The first of several signs of a sick fellowship, church or even religious leader is that they try to separate people from one another or even tries to separate themselves from the world. One way a separation of people takes place is when a church disfellowships a member or members (throws them out and tells them never to return). Those remaining in the group are then strictly warned to STAY AWAY from the disfellowshipped or else THEY TOO will be thrown out! A classic example of this kind of "sick" practice is how the Pharisees acted during the days of Jesus. They were well-known for despising and rejecting others who they deemed sinners. Their teachings were one of the signs that they did not fully obey God (see Matthew 16:6 - 12).
One of several signs Jesus gave to detect a sick church leader came in his parable of the sinful tax collector and the Pharisee. Both men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was NOT like others such as "extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). The tax collector, who knew he was a sinner, stood afar off with his head bowed and cried "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" Jesus stated that the collector walked home justified but not the Pharisee! Leaders who maintain a negative, mean-spirited attitude toward others (especially those they feel are "beneath" them) is a warning sign of possible troubles that might cause you or the church you attend.
Another well-known example of how religious folk, especially leaders, encourage separation from others is in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 - 37). A man is robbed of all that he carried, including his clothes, then is severely beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest who serves in the Temple sees the beaten man but walks right by him. Then, a person from the tribe of Levi who also serves in the Temple sees the half-dead, bleeding man and also walks right by him. No doubt they felt their 'righteousness' could not be stained by the messiness of helping out a human in desperate need. Yet it was a hated Samaritan who had mercy on the dying man and was not fearful of helping someone who was a stranger (Luke 10:30 - 33).
Some Christians are encouraged by their religious leadership to not only stay away from former members but also from other religious groups. Believers have even been discouraged from going to 'worldly' colleges so that they do not become tainted by an unconverted society. Other are told that they should not read religious publications from ANYONE except those published by their church. These are signs of a sick group that may hinder your growth as a Christian.
Taking more than giving
Another of several signs of a sick church is that it TAKES more than it GIVES. Some religious leaders have been known to pressure members to give, give, GIVE almost to the point of poverty. Members may be harangued to 'sacrifice' for a denomination all the while the leadership leads a life of relative luxury. There have also been cases where brethren were encouraged to donate such a significant amount of their time in order to "serve" that it jeopardized their marriage, family, finances and even their health.
The purpose of a true God-focused church is to ENLARGE and ENRICH the lives of those they are blessed to serve. Jesus made it crystal clear that those who are TRUE leaders in God's eyes are those who serve the needs of others (Luke 22:24 - 27). One of the purposes of Jesus coming to the earth was to show humans not only how to live, but to do so more abundantly (John 10:10). One must be very wary of sick churches or groups who take far more than they give.
The Fear factor
The last of the signs of a sick church we will cover is that it encourages fear more than courage and even love. When was the last time your pastor or minister encourage you to do great things for others? A true godly group appeals to your love so that you are motivated to feed those in need, clothe those who are in want, visit and take care of the sick and do good to your neighbor (Luke 10:29 - 37; Mark 12:28 - 31). We simply must not fear showing the love of God to others made in his own image. When Jesus comes back to earth the second time he will praise or rebuke people based on what they did in this life (Matthew 25:34 - 35, see also 41 - 42).
Why would religious leaders use fear to motivate those they serve? It is because humans motivate themselves far more out of fear than love. Fear of a loved one hurting themselves might drive us to run faster than we would out of love. There are countless stories of people who attend a fellowship for fear of not being protected from the trials of the Great Tribulation. Other are told them must conform to church policies and decisions or else terrible consequences await them. Again, how sick!
The Bible appeals to a person's love and courage as a means for serving and becoming like Christ (Philippians 4:8 - 9). Beware of any church, fellowship or even religion that appeals to fear. The only good fear is that of God.
The three cures
What are the cures when the above signs point to a sick church or religious leader? First, do not let a religious leader or group separate you from those you love, such as spouses, friends, family, or whomever. The second is, do not let a group make you worse off than when you arrived! If you find that they are taking from you far more than they are giving back then it might be time to leave. Love is the cure for fear (1John 4:18). The third cure is do not let fear discourage you from fulfilling your responsibilities as a believer in Jesus Christ. A church or group is SICK if it feeds you more fear than the love of God.