Cultic Studies Journal
Manipulation and Society
Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society
Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992
M. Enroth. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, 227 pages.
- Reviewer: Maxine Pinson
In 1989, after undergoing a traumatic experience of
spiritual abuse in a mainstream Protestant church, I needed help. Once I categorized my
experience as spiritual abuse, I made a trip to a Christian bookstore to purchase anything
I could find about this type of abuse. The bookstore was well stocked, but I left
empty-handed. The clerk informed me that numerous books were available on abuses from
AZ. But "spiritual abuse?" Sorry, she had just never heard of that
I was appalled to discover that particular bookstore was
not an exception: books on spiritual abuse were simply not available. "Oh, we have
books on cults. Is that what you mean?" clerks asked. Their blank looks fed my
frustration as well as my determination to discover a book on spiritual abuse. I began
scavenging the catalogues of Christian book clearinghouses, certain that a book must be
available on spiritual abuse somewhere. Certainly this most vicious form of abusethe
bruising of one's soulwas not being ignored by Christian authors. My search was in
When I learned in mid-1991 that Dr. Ronald Enroth, a
sociology professor at Westmont College and a committed Christian, was writing a book on
abusive churches, I knew my search was over. Not only was a book being written validating
the reality and shocking prevalence of spiritual abuse, but it was being authored by one
of the nation's foremost authorities on American religious movements.
Dr. Enroth tackles spiritual abuse head-on in his
introduction: "Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual
and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are
accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and
models of spiritual authority." Churches That Abuse is a
powerful, well-documented exposť about "battered believers and abused
Christians," most of whom define themselves as "born-again Christians,"
individuals spiritually abused by churches and leaders that are evangelical or
fundamentalist in theological orientation.
Abusive churches, according to Dr. Enroth, are not a
phenomenon peculiar to current times. Paralleling abusive churches of the past with those
of today, Enroth presents characteristics that serve as reliable warning signals:
There is strong, control-oriented leadership.
The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation by
the leadership to manipulate members and keep them in line.
Followers led to think that there is no other
church quite like theirs, and that God has singled them out for a special purpose.
Other, more traditional churches are put down
as being less "holy."
Subjective experience, especially public or
group testimonials (sometimes coached), are encouraged and emphasized.
Many areas of members' lives are subject to
scrutiny, and the church standards established are usually based upon the life-style
adopted by the leader.
Rules and legalism abound.
Members not following rules established by the
leadership (or threatening exposure of the manipulation and abuse) are often labeled
"reprobates" or "dupes of Satan," and are dealt with harshly.
Ostracism of former members and excommunication of dissenters are common.
For members choosing to leave a spiritually
abusive church, returning to the realm of normalcy is difficult.
Effectively elaborating upon each abusive element, using
illustrative case histories, Enroth explains how each victim was initially deceived, the
abuse experienced, and the aftermath of the individual's experience with toxic faith. The
tragedy of spiritual abuse is explained as a phenomenon often resulting from unhealthy
leadership styles, even when the church is one that is Bible-based and, for the most part,
Dr. Enroth realistically warns that abusive churches will
always exist. With this in mind, how can abusive churches be recognized, avoided, and
deterred from spreading?
According to Enroth, unquestioning obedience and blind
loyalty are the hallmark warning sings. "Abusive leaders are self-centered and
adversarial, rather than reconciling and restorative," writes Enroth. He points out
that most of the abusive churches in his study are independent, autonomous groups that are
not part of a denomination providing checks and balances or that do not have any kind of
accountability for those in charge. Rather, they establish their own rules of discipline
and church courts. Numerous case histories are cited in his book providing examples of
these abusive leadership styles. Dr. Enroth concludes his book with a challenge to the
Christian church encouraging "the development of discernment skills among believers
so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or a false doctrine is
How can the effects of spiritual abuse be understood by one
who is unfamiliar with this phenomenon? How can victims of spiritual abuse be helped?
Dr. Enroth compares individuals injured by a spiritually
abusive environment to rape victims or those suffering from the delayed stress syndrome
experienced by war veterans. He explains that recovery from "spiritual rape" is
a long and painful process, even if the exposure to the influence only lasted a few months
or less. According to one victim, "The complexity of the experience is so great that
it is impossible to adequately communicate it to someone who has not gone through
Though it is possible to heal from spiritual abuse without
a support system or professional help, it is difficult. It is also difficult to help
someone when the dynamics of an experience are not understood. Churches That
Abuse is a long-awaited book, providing empathetic insight into a spiritually
abused victim's plight; it is also a valuable resource providing guidelines for those
wanting to reach out to a victim. Reading this book will help to authoritatively define
and validate the reality of spiritual abuse for victims who have felt "crazy"
because of their inability to define their problem adequately. It is a book that boldly
exposes the insidious dynamics and ramifications of spiritual abuse for those who have not
experienced or been exposed to such abuse. An enlightening book for pastors, church
leaders, church members, and those in the helping professions, it is also recommended as a
must-read educational resource for members of all faith communities.
As one who has personally dealt with the paralyzing effects
wrought by an abusive church environment, I heartily endorse Churches That Abuse
and strongly encourage the addition of it to church, professional, and personal libraries.
Until the reality of spiritual abuse is recognized and acknowledged, this heinous form of
abuse will continue to be swept under church pews, sowing havoc in Christian
churchesand, as Dr. Enroth's book reveals, no church is immune. Even more
tragic, toxic faith and spiritual abuse that are not confronted will continue shattering
the lives of unsuspecting, trusting Christians who turn to such churches for refuge, hope,
and spiritual nurturing. Understanding the scope of a problem is the first step in
curtailing or stopping it. Churches That Abuse provides this crucial
Publisher/Editor, Savannah Parent
Book Review by
Margaret Thaler Singer
Other books by Ronald M. Enroth available
from Barnes & Nobel: