For about five years during and after college I was trapped in a dangerous Charismatic religious community. Living in a spiritually abusive environment is like a nightmare that you can’t wake out of. It can be hard to tell right from wrong, left from right. The people you trust the most could betray you at a moment’s notice. In my group I was routinely punished as a warning to the other members, and my best friend ended up dead under mysterious circumstances.
But in the process I learned to recognize some of the warning signs of spiritual abuse. I offer them today in the hopes that it might bring you clarity and healing.
1. Prophecies and visions are the basis for most decisions
An abusive leader might create an environment where are people encouraged not to rely on logic or human reasoning. My cult leader, Timothy*, said he was a chosen apostle of the end times. Verbally he encouraged us to develop our own prophetic relationships with God, but in practice he was the final authority. He could look at a person and “know” when they were sinning even if he had never met them. Members were punished and expelled because he “discerned” evil in them.
2. One person is given all spiritual authority
This can happen in very subtle ways. We trusted Timothy because he hated sin and quoted the Bible often. He led all of our Bible studies and his interpretations of the Scriptures were viewed as having almost divine authority. But if you’d asked us at the time whether we thought he was the one in control, we would have said no. The group seemed like a democracy. Each night we would gather and pray and share what the Lord was telling us. But somehow the revelations always lined up with what Timothy wanted.
3. People who “tow the line” are bombed with affection
To those who were on Timothy’s good side, the group was like a miniature oasis of love and compassion. The Lord was constantly speaking to people in the group about how amazing and mature and powerful the other members were. One time after I returned from eight months of isolation, I was given a new robe and a banquet was held in my honor. This sense of belonging to a unique and caring community cemented our loyalty to the group and its leader.
4. Rebellious members and outsiders are hated and punished
While Jesus encouraged us to be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked and to view all people as children of God (Lk. 6:35), our group viewed unbelievers as beneath our contempt (to the point of openly cheering whenever there was a natural disaster, or when someone we knew died).
This hatred extended even to other Christians who were in compromise, which in practice included everyone who wasn’t a member. When the community started, there were at least five people out of the twenty-five who had strong personalities and challenged the leader and his teachings. Over time each of these people was punished, harassed, and forced out of the group.
5. This group is the only group that knows God’s will
Because we were a community of apostles and forerunners, our group was viewed as being at the forefront of what God was doing in the earth. We had the full revelation of His will for the Church in the coming generation. The other denominations might have started out strong, but they had all lost their way. God would use us to model community for the rest of the Church in the decades going into the end times.
This is called Gnosticism, and it’s appealing because it feeds on your sense of belonging to a special group of people with exclusive access to knowledge and power. Basically we were living in our own role-playing fantasy world.
6. The group’s leadership is unteachable
The root of unhealthy religion is a sense of pride which prevents one from receiving (or in some cases even hearing) ideas which conflict with a person’s carefully chosen self-image.
I’ve seen this tendency at work not only in the group I was a part of, but in other people’s response to the group. After the community was broken up and exposed as dangerous, I watched members and leaders of other dangerous groups flatter themselves that they would never have been part of something so evil. Ironically, these same people were guilty of perpetrating some of the same spiritual abuses and using the same defenses that our leader had used when confronted with his own failings. The number one sign of a good leader is a willingness to be humbly corrected.
7. The group has plans to create “heaven on earth”
This is rare, but when it happens it’s a sure sign that you need to get out immediately. There are a lot of spiritually abusive groups out there, but only a few of them reach this level of demonic evil. Timothy taught us that we had a major role to play in bringing heaven to earth through our prayers in the coming generation. He said there would be a time of global revolution in which the earth was cleansed of all nonbelievers, but when it was over the true followers of God would build a paradise atop the ashes of the old world.
Different groups have different language for it, but it’s the idea that you can build a perfect society within history. They may use verses from the Bible to try and justify it, but this idea was the basis for Nazism, Soviet communism, and Jonestown. It’s the world’s most deadly teaching; and it always ends in bloodshed.
Those are my seven biggest red flags. I’m sure there are others I’ve left out. Feel free to add your own observations in the comments.