Toxic Faith, By Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton: A Critical Evaluation


Dennis McCallum

1992 was a time of extreme struggle and self-examination for church leaders. Our vision was under intense scrutiny by many who had lost faith in what we stood for.  A number of church members and counselors had recently read Toxic Faith, and were identifying aspects in the book that they thought fit our church. The implications were serious. Was our church a Toxic church? Senior elder, Dennis McCallum, read the book as well and found what he believed were some serious flaws in the reasoning and theology of the book. The following is an assessment he wrote for discussion at a colloquium held for the staff and leadership on this question.




This book is challenging and worthwhile to read. It describes problems people have with religious compulsivity, some of which we have seen in our experience of church life. However, I found some serious shortcomings in the book that could lead to dangerous misuse of the thesis.

The first three chapters are good, and chapter three especially deals with doctrinal and sociological features of toxic groups effectively. Obviously groups like CAN which refuse to consider anything about a group's belief system would ignore this chapter. But practice does grow out of doctrine, and I don't think it should be ignored at all.

My main worries about this book fall into six categories:

Vague or general features in the morphology of religious addiction

Various features of so-called religious addiction are also common in perfectly legitimate situations. A few examples are as follows:

The religious experience, intensified by contact with the religious leader, is just as powerful as a shot of tequila or a hit of cocaine. It radically changes how the person feels, and that person will come back for more. 133

Compare this comment to the statement that the disciples were considered drunk on the day of Pentecost. The term "ecstatic utterances" is used referring to tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. Clearly, contact with God can be exciting in a legitimate way, even if it did involve contact with a "religious leader." What is the alternative to this description? Religion is only safe if it is boring, lacks motivation and vision and creates no zeal?

In the middle stage the religious addict is destined to recruit as many people to the group as possible. . . each new person who is willing to share the experience becomes a reassurance that the addict is doing the right thing. Each new recruit affirms the decision to affiliate with the group and becomes a motivation to work even harder. The addict is compelled to tell others of the pleasure that comes from the group, its leader, and the practice of the faith. 144

Healthy believers are also "destined to recruit as many people to the group as possible." What is the alternative? Recruiting only half of those possible? The latter part of the quote is an interpretation, which could never be verified from the outside. Observers only see the fact that the new believer witnesses. The question of his motives (that making converts prove he is right) is highly subjective and could lead to unrighteous judgment.

[Rejection from non-Christians] motivates the addict to try harder, talk to more people, and grow spiritually so people will be more attracted to the group. 144

I'm not sure what is so bad about trying harder, talking to more people or growing spiritually. A cynical observer could pass a negative verdict on this activity by attributing wicked motives (that the addict is only trying to shore up his pseudo-faith), but in fact motives are often mixed. Are we really justified in withholding evangelism until we are certain that every bit of our motivation is perfect? Isn't this the quest for perfection that the authors have already rejected? I think if we have people looking within and doubting their every move in ministry this way, it will have a real chilling effect on evangelism. I am also annoyed when I think of some angry person who has left the Christian church, reflecting back on their experiences witnessing and nodding their head as they read that this was a toxic experience. This thesis is liable for use as justification for doing nothing. In fact, one who is slack and does little for God would appear to be healthy according to these general, cynical descriptions.

The authors go on:

During the middle stage of religious addiction dependency on religion encompasses every aspect of the toxic believer's life. Time is consumed by the church or group activity and the compulsive acting out of faith. Like a junkie whose life is consumed with his next score, the religious addict, obsessed with the next crusade, worship service, street-witnessing extravaganza or whatever the ritual that sets up the addict's next religious high. 144,145

This citation is composed of three statements, each descending in their negative interpretation of spiritual commitment. The first statement is similar to many calls in Scripture (to the effect that Christ should fill every area of our lives 1 Thessalonians 5:25). The second moves into the area of interpretation, blaming the group rather than the Spirit for instigating the activity, and naming it as "acting out" which has negative connotations in the context of psychology. The third is outright satire and mocking of activity which might be quite legitimate. I still believe it is biblical to become excited about activities like worship, witnessing and meetings. Viewed another way, this could be describing the group in Acts 2:40ff. Where are the qualifiers?

