How to leave a local church biblically when we encounter false doctrine and spiritual abuse?


It is important to make two distinctions between the Church (Universal body of Christ) and a local church. The Church (Ekklesia) is the body of Christ, made up of believers in Jesus Christ who each make up different parts of the body for the edification of Christ (Rom 12:4-5). The local church is a group of people that affirm and worship Jesus as their Lord and saviour. It is a place where we foster discipleship, support, and encourage each other in the Lord until He returns (reference). Each local church has both true believers and unbelievers in it (Gal 1:1-2) whereas the Ekklesia or Body of Messiah or invisible church is made up only of true believers (Ephesians 1:22-23).

Since its beginnings in ancient Israel, the church evolved into different settings from meeting in small homes to archaic monuments in Europe to mega campuses across North America, Africa, and Oceania. However, leaving a local church is difficult for anyone who has been part of a church for more than a year, especially for those who have made strong bonds within the local church. For many, the church becomes an extension of your immediate family, and for others, it is the only family they have. However, there are instances where leaving a local church becomes necessary, particularly when biblical doctrine and leaders are compromised or are at stake.

First, we will investigate the threat of false doctrine through the infiltration of teachers and understanding spiritual abuse in the church today.

What is false Doctrine – Doctrine is “a set of ideas or beliefs that are taught or believed to be true.” Biblical doctrine refers to teachings that align with the revealed Word of God, the Bible. False doctrine is any idea that adds to, takes away from, contradicts, or nullifies the doctrine given in God’s Word. For example, any teaching about Jesus that denies His virgin birth is a false doctrine because it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture (Matthew 1:18). False doctrine appears in two categories—aberrant (error) or heresy (contradicting orthodox beliefs). The New Testament shows that false doctrine is introduced intentionally by false teachers and false prophets through aberrant or heretical teaching to distort the gospel message and to undermine the sovereignty of God. False teachers are people who bring destructive teachings by manipulating scripture for self-gain, whereas false prophets predict events or things in the name of Jesus, but they were never called by God. Although we learn false doctrine is present in other religions and cults outside of Christianity, the apostles’ main concerns are how false teachers and false prophets bring destructive teachings into the church. Apart from the book of Philemon, nearly a third of the New Testament warns and teaches the dangers of false teachers and false prophets.

Some ways we can detect false doctrine presented by false teachers and false prophets:

1.) know their fruit (Matthew 7:15-20) – A false prophet appears to be loving, peaceful, joyful, but they are a product of a bad tree. A bad tree does not produce good fruit but a good tree produces good fruit. Therefore, a false prophet is not rooted in Jesus. We know this because the apostle Peter warns us that they secretly attempt to persuade believers away from the Messiah. They predict things that never came to pass (Deut 18:20; Jerm 23:35-26), they deny the deity of Christ, exploit believers with flattery, and indulge in gratifying their body with carnal pleasures (2 Peter 2:2-3). If there is a self-appointed prophet in your church or your church has appointed a prophet, reject them immediately.

2.) study the scripture in its context (2 Timothy 2:15) – Be a student of the Word. Studying scripture is hard work and it takes commitment, diligence, and effort. It is not about gaining approval of people but it is God who is examining the way we handle His word for Him. If we are diligent, we will not be ashamed given that we will have been faithful for managing His word. “Rightly dividing” in Greek is Orthotomounta “ortho” is ‘right or proper,’ and tomounta is ‘to cut.’ It is an imagery of a farmer ploughing a field with focus ensuring the line cut in the dirt was straight. Essentially, what a good student of the word should do, to rightly divide the word of truth is to cut it straight to know truth from error.

3.) examine the sermons, teachings, or phrases against scripture (1 John 4:1-6)

4.) study the origin of those false doctrines to understand the reasons the church is under those teachings.

