In anticipation of the Nov 1st release of my forthcoming book, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Zondervan, 2022), I am working my way through a new blog series, “5 Misconceptions about Spiritual Abuse.” You can find the prior installment here.
We now come to the #2 misconception in the series: “Spiritual abuse is only a problem in independent churches that have no established church polity.”
In the research for my book, I was surprised to see the widespread nature of this sentiment. Across the board, folks regularly expressed the idea that authoritarian, domineering pastors must be linked to a church polity that is either non-existent or underdeveloped. Thus, independent churches, it is thought, must be the prime breeding ground for bully pastors.
But the reality on the ground doesn’t bear this out. Here are few things I learned in my research.
1. Spiritual abuse crosses denominational and theological boundaries
While there are no hard statistics on spiritual abuse, I saw no correlation between denominational polity and spiritual abuse. The cases I saw occurred in churches that were independent, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican/Episcopal. Indeed, some of the most severe cases occurred in some of the most hierarchical/highly structured denominations. Of course, I am just one individual, and my sample size is obviously limited, but I think this is still worth noting.
Historically, we have seen this same trend when it comes to sexual abuse. There may be no more highly structured church than Roman Catholicism, yet that was the very group that allowed sexual abuse to exist unchecked for generations. And, as I already noted, the recent revelations 6-part Houston Chronicle series, and now the newly released SBC report, show that some of the same problems exist in Baptist churches.
2. Sometimes systems of polity are used to protect the abusive leader
While church polity should be used to hold spiritual leaders accountable–that’s the biblical purpose for why it exists–sometimes it is wrongly used as a shield to protect abusive leaders from criticism. In case after case I studied, those elders that were supposed to hold the leader accountable often rallied around the leader, deflecting and blocking the concerns being raised—even before any independent investigation could take place.
On top of this, some polity structures, and the judicial process that accompanies it, are so complicated and confusing that victims often struggle to know how to proceed. The abusive pastor knows the system and how it works. The victims often do not, and typically are left stumbling around in the dark.
Perhaps most tragically, sometimes the very polity structure that should have held an abusive leader accountable is actually used to attack the victims. In other words, abusive leaders sometimes use systems of polity in a retaliatory fashion, weaponizing it against the victims.
This is precisely what happened in the case of Mark Driscoll. While his church was independent, it had a fairly developed internal structure of church government. And when two fellow elders came forward to confront Driscoll for his authoritarian leadership, they were brought up on charges of insubordination and removed from the church.
3. Church polity functions best when leaders are educated and informed about spiritual abuse
The deciding factor in most abuse cases wasn’t necessarily the polity itself, but whether the folks holding the pastor accountable were genuinely educated about the contours of spiritually abusive behavior and how to spot it. If a pastor’s fellow elders were unaware of the nature of abuse, then even the very best polity practices were unlikely to solve the problem. And the reverse was often true. Even churches that had poor polity could still hold a leader accountable if they knew what to look for.
On this note, sometimes churches and denominations need outside help to address abuse cases. One of the lessons we’ve all learned over the last few years is that most organizations are not so good at investigating themselves or their leaders (just consider the cases of Ravi Zacharias and Bill Hybels). This is why the standard practices for churches—regardless of their particular polity—should be to utilize an independent, outside organization that understands how to investigate abuse cases properly.
As we sum up, a final observation is in order. Just because spiritual abuse spans different types of church government, doesn’t mean church government doesn’t matter. I want to be clear about this. Church government is a key part of what makes a church healthy, and having a biblical form of that government is certainly important (and I have my own views about which system is best!).
But my point here is that we have to be careful of overconfidence in the system. Even the best systems, and the most well-intended systems, can still have blind spots. There are still places they might need to grow and learn. And that is precisely why I wrote this book. My prayer is that elder boards and denominational bodies would use the book as perhaps one step to becoming more aware of how to spot abusive leaders.
And if even one church, or even one church member, can be genuinely helped by that awareness, then I will consider the labor to have been worth it.