred to me* that moving to another church was even a possibility.

    Then, when I was 15, my parents divorced, and I was no longer made to go to church at all. I avoided church altogether *for the next 20 years*.

    My husband and I decided to return to church about nine years ago. The first five years we spent at a church that was great in so many ways–an awesome pastor and sweet people, but we never felt like we were ever fully accepted there. And our daughter suddenly started freaking out every Sunday morning, crying, begging not to go. She was about six or seven, and our first reaction was to make sure she wasn’t being molested (no evidence she was), and then we asked if she’d like to change churches. She jumped on it.

    The next church became toxic for us because the whole thing was all about putting on a show. Can you say “we want to be a mega-church”? Bleh.

    We’re now in a church we love. Smallish, personal, diverse, with a pastor who is so completely down-to-earth.

    My point, I guess, is that toxic churches can really scar–but I’ve found that the thing that most healed me of the scarring was finally finding a church I love. That’s just me, though. And it came after a long, long time.

    BTW–I know this post isn’t all about Michelle–and we shouldn’t make it so just because you chose to quote (or misquote) her. But I do want to say–our connection to God needs to be a web, not a single cord. And from what I’ve seen, she’s got that. The one strand she may not have right now is the one that runs through an actual church, but she’s got so many others, and those are what hold her in place. The danger in leaving the church and becoming toxic yourself is when those other cords–that web–is not there.

    • Mike Duran November 5, 2013, 3:30 PM

      Thanks for sharing your journey, Kat. When we finally started looking for churches again, we kind of did the same thing — spent some time in one church, then another, before finding the church we’re currently in. I can’t say we’ll be lifers, but the pastor and people are very down to earth.

  • R. L. Copple November 5, 2013, 2:44 PM

    It is interesting the similarities between this and what I went through concerning my wife’s infidelity. Being on an infidelity support group, I’ve seen all kinds of responses in how a hurt spouse heals or doesn’t heal from that trauma. There is a grieving process involved, of which one stage is anger. But I’ve seen some people get stuck there for years, failing to heal. I suppose one would call that a toxic situation.

    Some respond to what they went through as no longer trusting any other man or woman. The ideal of marriage is tossed aside, or alternate concepts adopted (like open marriages). One book on infidelity is titled, “The Monogamy Myth.”

    But despite the high divorce rate, cheating rate, both of which land in the 40-60% range, people still get married. Even homosexuals want to get in on the act while others claim it is an outmoded concept to be discarded (neither side really knows what marriage is and don’t know how illogical their statements are).

    And Jesus did say the Biblical ideal is one man and one woman that you join into one flesh, exclusively for your entire life. But I bet the % of couples who have met that ideal all their lives is less than 10% (ie., your spouse is the only person you’ve ever had sex with, period.) And yet, most of us would not advocate tossing that ideal out the window simply because so few live up to it.

    Likewise, they will know we are Christians by our love for one another. That is the ideal. That so many don’t live up to it, including myself at times, doesn’t negate that we should fulfill that. I think you have a good point. In the early Church, you generally only had one Christian community in town, and if more than one gathering, they were overseen by one person. Like marriage (which entering the communion of the saints was likened to in baptism), you would be committing spiritual adultery to go somewhere other than the Church.

    With multiple options on the table, it has become an “open marriage” type reality. We rarely marry a specific congregation, and if so to a degree, easily divorce. What I hear you saying, Mike (correct me if I’m wrong), is due to lack of commitment to a concrete body of Christ, doesn’t that also affect our commitment to our marriage with Christ, over time.

    Its like, due to our hardness of hearts, you will have valid circumstances requiring divorce and remarriage. But that doesn’t negate the ideal of what marriage should be as God intended it to be. Likewise, we can point to examples of toxic churches and spiritual abuse, that in individual situations may warrant leaving a congregation/fellowship, but does that negate the ideal that we should be committed to a concrete fellowship of believers? The way some people divorce a congregation isn’t too different than divorcing one’s spouse because you don’t like the way she colors her hair.

