Why Church Can Be a Dangerous Place

Safe PeopleI (Henry) got an emergency call, and the office relayed to me that I had a suicidal client. I called Theresa on the phone. She was distraught.

“Tell me what happened,” I said.

“It’s not going to work,” Theresa replied, sobbing.

“What isn’t going to work?”

“Telling other people about my problems,” she said. “I went to my fellowship group tonight and told them about the depression and the problems with Joey, and they really came down on me for being depressed and for all the other stuff that has been going on.”

“What did they say?”

“Well, they said that I shouldn’t feel that way and that if I was still having all those problems then I probably wasn’t walking with the Lord. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve tried all this ‘safe relationship’ stuff, sharing and all that, and now it doesn’t work.”

“What would you say if I told you that you still haven’t found safe relationships?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Theresa asked. “They are all Christians and in my church.”

“Well, Christian doesn’t automatically mean ‘safe,’ ” I told her. “Safe is defined by helpful. It doesn’t sound like tonight was too helpful.”

“Well, how do you know a helpful relationship?” she asked.

“That’s a good question,” I said. “Let’s talk about that.”

I empathized with Theresa. She had discovered a real truth: the church is not a perfectly safe place. That sounds like it cannot be true, for if anywhere should be safe, the church should be. Every fiber in our being rejects the idea that the one place we think ought to be safe — the house of God — isn’t.

The church is not a totally safe place, and it does not consist of only safe people. As much as we would like for it to be totally safe, the truth is that the church has to be seen the way God describes it. We must, if we are going to have a biblical view of relationships and people, and live the way that God wants us to live, see the church as he describes it. Our faith must be able to square with the reality of life as we find it and with the reality that the Bible describes to us. Let’s look at those two realities.

Theresa was echoing the experience of many people. Anyone who has been in the church for very long has been hurt by people in the church. For in the body of Christ, we find some harsh realities: judgment, pride, self-centeredness, manipulation, abandonment, abuse, control, perfectionism, domination, and every kind of relational sin known to humankind. The walls of the church do not make it safe from sin. In fact, the church by definition is composed of sinners.

To further complicate matters, church by its very nature as a family of God activates our most primitive and dependent longings because we want a perfect family. God designed the church to be our second family, and often we take into the church the same longing for security and love that we take into our families of origin. And for some, as in their original family, the wish is not only disappointed — it can be crushed altogether. What are we to do with that reality?

The one difference is that, as adults entering into the family of God, we have choices about who we are going to trust and get close to. David said in Psalm 101:6 that we can pick the “ones who will minister to [us].” But we are not by nature so discerning. We come into the church feeling and wishing, “Take care of me. I need you. I shouldn’t have to first figure out who is safe and who is not. You should be good and trustworthy.” We feel the longing of Romans 8 that says that we long for and groan for our adoption. We want things to be right. And then they are not.

On the other hand, many of us have felt that the body of Christ has nurtured, loved, and taught us in ways that have radically healed us. Through the acceptance and love of other believers our character has changed, and we have slowly let go of the things that shackle us.

We also hear others testify to that reality. They were destroyed by their families, or the world, and they were saved and healed in their church. Someone — or a group — in the church reached out to them, and their lives were radically changed.

I (Henry) can testify to this. I had dreamed and planned my whole life to play professional golf, from the age of six until I was recruited by a nationally ranked college to play varsity golf. I was beginning to compete on higher and higher levels and doing quite well. I thought my dreams were being realized.

Then catastrophe hit. A tendon problem in my left hand snatched my budding career right out from under me. I could no longer even hold onto a golf club, and there was no cure. I was lost and devastated. The path that I had diligently worked towards for fifteen years, day and night, had hit a dead end. At the same time, I encountered some other significant losses in my life. Things were falling apart. I got seriously depressed.

At first I tried to work my way out of it. I had always been a “don’t ever give up” kind of person, especially in sports. I thought I could lick this problem in the same way, through sheer hard work and willpower. But I got more and more depressed, and nothing was filling the hole inside of me. The depression and lostness continued to build until I decided to drop out of everything to try to sort things out.

I first reached out to God, telling him that I did not even know if he existed, but that if he would show me that he did, I would do what he told me to do. After all, my way wasn’t working.

