If we’re going to go to church, we want to go to a healthy church.
No one sets out to go to a toxic church!
But one of the big findings we had in our new book She Deserves Better (the audiobook version went on sale this week!) is that while church attendance is overall a very positive thing for women long-term, going to a church that teaches toxic stuff is worse than not going to church at all–at least if you judge in terms of future marital & sexual satisfaction, likelihood of marrying an abuser, and self-esteem.
So we can’t just say, “going to church is good for you!” No, some churches are actually bad for you.
They’re not just bad for our daughters, either! A 2021 study by Homan and Burdette found again that overall church attendance was beneficial, but if women were going to a church with structural sexism, where women were excluded from many roles, they had worse health outcomes.
We find that among religious participants, women who attend sexist religious institutions report significantly worse self-rated health than do those who attend more inclusive congregations. Furthermore, only women who attend inclusive religious institutions exhibit a health advantage relative to non-participants. We observe marginal to no statistically significant effects among men. Our results suggest the health benefits of religious participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status within their religious institutions.
So if you want to find a healthy church, what are you to do?
Last week on the Bare Marriage podcast Beth Allison Barr and I had a wonderful conversation about this, and I highly recommend listening to that podcast!
I thought today I’d summarize what we talked about, and add a few more thoughts of my own.
When Do You Leave a Toxic Church?
The quest for a healthy church usually starts with a more fundamental question: Is it time to leave the church I’m currently a part of? How do you know when to leave? How do you know when you can actually make a difference?
Looking back, I think I stayed at two different churches for far too long. I kept thinking I could change them, but I really couldn’t, and I gave a lot of my time and money and lent a lot of reputation to churches that really weren’t that healthy. God ended up using it for good (I don’t think we’d be doing what we’re doing now had I not been in those circles for as long as I was), but I did stay too long, and it really wore me down.
What should you look for?
Beware of Authoritarian leadership in your church
Authoritarian leadership is one red flag that your church may be unhealthy. Authoritarian leadership describes a situation where church leadership holds itself up as the highest authority for what is and is not allowed. It often results in handpicking elders and hypervigilance over what doctrine is taught.
I have had several people message me in the past week about their churches putting them under discipline for sharing about our podcasts and our books on social media.
Honestly, if your church starts trying to control your social media, that is not going to end well. There is no amount of reasoning you can do about that. They want to control you–it’s best to just leave.
Watch out for Gender Role Theology & Emphasis on Unhealthy Sexuality
Another red flag to watch for is complementarian theology where the focus is on what roles men and women are contained to, limiting what roles they can take on within the church and at home.
Does your church undermine the expertise of women? God has led women to be experts in many different fields, which inherently gives a woman the right to express her authority in certain subjects. If your church routinely rejects a woman’s ability to teach because it may mean teaching boys or men, that’s a serious problem that we know has long-term negative effects on the girls growing up there.
Beth Allison Barr, who was a professor at a university, was forbidden from teaching high school boys above the age of 13. As she shared in our podcast, when the church wanted to put on a seminar on how to teach more effectively, Beth, who was the most equipped to teach, was relegated to what ended up being the women’s stream.
Watch out, also, for an emphasis on a wife’s so-called responsibility to submit to any and all desires of her husband in the bedroom without regard for her needs.
Remember, too, that if your church doesn’t let women divorce for abuse, even if this doesn’t affect you, it will seriously hurt some of the women around you. Do you want to support that?
Does Your Church Leadership Have Accountability?
If leadership shuts down discussion concerning their leadership styles or theology, there is no room for accountability, which means that there is no reason to believe that they can or will change to conform to the type of leadership the Bible teaches.
You’re very unlikely to be able to change a church where the leadership has insulated themselves; decided that women’s voices don’t matter; and made sure to punish any violation of doctrine.
One Reason to Stay in a Toxic Church: As a Missionary
Sometimes you may realize the church is toxic; you may realize you can’t change it; but you decide to stay because you think you can do some good anyway with individuals.
Maybe you have some friends who may be open to hearing about another way of seeing Jesus. If that’s the case, perhaps you can start small groups with friends at church, or informal studies where you work through a healthy book (we have a FREE video series you can use for The Great Sex Rescue!).
I’d just count the cost on this one, and make sure it isn’t taking too much of a toll on your own emotional health, and especially on your kids.
How to Find a Healthy Church Instead
If you’re ready to leave, where do you go? It can be bewildering to try to find a new church, especially if you’ve been in your current church for years.
1. Go to a variety of denominations with no expectations
Commit to spending some time going to churches outside of your denomination, just to get a feel about what else is out there. Learn where you feel comfortable; where you feel challenged in a good way; where you feel stretched in a good way.
How is the church showing up? Is the fruit of the Spirit clearly seen in how the church operates? Are they loving their neighbours as themselves? Or do they lead their congregation into legalistic or toxic doctrine?
Often if we’ve spent our life in one denomination, we’ve been warned that all other denominations don’t know Jesus at all. Seeing how other denominations worship Him can be eye-opening.
I loved Beth Moore’s account: “When I Was a Stranger in the SBC, the Anglicans Welcomed Me.”
