9 Ways to Know if You’re in an Oppressive Church

By Steve Austin | Best of Messy Grace

Mar 15

“Christianity is not an ethical code. It is a love affair, a Spirit-filled way of living aimed at making us professional lovers of God and people. To continue to eye God primarily in terms of law, obligations, and town ordinances represents a retreat to a pre-Christian level of thought and a rejection of Jesus Christ and the total sufficiency of His redeeming work.” -Brennan Manning


Are you in an oppressive church?

I’ve been a part of several different churches through the years, including four denominations. A religious misfit, to say the least. But in my seeking, I have learned there is beauty in every faith community. There are also things in certain churches that scare the hell out of me. My friend Morgan Guyton writes about the toxic nature of Christianity quite often, and sadly, the place I have seen it most is in “God’s house”.

Reading Paul’s letters, it is clear to me that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Paul isn’t talking about returning to a life of sin; he isn’t warning against backsliding toward debauchery and drunkenness. Paul is saying don’t let your faith become so obsessed with rule-keeping that you forget to embrace the God of Jesus!

Speaking of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus called them, “whitewashed tombs”. He said, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)

For many people I know, Christianity has been boiled down to morality. It has become a way to ensure you skip eternal damnation. It’s a list of do’s and don’ts, but there is no real freedom. Many Christians have traded the yoke of slavery for the yoke of religion, and both are dead.

My heart breaks as I see the ways some churches treat their own members. Not outsiders, insiders! Those who have committed their lives to walking with Christ for eternity and are doing their very best to embrace a local community of faith and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. But at every turn, they are berated, belittled, and remain broken, due to a system that enslaves the children of God. And I wonder, what happened to proclaiming freedom for the captives, hope for the downtrodden, and joy for those who have come to know Christ?

If you’re wondering if it’s time to find a new faith community, here’s 9 ways to know if you’re in an oppressive church.


  1. There is no adventure, no questioning of authority or theology, and faith has no room for doubt.
  2. Your goal in life is to appease your pastor and never inconvenience Jesus. You live in constant fear of what the leader of your flock would think if you did a certain thing or asked a particular question. You filter your social media constantly. Maybe you post something and five minutes later take it down, because, “What would Brother Jones think if he saw that?”
  3. The Holy Spirit has been described as a “still small voice” and nothing more. A spiritual conscience. There is no wonder, no danger; it is all predictable and comfortable.
  4. Jesus seems more like the enforcer of the brethren rather than a friend of sinners.
  5. Christianity has become like a certificate of deposit at the bank. You pay your tithes, obey the rules, stay near the church as much as possible, and one day, near the end, you can retrieve all the little trinkets of your predictable, and sanitary faith. And the measly amount of interest you received? You better tithe on it.
  6. Church is about building a sterile environment where legalistic morality reigns.
  7. Your pastor is untouchable, surrounded by “yes men” who only appeal to his ego.
  8. Church feels like a boarding school. And your pastor is the headmaster. Mind the rules, don’t be tardy, wear the appropriate uniform, memorize the Alma Mater, and never question that the Superintendent in the sky is always watching.
  9. Instead of asking, “How does Jesus define the Church?” Your question has always been, “How does my church define Jesus?”

About the Author

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.

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