Poison in the Pound-cake: Identifying Toxic church cultures
Scot McKnight in his book “A Church called Tov” gives Eight false narratives that toxic churches often tell to protect themselves. The narratives are something like institutional defense mechanisms. When criticisms or crisis arise look for these false narratives. They are signs of toxicity, marks of a toxic church culture. Evidence that there is some poison in the pound-cake.
All quotes are in italics and come from the third chapter of McKnight’s book, “A church called Tov”. All quotes other than McKnight are cited. I have I have ordered McKnight material into sections: First a description of the false narrative and Second some examples for clarity.
1. DISCREDIT THE CRITICS
“This false narrative is based on an age-old trick: If you don’t want to admit the truth of an accusation, discredit the accuser instead.”
The aim is to undermine credibility by discrediting an accusers motives or character.
1.) “[A] strategy is character assassination. Character assassination seeks to get the congregation to question the truth of the accuser’s story by casting doubt on the accuser.”
2.) “Another way of discrediting the critics is to question their motives. If you can’t get ’em on character, try collusion. Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory.”
2. DEMONIZE THE CRITICS
“portraying the accusers as evildoers who are trying to harm the church and all its good work for Christ’s Kingdom. ..if the critics are evil, they are not to be trusted and one can therefore dismiss what they say about the pastor and the church.”
Example of demonizing language
“What the men are saying is Satanic to the core and must be dealt with very directly.”
“Separate from these false messengers.”
They have been deceived by the enemy
The enemy is using them
3. SPIN THE STORY
“Spinning a story is a deceitful strategy designed to hijack the accuser’s narrative and create an alternative version—an intentionally false narrative that supports the pastor and the church while creating doubt about the allegations.”
Examples of Spin
1.) When a story is turned around and people are told the accusations are false and just fabricated as a means of pay back for a perceived offense.
2.) When a leader misquotes and misrepresents someone to re-frame the issue in question. That is spin. The poker tell of spin is how difficult it is to believe that such distortions are accidental.
3.) When a pastor tells his congregation a vague explanation that is in the same emotional zip code as the truth. Often what is said sounding vaguely right like yet upon further reflection the statement is hollow or illogical. You realize they have not say anything all. It sounded like a profound insight, the right thing for that moment but in reality they say nothing to avoid saying the real thing.
When a leader speaks gives excuses sees for letting someone go
wanted a bigger challenge
Transitioning out of his position
Leaving “on good terms”
Moved on to pursue other things
4.) When a pastor tells his congregation that a suspiciously absent minister has moved on to pursue other things. When in reality they were fired for clearly unethical behavior.
4. GASLIGHT THE CRITICS
In practice, gaslighting is “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person . . . sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment. . . . Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.” 
Gaslighting is psychological warfare. In Gaslighting the accuser re-framing the issue then making counteraccusations that contradict the perceived reality of the victim. Such a tactic is a powerful means of psychological manipulation with the aim of messing with someone’s head.
“A counteraccusations is designed to get into the woman’s head and make her question her own account—what she knows happened—and destabilize her to the point of wondering if she is sane….Some victims back down at this point because of the power differential and how much effort it takes to overcome the pain inflicted by gaslighting.”
The practice of gaslighting is intentional strategic lying. It is talking to someone in such a way as to make them feel destabilized, that is like they are going crazy. The result is a person so frustrated confused and destabilized that they to act crazy and so validate the gaslighter’s lies.
McKnight quotes Sociologist Paige Sweet to emphasize the “social characteristics that actually give gaslighting its power.”
Specifically, gaslighting is effective when it is rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships. When perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes, structural inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims with whom they are in an intimate relationship, gaslighting becomes not only effective, but devastating. 
In churches, gaslighting often comes with the force of the whole community behind it. The social pressure can compound the destabilization. As McKnight explains:
“When an accuser is gaslighted from the platform of a church, by a trusted pastor with leadership support, the destabilization becomes all the more intense because the prevailing narrative now appears to be connected to God’s truth, and it has been broadcast to a crowd of people who accept the church’s story. No wonder many accusers choose not to report abuse or back down once they meet resistance.”
In Part Two, we will look at three of the last four of McKnight’s false narratives. Thus leaving the final narrative for a third post. If you like this content and you may enjoy our video featuring Dr. McKnight on this subject. [Click here]. Also if you like this blog you will love the McKnight’s book amazon link below.
A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Scot McKnight.
 “Gaslighting,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslighting.
 Paige L. Sweet, “The Sociology of Gaslighting,” American Sociological Review 84, no. 5 (2019): 852, https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/oct19asrfeature.pdf.
 Sweet, “The Sociology of Gaslighting.”
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