Why Don’t Churches Stop Spiritually Abusive Pastors?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 30, 2021

For the last couple of months I’ve been making my way through a blog series on spiritual abuse which I am calling “Bully Pulpit”.  You can see the prior installments here , here, here, and here.

Part of the goal of this series has been to lead up to my session on spiritual abuse at the TGC National Conference.  I will be leading a panel discussion on this topic with my friends Dan Doriani and John Yates, at 11AM on April 12th. Please join us if you will be attending TGC, or you can tune-in online.

With the conference right around the corner, this will be the last installment of my blog series. But I am in the process of writing a full-length book on the subject of spiritual abuse, so you can keep an eye out for that over the next year or more.

As we come to the final post in the series, we face one of the most troubling questions of all: Why don’t churches stop spiritually abusive pastors?

In story after story of abuse, the same tragic series of events plays out. The abusive pastor engages in his destructive behavior for years and years until someone finally speaks up. But even then, most churches do nothing (in fact, many churches actually attack the victims). And even when the church does do something, it’s often a half-hearted, inadequate response. And even if the rare church finally removes a pastor for abuse, that just leads to the next question: Why did it take you so long to act? Why did you tolerate this behavior for 25 years?

The reason we ask these questions is because there is always evidence—actually, lots of evidence—for the destructive behavior of these abusive pastors. As we observed in a prior post, abusive pastors often leave a “relational debris field” or a “trail of dead bodies” in their wake. So, why don’t churches see the trail of dead bodies? Why don’t they connect the dots?

There are a lot of reasons churches don’t see what’s happening. But I would suggest there are several theological misunderstandings that have contributed greatly to the problem. Let’s look at three of them.

A Misunderstanding of Total Depravity

Reformed folks frequently talk about total depravity—how sin is deeper and more pernicious than we realize, affecting every aspect of our lives (actions, mind, will). Consequently, every human being (even pastors) have the potential to commit serious acts of wickedness.

And yet, despite affirming this doctrine on paper, it is amazing how quickly it is forgotten when it comes to cases of spiritual abuse. As soon as someone has the courage to speak up about abusive behavior, they are usually met with a chorus of rebuttals along the lines of, “I know this pastor, and he could never do this.” Or, “This pastor has blessed and helped countless people over the years. Thus, he could never do something like this.”

In other words, rather than taking the concerns seriously and investigating them carefully, they are dismissed as essentially impossible (or at least so unlikely as to not merit further consideration).

And in tragically ironic turn, the defenders of the abusive pastor will often raise questions about the integrity and the character of the victims, suggesting that they are out to “slander” or malign a person’s “good name.”

So, the doctrine of total depravity is forgotten when it comes to the pastor, but remembered when it comes to the victims.

Sadly, the events of the last year with Ravi Zacharias have shown us that even the most respected and well-loved leaders have the potential for unspeakable depravity. Ravi had his defenders, arguing that he could never, and would never, do these things. But, it turned out that he did, in fact, do them.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we do away with the presumption of innocence. But, as David French observed in regard to the Ravi Zacharias case, “No organization can allow shock at dreadful allegations (or the conviction that, “I know him. He would not do that”) transform the presumption of innocence into the wholly improper assumption that an accuser is lying.”

A Misunderstanding of Grace

Christianity, at its core, has always been about grace. And in recent years, particularly in Reformed, evangelical circles, there has been a burst of new attention on grace—and that’s a good thing.

But, in order to accentuate the beauty of this grace, an additional step has been taken by some. Since we are desperate sinners saved by grace, it is reasoned, then it must be the case that we can make no distinctions between levels of sin. Now more than ever, then, we hear phrases like “all sins are equal,” or “all of us are equally sinners.” Such language is intended to uphold grace; it’s just another way to say that no one is any better than anyone else.

Now, the phrase “all sins are equal” is partly true, depending on what one means. If one uses the phrase simply to indicate that any sin is enough to separate us from God and warrant his wrath, then it would be correct. God is so holy that any violation of his law, no matter how trivial in our eyes, is an offense in his eyes worthy of condemnation.

However, that is not the only way the phrase has been used. Others use this phrase as way to “flatten out” all sins so that they are not distinguishable from each other. Or, to put it another way, this phrase is used to portray all human beings as precisely the same.

But, this understanding is deeply problematic on a number of grounds. For one, to say all sins are the same is to confuse the effect of sin with the heinousness of sin. While all sins are equal in their effect (they separate us from God), they are not all equally heinous. In fact, the Bible clearly differentiates between sins. Some sins are severe in terms of impact (1 Cor 6:18), in terms of culpability (Rom 1:21-32), in terms of judgment warranted (2 Pet 2:17; Mark 9:42; James 3:1), and in terms of whether one is qualified for ministry (1 Tim 3:1-7).

Even more importantly, however, this misunderstanding of grace has been used to defend abusive leaders. If we are all equal sinners, it is argued, then we should give these abusive pastors a break. They are sinners too, just like the rest of us. To say otherwise is to put ourselves in a place of judgment over them; it is to make out ourselves to be more righteous than other people. In other words, we need to “show them grace.”

It is difficult to overstate how destructive and debilitating this sort of theological error can be. It makes the victims feel almost like they are to blame; as if its their own “unforgiving” heart that is in the way of “reconciliation.” Moreover, it utterly ignores the heinousness of the abusive itself. It forgets that some sins are worse than others. And some sinners are worse than others. And a shepherd abusing the sheep is one of the very worst. On top of this, such a misuse of grace ignores all the passages in Scripture about upholding justice, righteousness, and defending the innocent.

A Misunderstanding of Conflict

Sadly, there is an additional way that a misunderstanding of grace has been used to defend abusive pastors and further harm the victims. If we are all equally sinful, it is argued, then that must mean that the abusive pastor and the victim are equally to blame for the conflict. A wrong understanding of grace, then, is used to minimize the heinousness of the abuse, and accentuate the sins of the victim (whatever they may be).

At this point, elder boards will typically make statements like, “Well, everyone here’s guilty of sin.” Or, “There’s blame on both sides.” In other words, they have taken abuse, and turned it merely into a “conflict.” It’s no different, they say, than just Paul and Barnabas disagreeing.

If the prior error was tragic in its own right, this second one may be even worse. It’s hard to conceive of a greater abuse of the doctrine of grace, but sadly it happens all the time—ironically, in churches that most loudly profess to be about grace. What these churches have done is wrongly assumed that all sins are equal and that all conflicts are equal in terms of blame and accountability. Rather than helping, they are actually further abusing the victim.

It would be the equivalent of taking a situation where a husband abuses his wife and telling them they just need to each confess their sins and go to marriage counseling. But this would be a tragic mistake. An abuse case is not just a “conflict.” It is not an equal playing field. Of course, the wife is a sinner too. But, whatever sins she may have committed do not justify the husband’s abuse, nor should they distract the church from making it a priority to address that abuse.

Conclusion

We should remember that even if churches don’t stop abusive shepherds, that does not mean there is no hope. After rebuking the bad shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34, God promises that he will do something about them: “Behold, I am against the [bad] shepherds . . . I will rescue my sheep from their mouths” (v.10).

How will God do this? By coming himself to be the great shepherd: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declare the Lord God” (v.15).

With such a promise in mind, the words of Jesus in the Gospels take on a new significance: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In other words, Jesus is declaring that he is the Lord God keeping the promise of Ezekiel 34 to shepherd his people.

And he will do the opposite of what the bad shepherds of Israel did. They saved their life at the expense of the sheep, whereas Jesus will save the sheep at the expense of his own life.

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