How to Respond to Pastoral/Church Abuse

Recently, I read an article in USA Today regarding pastoral abuse and felt strongly convicted to write about it.  Over the years, I’ve heard painful stories told by those who’ve been bullied by church leaders.  I hope my words here help bring clarity, as well as hope, to the bruised and hurting.

My personal commentary follows my “short answer” as to how to respond to pastoral/church abuse.

Also, I have been a pastor for over 36 years. So, I write this as I “preach” to myself, reminding myself of what is biblically true.

First, the short answer:

1. Never – never – tolerate abuse of any kind from a church leader.

2. Because of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, church leaders (pastors, clergy, priests) have no more access to God than any other Christian. Don’t allow them to twist scripture and tell you differently. They are on no “spiritual higher plane” than another believer in regard to status.  Further, they are subject to greater judgment due to their vital role in the spiritual growth of others. They’ve been entrusted by God with leadership, not authority. (see commentary)

3. Don’t confuse abuse with disagreement. We can disagree – even strongly – and still be civil, kind, respectful and honest. Abuse, on the other hand, involves any level of feeling dismissed, invalidated, ignored, intimidated, bullied, threatened, or humiliated.

4. You have every right to confront a church leader you feel has abused you, or a friend or loved one. You have every right to question a church leader. They are as flawed as everyone else on planet earth. As such, church leaders are as capable of the same level of abhorrent sin of which every other person on earth is capable. This is why we see church leaders experience moral failure all too often. And this is why you never – never – place your trust in a human being, even if that church leader is on the cultural level of a celebrity.

5. Church leaders are merely human beings with, hopefully, a genuine call of God on them to “shepherd the sheep” God has entrusted to their care, commanded by Christ, the Chief Shepherd, to lead not by flaunting artifical authority, but by serving others. Using degrees and job titles to inflate their self-view is biblically prohibited.   The 18th century, British theologian, John Wesley, wrote, “this may be demonstrated in a church leader behaving in a haughty, domineering manner, as though they have dominion over the church.”

6. The good news: for every abusive pastor, there are dozens of godly, humble men and women who have committed their lives to leading people as Jesus led. I heard years ago – and always remind fellow pastors – “sheep are led, not driven.” A shepherd leads sheep. A butcher drives them.

Commentary on the USA Today article:

Cowards and/or bullies, serving in church leadership, have been hiding behind intimidation tactics for centuries. Sadly, these tactics are as old as the Bible, both Testaments being filled with examples of abusive, ungodly church leadership.  Later on, the medieval Roman Catholic Church, driven by indulgences, perfected church abuse. Still afterward, the Puritans, with their witch hunts, were adept at it as well. These tactics of psychological warfare involve demeaning, intimidating, ignoring, dismissing, and invalidating a person.

The pastor in the USA Today article pushed back against the alleged abuse of the two girls due to wanting to protect his church by covering up the truth. The sad truth is that he wanted to protect himself. Unity never trumps truth. For when unity is created upon a foundation of cowardly lies, or half-truths (which are still whole lies), it’s only a matter of time until that foundation crumbles underneath the weight of the truth. When truth suffers, everything suffers – and the house of cards begins to fall.

NOTE:  Before you begin defending the church in the story, I get it. Were the girls in the story foolish getting involved with the fool (youth pastor) in the story? Yes. Was any crime committed? No. Because they were of age.

But, search the scriptures. Never – not once – will you see Jesus ignore, intimidate or dismiss a person the way these girls and their families have been ignored, intimidated and dismissed.

Does a pastor have biblical authority over his church?

First and foremost, it’s not, nor ever was, “his church.” Jesus said, My house shall be a house of prayer.” The church belongs to Christ. We’re merely stewards and shepherds of such.

A pastor (the biblical term literally means “shepherd)”, has been entrusted with the leadership of his flock/church, but has no authority over them. Abusive, biblically inept pastors will snatch Hebrews 13:17 out of context when it serves their narcissistic purposes. The verse begins, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority.” But the very misuse of this passage is, itself, abusive. The command here is in the same vein of Paul’s command for women to “submit to your husbands” in Ephesians 5:21-30, where the context is crystal clear: abuse disqualifies you from receiving submission, whether in the context of marriage or a church. By the way, the second half of Hebrew 13:7 reads, “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” A reckoning is coming for abusive church leadership.

What pastoral abuse isn’t:

Pastoral abuse is not when a pastor interprets a biblical passage differently than you and strongly, albeit kindly, defends his position. Additionally, abuse is not when a pastor chooses, for whatever reasons, a methodology of “doing the practical side church” with which you strongly disagree i.e. whether or not to meet on Sunday nights, whether or not to have Sunday School, what time the offices should close, what style of music to sing, etc.  Should he be supported by the vast majority of the church, you are free to join a church that more closely agrees with your practical preferences.

Healthy pastoral accountability:

The key word here is “healthy.”

By all means, lovingly keep your pastor(s) accountable. In Acts 17, the Bereans “examined the scriptures daily to see if what Paul was teaching was true.”  Church leaders desperately need healthy accountability. Through the prophet, Jeremiah, God warns, “the heart of man is deceitful above all things.” Left to our own devices, we all are living recipes for disaster. This is why Paul used the metaphor of the body to describe the Body of Christ. Simply put, we need each other. This is by God’s own design. And even the most humble and loving of pastors need trusted friends who may notice something amiss.

To be clear, you have every right – and are encouraged – to visit with a church leader any time you have a concern, always speaking your heart in love. And he should respond in kind. You have the biblical right to be heard and for your opinion to be validated. Who knows? Perhaps you misjudged the pastor. Perhaps not. Respectful dialogue will help clear up any misunderstanding.

Do you know a pastor who resists or refuses accountability or correction? The Bible has an adjective to describe him that needs no clarification:  “stupid.”

Closing thoughts:

The families in the USA Today story who confronted the lead pastor about the youth pastor’s actions with their daughters were dismissed and ignored. My guess is that they felt intimidated and/or weren’t certain they could argue with a pastor.   I don’t know – I wasn’t there.

But this do I know: the Bible is full of clear, principled teaching urging Christians to keep one another accountable, regardless of what role in which they may serve. In 2 Samuel, Nathan lit King David up when he exposed him for his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the consequent murder of her husband he had been trying to cover up. In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul confronted the disciple, Peter, about his blatant hypocrisy.

My heart hurts for the girls in the article, as well as for their families. (It hurts to see your children hurt.) Alas, since no state laws were broken, outside of exposing the church that abused them and then tried to cover it all up, they will have to leave those responsible for all of this to a higher court. As we already saw in Hebrews, all church leaders “must give an account.”

In sum, when the subject of perceived abuse, never tolerate it. Never. God doesn’t. Neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick