Toxic churches give Christians a bad name. They distort what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and they lead many Christians down the same path.
But the thing is that no church wants to think that they’re toxic. In their own minds, they’re fighting the good fight, preserving the real truth, and using justifiable means to their end of growing their congregation. And so long as a church is continuing to grow in numbers, we tend to ignore red flags—or at least explain them away.
Even still, these churches inevitably wreak havoc in the lives of their members, on their community, and the Church as a whole.
What are the warning signs that a church is cultivating a toxic environment? Here are four kinds of toxic churches and some thoughts on how to avoid becoming one.
1. Churches run by bullies
When unruly individuals grow in number and influence within a church, they can quickly create a toxic environment. While they may constitute a small number within the overall congregation, they can cause serious and unnecessary distractions from the mission of the Church.
For most church bullies, their time to shine is at the business meetings of congregationally governed churches. They know exactly how to navigate Robert’s rules of order with nitpicky precision, say something inflammatory enough to rile up their support base yet vague enough to maintain plausible deniability of fault, and generally just aggravate the church’s leadership.
McLean Bible Church, where David Platt is the pastor, recently made headlines when a small group within the congregation attempted a hostile takeover. When they failed, they filed a lawsuit. While shocking and appalling, this kind of thing isn’t even remotely uncommon. I have personally been in church business meetings that nearly ended in physical altercations.
Church bullies also tend to do a lot of politicking between those business meetings. They’re the kind of people who offer to buy you coffee or lunch and then spend the whole time “sharing their concerns” and talking about “what people are saying.”
Both before and after they meet with you, they also spread rumors. Sometimes those rumors are half true, and other times they aren’t even remotely true. They build alliances and define enemies. They sow seeds of division and reap conflict and church hurt.
Toxic churches are places where this kind of behavior is not only tolerated, but accommodated. That tends to happen when these bullies are big givers or long time members. It feels too risky to take them on. But if you want to be a church on mission, pastors and church leaders can’t afford not to.
2. Churches run by abusers
Having been a pastor who was sometimes at the mercy of self-appointed yet biblically unqualified congregational “leaders,” I’ve sometimes been tempted to think that a healthy church is one where the pastoral leadership holds the power. But a quick look at the headlines will illustrate that toxic churches can be found having all forms of church governance.
While churches with more of a top down authority structure don’t have to endure the drama of persnickety people at congregational meetings, they often lack transparency and accountability. And that becomes a breeding ground for abuse.
When pastors hold a disproportionate amount of power, particularly by virtue of their relative celebrity status, it rarely ends well. They often create a cult-like environment around their personality and wield their power to control the lives of others. Sometimes, that abuse turns sexual.
This kind of abuse often persists far longer than any reasonable follower of Jesus would tolerate. But since the leadership has such influence and power, they skirt accountability. Those who work with them and under them often feel that they have too much to lose by coming forward with a suspicion, and so they are incentivized to accept flimsy explanations for red flags and even all out accusations.
Abusive leaders create toxic churches. And even after they are exposed and removed, it can be incredibly difficult for those affected to come back to a place of health, whether individually or collectively as an organization.
Accountability needs to have actual teeth, rather than just giving off the appearance of decency. So while it isn’t necessarily healthy to give everyone a voice in a congregation, there need to be at least a few people who have the permission and access to speak truth to power in order to steer the church away from abuse and scandal.
3. Churches that refuse to deal with the issues
It is my firm belief that the local church is the hope of the world, and that hope is anchored in the good news of Jesus. But some churches have increasingly weaponized axioms like “just preach the gospel” in order to avoid talking about important social issues.
This is particularly the case where the Church has been complicit in perpetuating problematic structures that have led to abuse and inequity. Instead of repenting and seeking to do better, we accuse those of bringing up these issues of being divisive and distracting from the gospel. There’s no other way to describe such behavior than as toxic.
Not every toxic church is so nefarious, though. Some churches hold to the misconception that Christian joy necessarily avoids unpleasant conversations. This isn’t so much biblical joy as it is toxic positivity.
And while churches should never be known for their negativity, Christians should be ready and willing to not only speak out on important issues of justice and equity but also to put forth meaningful effort in being a part of furthering noble causes.
Christians should be ready and willing to not only speak out on important issues of justice and equity but also to put forth meaningful effort in being a part of furthering noble causes. Click To Tweet
4. Churches that conflate theology and partisan politics
A pastor once told me that a church’s statement of faith shouldn’t be so specific that people who are going to heaven aren’t allowed to be a member of your church. In other words, we don’t have to agree on everything in order to recognize our common bond as followers of Jesus.
But even more than doctrinal differences, some churches have an unofficial litmus test for membership that pertains to your political affiliation. To these churches, coming under the banner of Jesus also requires coming under the banner of a particular political party.
The truths of scripture speak to civil and political issues. But what the bible says about those issues doesn’t fall within the political binaries that we have created for ourselves as Americans. To force congregants into a particular political camp elevates certain parts of scripture over others.
Engagement with important social issues is not itself a distraction from the gospel. But when “speaking the truth” is simply code for compulsory and uncritical adherence to a political party, it is. When churches do that, they become toxic.To force congregants into a particular political camp elevates certain parts of scripture over others. Click To Tweet
Healthy churches start with healthy people.
Churches are full of broken and sinful people, led by broken and sinful people. But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily will become toxic. When we pursue spiritual and emotional health—both individually and collectively—we create healthy environments that testify to the fact that Jesus offers something different from the world.
Our prayer should always be that God’s Kingdom would come and his will would be done here on earth as it already is in heaven. And then our actions should map to the expectation that God can and will do just that. When this is our posture, we invite the Holy Spirit to work through us in ways that only he can.
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you found this article helpful, these books might be useful resources to you.
- The Emotionally Healthy Church, Updated and Expanded Edition: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives by Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird
- Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
- Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom Rainer