Less than an hour after I prayed that prayer in a little chapel at Southern Methodist University, my phone rang. A friend I hadn’t talked to in quite some time told me that he and some others were starting a Bible study and that for some strange reason, he thought that he would invite me to come. I told him I would, not quite believing what had just happened.

To make a long story short, the leader of that Bible study and his wife invited me to come live with them for a semester while I sorted things out. Their gift of themselves to me forever changed my life. Their love and teaching touched some very deep parts of me as they led me to the reality of a relationship with God. He had found me, and through the love and acceptance of his body, I was being healed.

So the church can be a healing place, a place where lives are transformed and where powerful love and healing can take place. The body of Christ is still God’s instrument for our healing and restoration (1 Peter 4:10; Ephesians 4:16). So, the question arises and rings in our needy hearts: Is the church safe, or is it dangerous? The answer is, “It is both.” Sometimes we are fortunate to find good relationships, and other times we run into disaster.

The sad thing is that our ideals for the church do not reflect biblical reality, either. We think that the Bible promises a church where we find only safe people. But the Bible says that the church is full of wolves as well as sheep. In the church, we will find both tremendous healing and potentially tremendous hurt. And if we are going to find healing and minimize hurt, we need to make sure that we see the church as God describes it to us. We need to operate according to biblical reality instead of our fantasized wishes, for biblical reality is the one that will fit the experience we find in the real world.

Our experience and the Bible affirm the same thing. The church is full of safe people, unsafe people, and hurtful lingerers. There is no perfect family short of heaven. But there is also no absolute hell full of demons either. And the Bible’s clear message is that we need to be discerning. We need to make informed choices, and we need to be careful. But we also need to avoid becoming pessimistic and learn to recognize the goodness that abounds within the family of God (Matt. 25:34 – 40). If we become skeptics and give in to our fears of bad outcomes, God says that we will lose the little that we have.

So, the long and the short of it is that we have to work to find safe people, using our wisdom, discernment, and character. We gain wisdom and discernment through knowledge and experience. But if our own character problems get in the way of using our knowledge and experience we will make poor choices. We need to make sure that we are facing the weaknesses inside and dealing with them, becoming people of character who can choose other people of character, with a knowledge of what they look like. As we get the log out of our own eye first, we will be able to see clearly.


Adapted from Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn more about this helpful book.

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    • Catherine Allen says

      Hi Kay, in my experience when I have been asked to pray with someone of the opposite sex or they have asked me to visit them, I always ensure to ask either my husband or one of my fellow male brothers in the church to accompany me. And depending on what the situation is I would also inform head of the Pastoral team as a precautionary measure. I would take these aproaches even with close male friends for the same reasons.

      I believe you should hold yourself accountable to someone in your church whom you know is well established in their Christian walk but if you are unsure as to who this could be, talk to your church leader and ask them if they can point you towards someone.

      I hope this has helped you in some way Kay.

      Take care and God be with you ♡

  1. Annie says

    I really appreciate this article. I believe God today used this article as a message to me because of a bad past experience that to this day have brought me fear of people that I thought were a good relationship for me. I believe He wants to heal me from my past bad experience.

  2. Sher says

    Yes I see plenty of wolves in the local church, unfortunately. Hiding behind good works, while lying, is not what Jesus wanted.

  3. Donna says

    I’m so glad I cam across this, I have been a Christian all my life and growing up in going to church on Sundays and on Wednesday nights. I agree with you church is supposed to be a safe place. I never had a bad experience in a church except for one time going to a new church with my new husband we were kind of late I was wearing a nice blouse and plaid slacks, everyone in the church turned around and watched us walk to the front to sit in the front pews. I never felt so ashamed of walking into a church wearing slacks. My walk with Jesus Christ is more and stronger today than it ever has been in my lifetime. I do visit churches but I do not have one that I go to every Sunday. I haven’t been going to church for many years. But most importantly my walk with God is good he takes care of me and he is there for me. I have a best friend that is a Christian too and has a very close walk with God also she goes to church every Sunday she is very dedicated very loving and very kind. This is the person that God put into my life to have a Christian friend. I find other ways to get help when I have I am going through hard times and it works for me there are a lot of places you can get prayer a lot of pastors out there on radio stations or wherever that will pray for you. So for me not going to church I think God is still blessing me.

