Counseling Christians Coming from Unhealthy Churches

By James M. Rochford

What approach should Christian leaders take when restoring and counseling those coming from unhealthy churches? Christians recovering from an unhealthy spiritual environment need to regain confidence in their own discernment, values, and ability to interpret Scripture—slowly building (or rebuilding) their own spiritual convictions. One of the keys to counseling believers coming from an unhealthy ethos is this: help the counselee to learn to think for him or herself.

These questions below may help to facilitate good discussion as you help your friend think through their experience and how to move forward.

General questions

Periodically, ask the question: “What sort of differences have you seen in this group compared to your last group?” This is a neutral question that will get the person to explore their own history and observations. By thinking through this themselves, they will be able to develop their own convictions.

As you reflect on your experience in your former group, which aspects were healthy and which may have been unhealthy? Why?

What are some things you observed that you may have wondered about whether or not it was appropriate?

Questions related to motivation

What is the difference between motivation and manipulation? What is similar between these two approaches? What is different?




Leads through persuasion

Leads through coercion

Done to give something to the person

Done to take something from the person
Explains what, why, and how

Explains what and how

Empowers others

Seeks to release control and input over time

Seeks to gain more and more control over time

Getting underneath others

Getting over others


Questions related to dating and romance

Imagine if a Christian friend made a comment like this to you: “I’m not spiritual enough to date.” How would you respond? What questions would you ask? How would you counsel him?

Questions related to admonition and rebuke

What is the difference between a rebuke and a stern admonition?

When is it appropriate to rebuke another believer? In your opinion, how frequently should we be rebuking others like this?

What should you do if you try to rebuke a leader (or coleader), but they don’t listen to you?

What does it mean to be divisive? What is the difference between disagreement and divisiveness?

What is the difference between gossip and conferral? When does it cross the line from sharing and into slander?

What does it look like to lovingly admonish another believer? It isn’t 20 minutes of telling them of their failures. Rebukes are rare, short, and to the point. They should also be about something that is serious.

Questions related to spiritual authority

Could there ever be a time when it would be appropriate for a leader to take an authoritative approach? If so, when?

What are leaders responsible to provide for their people? What are they not responsible to provide?

What are signs that we might be overly dependent on a spiritual leader?

What authority do leaders have with their members in the areas of finances, dating, career, marriage, family, parenting, and time management? The Bible does teach that leaders have authority (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17; Titus 2:15; 1 Cor. 16:15-16). However, a leader’s authority is limited to the area of authority given by God. Spiritual leaders only have authority in areas related to the ministry. Leaders can express their thoughts, opinions, and concerns like any other person in the Body of Christ. But they cannot exercise any sort of authority. Leaders should not badger or treat a person differently for what they choose to do in areas like these. All of these issues listed above (e.g. finances, dating, career, marriage, family, parenting, and time management) should be addressed through persuasion—not coercion.

A good rule of thumb in discerning if a spiritual leader is crossing the line in their authority is to ask this question: “Is this something an adult would do for their adult friend? Or is this something an adult would do for their child?” Another question to ask is this: “Who is responsible at the end of the day? Me or them?” For instance, if someone makes a foolish decision in their financial life, who will suffer for it? In these cases, leaders should not exercise authority, because obviously the person bears the responsibility—not the leader.

Important rules to explain

Anyone can talk to anyone in the Body of Christ. We should never sanction who people are allowed to talk to. Anyone is free to talk to anyone else in the Body of Christ.

Anyone can talk to a sphere leader or elder for any reason. Leaders who discourage or punish people for talking to a sphere leader or elder can be immediately stepped out of leadership.

Further Resources

McCallum and Delashmutt, “Leadership and Authority in the Church: What It Is and Isn’t.”

McCallum, “How to Motivate People.”

Rochford, “What is a Cult?”

Bruce Powers, Christian Leadership (Chapters 1-3).

Henry Cloud, Boundaries in Leadership.