Here are four serious warning signs of a toxic church.
Gossip is one of the most destructive things we do as a society. It slanders people’s names, it assassinates their character, and it is whispering behind other’s backs, however it should never be heard in any church at all. When you hear gossip, you know that you’re probably being gossiped about too. Gossip can split churches, ruin relationships, and bring down even the strongest of churches.
I remember reading about a huge church in Dallas, Texas that argued and debated over something and finally the church split in half. What was the issue? The division was over the color of the carpet in the entryway to the church. Imagine how grieved Jesus must be when Christians tear down one another over trivial matters. Jesus suffered, was beaten, tortured, and put to death…and some can’t even agree on the color of a carpet? When you see a church dividing and arguing over non-essentials, that church is too toxic to attend.
When a church has zero ministries, this church is about to die. If you read Matthew 25:34-40, you can read what Jesus’ church should be doing. Many churches are only interested in staying within the four walls of the church, getting into “holy huddles,” and never ministering to the poor, visiting the sick and those in prison, and the widows and orphans, like those at a nursing home. If you want to simply be a pew potato, then you might like it, but a church that has no ministries is a church that is toxic and is getting ready to fade into oblivion.
There seems to be a famine of the Word in many churches today. The focus is on pragmatism. In other words, if it works, it must be biblical, but this is not how churches are supposed to operate. There must be consistent biblical preaching and teaching or you’re simply in a different kind of social club. If preachers are not preaching straight out of the Word of God, then they’re no better than the many talk shows you see on TV and there are opinions that you can’t even hang your hat on. The Word of God cuts like a knife but it cuts in order to heal. Instead, some churches use a limp noodle approach, not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable, even though that’s what the Word of God is supposed to do (Heb 4:12).
A church that I was pastoring once had a church leader’s daughter living in the parsonage without me even knowing about it. I didn’t need the parsonage because I had my own home. I suggested they sell it. Now I see why the hesitated. Their own child, a single mother, was living in it, which is contrary to the purpose of it. Then, a year later, their son moved into one of our old Sunday school class rooms and was living there, and again, I had no clue about it. I found out about it when the police called me in the middle of the night because some doors were unlocked at the church and so he asked me if there was someone living there. When church leaders hide things from the church and use church buildings or property for their own use, especially when the pastor doesn’t know about it, you’ve may have a toxic church that favors their own family members over others.
The Bible teaches, especially in the New Testament, that we are accountable to one another. We saw that when Jesus taught the disciples about church discipline (Matt 18:15-18). In this case, if someone is not watching or checking on who is paying the bills and where the money is being spent, they have only to answer to themselves. Our church checkbook requires two signatures so this doesn’t happen. Remember, Judas was the church treasurer.
Many years ago when I attended a church after being saved (1982), it was in a state of disrepair. Not bad, but the church and property needed some care, and so we formed a team to clean up the property, take out unused items, mow the lawns, and so on. The fence needed painting, the yard was overgrown (most of the time), and the (former) nursery room was full of old clothing, books, and just about anything you can imagine. Can you see how it might be embarrassing for new people to attend after they see the mess? Poor stewardship is a bad sign for the church. The former pastor of the church I’m now at, and who is also my mentor, told me, “People will form their first opinion of your church when the pull into the driveway…and when the use the restrooms.” Those things can be a negative reflection on the church. It may tell them there are deeper problems there.
No Church Discipline
This one probably isn’t a popular subject, but Jesus said if there is a brother or sister who sins, we are to go to them. Of course we all sin, but I think this must be a more serious sin because Jesus commands us to bring one or two with us if the first talk does no good, and “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). A church cannot allow ongoing sins from it’s members like public drunkenness or sexual immorality, because with no church discipline and members who apparently don’t even care, that church will be teaching, at least by example, that they tolerate sin.
A toxic church is one where members consistently gossip about others, where they argue over non-essentials, where there are no ministries involved, and when there is no biblical preaching. It’s like Amos the Prophet said, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). Sadly, that day has come, but thankfully, not in all churches.