Basic Church Information
Church Name: Grace Community Church
Senior/Lead Pastor: John MacArthur
Address: 13248 Roscoe Blvd. Sun Valley, CA 91352
Email: N/A (See Question #5)
Online Services: https://www.gracechurch.org/teaching
Denomination: Calvinist / Reformed
Preaching Style: Expository/Verse-by-verse
Worship Style: Traditional/Hymns
Membership Requirements: Yes
Tithes/Compelled Giving: Yes
Financial Transparency: Unknown (See Question #3)
Affiliations: The Master’s Seminary, The Master’s Academy International, Grace to You, The Master’s University
Red Flags of Spiritual Abuse, Exploitation/Opportunism, and/or High Coercive Control
Spiritual Abuse Definition: Any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs can be spiritual abuse.
Coercive Control Definition: Coercive control is a form of emotional abuse or intimate partner violence that can cause psychological trauma. Here, we use it to describe a specific form of abuse practiced in the local church setting by men and women in church leadership positions. It describes a pattern of behaviors a perpetrator uses to gain control and power by eroding a person’s autonomy and self-esteem. This can include acts of intimidation, threats, and humiliation. Coercive control also refers to a pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. In the local church setting, these behaviors give the church leader power over their Christian subordinate, making it difficult for them to leave the church.
Spiritual Exploitation/Opportunism: “Spiritual opportunism refers to the exploitation of spiritual ideas (or of the spirituality of others, or of spiritual authority): for personal gain, partisan interests or selfish motives. Usually the implication is that doing so is unprincipled in some way, although it may cause no harm and involve no abuse.”
I see potential for spiritual abuse and coercive control in multiple ways at Grace Community Church, and also signs of exploitation/opportunism. I will list them in this section.
Please note that my observations in this section of the church check are not purely factual, although they are based on facts about the church and facts about coercive control, spiritual abuse, and spiritual exploitation and opportunism, but they also include my personal opinions based on my knowledge and experience with various types of abuse, coercive control, exploitation, and religious cults. I am not a professional psychologist or therapist of any kind. Some professionals and resources on these issues worth looking into if you’re interested in learning more would be:
ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)
Spiritual Abuse Resources
Now, on to the red flags!
1. On Grace Community Church’s About Page, it says this about church:
“Church, however, is paramount because of its absolute uniqueness. While "Grace" and "Community" were our choice in defining who we are, "Church" was mandated by God — as revealed in His Word…”
The claim that church is actually mandatory according to God Himself as revealed through the Bible (which they don’t back up with Scripture), is a red flag of exploitation and spiritual abuse.
Claiming that an outward work or deed like attending a local church is mandated by God is not only unbiblical but also spiritually abusive because it uses God’s power and authority in order to control and manipulate the actions of individual Christians: “You have to go to church because God mandated it in the Bible.” Nowhere does the Bible mandate official church membership or attendance, and GCC has no Scripture to back up this claim.
2. Grace Community Church is very clear that they have official church memberships, authority and power belonging to only male elders and other church male leadership, that members must submit to them, and that they practice church discipline as defined by their interpretation of Matthew 18.
All of this can easily lead to spiritual abuse and coercive control.
First, a contextual reading of Matthew 18 will reveal that Christ isn’t talking about church discipline as executed by “church leadership,” but how we are to handle interpersonal relationships with other Christians, one-on-one. So many churches use this single passage to justify monitoring, controlling, and disciplining the personal lives of other Christians. We should never use a singular passage out of context to establish doctrine or church practice, especially when it contradicts the unity of the rest of Scripture.
The entire New Testament, and the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, is all about grace, mercy, love, and peace. The laws of God are written on our hearts, and we are convicted by the Holy Spirit directly. Church discipline policies, man-made authority and power over others, and the unequal power dynamic created by churches like GCC are an open door for spiritual abuse, and antithetical to the Gospel of grace, love, and truth.
Cherry-picking Matthew 18 out of its context leads to abusive and cult-like practices such as spying on people and instructing or encouraging church members to spy on their brothers and sisters in Christ, monitoring peoples’ personal lives, controlling every aspect of their lives to line up with the church’s definition of “holiness,” and witch hunts that not only end up in excommunication, but worse. Slander, libel, unwholesome, unloving speech, and all sorts of abuse toward our siblings in Christ is the inevitable rotten fruit of this teaching, and it’s common practice in many churches today.
Nowhere in these passages do we see a directive specifically and solely for church leadership, pastors, or elders to execute these instructions on church members. These directions are for ALL believers, not just those in leadership positions. Jesus wasn’t only talking to pastors or elders in these passages. He was speaking to all of His disciples present. Most churches, however, do not respect the right and authority of the individual believer to practice these instructions by their own God-given right and authority in Christ. They only respect discipline if it’s coming from someone in leadership (that THEY appointed), but that’s not what Scripture teaches at all.
Any church that points to Matthew 18 for “church discipline” and “accountability”, claims it’s their leaders’ job to enforce it on the lowly congregation, forcing each member to sign a one-way contract or agreement submitting to this unequal balance of power, is not safe, in my opinion.
If leadership does not submit themselves to accountability from the congregation, at least in the same way they require you to submit to them, then they’re not trustworthy as an under-shepherd of their local church body, and are likely spiritually abusive.
The GCC’s Affirmation of Commitment, which is simply a member agreement contract, touches on what we just pointed out in the previous red flag. It binds the church member to certain ambiguous and vague practices and behavior, such as having a lifestyle that “exhibits both true Christian love and personal holiness,” and “doing all you can to stimulate love and good deeds in others as you seek to exercise your spiritual gifts in faithful service,” but what these statements really mean in execution isn’t specified.
What is a holy and Christian lifestyle according to Grace Community Church? Most Christians disagree to some extent on what a holy Christian life actually looks like. Does it simply mean being a loving individual, or is there an unwritten checklist that needs to be checked in order to qualify, at least at this church?
Not knowing what the church means by these statements while signing an agreement to abide by them can back you into a corner later on and get you into trouble for things you never thought would be a problem as a Christian. It makes sense to live a holy and Christian lifestyle, but what that actually looks like depends entirely on the church’s ideas, not what you think, or even what the Bible says. You are submitting to their ideas of what that looks like, and they are telling you that if you don’t, you will be disciplined.
There are also some specific expectations as well in this Affirmation. The agreement to consistently contribute “time, talent, and resources,” is pretty cut and dry: you must support the church financially and invest as much time and energy into it as you can.
So even though John MacArthur admits that tithing isn’t a New Testament mandate for Christians today and that giving to God has always been voluntary, he is essentially contradicting himself here by requiring that you pay for church membership with your time and resources. Also remember that church, according to GCC, is a “mandate” by God.
This is exploitative, plain and simple.