We have all seen groups that deserve the label "toxic" as the authors have defined it. Unfortunately, most of us who have been involved in evangelism for any length of time have also heard descriptions like these applied to excited young believers by those who are cynical about any serious religious commitment. One cult watch authority in our area (certainly not an extremist) shared with me this criticism of another local anti-cult group: "Some people have no category for real commitment to Christ." How do we know whether this is the case or not?

The authors don't think they need carefully delineated and qualified definitions, because they claim, "It is not hard to tell a healthy faith system from a toxic one." I would suggest that it can indeed be very hard in some cases. For instance, some churches are dead and disengaged. They wouldn't fit the label "toxic" as defined by these authors, even though they are far from ideal. Others, like some of the extreme cases given in the book, are also easy to discern. But what about the substantial number of groups that are anything but clear. These groups may have some elements of the pathology described in the book, but be missing others. Also, in a group like ours, where numerous different house churches are spread out over the city, there may be differences within different sections of the same group. The authors do little to work with these scenarios, resulting in a black and white analysis that may be quite shallow at times. As we will argue later, groups in this book are either wicked or good. But in the real world, things are not so clear. The very fact that not only lay people, but even experts differ in their verdict about some groups proves that this judgment is not as easy as they claim.

The failure to adequately define and distinguish the terminology used in this book leaves it as a suitable tool in the hands of those who hate. In the early part of this century, Germany suffered from the rise of the pseudo-science of anthropological genetics. This discipline was used to define the characteristics of "Jewishness" and "Slavic tendencies" using language that sounded scientific. But in fact this "science" was subjective, based on case studies, overly generalized, and not measurable. The public, then and now, is very attracted to such pseudo-scientific explanations which over-simplify reality by relying on certain negative features that everyone has seen for themselves. The known negatives are strung together with unverifiable speculations as to the motives of the people involved to form a neat conspiracy theory. The conspiracy becomes a convenient focus for hate feelings. I am not suggesting that the authors of this book are Nazis or that they are like the Nazis. It is true however, that failure to adequately qualify descriptions like these means that they can be used by people who have a different agenda; namely personal resentment.

In a similar way, some of the descriptions in this book can be applied to groups and individuals who only superficially resemble some, but not all of the features. A group may be the antithesis of what the authors describe in most categories, while the matching features may be ones like those mentioned above. The subjective thinker may decide it's a match, even though key elements are missing.

Faulty methodology for case study

Experts are well aware of the fallacies that can creep in when whole theories are based on case studies. Case studies have limitations when it comes to eliminating subjectivity on the part of the researcher. Observations are based on the opinions of the observer, or on the impressions of the subject, both of which are subjective. Also, we often have no way to know which features in case interviews are causal and which are incidental or unimportant. For instance, all of the subjects involved in the study may have more than one eyeball. Is this significant? What are the controls in the research that screen out superficial similarities as causal agents?

Another problem with case studies is that even when certain outside events correlate with a number of case studies, how do we know what the nature of the relationship is? For instance, certain types of people may be attracted to certain types of groups. It would be easy for a careless researcher to conclude that a given type of group produced these type people, when in fact, these types of people are attracted to that type of church. Based on case study alone, the researcher can observe correlation, but has no way of knowing what was the cause and what was the effect.

Finally, in case studies, there is the possibility that the researcher selects the cases because they share symptoms the researcher is looking for. For example, 40% of the adult population in California may be depressed and feel over-worked. Are a representative cross section of these people included in the findings of the research, or are only those depressed and over-worked people selected who also belong to conservative or legalistic churches? (p. 178 top)

If the latter is the case, we have proven nothing, because we have not compared depressed people from these churches to depressed people who are not in those churches. Therefore, for all we know, there may be just as many people who are depressed in the non-churched population as in the church. If this is the case, we may have attributed depression to the church, when there is no actual reason to think that the church is the cause of the depression.

The fact that people report that they are depressed about their church can hardly be considered proof that their church is toxic. Depressed people can be expected to report being disappointed with the main features in their lives whether their job, their family, their neighbors, etc. To conclude that they are correct in their self-diagnosis assumes that depressed people always know why they are depressed--an assumption that is easy to disprove.

