Abusive Spiritual Leadership is an issue that hits close to home with me. I’ve served as a pastor, and I’ve also experienced spiritual & verbal abuse, personally, at the hands of other pastors. And I’ve listened to far too many stories from deeply wounded friends who have been bullied or abused by Church leadership.
RECOGNIZING SPIRITUAL ABUSE: Do you realize that it is entirely possible for a pastor to preach solid biblical sermons, make good, “godly” impressions on the general public, but still be proud, angry, and spiritually abusive towards the flock when no one is looking!?!
Author & Pastor, Joshua Harris addresses pastors in his book, Humble Orthodoxy: “Sound doctrine is vital. Godly example is essential. But they are not enough. Apart from humility of heart, we will be like the Pharisees and will use the truth as a stick to beat others over the head. And God will be dishonored in that. If we would honor God, we must represent truth humbly in our words, in our demeanor, and in our attitude.”
One of the best ways to spot abusive leadership is to first recognize what healthy, biblical leadership looks like:
Look at God’s Word (1 Peter 5:1-3): “To the elders (pastors) among you,…Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers —…3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
Commentator Matthew Henry writes, concerning this text (Vs 3), that the Pastor’s duty is: “…sincerely and cheerfully endeavoring to serve the church of God; neither as being lords over God’s heritage (the church), tyrannizing (bullying, domineering) over them by compulsion (pressure) and coercive (intimidating) force, … but they (the church) are God’s people, and should be treated (by the pastor) with love, meekness, and tenderness, for the sake of him (God) to whom they belong.”
Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 we read, “…Now the overseer (pastor) must be above reproach, self-controlled, respectable, …not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, … He must also have a good reputation with outsiders,…”
FACING SPIRITUAL ABUSE: Paul instructs leaders (directly) & church members (indirectly) in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, with, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 Those (elders/pastors) who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”
We need to be extremely cautious and careful about making false, distorted, or off-based accusations against those whom God has placed in our lives as spiritual leaders. Their job is not easy, and they’re never going to please everyone all the time. We need to be humble enough to look in the mirror, honestly reflect on the situation, and make sure this isn’t just us being disgruntled sinners. One way to be objective is to ask someone you can trust to “give it to you straight.” Making a false accusation against an elder is serious and could become grounds for our own church discipline.
That being said, when a pattern of spiritual abuse does emerge (accusations brought by two or more witnesses) the church leadership & membership is obligated, both for their own sake, and for the sake of the pastor in question, to address it, by first bringing it to the attention of the larger governing body. From there it is this larger leadership’s responsibility to evaluate the veracity of the accusations and then decide whether to dismiss the accusations as false/off-base or bring the case before the church for further disciplinary action (ie: rebuke, removal, or correction). These accusations may be brought to the attention of leadership informally or formally.
FORMAL REPORT & MEETING: Practically speaking, a written report may be filed, by no less than 2 or 3 witnesses. This report should contain a brief summary statement describing the exact nature of the accusations being reported, the names & signatures of people bringing accusations, and the time frame in which the alleged abuse took place. Additionally, this report should include brief, written statements documenting the occasion(s) of abuse, case by case, for each person involved in bringing accusation. The goal of the report is to demonstrate whether or not there is a corroborated pattern of abuse emerging from the accusations. Often times, if a situation of abusive leadership has gone unchecked for an extended period of time, it’s likely that many of those with complaints will have simply left the church. In such an event, you may need to go to these people and ask for their willingness to provide a written statement in order to compile an accurate report. This report then needs to be presented to the larger governing body of the church, with a written request that this leadership meet with the 2 to 3+ witnesses bringing forth the accusations.
QUESTION of QUALIFICATION FOR PASTOR: The purpose of the formal report & the subsequent leadership/membership meetings is to call attention to the accusations of spiritual abuse. The initial questions that the leadership & membership must answer are: 1) Has the pastor demonstrated a pattern of hurtful, abusive leadership? 2) If so, has the pastor disqualified himself from continuing as pastor, or 3) Is there a path of discipline & correction that would allow the pastor to remain in or be restored to the pastorate?
The Bible is clear that a pastor is to be gentle, and not violent, quarrelsome, or domineering. This is a very serious issue to consider. An abusive pastor can cause untold hurt and pain to a church family, and it’s often behind closed doors.
If you’re in a church being impacted by abusive spiritual leadership, speak up!!!