Anyone speaking from the pulpit is subjected to examination by observing their doctrine and conduct. People can talk about Jesus and believe He lived on Earth as many religious groups, cults, and philosophies affirm. But unless people affirm both the full deity and full humanity of Jesus, they are not truly confessing Jesus as Lord. They are under the influence of the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:3). People in a teaching capacity in church may teach a Jesus that is all about material blessings, promises of healings, and deliverance. But their doctrines are inconsistent with the apostles’ teachings on the fullness of Christ through suffering. The apostle Paul encountered miracles and healings in his ministry but even he could not pray away a thorn in his body. Instead, he boasted in his weakness because grace is already enough (2 Cor 12:9). The apostle James considered trials a pure joy (James 1:2-4), and Peter embraces suffering (1 Ptr 3:8-22). As the apostle John clearly “…does not listen to us (referring to the apostles of Christ).” These people resist sound doctrine because it does not make sense to them, and it never fits their man-centered, materialistic beliefs (cf 1 Cor 2:14). In the presence of false teaching, it is important to present your case to your pastors in private and arrange a private discussion to address these theological concerns. It is not essentially a Matthew 18:15 principle because it is not personal sin between you and the pastor. It is a sin between the pastor and the local church from detracting believers away from the faith. It is the reason the apostles contended for the faith specifically in the church (Jude 1:3) to protect and preserve the sacred teachings of the Messiah. Therefore, it is wise that the pastor receives compassionate correction as prescribed with the hope of repentance so that they be perfected for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). However, there are pastors who are reluctant to discuss theological differences; they may react defensively to your critique. If all your efforts are exhausted, we are commanded in scripture to mark and avoid (Romans 16:17-19) because their authority can distort the biblical view of Christ and it can affect your Christian witness. It is wise to leave the local church and pray that God may plant you in a church with a high view of scripture.

What is Spiritual abuse in church?

Spiritual abuse is when leaders use their spiritual authority to control and dominate church members to meet their own needs for importance, power, intimacy, or spiritual gratification. It is never about exhorting and correcting the believer with compassion. It is manipulating members with subtitles using the right ‘spiritual’ words, humiliating believers into certain behaviours or enforce acts of service beyond their will that ensures legalism (VanVondern & Johnson, 1991).  


How do you identify spiritual abuse?

VanVondren and Johnson (1991) provides four characteristics in their book but we will look at three specific characteristics that are common today:
1.) Power posturing—leaders spend more time focused on their own authority and consistently reminding members. However, true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power and credibility through their lives and message. In Matthew 7:28-29, people knew that Jesus was taught with authority whereas the religious leaders posed as authorities on the basis of their position.

1.)   Performance based—power is postured and authority is legislated. Believers are subjected to obedience and submission to the leaders without questioning the leaders. Certainly, believers follow orders to avoid humiliation, gain approval or keep their status in church but this is weak self-compliance. When behaviour is enforced instead of coming from a renewed heart that loves God, it is a compliance with external pressure.

2.)   Unspoken rules—these ‘rules’ govern unhealthy churches but are not taught from a pulpit or class. Strong examples are ‘the can’t talk’ rule or ‘can’t question’ the leaders to avoid any scrutiny. Believers in these churches are often silenced by other members by enforcing an unspoken rule. Some churches will have different rules to protect the leaders but you can identify these rules when they reject the authority of scripture.

Spiritual abuse is a broad subject, it requires further study because solutions will look different to others on case-by-case basis. When spiritual abuse involves other forms of abuse that it breaches civil laws, it is appropriate to seek the authorities to intervene for the safety of the community (Romans 13).
However, in a high controlled group, the first instance when we identify spiritual abuse is to subject these matters to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6-7) because the battle is spiritual (Ephesians 6:10-18). Secondly, a healthy study of scripture is essential for your own personal growth in Christ and meeting with people with similar experiences to help process the trauma inflicted by spiritual abusers. In very serious matters, seeking a counsellor is a viable option given that the traumatic experience of spiritual abuse may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In all matters of spiritual abuse, it is viable to leave the church on the basis of Romans 16:17-19.


Believers can leave a local church when false teachers and false prophets distort the scriptures for their personal gain. Matthew 18:15 card is invalid in these instances given that tolerance of false doctrine is a sin against the local church rather than between individuals in the church. Spiritual abusers are no different from the false teachers because they inflict their own rules of authority, subjecting believers into fear of humiliation and rejection through manipulation and control. In all these instances, it is important to remember that God is sovereign, our faith and our identity is not based on church or a leader, but by the person of Jesus, the Messiah. 

Further reading:

“The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse – Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church” (1991) Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson.

“Churches that abuse” and “Recovering from Churches that abuse.” by Dr. Ronald M. Enroth. Free online on

Social media platforms that explores spiritual abuse:
IG: tasteoftruth (Megan Leigh)
Youtube and IG: Church disrupted.
Alisa Childers—”Spiritual abuse and the Church: Why should we listen? With Teasi Cannon.”

Study on false teachers:
FB and IG: Bible in Context or Phillippians 1:9 ministeries. Apologetics Index.

Youtube: Justin Peters
Costi Hinn

“Counterfeit Kingdom” and “Reckless Christianity” “Counterfeit Kingdom: The Dangers of New Revelation, New Prophets, and New Age Practices in the Church” “Reckless Christianity: The Destructive New Teachings and Practices of Bill Johnson, Bethel Church, and the Global Movement of Apostles and Prophets.”
Holly Pivec and Doug Geiveitt 

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