    • says

      There is nothing wrong w/wearing slacks. If arriving late, you might try sitting in the back. Remember, you are just as good to God as is everyone else. God loves us all.

  4. Tony says

    For one the shepards of our churches are not doing their job of protecting the sheep. They are not requiring evidence of faith by the fruit of the Spirit indwelling them. That being said what does the statement mean ” but there is no absolute hell full of demons either”. Your not calling out of the shepard of our churches to to their jobs is something that should have been done in this article. But that statement bothered me. Maybe you can explain it in more detail. Thanks tony

    • says

      Looking at the context, Dr. Cloud is using creative language to present a contrast. Another way to say this: “There are no perfect church families, but, at the same time, there are no true church families that are completely dangerous.”

  5. Maano says

    A church community is just like any community with people just like us, full of imperfections. The church is full of sinners who found the grace of God that covers the forgiveness of sins. The church is not totally safe as people have their own viewpoints and perspective in life. I was hurt so much in church, but I have contributed to the hurt by failing to acknowledge that the church is a centre of forgiven sinners who are making efforts to seek righteousness towards perfection.

  6. Kay says

    I personally feel the church has too much focus on the pastor rather than Christ and to be more like Him. There are so many different church cultures now that one cannot really know what truly is Christian. They is very little being done concerning fulfilling Christ’s vision He died for of a new man.. new creation in Him. We do not even know His vision. Few people even know the Bible any more. We have become so shallow as a church.

  7. Anna Mfinanga says

    Its so nice to realise that God’s ways are not our ways! His ways are very high! We can not predict his plans!

  8. says

    I ,also was hurt greatly by the church. I was in a abusive relationship, and I was told I just needed to submit and do as my husband said, I never went back for counseling, I just seek the Lord for the answers. My marriage is still going, but rocky. The pastors or counselors to not always give good advise, especially if someone could be really hurt in the relationship.

    • Sarah says

      Mary, I am just discovering these articles (more than three years later), but after reading your reply, my heart hurts for you. I hope you are doing well. I am in a similar boat. ♥️

  9. thomas maboea says

    Very true, we always seem to deceive ourselves that the church is exlusively for good people. But the main proponents of Jesus was the church .I like it when the Bible says we must be aware of WOLVES IN SHEEP SKIN, surely they must be in the CHURCH

  10. Scot says

    I have been very involved in a local church family for several years and I am currently struggling with some hurts caused by my beloved church family. I am taking a few weeks away from them to search for answers and this article has shined a totally new light on my looking at my church family.

  11. Hilma Nakambull says

    I’m in African and after reading this articles I’m encouraged to start a ministry as my church to really breakdown to new members on what church really is. Hopefully this will people to serve God more openly and also get planted in a church and understanding that even Christians are human. Is there any book you would recommend for me to read is should I do as the spirit lead?

  12. Sue says

    Majority of people in the world today believe that the church is a place where no sin or dinner should be found. Because of this notion they carry, a lot of people backslide from church due to the disappointment. Disappointed to find out that the only place they thought is safe and worth running to is filled with even worst kinds of people than in the world.
    I really hope and pray messages as such Henry has put out be shared by many and be read to churches around the world. This way people would be helped from disappointments, ignorance and suicides just as Theressa was helped out.

  13. Maureen Fraser says

    A great read, and I want to thank Dr. Handy, my friend for sharing the article.

    Thanks, Elaine. LOL

    In His service always, Maureen

  14. Moses paul says

    For my view the church should be a place where by any one get assistance in any problem, it should be a place where people get healed, encouraged, helped to renew their life, But it is not so because the church have forgotten the that Christ gave it that’s why other may find a church is safe place other find as a dangerous place.
    The church will be a safe place if we will carry the vision of our church founder CHRIST JESUS.

  15. Mike Kobel says

    All of us come to Christ as unsafe people. Very few of us are taught by our family of origin what a safe person is or how to be one. Sadly, as henry makes clear, not all churches or church leaders know what it means to be a safe person either. The good news is that places like Celebrate Recovery offer a safe place where safe people can be found. It offers that place within the Body of Christ where we can find the healing God offers and learn how to be a safe person in the lives of others.