In a similar vein, the researchers have not compared the depressed church members with the non-depressed members. Is there a measurable difference in incidence of depressed people in "toxic" groups vs. "normal" groups? The authors seem to believe there is such a difference, but no quantitative data are available to confirm their opinion.

In legitimate research studies, the researchers first explain their methodology. They show how their study sample was selected in order to avoid researcher bias. Also they have to show what the controls are--the comparisons with similar non-contaminated subjects. Only if their methodology is sound can they be said to have demonstrated anything. The researchers in this book fail both of these tests. Of course this book is not a technical study, but even popular studies should have a basis in hard-core research. None has been cited here. When we consider that they claim 97% of all people suffer from compulsivity, or addiction on some level, we begin to wonder what is the point?

Lack of adequate disqualifiers

Studies that are to be cogent and reliable must describe disqualifiers. Disqualifiers are features that rule out inclusion of certain study samples in the definition of the syndrome being studied. For example, suppose we are studying what style of parenting might lead to children being poor athletes. We would need to state who does not qualify for consideration. On the negative side, we may want to exclude those who are heavily retarded, or who have no arms or legs, because these are clearly not problems stemming from parenting. In Toxic Faith, nobody is excluded from the study on negative grounds.

A person who may have had nothing but catastrophic failure in relationships, depression, and addiction for years before ever becoming a Christian might not qualify as a measure of the symptomology of religious addiction, since all these features were already there before the person got involved in religion.

Similarly, we would want to disqualify people on the positive side. Winners of Olympic gold medals are not particularly bad athletes. But are there others who should be excluded from the notion of bad athletes? If so, we have to name what constitutes a poor athlete, and just as importantly, who does not qualify as a poor athlete. If we are vague on this crucial point, the study becomes worthless. For instance, "bad athletes are those who

  • can't jump very high
  • are unhappy with their times in the 100 yard dash, and
  • feel a sense of frustration in the area of sports.

A group like this could include good athletes. In fact, even Olympic medalists could be included in this group. This definition is a joke because it lacks definite disqualifyers--no one would have to be disqualified from the group being studied. Without disqualifiers the researcher as well as the reader are free to introduce subjectivity by looking only at cases that suit their purposes.

In Toxic Faith, the authors have not given us adequate disqualifiers. What are the features that would tend to rule out a given diagnosis? Or, to put the question differently, "How can we identify a good group?"

Working toward a more exact definition:

  • It seems that these authors feel that when leaders tell the truth consistently about their own problems and problems in the church, this is such a disqualifier. In every toxic scenario, deception and cover-ups of problems were evident. Our members can feel good about our openness and acceptance of dissent.
  • The authors say that a key indicator of toxicity is the presence of legalism, compulsion and pressure, including suppression of dissent. I suppose the corresponding disqualifier would be the presence of freedom, principlized ethics, and a focus on the indicative (or God's part) before, and over, the imperatives (or our part) in Scripture. We are known for our strong grace emphasis, and extraordinary freedom.
  • The authors affirm that toxic groups hide the weaknesses of leaders and move to make it possible for persecutors to continue abusing their groups. If this is the mark of toxic groups, then it would follow that groups like us, which remove abusive leaders must not be toxic.

Pseudo-symptoms: Along with disqualifiers, we need to mention pseudo-symptoms which may indicate health and integrity in a group just as well as they could sickness. Therefore they are not significant factors in the discussion.

  • The group has many people who are upset.

    The question here is not whether people are upset, but the reason for their anger. People get upset by evil sometimes, but they also are often upset by goodness. The wrongdoer is usually upset that he got caught. Most people, when caught in sin, know how to shift the blame back onto the one who caught them. One who unrighteously seeks for power may resent the one who comes between him and his goals. "Persecutors" will definitely shift their hostility onto anyone who challenges their practices, as the authors point out. Jesus warned that something is wrong when all speak well of us.

    Also, we should consider that in disengaged churches, no one is upset. Unfortunately, no one cares either. A more active growing church can be expected to stir deeper feelings both positively and negatively. Viewed another way, if we think it significant that a large number of people are unhappy, what is the significance of the even more numerous happy people? If we merely claim that the unhappy are those who have seen the truth, and the happy are all "junkies," we are obviously involved in special pleading.

