Toxic faith can shock the system

Mr. Knowles is a longtime Church of God member who writes for a living.

By Brian Knowles

MONROVIA, Calif.--Toxic Faith (by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, Waterbrook Press, 2001, $11.99) is a reissue of a book published in 1991. The need for it is clear. Many well-meaning Christians continue to find themselves caught up in what can only be described as toxic church environments.

This book offers an antidote for those who seek healing from the poison that slowly contaminates their spiritual life.

One of the authors, Stephen Arterburn, is well qualified to counsel on these issues. He is the founder of New Life Clinics and host of the New Life Live! national radio show. He is also creator of the Women of Faith conferences.

His literary confederate, Jack Felton, is a licensed therapist, minister and founder of Compassion Move Ministries. In addition, he serves as a counselor at New Hope Christian Counseling Center.

The subtitle of the book is "Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse." The problem here is that many do not recognize they have been spiritually abused. They are what the authors call religious addicts. They are so caught up in the cult of personality of which they have become a part that they, like the proverbial frog in the pot, have no idea what has happened to them. They are toxic and don't know it.

Shocks from the system

The authors offer many helpful ways of determining whether one is a part of a toxic group. Of particular interest to me, in light of a book I wrote (Because There Was No Shepherd), was a chapter listing 10 characteristics of toxic faith:

  • The members of a toxic-faith system claim their character, abilities or knowledge make them special in some way.
  • Their leader is dictatorial and authoritarian.
  • · They are at war with the world to protect their terrain and establish themselves as godly persons who can't be compared to other persons of faith.
  • Toxic-faith systems are punitive in nature.
  • Members of the system are asked to give overwhelming service.
  • Many in the system are physically ill, emotionally distraught and spiritually dead.
  • Communication is from the top down or inside out.
  • Rules are distortions of God's intent and leave Him out of the relationship.
  • The system's adherents lack objective accountability.
  • The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the religiously toxic.

The indispensable man

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, especially to former members of the Worldwide Church of God. Some points will also resonate with some members of WCG spin-offs.

Speaking of the leadership of toxic groups, the authors state: "In a toxic system, the toxic minister sets himself or herself up as having a special destiny or mission that can be performed by no one else."

This is the appeal to uniqueness. The man is uniquely called. His doctrines are uniquely revealed. It is their uniqueness that makes them true. Those who challenge them, or the man who formulated them, are challenging God Himself, for the leader is God's anointed.

"The only hope to protect other potential victims," explain the authors, "is for the leader who claims to be God's special officer to be forced into accountability or dethroned."

We're all familiar with the power struggles that have followed attempts to discipline leaders within the Churches of God universe. Boards have been created. Boards have disciplined. The discipline has been rejected. The object of the disciplining action has struck out on his own to recreate a new cult of personality with himself at the center of it. The religious addicts who follow him dutifully fall into line after him.

To meet legal requirements, or merely for appearances, the leader may create a new board. As the authors write, "there may be a board of directors, elders, or deacons, but when the authoritarian ruler picks them, he or she picks people who are easily manipulated or easily fooled. What appears to be a board of accountability is in fact a rubber-stamp group that merely gives credibility to the leader's moves."

Board selection can include cronyism, nepotism or simply deselecting anyone who might challenge the autocratic views or behaviors of the leader.

Book within a book

Reviewing the piquant points of this timely book would take a book itself. Also included in Toxic Faith:

  • The extremes of toxic faith.
  • What are toxic faith and religious addiction?
  • Twenty-one beliefs of toxic faith.
  • When religion becomes an addiction.
  • Religious addiction: the progression.
  • The five roles in a toxic-faith system.
  • Ten rules of a toxic-faith system.
  • Treatment and recovery.
  • Seventeen characteristics of a healthy faith.

The book also includes two helpful appendices: "Do You Have Toxic Faith?" and "Twelve Steps to Overcoming Toxic Faith."

Difficult step

Messrs. Arterburn and Felton show how toxic faith can produce toxic families, ruled by a tyrant. Recovery from such toxicity is analogous to recovering from any other addiction: The addict must first acknowledge that he is indeed addicted.

This may be the most difficult step to take. Many will probably never take it.

Those who do will eventually experience a feeling of liberation. They will come to understand something of what Jesus meant when He said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

Truth, if it is truth, does not bring one into bondage but into freedom. I do not mean freedom to sin. I mean freedom to develop a one-on-one relationship with God that imposes no humanly devised boundaries.

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