Do you ever get a queasy feeling when thinking about your church or ministry experiences? OK, you’re “supposed” to connect with God through His church. Jesus is at work in the world, and being a part of His ministry is an honor. So why do things feel so off? Is something wrong with you? Or might you be experiencing some toxic religion?

Evil twists, mars, and exploits everything God intended to be good. God intended for us to be deeply transformed through being connected with the church of Jesus. We cannot do this alone. And yet spiritual abuse happens far too often.

  • When Francis asked for help at a Christian college with his pornography use he was told to try harder and put on probation.
  • Tamika was made to publicly stand before the whole church and confess her sexual sin
  • Jason was demeaned before the entire church staff when he asked a probing question about the likely outcome of the leader’s latest initiative
  • Larissa experienced long-lasting PTSD after being sexually exploited by her youth pastor

Friends, to borrow James’ phrase, “these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10). When people are harmed in the name of God the damage is deep, and God is not pleased.

Importantly, Christianity is not a social club. Jesus didn’t come to earth, die, and live again so that you could feel better. God’s design for you is that you “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). When Jesus is your Lord and the Holy Spirit is living inside you, things change. You become different.

However, human beings and Satan’s kingdom of darkness can twist and distort even things God intends to be for our transformation. How do you know if you’re experiencing toxic religion? Here are three characteristics to note.

  1. Power is Used to Control and Manipulate

Using power to manipulate and control is anti to the way of Jesus. Nothing in Scripture gives anyone the right to be Junior Holy Spirit in anyone else’s life, or to demand their “rights” in any sphere. And using God-talk as part of the manipulation is especially evil and sinister. Your gut has an uneasy feeling when you’re being controlled, though when you’ve experienced it for so long you may come to distrust your own sense of what’s really going on.

God has some very strong things to say about the shepherds who exploit the sheep for their own benefit. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord”” (Jeremiah 23:1-2).

Narcissistic leaders who use others for their own benefit instead of serving those under their care are toxic. Servant leadership – in the home or in the church – is the only option for those who are following Jesus. Strength exerted on behalf of others is beautiful and life-giving, and helps others become stronger and more of who God created them to be.

If you are feeling manipulated and controlled in the name of God, that’s toxic religion.

  1. Human Structures are Elevated Above God

Humans can be prone to believing that it’s “my” church or ministry instead of God’s. Success feeds our natural human selfishness and pride. Numbers, influence, and money can be intoxicating. Weekly attendance, book sales, podcast or music downloads, speaking engagements, physical buildings, money raised, public applause, even social media followers can become the altar we worship at.

As an author and speaker I’m aware of the pull of these metrics. It feels good when the numbers go up! But I’m reminded that the gospel reached the then-known world within decades of Jesus’ resurrection without any of the structures we may deem necessary – no seminaries, Christian publishing houses, church buildings, Christian radio or TV, etc.

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It’s His church, not ours. He will not share His glory with another. For a leader in any capacity, the only safety comes with diligence and time devoted to character building, and having a few people around who know you well enough and have permission to be up in your business and call you on your “stuff”. Desiring “success” is not in itself wrong, but your character must have a deep enough foundation to withstand it.

Where human structures or influential individuals are glorified instead of God, that’s toxic.

  1. Legalism and Morality are Elevated Above Transformation

Behavior matters. Behaviors have consequences. But focusing first and most on behavior leads to legalism and moralism. For the individual trying to live in such an environment, that leads to either trying harder and covering up any potential weaknesses, or giving up in shame. That person is kept at a distance from both God and others.

Shame is a driving force in many cultures of the world. (Not that “my” culture is better; shame is no worse than greed as a driving force.) God cares about our behaviors, but God does not use shame to drive us; there’s plenty of that coming from the enemy. What God cares most about are matters of the heart that lead to behavior change. He loves you not because of your behavior but because you are His child.

And He loves you deeply enough to change you from the inside out. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

The “righteousness [that] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20) that Jesus said was necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with behavior. Read the rest of Matthew 5; it’s all about matters of the heart.

If your religion elevates moralistic behavior above heart transformation, it’s toxic.

Something Better

Disentangling what’s real from what’s distorted in your picture of God and your experience of church may feel impossible. It may take a long time. But it’s worth the journey.

There’s no simple 1-2-3 for this. My purpose here is to help you feel seen, to validate your gut, and to give you some hope that something else is possible. Don’t ignore your gut, and don’t follow your feelings as a guide. But if your internal radar is going off, observe more carefully, check your perspective with outside people, and seek God’s perspective for yourself.

If you’re experiencing toxic religion, exert yourself to change things if you can. And if you can’t, you may need to separate yourself, take some time to heal, and cautiously find a different place in the body of Christ to connect.

Your Turn: Have you experienced toxic religion? What has that been like? If you’ve experienced some healing, what did that involve? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Want more? In this week’s podcast episode I talk with Chuck DeGroat about When Narcissism Comes to Church. You’ll want to listen to this for sure.

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  • Toxic religion brings pain instead of transformation. If power is used to control and manipulate, if human structures are elevated above God, or if moralism and legalism are front and center, that’s toxic.  Tweet that.

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