There are abusive churches. There are churches whose pastors and leaders are wolves in sheep's clothing. These are men and churches of which the Bible tells us, "Beware of evil workers."
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If the Bible is the Word of God (and it is), and if it is a sufficient guide to the people of God (and it is), then the Bible must be the book by which we determine whom we should follow and whom we should avoid. A well-meaning person with insightful ideas about what constitutes an abusive church may write an interesting article, but if it does not base its points on the Word of God, it should by no means be trusted.
The Bible, and the Bible alone, is our sole authority for all doctrine and practice. (2 Tim 3:16.) Especially in a day like our own when people have become expert at being offended at anything and everything, we must be careful that any accusation against a church or a church leader is based on abuses that are contrary to the Word of God and not simply displeasing to the carnal mind.
If a person feels hurt or threatened, it may be that a wolf or a dog has accosted them. If a weak brother is offended, it may be that a Christian leader is puffed up with pride, has crossed the bounds of charity, and is harming the people of God. Yet, on the other hand, it is also not uncommon for someone to be offended by a perfectly biblical stand made in love by a man of God. The fact that someone is hurt or offended is not in itself sufficient ground to assume that another party is in error.
It is also possible for a good and godly man to offend someone by his own mistaken notions, by cultural peculiarities, or even by a sin committed in a moment of weakness. These things should not be excused, but they must be dealt with in a biblical manner. We must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the person who caused the offense is "abusive" and he and/or his church should be shunned.
The Bible tells us many things of which to beware. Let us take heed to the Lord's warnings. If we allow our minds to be renewed by the Word of God, we will not be deceived. Though the world, the flesh, the devil, and the false church all try to abuse us and lead us astray, yet we will cleave to the Lord Jesus and to His word.
The Scriptures tell us some specific things of which to beware:
1. Beware of false prophets. (Matthew 7:15)We are not to believe every spirit, but to try the spirits whether they are of God. (1 John 4:1) False teachers "bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them." (2 Peter 2:1) The false prophet Elymas tried to keep men from the faith. Paul called him an enemy of righteousness. (Acts 13: 6-10.) 2 John 9-10 tells us to avoid anyone who does not have a clear doctrine of Christ.
2. Mark them which cause divisions . . . and avoid them. (Romans 16:17)This verse clearly tells us to avoid those who teach doctrines contrary to the Bible. The following verse says, "For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple."
3. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:6)The Pharisees taught men to follow their own traditions instead of the plain word of God, (Matthew 15:6) and they tithed herbs while omitting the weightier matters of the law: judgement, mercy, and faith. (Matt. 23:23) It was not wrong to tithe the herbs. Minding the smaller points is not necessarily something of which to beware. The thing the Pharisees and Sadducees did wrong was omitting the weightier matters. Those who do so are the blind leaders of the blind. The Lord says, "Let them alone." (Matt. 15:14.)
4. Beware of the scribes. (Luke 20:46)These are the people who make a fine show, but "devour widows' houses." Any church leader who makes long prayers or does other things to look good but is more of a draw on the people than he is a servant to them qualifies as a scribe. He is an abusive leader of whom to beware.
5. Beware of dogs. (Philippians 3:2)These are the Jews who teach the necessity of circumcision for salvation. They are evil workers, and anyone who teaches going back to the law or embracing Judaic customs falls into the same category.
6. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy. (Colossians 2:8.)These are the churches which teach after the tradition of men and the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. This includes those who teach the worship of angels and espouse views of heaven based on dreams and visions ("intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind" verse 18) It also includes those who teach "touch not; handle not" concerning things which "perish with the using." (verses 21-22) It's not wrong for a church to teach against sin and worldliness, but it is wrong to teach men that they must refuse the gifts of God. (1 Timothy 4:3.)
7. Beware of the error of the wicked. (2 Peter 3:17)Any man or doctrine who causes you to "fall from your own stedfastness" is a threat. Beware of any church or church leader who teaches that you can sin and get away with it. "If any man . . . consent not . . . to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words . . . supposing that gain is godliness; from such withdraw thyself." (1 Timothy 6: 3-5.)
8. Beware of covetousness. (Luke 12:15)The errors of those "which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray. . . who loved the wages of unrighteousness" are described in 2 Peter 2:13 ff. It goes without saying that we should not follow those who "speak great swelling words of vanity" (verse 18.) They promise liberty, yet are themselves the servants of corruption (verse 19.) Those who serve mammon do not serve Christ. (Luke 16:13.) You can know them by their fruit. (Matt. 7:18)
9. Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly. (2 Thessalonians 3:6)Paul is talking about those who do not work. He does not mean those who preach the gospel and live of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:4.) He is talking about "busy-bodies." He calls them "disorderly" and commands that "with quietness they work, and eat their own bread." He says "if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him" (verses 12-14.)
Despite the numerous warnings not to follow false leaders, there are men whom we can follow. Not novices and not those like Diotrephes who love to have the preeminence (3 John 9), but humble men like Paul who follow Christ, men whose character is known and whose faith is evident (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6). None can be followed implicitly. No one can take the place of Christ, and there is only "one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 2:5) Nonetheless, Paul tells us, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1). He also tells us to "mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample." (Philippians 3:17) Those who do so are worthy to be followed. "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation." (Hebrews 13:7)