I have, over my lifetime, had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of churches around the world. I’ve seen some wonderful, healthy churches. I’ve also seen some dangerous churches. Here are some marks of a dangerous church.
Mark 1: The leadership structure has a lot of similarities to a totalitarian regime.
This is the church where one leader has absolute power. He usually surrounds himself with weak people who rarely contradict or question him.
Extra points if the leader argues that God intends it to be this way.
Mark 2: Serious concerns about issues at the root are met with pragmatic responses about the fruit.
This is the “but look how many people are getting saved” mentality. It has nothing at all to do with the question at hand, but in a dangerous church, this pretty much settles the matter. Unspeakable abuse—ethical, theological, expositional, emotional, and even sexual—is deftly swept under the carpet by this appeal to pragmatism.
Mark 3: No questions.
What might seem to you like a perfectly reasonable concern is met with the “did you really just question my opinion?” look. And you know right then and there that questions aren’t allowed.
“Standing for the truth” becomes a euphemism for “know the party line, and toe it.”
Mark 4: A penchant for conspiracy theories.
Healthy churches teach their people critical thinking and mature analysis. Dangerous churches indulge in every tasty morsel of theorised conspiracy that comes along.
Mark 5: Complex issues are simplified into byte-sized answers.
Often these simplistic answers are collected into books or pamphlets with titles like “Answers” or “God’s Opinion on [insert latest hot topic here].”
Mark 6: Higher education is disdained or—at best—tolerated.
His job is to unpack the word of God each Sunday. This is a job that requires a solid understanding of theology, logic, grammar, history, ancient languages, rhetoric, and dozens of other academic pursuits. So the first time he cracks a joke about “cemetery” [a.k.a. seminary], that’s your cue. You’re in a dangerous church.
Mark 7: Reading is generally limited to books published in our circles.
We all know reading is pretty much a waste of time (after all, you could be out soul-winning/feeding the poor/[insert issue here]), but if you must read, make sure you only read “safe” books. In other words, books published by our group and a small selection of others that don’t raise any difficult questions.
Mark 8: The leadership doesn’t read much.
So you’re having dinner at the pastor’s house. You ask to see his library and he shows you a small bookcase with a few shelves of books. You ask about his digital library and he excitedly shows you a programme that automatically generates PowerPoint sermons. Once again, this is your cue. You’re in a dangerous church.