    God is at work in the lives of His people.

  16. Catherine May says

    I use to think that the church was a safe haven, but it is full of a lot of wolves in sheeps skin. I pay my tides and offerings. I even give to the homeless, the people standing by freeways. I always gave all my life. But my water has been off now for over six months. I went to my church asking for help, I went to community churches asking for help, I called the 211 help line asking for help, I went to the few family members that could help but didn’t. It’s always no funds available, couldn’t do a go fund me because I have no social media friends. But I always see how pastors help and take care of their own family. I’m not giving up on God because I know he won’t give up on me. But I got favor and I know God is going to come through for me on his own timing. But yes the church can be hurtful and helpful because I learned a lot going to bible study. I just as God for wisdom.

  17. JoAnn Wood says

    Thanks for this article. As a young person, I desperately needed counseling and turned to the church at 22, and was met with advice as I had failed in God’s eyes and needed to ask for forgiveness. This drove me deeper into a drug problem and terrible marital abuse situation. I did manage to climb out, finished my education, and obtained license as a therapist – bound and determined to never advise anyone to see a Christian counselor. Over the past ten years, I have become involved with writings by folks like you and Dr. Townsend, and with a church who believes we are all broken. We sponsor an AA, NA, DivorceCare, and other groups for folks to recover. Your article is superb in putting into words things I’ve tried to share with pastors in ways I could never put into words. Thank you!

  18. Julie says

    I was in a similar boat, married to what I now realize was an abusive husband. He was abusive in every way except physically from the very start of our relationship and marriage. But I was of the belief (and still am) that, as the Bible teaches, marriage lasts until death alone parts you from your spouse. So I did not want to see or believe that my husband, a respected Bible teacher in our church was abusing me and also belittling me to his friends and colleagues behind my back. I just could NOT see that, I think because I wanted to keep my marriage commitment made to him, my husband, and to God.
    But as things progressed, after 6.5 years in our marriage, I let myself see just a little of what was happening. I received good advice from an otherwise unhelpful Christian psychologist that if I changed my behavior, and persisted in that change, that that would cause him to change his behavior in response because my change would upset his “game”. (He said this in relation to a specific pattern i had identified between my husband and me). This worked. It took two weeks for him to stop misbehaving in that pattern or “game” after I had stopped reacting to it as before. That began a new phase in our marriage and, with forgiveness, made it possible to stay together for 25 years.
    It’s the forgiveness and the releasing of the pain, hurt and desire for to get back at him (revenge) that made 25 years possible. I had to ask God to take revenge on him. I always felt guilty for asking for such a thing but it is Biblical and because that request seemed so harsh, it helped me to let go and let God handle the vengeance.
    Lest you think I was perfect, a perfect wife, hear it from my mouth: not at all! I had and still have many habits and immature behavior and attitude problems, and more I’m sure that I cannot yet see. And I had to be at least as sick (in different yet similar ways) as he was in order to marry him.
    What finally ended the marriage (on paper) was that we’d moved in with my elderly parents so I could care for them, and i finally had to face the fact that he was abusive to them, too.
    And he wouldn’t get a job (He was always looking but wouldn’t take a job).
    Also I’d realized a year or two earlier that he was not allowing me to grow or mature. He’d beat me down (verbally) and trip me up emotionally to get me back to his level when I was making progress, including spiritually.
    That was what finally made me tell him not to return from a week’s trip to a family funeral in another state. The divorce was final 8 days before what would have been the 25th anniversary of our wedding day.
    But I shed no tears nor was I furious with him because I’d been dealing with those feelings for over 15 years through God’s forgiveness and God’s Grace to me to forgive him.
    Again, I know I’m no saint. I just haven’t gone into all my failings in this comment.

    I know that in God’s eyes, we are still married, even though in the eyes of the U.S. government, we are divorced. I hope and pray that I will remain faithful to God and to my (Ex)-husband until one of us departs this earthly life.
    It’s been a little over a year since he left on that trip. The first 12 months were hard, I think, because I’d always been proud of my decision to obey God and never divorce. It was so hard to face that and the hard fact that the marriage was not.

    If reading this can help you Mary (even though three years later), I will be glad. May God be with you to guide and bless you.

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