What’s the Difference between a Cult and a Healthy Church – The Kit K Opinion

After an interesting week, to say the least, and more than 2000 hits on a blog series I haven’t advertised at all, I’m taking a short break from the juicy cult stuff to write about an important topic – what to look for in a healthy church. After this, I’ll be writing about cognitive distortions (unhelpful thinking patterns) common in cults, and theological cat-fishing. Can’t wait to bring you those, but in the meantime, lets talk about something positive!

First of all, I have to acknowledge an irony here: my husband and I skipped church today. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to go. We’d had a big week. Our phones have been pinging constantly for two weeks following a couple of Facebook posts which mentioned that we were no longer members of my family’s church (the one they run), a disclosure that lead my Dad (the senior pastor) to comment in the local newspaper about it. Not going to lie: that stung. But the public response to that fiasco lead to yet more support for us, and sadly, more disclosures of peoples own sad stories. I’m seeing that there are a lot of people wounded by church. I mean, I knew there would be a lot of hurt people out there because there are a lot of unhealthy churches out there. But it really hit home this week. It motivates me to write more. Because knowledge is power, and because to me, faith should be empowering not crushing.

I understand that if you’ve been wounded by a church or cult experience, it can be seriously difficult to approach church or faith again. But there is a difference between cults and true christianity, just like there’s a difference between healthy and unhealthy churches. I can’t possibly cover the whole gamete here, but I can give you a few gems on what I believe you should to look for in a healthy (vs. unhealthy) church.

Here’s my list of considerations:

1. The Hebrews 10 test: In Hebrews 10:23-25 it says “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Some translations say “for the uplifting and edification” of the saints.” But whatever the translation, this is about stirring up hope, love, good works, and leaving us feeling encouraged and edified or empowered. Sure, exhortation can also involve delivering the tough-love truth in order to bring us further along in our walk with God, but it should always leave us feeling more empowered.

This scripture doesn’t encourage us to hand over control of our walk with God.  It’s about stirring up love and good works. “Assembling together” and “exhorting one another” sound very egalitarian to me – eluding that we are peers, we are together, there is not one whose place is over us to make demands or control us. A healthy church, to me, has a pastor as a leader among peers, not ever on a pedestal to be the one through whom we filter our faith or our relationship with God. There is a mountain of scripture I could go through here, but lets save that for another blog post.

Another quick caveat here – Ephesians 2:8-9 says that “Salvation is by grace through faith and not of works, lest anyone should boast.” So there’s a line. Exhorting each-other towards good works is one thing, demanding it so it qualifies you for salvation is quite another.

What to look for: a church that lifts you up, empowers you, doesn’t avoid preaching truth, but always binds it in love, hope, and exhortation towards good works. A church should make a positive contribution to the families and community that it touches.

2. The Romans 14 test: In Romans 14: 17 it says “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” So look at that last bit.  Righteousness is right standing with God. That is something that can only be attained through Christ. If we think good works is the key here, and if there is no peace or joy, we have legalism – a problem (in my opinion). If we do not have peace, then there’s a problem. If there is no joy, then there is another potential red flag. If this is the metaphorical three legged stool, then we need to look for evidence of all three. Otherwise we have ourselves in a wonky establishment, something we can’t rest our metaphorical tooshes on without risk of a fall. The Bible exhorts us to judge a tree by its fruit. So have a look around and see how this is sitting.

How do you test it? Follow your heart, honestly, as that’s the best barometer of whether or not you’ve found your spiritual home. But be aware. “In their slick advertising, cults present smiling faces and happy families (Aron, Cults, too Good to be True).” So if the smiles are too wide and constant, you might be looking at something with a shiny facade that can’t be trusted.

The other point up for consideration is mental health. In mental health terms, the antithesis of peace is anxiety and the antithesis of joy is depression. Does this mean that depression and anxiety shouldn’t exist in the church? I’m not saying that. One in four people in the modern world will have mental health struggles at some point, that’s ok. That’s life. A healthy church will support them as they find treatment and restoration. But church should build us up. It should support us. If you are looking around and seeing a lot of people diagnosed with mental health issues after becoming involved in a group, you might have to think about why.

What to look for: three legs to the stool – righteousness, peace and joy. But make sure its genuine, not a front. 

3. The Doctrinal Question Test: What happens when a doctrine is questioned? Does the pastor react poorly? Or do they say “Make yourself a cuppa. Let’s kick this around”? Are you allowed to arrive at an “agree to disagree” point after discussion? Cults and high demand groups usually don’t allow questions, even from the inner circle (More on that here). In a healthy church, questions and genuine respectful debate are allowed or even encouraged. The truth is that the Bible is a complicated book. Theologically, there are many different lenses you can apply to it. Choosing one over the other shouldn’t leave you feeling excluded, mocked, shamed or at worst, excommunicated. The other part to the “doctrine” test is this: does your church know what it believes and is this consistent through each layer of the church? If you don’t know what your church believes when it comes to basic doctrines, you could have a problem.

