Sheep Gone Wild: How to Identify Christians Who Bite, Abandon, or Cling

I’ve been there—have you?

My cell phone rings and my heart sinks. It’s Jasmine*–poor Jasmine. In need of yet another short-term loan as she lives in perpetual crisis.

Or it’s Trevor, asking for help at the last minute. Again. His poor planning has become a standard joke in our young adult group.

Or maybe it’s Trinity, who wants to tell me all about Susan and how she isn’t qualified to lead the children’s ministry.

Or it’s Pastor Surefire—judgmental Surefire, for whom I never seem good enough.

Or it’s Charlie. Please Lord, not Charlie. He has the strangest way of giving me spiritual advice—a “prophetic” word, he calls it—and yet making me feel just two-inches tall.

Do any of these people sound like one of your friends? Or maybe you are that person. Yikes.

Each of us probably has at least one Christian acquaintance who drains our energy, gives us wounds, or talks behind our backs. That’s common to man. As one pastor friend tells me, “Sheep bite.”

As long as we recognize unsafe people and draw firm boundaries with them, we can minimize the pain they cause us and perhaps help them move forward in their own process of growth.

But people who get involved with unhealthy religious groups often have very poor powers of discernment. They also often lack healthy boundaries. I sure did. The result is a constellation of relationships which cause pain, sorrow, and guilt.

How can we recognize an unsafe person?

It is important to realize that there are different types of unsafe people. Some are abandoners—they start a relationship but can’t finish it. Others are critics—they act like a parent to everyone, judge others, speak the truth without love, and know little about grace or forgiveness. Still others are irresponsible—they fail to follow through on commitments, act like children, rarely delay gratification, and can take care of neither themselves nor others.

People like this are unsafe. They harm people around them through their words and actions. Christians who want to relate to these people must erect healthy boundaries to keep from enabling them and to avoid getting bitten by “sheep gone wild.”

Here are two lists to help determine whether someone in your life is a “safe” or “unsafe” person. These criteria come from the book Safe People by Christian psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend. If you struggle with poor discernment and lack of boundaries in relationships, I highly recommend that you add this book to your personal library.

I.) Unsafe People

A.) Personal Traits of Unsafe People

  1. Think they have it all together instead of admitting their weaknesses.
  2. Are religious instead of spiritual.
  3. Are defensive instead of open to feedback.
  4. Are self-righteous instead of humble.
  5. Only apologize instead of changing their behavior.
  6. Avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them.
  7. Demand trust, instead of earning it.
  8. Believe they are perfect instead of admitting their faults.
  9. Blame others instead of taking responsibility.
  10. Lie instead of telling the truth.
  11. Are stagnant instead of growing.

B.) Interpersonal Traits of Unsafe People

  1. Avoid closeness instead of connecting.
  2. Are only concerned about “I” instead of “we.”
  3. Resist freedom instead of encouraging it.
  4. Flatter us instead of confronting us.
  5. Condemn us instead of forgiving us.
  6. Stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals.
  7. Are unstable over time instead of being consistent.
  8. Are a negative influence on us, rather than a positive one.
  9. Gossip instead of keeping secrets.

If these traits define one or several people in your life, perhaps you need to draw some healthy boundaries with these folks in order to avoid them taking advantage of you. Townsend and Cloud’s book, Boundaries, can help you do this.

Remember that Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” It is not enough to identify unsafe people—we also want to surround ourselves with safe people who can spur us on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:23-25).

II.) Safe People

  1. Draw us closer to God.
  2. Draw us closer to other people.
  3. Help us become the real person God created us to be.
  4. Abide with us in a manner that shows they are present, connected, and empathic.
  5. Show much grace. This means you will not be “shamed or incur wrath” for whatever you are experiencing.
  6. Walk in—and speak—truth. Safe people not only show us grace, they also confront us in a loving manner with the truth of God.

While these lists provide a bare-bones outline of safe and unsafe people, there are also qualities about us that may cause us to gravitate toward unsafe people. In a future post, we will look at what characteristics make us vulnerable to unsafe people.

*Not their real names.

11 comments on “Sheep Gone Wild: How to Identify Christians Who Bite, Abandon, or Cling

  1. I’ve been really enjoying your blog. I’ve been blessed to have grown up in and around healthy and safe churches, familiy, and friends, but I find the topics of religious legalism and spiritual abuse interesting. Sad, but interesting. My wife and I have actually had to deal with some unsafe people in the past few years. When I started reading this post, I was going to recommend the books “Safe People” and “Boundaries” as those are both books my wife read to help her deal with unsafe people. Then I saw you already recommended them later in your post. One thing I have noticed reading your posts is that unsafe and controling individuals, at least the ones my wife and I have had to deal with, use many of the same methods you are describing about religious cults using. It’s all been very insightful. I’m happy to hear you were able to escape from it though. God bless!

