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What is a dysfunctional church?

This term has become used in recent years to describe a type of church which has abnormal, dysfunctional characteristics. There are scores of people who have been deeply wounded by an experience with such a church. It seems that most communities have a congregation that fits in this category. They identify themselves as Christians and may have good intentions of practicing scriptural ideals, but they seem to continually strive with combined elements of unbalanced or unorthodox doctrines, controversial government, disciplinary problems, irresponsible leadership — which result in explosive turmoil, division, wounded and confused sheep, and a derogatory reputation in their community.

A dysfunctional church has sometimes been mislabeled as a cult. The difference is, a cult is on a course of heresy based on misguided beliefs. However a dysfunctional church may theoretically be based on the right course of Christianity, but for the main part does not function the way it should. Keep in mind, every church has its share of problems — that does not make it dysfunctional. But it's when such problems dominate the church and actually cause its influence to become ineffectual or negative for the cause of Christ.

I regret to say that over my years of ministry I have come across situations in churches that seem almost unbelievable. One such church was widely reputed in the area for its continual controversy. The congregation was constantly fighting and contending with each other — the turmoil had produced several splits over a period of years. Every few months they would go on a tangent of promoting some new revelation or doctrine, which would often be refuted later as heresy. There were repeated occurrences of immorality among the leadership and congregation. Divorce within the church occurred 10 times more frequent than the rate of marriages. There were numerous financial scandals, alleged embezzlements by the pastors, and scores of church creditors left unpaid. Rumors, accusations, and slander were commonplace, causing injury and devastation to scores of individuals. The mere mention of the church name to local merchants or residents would invoke ridicule. Some might have presumed this to be some kind of weird cult, but it was not. In reality this was a dysfunctional Christian church.

A dysfunctional church will usually manifest several or all of the following symptoms:

    1. Unethical or immoral behavior tolerated in either leadership or laity.
    2. An absence of teaching or correction in matters of sin.
    3. Dictatorial or unethical church leadership or government.
    4. A failure to recognize practical spiritual priorities.
    5. Too much emphasis on esoteric thought or theory rather than practical ideals and application.
    6. Unscriptural or unbalanced preaching and teaching.
    7. Too much emphasis upon the superficial or sensational.
    8. Irresponsibility in business matters or in public relations.
    9. Isolation from the rest of the body of Christ.
    10. A sense of confusion and a lack of purpose by the congregation.
    11. An absence of spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22-23).

A dysfunctional church must be brought in order, otherwise it will cause irreparable harm for the cause of Christ in a community. If such a church has denominational affiliation, experienced ministers and officials may be sent to try to restore the fellowship back into scriptural order and stability. However, if the chaos is severe enough and resists repeated remedies, they might find it necessary to actually the close the church, temporarily or permanently.

In many cases, a church of this kind can be put in order by:

(1) Mature, godly, stable leadership. I regret to say that the problem of a dysfunctional church usually begins with a problem in the leadership. A congregation cannot rise above the level of their leaders.

(2) Scriptural, balanced preaching and teaching. The healthy church must get back on track with scriptural order. They need to hear the whole counsel of God's Word, not merely pet doctrines or narrow minded opinions (2 Tim. 2:15).

(3) A patient application of love and correction. Just like parents, spiritual leaders must show the encouragement of love toward their flock. And they must be willing to confront sin with correction or discipline when necessary. (Eph. 4:15, 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Tim. 4:2).

(4) Breaking of spiritual strongholds. A stronghold can usually be identified when the same troubling characteristics continue year after year, although the faces within the congregation change. This problem has to be dealt with through intensive prayer and spiritual authority (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

(5) Congregational repentance and revival. Some of the problems in a church cannot really be resolved until the people are willing to humble themselves before God and seek repentance and revival: "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

If you find yourself in a dysfunctional church, it is important for you to recognize it for what it is. If you can remain without impairing the spiritual progress of you or your family, do so that you can pray for and support the needed remedies listed above. But if your spiritual well-being begins to suffer, it may be best to cut your ties and move on to a healthy fellowship.

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.