  • Christy L November 5, 2013, 4:08 PM

    Mike, I’m still recovering from a toxic church that has left my older two children embittered toward all Christians. After leaving my childhood church because of issues with some members who forced out the pastor, my elder daughter started attending youth events at a Baptist church with a friend of hers. She was so enthusiastic that we began checking it out. At first, it seemed like a good place to heal our wounds and worship the Lord. Instead the pastor had a “if you don’t believe what I believe, you are a child of Satan and going to hell”. He refused to speak to my daughter because he felt that she dressed inappropriately (never!) and he felt that she might arouse feelings in him. The teens of the church weren’t allowed attend school dances (which is fine for me, I felt it was a personal decision), but then a youth leader told my daughter, on the eve of her sophomore prom that the only girls who go to prom intend to “get drunk and get laid.” She was devastated, and I was furious. The pastor supported the leader, and informed me that I wasn’t saved because I enjoy classic rock like Kiss and Alice Cooper. After leaving two churches in three years, it took over three years before I could even set foot in another church.

    My husband started attending the church of his childhood and eventually joined, which inspired me to give it a chance. It’s not perfect. We still run into politics and incredibly selfish people, but I love most of the people who have been almost infallibly warm. I love worshiping my Lord again, and I’m glad that I gave it a chance.

    Church abuse can be deeply painful, but just like all wounds, they will heal if you don’t constantly pick at the scabs. I am grateful for my time at the Baptist church, because I had always wanted to have a full immersion baptism, and I got that there. I can’t regret that, nor the lessons I’ve learned.

    I just wish that there was a more effective way of teaching churches about abuse, bullying, and politics.

  • patsy purdy November 5, 2013, 4:32 PM

    I would just like to say , one sound one name and voice , pastors ,leaders of churches,these days ,have lost their foundation this is the cross, and jesus Christ , churches have become making money , and counting heads , we go there to 1. be lead by god pastors forgot this .2 is salvations and reborn again , god has a huge ice burge they do not get his vision , 3. heaven we have a heavenly father that loves all of us , 4.compassion there is none , not any church, in the usa, you get all this back in the churches we will see much clearer ,

  • Joe Sanders November 5, 2013, 9:42 PM

    I firmly convinced you make some well thought points. As a believer who supports the persecuted church worldwide – I agree the way that the west does church – or rather how it has evolved particularly here in N. America is flawed and makes it possible for people to shop around and be in and out church like a shopping mall. However, I do not criticize I merely point out an obvious problem. I just think we as a culture has become so saturated with earthly thinking rather heavenly minded that we take meeting together for granted. The meeting together whatever format it takes place as long as their is love of God and Love of each other and our neighbors with grace, and that the Holy Spirit is welcome and an active participant, with humility and preaching and doing of the Gospel – that is the true church.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller November 6, 2013, 1:47 PM

    Mike, this post illustrates why we need the book you’ve been working on. This is truth about Church that needs to be in the hands of every believer, whether we’ve been in a toxic church or not.

    May God use that work for His glory and the growth and encouragement of His Bride.


  • Katie November 6, 2013, 3:15 PM


    Thank you for this post. I’ve been struggling to find a church home for awhile now. I was at the same church for seven years when it “merged” (dissolved) into a mega church. During the merge, leadership at the mega church badmouthed me and deeply damaged my sense of self, accusing me of unbiblical womanhood among other things. Since then, I’ve tried a ton of churches (three seriously) and haven’t yet found where I fit. However, I loved your example of the abused puppy, because it helped me to feel less guilt for being slow to trust again.

  • Forest (D&DPreacher) Ray November 9, 2013, 7:20 PM

    I know all to well about toxic churches. Sometimes the toxic is not so obvious. I was a member of a toxic church where one did not listen to Rock Music or play role playing games or anything on their list of unapproved activities yet they appeared and in their minds were welcoming and loving people. I had sunk roots down and leaving was not a easy choice but I was tired of the backbiting the division the plotting that kept good people out of service while placing people in positions they had no business being in.

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