  • The group loses many members.

    Losing members is sometimes a mark of fidelity to Christ's exacting call. Jesus lost many members (John 6) and so did Paul (2 Timothy 4:16). The addiction literature criticizes groups who focus on getting growth by any means, and groups who fake their image in order to keep from losing members. If this is so, how can losing members be a sign of toxicity?

  • Leaders in the group get burned-out.

    I have never met a church where leaders are not getting burned out. All of the literature for pastors, pastoral conferences, etc., contain sections focusing on this common problem. If burnout exists in every group, how can it be useful in discovering toxic groups? Also, how do we know that God never wills that his servants get burned out? Most of the greatest saints in the Bible can be shown to have been burned out at one time or another. When the level of burnout is excessive, the church needs to respond, but we will never eliminate this problem. Paul's reminder that our "toil in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58) is a very strong term used for exhausting work.

None of these points suggest we are free to ignore complaints or problems in these areas. They only relate to faulty evaluations of the group based on ambiguous symptoms.

Contradictions arising from application of family systems theory to a church

Much terminology in the "toxic roles" section of this book comes from the family systems school of psychology. I see problems when we try to bring these definitions over to a group setting. In the first place, the definitions were not devised in the group setting, and it would have to be demonstrated that they can be brought into a new context without distortion.

One of the worst examples of this is the description of victims on p.228-230 where the authors affirm that the victims in a church

. . .do everything out of a desire to know God and worship God, but their actions are misguided. They trust their parents and leaders to be people of integrity. . . Victims sacrifice their time and money and faith to support the system. Spiritual molestation rapes the victims' minds of reason and strips them of their direct access to God.

These descriptions come from descriptions of children who suffer abuse from a parent. Naturally, they are described as being completely innocent; as being helpless victims. But I wonder whether we can really justify using this type of language to describe adults. Obviously, children are not guilty in any way for the abuse they suffer. However, in the context of groups, these are not helpless children, but morally responsible adults.

I reject the model that sees only the evil persecutor and the innocent victims. This is another example of the black and white thinking referred to below. The cases we see always seem to have two sides. Even cases of serious abuse involve sins of omission on the part of enablers and victims. I don't see the guys with the black hats and the guys with the white hats. I see some hats that are darker than others.

I believe that God rejects this construct also. Otherwise, why would he warn the individual to beware of wolves? (Mt. 6) This passage points to individual responsibility regarding who we chose to follow. We must be responsible for our lives as adults when we allow ourselves to be abused.

While the Bible does use the language of family to describe the church, it is not in the way these authors use it. In the Bible, leaders are brothers and sisters as are other members. The father is God. In Toxic Faith, the parents of the family are the leaders. This mistake may seem minor, but it leads to a potentially disastrous view of the church. In this view, church leaders are as responsible for their members as are parents for their children's life experiences. But this picture sees adult church members as analogous to minor children.

In the biblical view a church, unlike a family, is made up of equals who have different roles based on their gifting and experience. The leaders are not parents, but facilitators whose job is to assist the members in maximizing their growth and their ministries. By accepting such a hierarchical view of church polity, this book suggests that members are as helpless and weak as little children.

 Black and white thinking, leading to an over-simplified view of life and religion

This book presents a good-guy bad-guy world that is totally different from the one I live in. I think this kind of black and white thinking is usually evidence of superficial thought. Further reflection will show that many of the people I know who claim that they are toxic victims were actually involved in complicated inter-personal conflicts. In these conflicts, evil and good usually exist on both sides of the equation, though not always in equal measure. However, both sides will often attempt to cast all blame on the other side. The wise analyst will resist this tendency.

Just as no experienced counselor would be foolish enough to believe all that an angry spouse says about the other spouse in a distressed marriage, we cannot believe all that we hear from an angry "victim." My interviews reveal that angry disputants in our church and other churches bear testimony that is antithetical to that offered by their opponents. In a few cases, I have been in a position to verify that the one or both sides were lying. More often, the differences are a matter of interpretation and exaggeration. Proverbs says "To answer a question before you've heard it out is both stupid and insulting." (Proverbs 18:13) Also, "The first to plead his case seems just until another comes to examine him." (Proverbs 18:17)

This is an objection I have raised with a number of cult-watch operatives. They sometimes encourage angry people to fight even harder for their supposedly righteous cause without making adequate efforts to discover what the facts of the case are. They have also taken one-sided accounts and so-called transcripts to "health professionals" for commentary as a method of research. This research is worthless, since the denunciation it produces is based on faulty data to begin with. In most cases, I know very well that I would be able to change the verdict of the health professional if I had half an hour to sit down and acquaint him or her with the other side of the story.

