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.

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About Jason Harris

Dr Jason Harris is a writer, pastor, and academic. He has authored multiple books, articles, and papers including his book Theological Meditations on the Gospel. Jason has a PhD from James Cook University as well as degrees in theology, music, accounting, and research. Jason has lived in Cairns, Australia since 2007 and serves as pastor at CrossPoint Church. You can contact Jason at jason@jasonharris.com.au.


  1. RoSeZ 26 January, 2010 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Firstly, I like the logo thingy… =P

    Secondly, I was absolutely inspired by the patriotic theme of remembering and honouring Australia running through today’s Australia Day post! =P

  2. Alen 26 January, 2010 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Where’s the 9th mark? :D

  3. Steve Warren 26 January, 2010 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    Over the past few years I have taken to wearing Rivers shirts over tee shirts, is this a sign of dangerous influence? Or am I just getting old?

    But on the serious side, there are some churches where you feel a tad uncomfortable if you’re not wearing long pants and a tie. Heaven forbid turning up wearing thongs. (flip flops for the uneducated )

  4. Jason Harris 26 January, 2010 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    @Alen, Ok. Yeah. I suppose it was slightly Deveresque. =P

    @Steve Warren, True. I don’t think it’s as much the dress itself as the legalism that *might* be behind it. Thanks for the thought.

  5. Al 26 January, 2010 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    “Mark 9” might be a segue way from 1,2,3&7 – Respond to all challenges with “You’re sinful/.
    When challenged (biblically, in love, etc) the easy response is to dismiss it as coming from a spirit of bitterness, sin, rebellion, refusal to submit to authority, toying or meddling in new evangelicalism/emergent movement, etc
    Instead of carefully considering prayerful feedback, anyone that disagrees is told to “not touch the anointed” or similar.
    There’s a level of insecurity that can’t handle questioning of any kind. Thus the need to restrict reading, disdain education, refuse questions and not share the Eldership.
    In this environment unity is replaced by conformity, differing opinions, thoughts, reading list threaten that conformity and are treated with suspicion

  6. Jason Harris 26 January, 2010 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Well said Al.

  7. Robert Apps 27 January, 2010 at 7:15 am - Reply

    Steve Warren,

    thankfully all I wear is rivers too so you are safe.

    leadership wearing rivers is one mark of a trendy church.


  8. Al 27 January, 2010 at 9:20 am - Reply

    I agree with the Rivers “mark”.
    My previous Senior Pastor wore Rivers shirts, and now I’m a F/T Lead Pastor I get to wear them too – even when I preach – which I know makes me really cutting edge and borderline emergent – but hey I like the thrill of living dangerously


  9. Lydia Meldrum 27 January, 2010 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Not sure about your article, seems what you’re really trying to say is bathed in synicalisim. I don’t think your comments relate as much to a “church”, as to the individual “pastor” of the church. And men are certainly not perfect. Pastors, like any man(eg. husbands, fathers, bosses, leaders), can be pron to over-control, pride and other such distructive things that can sometimes come with the power of authority. I think this has been a problem since time began and will continue to be a problem as long as sin is around. The solution remains not in ranting and raving about the problem, but in focusing on how to handle, in a Christian and Biblical manner, such an oppressive issue.

  10. Jason Harris 27 January, 2010 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Hey Lydia,

    I totally agree that men are sinners and will continue to be. That’s why accountability is simply not optional in the local church context. Where sinners are willing to put themselves in structures that hold them accountable to the body, the sin nature is held in check. Where accountability is avoided, particularly in the leadership, a church becomes dangerous in a way that not only can be avoided, but must be avoided.

    The context in which I wrote these points was that I was burdened for some friends who are caught up in the Jehovah’s Witness cult. These points are the things I was observing in the JW’s over about six months of watching.

    I feel kind of like the kid throwing rocks into a dark yard. When the dog starts yelping, you know you’ve hit home. If these things are found in Fundamentalist churches, it is to our shame.

    I’m not content to brush it aside in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’m certainly not content to brush it aside in our churches.

    Grace to you.

  11. Apo 27 January, 2010 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Couldn’t help but be suprised by the similarities between what you’ve written and the cult systems of the world from “The Kingdom of the Cults” by Walter Martin.

    1) “The belief systems of the cults are characterized by close-mindedness. They are not interested in a rational cognitive evaluation of the facts. The organiszational structure interprets the facts to the cultist, generally invoking the Bible and/or its respective founder as the ultimate source of its pronouncements. Such belief systems are in isolation; they never shift to logical consistency. They exist in what we might describe as separate compartments in the cultist’s mind, and are almost incapable of penetration or disruption if the individual cultist is completely committed to the authority pattern of his organisation.”

    2) “Cultic belief systems are characterized by genuine antagonism on a personal level since the cultist almost always identifies his dislike of the Christian message with the messanger who holds such opposing beliefs. The identification of opposing beliefs with the individual in the framework of antagonism leads the cultist almost always to reject the individual as well as the belief, a problem closely linked with close-mindedness and one that is extremely difficult to deal with in general dialogue with cultists.”