    • Thanks for your encouraging feedback, Joe. I think you make an insightful connection between the techniques unsafe people use and the strategies employed by spiritual abusers. I suppose spiritual abusers are just a sub-set of unsafe people. I’m glad that you and your wife have had healthy church experiences, and that you were able to seek help in how to deal with unsafe people through those two fantastic books. Grace and peace to you!

  2. Welcomed words. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights (and those of others you choose to quote). Regarding cults, your words are helping to educate and bring a modicum of comfort to those with loved ones caught up in these groups. Keep on posting! I will pray this for you today – that you will be lifted up and that the Light in you will remain strong and shining bright!
    John 3:16

  3. Reblogged this on A Different Perspective and commented:
    An excellent post for those looking for a healthy community.

  4. Steve,
    As a former pastor who will soon be reentering the fray, so to speak, I still cringe when I think of the pervasive “us against the sheep” mentality I experienced at pastors conferences. I am also extremely uncomfortable with the newest novelty of “setting relationship boundaries.”

    The source of the post is “Christian Psychology,” which is an oxymoron, and also lacks biblical exegesis. In other words, it sounds intelligent, but where would Scripture point to the elements of this wisdom specifically? I think there is a lesson to be learned here from the older, and wiser Jay E. Adams: I have never heard him write on how to identify “unsafe sheep,” but he has written much on how to minister to weak and ignorant sheep. Labeling them as “unsafe” and setting up “boundaries” based on a list of criteria is first a hope-killer, and pretty much just downright coldblooded. In fact, what disturbs me most about this post is the fact that new believers will often exhibit the list of “unsafe” traits listed above.

    Here is what i am going to do: I am going to resist the temptation to think that you are just another cold-blooded arrogant intellectual coming out of the seminaries in our day and wreaking havoc on God’s people. A good followup post would be on “HOW TO MAKE UNSAFE SHEEP SAFE.” That would better exemplify the heart of a pastor, and is more indicative of hope. Consider:

    “As long as we recognize unsafe people and draw firm boundaries with them, we can minimize the pain they cause us and perhaps help them move forward in their own process of growth.”

    Draw “firm” boundaries and “perhaps” that will help them move forward. Really? What about learning to ask the right questions about what’s going on in these people’s lives? These traits “common to man” are often caused by other areas of their life where they can be helped.

    If you have written much more than this on how to help “unsafe” sheep change, I withdraw my complaint, though i think the post is yet disturbing. But nevertheless, if you are inept in the area of giving hope–please–get out of the ministry.


    • Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time to write such a clear response to this post. I appreciate that your perspective–based on years of experience–is different than mine. You also seem to have a clearly-defined internal locus of control. That is, you have the ability to see yourself as separate from people around you and to articulate your thoughts and feelings (and disagreements) in a clear and healthy manner.

      Unfortunately, Paul, most people who find themselves in cults or spiritually abusive situations (which is the context of this blog and the reason for this particular post) do not have such a healthy internal locus of control as you do. Rather, they struggle in codependent relationships, often have been abused by people close to them (physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally, and spiritually), and find it almost impossible to stand up for themselves or say “no” to such abuse.

      I wanted to give them hope that there is a different way to respond to such abusive people, that their “no” can and should be heard and respected, and that if it isn’t, it may be important to put up relational boundaries with people who continue to harm them. There is room for additional posts about what makes us attracted to unsafe people, and how unsafe people can become “safe” people. You raise a valid point.

      Jay Adams and nouthetic counseling are familiar to me. Jay has contributed much to biblical counseling, but his perspective is only one in a field containing other highly-reputable Christians such as Larry Crabb and Dan Allender. I have found Jay’s approach simplistic and—when used by someone without proper training or grace—combative and even abusive.

      “Nouthetic” means “admonishing,” which, though a biblical term, can often devolve into simply berating someone with a Bible verse and telling them to deal with their sin. While scripture is always the grid to evaluate truth claims in this world, not all truth is found in the Bible. Rather, God has given some truth to the realms of science, engineering, medicine, psychology, and others, for the benefit of all people everywhere. Christians must think critically about any truth claim, compare it with scriptural principles, and then proceed accordingly. I prefer an integrated approach to Christian counseling.

