Religious Authoritarian Environment

I am reading the book Breaking Their Will; Shedding Light on Relgious Child Maltreatment.  This well-researched book frequently points out that religion can be beneficial for children and talks about the various studies showing benefit.  The author Janet Heimlich differentiates between beneficial religion and harmful religion.   Based on interviews, case studies, and empirical studies she concludes that “virtually all cases of religious child maltreatment have a common characteristic; The victims had been living in religious authoritarian environments.” (p 46)

Three key aspects in which religious authoritarianism develops are: (Heimlich’s words are italicized)

1) The culture adheres to a strict authoritarian social structure

Religious leaders, and men, have much power while women and children have few rights.  The power hierarchy is known by everyone.

2) The culture is fearful

Members are terrified by consequences of not behaving correctly.  The consequences may be social ostracism or torment in the next life

3) The culture is separatist

To maintain the group’s purity either a physical separation is involved or a social separation where members are discouraged from forming close friendships with outsiders or being exposed to ideas that are different.


1) My church definitely had a strict hierarchy.  They denied it, insisting that Christ was a servant and the first shall be last, but everyone knew who was in charge.  I heard women refuse to give their opinions when ‘The Brethren’ were around as they deferred to them.  While many of The Brethren did help out in the kitchen, we all knew whose advice was supposed to be closer to God’s.  The strict hierarchy of the church and marriage is the subject of too many sermons.

An elder of international authority, said in his article “Headship”:

Isaiah 3:12 is the opposite of headship, or theocracy; it says, “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. 0    my people, they which lead thee cause thee  to err, and destroy the way of thy paths.” In other words, they destroy God’s ways. Is this not the trend of our day, especially since the hippie movement (the drug movement), children have become our oppressors, and since the `women’s lib movement’, women are having more authority in many areas, and it is affecting the church.

God our Father is head of all, Christ is the head of the Church, apostolic ministries set by Christ head of universal church, local elders set by  ministries head of local churches, traveling deacons helpmeets to apostolic ministries, local church deacons helpmeets to local church elders, – same relationship as husband and wife,  ( )

Check one.

2) Did we have a fearful culture?  I was terrified of feminists, not surprising with the above connection between feminism and God’s punishment.  I am still terrified of being sinful or making the wrong decision.  Fear was part of the culture, but I may have had even more because of my perfectionism.  Then again, the idea that we were supposed to be actually literally perfect was preached from the pulpit too so I can’t take all the credit.  Maybe other people weren’t affected by that but I was.

Maybe check?  Yes, check.

3) Our church was definitely separatist!  I remember arguing with adults when told that teenagers shouldn’t even be friends with other Christians if they did not go to our church.  Dobson’s rhetoric also solidified our fear of and distance from ‘the world’.  My family is full of shy people who naturally stuck together, but at least I felt encouraged by them to get to know other people .

Check for the church, thankfully buffered by family.


It is interesting that many of the ideas this books talks about were present in my church, but in my head what I experienced was just normal.  Indeed, compared with so many other stories and stats my church was milder.  But perhaps I am minimizing the damage that believing one is born sinful really has.


3 thoughts on “Religious Authoritarian Environment

  1. Ahab says:

    I’ve heard of that book, and I need to read it myself. Thank you for the taste.

    The three characteristics you listed characterized an old apostolic friend’s church, and I feel a new sense of woe for children born into that community now.

    • prairienymph says:

      It is a great book. I think it is written mostly for religious and formerly religious people, but she goes through the abuse that is found in non-religious frameworks also and has stories of people who have overcome it.
      You can also feel hope about those children! Authoritarian churches are concerned about the number of people leaving those types of churches as they get older and finding healthier churches or secular groups. The internet is making the isolationism less felt and that alone is huge. Wiki challenges the power hierarchy too so at least there is an example of something different. That fear thing though can be augmented by internet groups. I wish I had found the Huffington Post before I found Boundless.

  2. jen says:

    I haven’t heard of that one, but it sounds like a book that would be good for me… I’m like you – I don’t think my religion was “that bad”, but then I think about how terrified I was… how close I came to checking out of this life, because I thought leaving the church was that bad…

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