    3) “Almost without exception, all cultic belief systems manifest a type of institutional dogmatism and a pronounced intolerance for any position but their own…”

    4) “In any analysis of the belief systems of cults is the factor of isolation.”

  12. lumpy 27 January, 2010 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    I think wearing Rivers is less cutting edge and more about cutting costs. What’s to bet that all of those leaders who wear Rivers live in proximity to a Rivers Clearance Store?!
    As long as you tithe the money you save.


    By the way Rob, Can I have all those shirts that don’t fit you any more?

  13. Alen 27 January, 2010 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    @Steve Warren, Rivers shirts? Am I missing some kind of cultural trend? :)

    @Al, I remember a sermon on David and how he wouldn’t touch Saul, the direct application being not to touch God’s current anointed man i.e the Pastor. I am weirded out that it is a common enough term for others to know :|

    @Apo, I remember reading that book! :D It kinda freaked me out though :|

  14. RoSeZ 27 January, 2010 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    Alen, I’ve heard too many messages to count on “Touch not God’s anointed.” I actually thought it was kinda commonplace. Still weird, though. =)

  15. Steven Mock 28 January, 2010 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Well, I’ve been waiting all day to weigh in on this one. I, too, grew up hearing preachers rant and rave about “touching the Lord’s anointed.” I specifically remember this in the context of Korah vs. Moses (see Numbers 16). The preachers would declare this passage with such passion, that as a young kid, I was sure the ground was going to open up right then and there and swallow up whoever was causing the preacher so much grief. But it never did. As a kid I was relieved. Now after years of reflection I’ve concluded one of two options must be true: 1) either no one was “touching” God’s anointed or 2) maybe they weren’t really “God’s anointed.” I’ll let you decide. I know which one I’ve concluded.

  16. Robert Apps 29 January, 2010 at 6:05 am - Reply

    The Lord’s anointed has just posted:)

  17. lumpy 29 January, 2010 at 8:55 pm - Reply

    Is this a post Pastor post? Was Steven Mock’s a first Pastor post?
    If we are referring to the incident in the cave with Saul and David, then the context of “touch not etc etc”, could I think mean, “Don’t do him any harm while he’s on the toilet”

  18. nanabelle 30 January, 2010 at 1:45 am - Reply

    The original post did seem like it was aimed at groups closer to home than JW’s. I agree you’ll be able to find fault in every church and some will be more devastating than others. That’s why we need to know our Bibles, and our God, so we’ll know what to cast off and what to keep.

    My concern is that we not focus on the negative, and “curse the darkness”, but that we “shine a light in the darkness”, and offer God’s positive solutions, showing the fruit of the Spirit in our reactions and lives. A deep love for God and His ways will be contagious and reach the world around us. CHOOSE, in God’s strength, to not let anything steal your joy. Anything.

  19. Steve Warren 30 January, 2010 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    It seems to me that very few men in the Bible claimed to be The Lords Anointed with the exception of a few such as David and Jesus, and they never used the words of ‘touch not the Lords anointed’ in respect of criticism or attack on themselves. The ones we hear of who use this phrase when they are challenged or criticised would seem to bear the hallmark of self appointed rather than God anointed men.

  20. Robert Apps 30 January, 2010 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    David, I have three pairs of trousers now way too big, but can’t afford to ship them to Pormpurraaw, can you collect them?

  21. Rebecca Davis 4 August, 2017 at 5:29 am - Reply

    Jason, I’m reading here now seven years later because of your 60 Minutes appearance. I found this page of yours particularly interesting in light of your own excommunication from your brother’s independent Baptist church. You might like to see the “9 Marks” some others have offered, several of which are very similar to yours. Thank you for your good work. https://thewartburgwatch.com/2013/07/11/nine-marks-of-an-abusive-church-2/

    • Jason Harris 5 August, 2017 at 11:19 pm

      Thanks for stopping by Rebecca. I appreciate you posting the link as well. That’s a good list of things to watch out for.

      Grace to you.

  22. Robert 18 August, 2017 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    Most of the points you mention, and especially framed in the the way they were, look like obvious red flags to truth seekers. I’d be interested to see some scriptures backing up each of your points.

    As I read it I thought “I think he’s talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Not because I think this describes them, but it describes the caricature that some churches paint of them.

    And as I read the comments it turns out I was right.

    So I agree that some of your points are indicators of a bad church, but in all cases an individual or an organisation should have the right to explain the scriptural basis for their ‘style’, if they have such a basis, and let the hearer decide.

    You wouldn’t want a person to turn away from a legitimate church because they read your your byte sized list without considering the complex issues behind them, would you?



    • Robert 18 August, 2017 at 9:30 pm

      (Don’t know how “Man” crept into the signature. Apologies.)

  23. Robert 18 August, 2017 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    And, incidentally, I’m not asking for a debate, I really was just commenting on your post.

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