I have seen some cases of clear one-sided abuse in my years in church work, and we have moved to fight the abuser in those cases. However, I have seen 20 cases of mixed inter-personal conflict for every 1 relatively black and white case of abuse. Usually all 20 claim abuse. But life is rarely black and white.

They advance recovery groups as a new means of growth

12-step Recovery groups have done a lot of good; some things leave me unimpressed. I am seeing too much hate from supposedly recovered victims. I know of so-called victims who have left a trail of ravaged lives in their wake, all of whom supposedly "persecuted" this victim. The victim sometimes learns to talk a new language, but the fact is that they often still can't establish successful relationships. How can this be considered recovery? In some cases, they claim to have learned how to have good relationships now that they are out of the abuse system, but these good relationships are brand new! I still have my doubts unless time passes, because they felt the same way about other relationships not too long ago.

Meanwhile, the supposed abusers sometimes are successful in relationships, and no one else feels they are being abused by these people. It makes me wonder whether these well-adjusted people were really abusers, or whether the victim who cannot build good relationships merely interpreted other's behavior as abuse.

I must say that the presence of hate in the demeanor of "victims" is a highly discrediting feature in my opinion. I reject the view that their abuse justifies the hate. I think the hate may distort their perspective and make normal behavior appear to be abusive. I also think they have not recovered until they have learned not to hate.

I have interviewed numerous cases where wrongs may have been done (though there was almost always wrong on both sides), but the victim is unwilling to forgive, even after repeated apologies. Sometimes they claim they have forgiven, but their hate proves they haven't.

I am concerned about another tendency I am seeing on the part of some members of recovery groups. They study the symptomology of various types of abuse until they think they can discern abuse happening with others. Some of this discernment is very shabby and subjective -- even credulous. Then they hurl charges at others, sometimes committing acts of abuse themselves as they do so. As time goes on, many are beginning to wonder whether the victims movement isn't creating as many victims through questionable accusations as they are helping.

A husband and father recently called me and shared that he is distressed by the demands of an extremist recovery group (one which practices tongues and healing along with mind-reading). They have taken the position that he is not supporting his wife unless he goes to their group. The choice of any other group is not an option. This is just like any other totalistic group as far as I can see. The claim made in Toxic Faith that 97% of all people are addicts on some level, and that people in recovery groups seem to be the only ones willing to do anything about their problems, seems totalistic also. Is it possible that some recovery groups may be the next totalistic, toxic groups? The labeling of outsiders, the feeling that they know something none of the rest of us do, the insistence on going to their meetings (including group confessions), and the guilt that accrues when someone tries to leave, all remind me of descriptions of toxic groups.

Of course, some recovery groups are more responsible than others. But while I don't discourage participation in a recovery group, and our church even operates such groups on a biblical model, I think these authors take a naïve view in their suggesting that all recovery groups are good, and that anyone who says otherwise is probably a toxic leader. One wonders how the early church, the reformers and others ever made it without recovery groups! Recovery enthusiasts like these advance a picture of a walking Christian drawing the life of God from the standard means of growth: Scripture, prayer, fellowship, service, suffering, and their recovery group.


Christian leaders should realize that we will never over-throw religious addiction by shouldering the responsibility to "fix" every hurting person in the church. We can offer them the tools, and encourage their use. We are facilitators, and equippers, not emotional and spiritual doctors or "spiritual guides."

Leaders in the church today are responsible to listen carefully to every charge of abuse in the church and immediately investigate fairly and impartially. If discipline is warranted, we should proceed without delay. Any church that is serious about empowering lay leaders will face incidents of improper control of members. Often this type of situation calls for nothing more than instruction and admonition. At other times, we have to be prepared to use strong measures, including removing leaders who show they cannot lead without misusing their office.