Don’t discount smaller churches
Often smaller churches are eager for newcomers, and really focus on feeling like a community and being there for one another. It’s quite a jarring experience if you’ve come from more of a megachurch, but smaller churches can often be more focused on serving the needs of the community.
Sometimes belonging to a body that is more focused on serving than it is on big worship services can be a balm to your soul.
Once you’ve found a church that makes you feel welcome–whether it’s big or small–do some more digging.
2. Poke around the church’s website
If they have “recommended resources”, check if you see books that you know are harmful.
If they offer counseling, or have a director of counseling, check if they are licensed or if their education is in biblical counseling (which does not have credentialing or licensing).
Do they have women on staff? If so, are the women relegated to children’s ministry and administrative positions? Do they tend to call women “directors” or “pastors”? Do you see advertisement for classes that promote purity culture?
Just this week I was asked to speak at a church, and I did some digging. They call women pastors. Their statement on marriage had the Ephesians 5 passage–but began at verse 21 rather than verse 22. That said a lot to me!
3. Google the church and see what you can find
Google the church’s name and then “abuse” or “police” or “former member” or “left [church name]”. See what people are talking about!
Just because there was a police report, too, doesn’t mean it’s bad. My daughter went to a church where there was an incident–and the church handled it so well. In fact, I’d be MORE comfortable going to a church that had had a problem but had handled it really well in some ways.
4. Google the denomination and see what you can find
Again, check for abuse scandals. Google “annual meeting” or “annual convention” and see what have been the big things on the agenda. Note, though, that an individual church isn’t necessarily representative of a denomination, but this can give you a clue about what to look for.
Finally, maybe you need to create your own healthy church.
If you’re burned out and you just can’t handle all of this, I get it. Sometimes it’s better just to get together with friends who are also burned out, and focus on small group fellowship and serving together.
Perhaps eventually that can grow into something more, and all of you together can join a smaller congregation or even church plant.
I’m not a big fan of not being affiliated with a bigger body in some way, because I think accountability is a good thing. But sometimes just taking time off with friends to recover and get back to basics may be what your family needs!
Do you have any experience with leaving a toxic church? Or any advice for finding a healthy one? Let’s talk in the comments!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the leadership team and especially the pastor/minister. A good pastor is going to welcome serious questions and even challenges, as long as they are genuine and respectful and not just ‘baiting’. He or she will also be sensitive to the needs of those who have been traumatised by bad experience in past churches, and will be willing to work with you to help you reframe your view of ‘church’. If the minister is going to get insecure and defensive because you start asking questions, that’s not the right church for someone with a wounded soul.
And look for a church where you are welcome to be as much or as little involved as you feel able. I know some churches that state on their website that if you attend regularly for a set period of time (usually 6 months or a year) then they expect you to either become a member or leave. I don’t agree with this kind of pressure for anyone, but it’s particularly harmful for those who have been hurt by church life – you need to be free to hover around the fringes and gradually get more involved as you feel safe to do so.
My husband’s reaction to people who tell him they ‘don’t do church’ any more is usually “that’s ok. Would you like to meet up for a coffee sometime? We don’t have to talk about church stuff at all if you don’t want to.” Quite often, they do end up talking about ‘church stuff’, but it’s always at their instigating. If they don’t start a church topic, then the conversation will be about the local sports teams, or the state of the roads, or which takeaway does the best fish and chips (it’s a British thing!) or whatever else is current big news locally! (It probably helps that we’ve been on the receiving end of toxic church culture ourselves, so we know just how much it hurts and how hard it can be to try a new church when you’re hurting so much from the last one)
Oh, and if you spot harmful resources in the church library or bookshop, query them with the leadership. When we arrived at our current church, we found some absolute trash in the library (including the Act of Marriage) which had been left behind by a previous minister. If it hadn’t been for this blog, we probably wouldn’t have realised they were harmful unless we’d got round to reading them ourselves – and which ministry couple has the time to read all the books in an already established church library?! It may be that the church loves the teaching contained in this material – in which case you know it’s not a healthy church. But maybe they will be just as horrified as you when they find out what it contains, and will pull it from the shelves, so that you will have saved other people from being harmed by it.
I dont have experience leaving a toxic church but I do have experience finding a new one after moving. Of course we went to the “tried and true” denomination we were comfortable with first. The kewl thing about our search was we were open to other denominations. Poke around on their website we did! Funny thing about the church we ended up in is that they actually misrepresented themselves a little. One of the criteria we had was children’s choir for my daughter who at the time loves to sing. (Now she does the teenager thing and just stands there when we sing hymns-her loss). Anyway our church still claims they have a children’s choir and in my opinion the do not. What they have is a Christmas program that the children start practicing for in September. Then they sing for the Christmas program which is performed exactly once. I consider my church healthy with your standard run of the mill issues. However – interestingly they are basically stretching the truth to attract people to the church. In some ways we found our way to our church on a false pretense. Weird eh? I do look at it however as regardless: Good Fruit comes from the tree at our church. It is quite sweet and VERY TASTEY 🤪. Have a great weekend Y’all 😬.
I’ve been reading a book called Out Into The Desert by Karl and Laura Forehand about their experience leaving institutional church. They suggest that you may need to take a break from church for a bit because you can’t always see the issues if you are still in the environment. I love Beth’s suggestion of visiting a variety of different denominations.