There are several characteristics of a sick (self-defeating) group or religious system. The first of these signs of a sick fellowship, church or even religious leader is that they try to separate people from one another or attempt to separate themselves from the world.
One way a separation of people takes place in a sick system is when a church disfellowships a member (throws them out of the group and bands their return). Those remaining, as a warning sign, are usually informed that a member has been barred from the group. They are also often told to stay away from the disfellowshipped person or else risk being thrown out as well!
A classic example of the above 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 of several well-known signs of how religious folk, especially leaders, encourage separation from others is in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 - 37).
In the parable, a man is robbed of all that he carried, severely beaten and left for dead. A priest sees the beaten man but walks right by him. A Levite then sees the half-dead, bleeding man and also walks right by him. Both men likely felt their 'righteousness' could not be stained by the messiness of helping out the sick. It was a hated Samaritan, however, who had mercy on the dying man (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.
Members of a sick church may also be warned not to read religious publications from anyone except those published by the group. All of the above signs are a warning that your growth as a Christian may be being hindered.
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 constantly 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).
Jesus came to live among us, as a human, not only to show us how to live, but also 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 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, and so on. 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 displaying signs that it is sick if it feeds you more fear than the love of God.