      Paul, I am a sheep and not a shepherd. I agree with you that there should not be a divide between leaders in the church and lay people. Indeed, this blog champions your perspective in this regard. I would be honored if you would take the time to read several of the other posts on this site to get a feel for the context and the heart of this blog. As the title suggests, it is with the hope of bringing “Liberty to Captives” that this blog exists.

  5. Paul,

    Appolgies first for this long reply, but I feel I shortened it as much as I could. I’d like to add my own thoughts to Steve’s reply comment to you. I have to strongly disagree with your assertation that setting up boundaries with unsafe people (and thinking there are no unsafe people, because honestly, if you think cannot label them as unsafe, then you don’t really believe that they are unsafe) is hopeless and coldblooded. It is just the opposite. It is full of hope and one of the most beneficial things we can do.

    A lack of boundaries with people shows a lack of respect. People have the right to say no, a reasonable expectation of privacy, and to be treated with respect. These expectations extend not only to strangers and aquaintances, but also to close friends, family members, and to those in roles of leadership or power, including pastors and other Christians. If any of those people continue to break boundaries by showing disrespect or being hurtful, we have the right to distance ourselves from those people that hurt us. Drawing boundaries is not only about helping others to see those boundaries as necessary, it is also about self-protection. When others continuously hurt over and over again, we do not have subject ourselves to that hurt over and over again.

    You mentioned that people often have other problems that are at the root of their actions. I very much agree with you on this point. I do think that in most, if not all cases, if these more deeply seeded issues are dealt with, that the behaviour will change. That said, however, it sounds from your post that you believe this is much easier to accomplish than it really is. If somebody is hurting us (this includes mentally, emotionally, or spiritually), then yes, we should admonish them. We should point out how they have grieved us, using Biblical pricipals and if possible, Biblical passages. Note that this assumes we are dealing with a Christian who is hurting us. We have no reasonable expectation for a non-Christian to follow Biblical principles. In most cases most people will fess up, apologize, repent, and with a little time the relationship will be restored.

    This does not work in every case, however. Not everybody will see your side of things. Firstly, if their behavior of disrespect and hurt is indeed due to a deeper issue, thy must first recognize this themselves and WANT to be helped and/or change. If they do not want this or even recognize this is the case, then no amount of admonishing or quoting the Bible will change their behavior. Furthermore, some people genuinely believe that what they are doing is NOT wrong and inappropriate behavior and will twist biblical passages to fit their own needs and definitions. I know this is a real possibilitiy because my wife are dealing with this very situation with her parents.

    In our case, we have tried talking to them, we have tried and continue to try to arrange counseling sessions with them with a church pastor, and we continually pray for them. With all of this however, they still have not been able to show proper respect for my wife and I. And yes, we are all Christians. They have caused a world of hurt for us, and especially for my wife with their emotional and mental abuse over the past 3-4 years (That is how long we have been trying to repair things as well). Because they create an environment that is so toxic, and they have yet to repent of their grievances and sohw respect for us, we have had to put up boundaries. We have had to GREATLY limit communication and contact. We do this because they have shown us that in their current state, a relationship with them is NOT healthy.

    So, while I can see that you really want people to get to the root of their problems and behaviour, this is not so easy as you make it sound. I must also say that your comment makes it sound as if you are hostile towards psychology. Your quip about “Christian Psychology” being an oxymoron says to me that you don’t really have a true understanding of what psychology is. Psychology is essentialy just the study of how people think and behave and trying to understand why. What is wrong, sinful, or unbiblical about this? Certainly there have been many psychologists who have come up with bad assumptions and conclusions (I am NOT a fan of Frued, and to inform you, while many of his theories helped later psychologists to form their own theories, my understanding is that most modern psychologists do not believe the vast majority of Freud’s theories to even be true), but simply because some psychologists have come up with bad ideas and theories does not automatically make the entire field and all of the theories bad or wrong. That would be a hasty generalization.

    Please do continue to read on this blog. Steve makes a lot of very good points. And while he is focusing primarily on destructive and abusive cults, much of what he has written about can be applied to relationships with individuals as well. Perhaps if you continue to read previous posts and posts that are still to come, you’ll have a better understanding of what he is trying to accomplish. Good day.

  6. Hi Joe and Steve,

    I answer Steve, and to a lesser degree Joe, here: http://wp.me/pmd7S-1GZ


  7. Paul – Don’t we read of boundary setting when we “Mark and Avoid” Romans 16:17 (against false teachers – – – this scripture was twisted around at my former church and used against members who were on a Mark and Avoid list) and how about the verses that say “have nothing to do with . . . . ” (Eph 5:11, Titus 3:10, 2 Tim 2:23) By “having nothing to do with”, isn’t that setting up boundaries? Help me understand you, bro.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: