A few years ago, while doing research on the Seventh-day Adventist sect, I ended up being subscribed to “Proclamation” magazine, the publication of Life Assurance Ministries. Life Assurance Ministries has ex-SDA members and is an “anti-SDA” apologetics ministry.
The current issue, Winter 2012, has a good article (by Joan Yorba-Gray with Colleen Tinker) about spiritually abusive religions and religious leaders, including an excellent chart comparing spiritually abusive teaching to healthy teaching. I think the chart is well-worth sharing, so below you will find the information from the chart, but not in the chart format (I am not geeky enough to do that, and scanning the chart would make it too small to read). Also, the chart explains where the SDA falls into the Abusive category, but I am leaving that part out so these descriptions can stand alone, as well as be compared to other churches or leaders.
Abusive: Coerces obedience with power, manipulation, domination and fear.
Healthy: Leads the flock in his care with a servant’s heart and seeks cooperation and fellowship (Mk.9:35)
Abusive: Uses the Bible for his own purposes, i.e., to control and dominate the flock.
Healthy: Uses biblical doctrines in teaching and encourages the flock to do their own personal Bible study and study in groups.
Abusive: Has rigid or overly-enmeshed boundaries, and the members of the church are closed off from other groups.
Healthy: Has appropriate boundaries with members of the church. Doesn’t try to become enmeshed in their lives or cut them off from other Christians.
Abusive: May be narcissistic and believe that he knows what God thinks and may even see himself as “God’s mouthpiece.” Authority goes from the top down.
Healthy: Knows that God works through the Holy Spirit in each believer to give us discernment; accountability goes both ways.
Abusive: Sees itself as the only “true” church; has black and white thinking - us vs. wrong (the others are wrong).
Healthy: All those who have accepted the finished work of Christ on the cross, without need for personal performance, are brothers and sisters in the Lord. There are not “superior” believers; all believers are equally loved by God (Romans 8:1).
Abusive: Promotes legalism and perfectionism. This gives the leader ability to control people by their fears of not being saved and going to hell.
Healthy: Knows that the Christian is saved by grace through faith and salvation cannot be earned by one’s behavior (Eph. 2:8-9).
Abusive: Has obsession with discipline in which those who disagree are shunned, censured or expelled from the church. Leader expects to be obeyed because he has “the mind of Christ.”... Many sins are tolerated if a person is a loyal tithe-paying member.
Healthy: If the individual has erred, he confesses the sin and receives forgiveness (1 Jn.1:9). Believers are not shunned or expelled for disagreements on non essential matters of faith.
Abusive: Encourages “group think” by using rules and regulations that are constantly repeated, taught and reinforced by church literature, classes and teaching from the pulpit.
Healthy: Encourages the Bible as truth, does not obsess about rules and regulations, but focuses on helping individuals grow in their relationship with the Lord.
Abusive: Believes the end justifies any means. The denomination sponsors community events and public activities without saying who they are in order to gain proselytes. Immoral or criminal conduct on the part of a leader may be covered up for the sake of “the mission”....
Healthy: If the end that is desired is not consistent with God’s Word, then no means will be acceptable.
Abusive: Uses end-time events to promote its own eschatology. Eschatology itself isn’t wrong, but when the leaders use end time teaching to control the flock by promoting fear and anxiety, isolation from other Christians, perfectionistic behavior, uncertainty about salvation and “extra-biblical” teachings, they are in error. There may be an obsession with calculating the dates, situations or events that predict Jesus’ return...
Healthy: Teaches that no one knows the time of Jesus’ coming (Mk. 13:32).
Abusive: Uses insider double-talk with a confusing doctrine. The group encourages blind acceptance of its opposing teachings and rejection of logic through complex presentations on incomprehensible doctrines.
Healthy: The Bible is the doctrine upon which teachings are based; other ancillary teaching texts must be consistent with biblical truth.
While some spiritually abusive religions or religious teachers will be guilty of every one of these, most will probably just be guilty of most, or at least several of these descriptions.
If you recognize any of these as applying to a group you are in or a teacher you follow, get out of that group and leave that teacher as quickly as possible. If you know someone in a group described above as abusive, teach them why they need to leave such a group. Be discerning with everyone you follow; some can be very subtle and slowly drag you in.