What to look for: a church that encourages healthy discourse when it comes to matters of faith, doctrine, or even the how the church itself runs, and is clear on what it’s key doctrines are.

4. The Friends, Family and Community Test: Does your church encourage healthy engagement with friends, family and community, strengthening them and building them up? Or does it drive a wedge between you and them? Does it encourage legitimate, altruistic engagement with your community, or is there another agenda behind it? A healthy church will never divide you from your family or friends, and it won’t foster and “us and them” mentality. Dividing someone from friends and family is something that is flagged as a concern in domestic-abuse type relationships. If a church exhibits this characteristic, it is no less concerning (read more on that here). I’ll also have to flag here that I’m strongly anti-dominionist in my theology. My belief (based on Philippians 2:5-11 among others) is that Jesus came to serve not to conquer and we should emulate that. Not everyone will agree with that, but I’m strongly skeptical of churches that exhibit dominionist theology and want to take over a community rather than serve it.

What to look for: A church that doesn’t divide families or do harm to communities. It should serve and uplift both.

5. The Discipleship Test: Discipleship programs are common in churches, just as thought-reform programs are common in cults. I like to ask this question: does the discipleship program build up the person so they are more empowered, more discerning, more informed, more able to make their own life choices in accordance with where they believe God is guiding them? Or are they less able to engage in independent thought, becoming more and more dependant on the group? If the latter, watch out. (Because I’m dropping in a reference or scripture in every section here, I’ve linked this article on abusive forms of discipleship, but only read it if you’re in for something heavy!)

What to look for:  Programs that make people more personally empowered and capable of independent thought, rather than more dependant on the group and less capable to think independently.

6. The Clear Structure Test: If you were to have a grievance in your church, would it be clear to you who and how this would be rectified? Or would you feel fear and potential isolation? I’m a little wary of independent churches, especially if there is no board the pastor legitimately answers to. Most cults are ‘self-sealing systems‘ – they are their own power structures which can make grievances difficult to air or resolve. The central person becomes “the voice of God” who can’t be questioned. If your pastor has no one they are accountable to, or if you don’t know who you could take a grievance to, then this risk is wide open.

What to look for: Somewhere where there are clear lines of communication and accountability, clear policies and procedures, and consistency through-out the whole organisation. 

7. The Truth Test: I didn’t know what to call this one, but I guess the thing I’m questioning here is this – does your group have a single guru-type that it gleans all its truth from, or does it recognise truth can and does come from multiple sources? Does it always come back and check “truth” with the Bible and consider the interpretation of it against the nature of God? If your church is only allowed to ‘draw from one well’ so to speak, then you could have a problem. Clean water is clean water wherever you drink it from. Truth is truth, wherever you glean it from. My other little flag here, and it is a personal flag, is this: does your church talk about different types of truth, or suggest that facts and truth may differ. They don’t. Truth is truth. If the facts don’t line up, then there’s an issue.

What to look for: a church that genuinely seeks to grow in its understanding of truth and doctrine, that looks for confirmation from multiple sources and checks back with the Big Guy and His Book (meaning God and the Bible).

8. The “I’ve missed a Sunday” test: I missed this Sunday. I missed it because we had a huge week, one that was incredibly raw emotionally. There was no demand on me to justify why I missed it. I just did. This, to me, is good. Because it means my church trusts me to make my own decisions, and doesn’t treat me as its property. If your church puts unreasonable attendance demands on you, even for midweek meetings or for “volunteering” opportunities (which may be voluntary in name only), then you might consider the possibility that this could be a high demand group. (Read more here)

What to look for: genuine freedom, known by its fruit and not just by its narrative.

9. The Robert Lifton Test: I’m not going to spell this all out again, but check out my blog post on 8 Key Characteristics of Cults. They’re taken from a well-respected psychiatrist who researched mind-control techniques. Read that and make sure your group doesn’t check too many boxes!

If you want another opinion on this whole issue of finding a healthy church, check out this article here.

As mentioned above, this past week or so has seen us inundated with contact from people with various stories. Some of you will find it impossible to even think about walking back into a church again. I completely get that. So I have three encouragements for you: 1. Allow yourself to heal. That takes time. 2. Feel free to use this post as a checklist if you find yourself able to consider church again. 3. If you can’t ever walk into a church again, know that doesn’t mean you can’t ever approach God again. I’d encourage you to find a friend, even one, that you can share your life and faith with. Even if thats just over a coffee or a beer every now and then, because guess what “Wherever two or more are gathered in My [God’s] name, there I AM in the midst.”

Take the pressure off, friend. Recover. Then revisit this stuff always remembering that your gut instinct is something to be listened to. Once again, I’ve hyperlinked the heck out of this article. Don’t feel like you have to follow every link. Its just so you know I didn’t make up all these opinions myself. There are a mountain of considerations you could make. These are just my top 9.

Cheers and good luck.
Kit K

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