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Abuse. It has been a hot topic in our culture for the last fifteen years or more. Various abuse cases have been highlighted by the media more than a few times. To put it in other terms, pointing the spotlight on abuse has been “trending.” Reports of abuse often go viral online. Needless to say, many people in our culture know about abuse.

Typically, in Christian circles, cultural hot topics lead to debates. From climate change to women’s rights, to immigration policies to political movements, Christians debate and disagree upon various trending topics. However, abuse is not something about which Christians should disagree. Abuse is wrong, and it is detestable. Abuse is nothing to joke about. Whether physical, spiritual, sexual, emotional, or verbal, all forms of abuse are contrary to God’s Word (e.g Jer. 22:3, Ps. 10:7, Prov. 24:1–2, etc.). Although it is unfortunate that false accusations of abuse happen, Christians should despise the very thought of abuse. Abuse is an evil and an injustice that originates from the dark corners of a sinful heart and is instigated by Satan himself.

Most people have heard about abuse cases involving CEOs, coaches, politicians, or people in other positions of authority. Even more discouraging and disheartening are the stories about abuse involving pastors and church leaders. It is not a myth. Some leaders in Christian churches—even conservative Christian churches—have abused God’s people. Like the evil, worthless shepherds of God’s people in Ezekiel’s day, some men today in leadership positions have abused God’s people and ruled them with harshness and brutality (Ezek. 34:4). The evil actions of these harsh shepherds cause the sheep to scatter and wander (Ezek. 34:6). The poor sheep are forced to run from the dangerous shepherd into the wilderness where they face dangerous animals. It happened in Ezekiel’s day; it still happens today. Sometimes men in authority simultaneously abuse their authority and the people under their authority, causing unimaginable harm to the flock. No wonder the Lord says woe to such wicked men and vows to hold them accountable for their terrible evil (Ezek. 34:2, 10).

On a positive note, and biblically speaking, pastors and elders are called to rule with Christ-like love, tenderness, and care (1 Pet. 4:1–4). Pastors and elders must not rule with a brawny, heavy-handed, tough demeanor. Instead, they must care for sheep in a loving maternal and paternal way (Ezek. 34:3–4; 1 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 1:2). Paul says that overseers in the church must not be violent, but gentle (1 Tim. 3:3). Shepherds are not to be arguers who like to quarrel (1 Tim. 3:3). They must be self-controlled in all areas of life, avoiding both anger and too much alcohol (1 Tim. 3:2–3). Along with all Christians, pastors and elders must cultivate and live out the fruit of the Spirit, including love, kindness, patience, goodness, and gentleness.

Pastors and elders must also lead the way in the blessed task of peacemaking. They do not take up weapons in personal conflicts, but pastors and elders help people lay down their weapons and seek peace. Shepherds are not fighters; they must not fight with the sheep. Pastors and elders must be kind to everyone, correct opponents with gentleness, and let love cover all offenses (2 Tim. 2:24–26; 1 Pet. 4:8). Shepherds must stand firmly on the truth and boldly teach the truth, but when they interact with opponents or objectors, they are to speak the truth in love and correct others with gentleness (Matt. 5:44; Eph. 4:15).

Again, all these characteristics are Christ-like. He is our Chief Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep with tender love. Our dear Savior never harms, manipulates, bullies, lies to, or deceives his sheep. Pastors and elders, by God’s grace, are called to be Christ-like in their care for the flock. Thankfully, God is abundantly kind to his people. He has given them many wonderful pastors and elders throughout history, men who have loved the flock so much they not only suffered abuse without retaliating (like Christ) but also even gave their lives out of love for the church (like Christ). Thank God for such wonderful, Christ-like men who have served his church!

But once again, we must not forget that abuse does happen in Christian churches. We must not be ignorant or naive about the reality of abuse in Christian circles. And we must not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear when we hear about or see abuse cases of any kind. The Lord loves justice and calls us to practice justice while we walk humbly with him (Mic. 6:8). This means listening to cries for help, coming to the side of those treated unjustly, and making sure that unfit, evil shepherds are not allowed to rule (Isa. 1:17; Amos 5:15; Jer. 22:3; Jer. 21:12, etc.). Churches—and church leadership—should promote and seek justice in a biblical way, a way that glorifies the Lord and is good for his people. In a word, Christians should, in a just way, oppose abuse in the church. (Christians should also justly oppose abuse outside the church as well, but that is a slightly different topic.)

Opposing abuse in the church is easier said than done. However, there are good resources for churches to utilize when seeking help and pursuing biblical justice in abuse situations. In fact, many of these available resources are helpful to study before a church faces such difficult circumstances. Knowing the tendencies and tactics of abusers and church bullies will help Christians spot them and, with God’s help, prevent abuse before it happens—whether in the home or in the church.

One extremely helpful resource about abuse is Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft.[1] The subtitle gives more information about the book: “Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” To be sure, this is not a Christian book, and Christians will certainly find areas in it with which they disagree. However, Bancroft has many years of experience counseling, training, and helping women in abusive situations. He writes from a position of much exposure to and knowledge about abuse. We might think of gaining insight from Bancroft’s expertise in this area as plundering the Egyptians or going to the ant for wisdom (Exod. 12:35–36; Prov. 6:6; 30:25).

There are four main parts to Bancroft’s book: 1) The Nature of Abusive Thinking, 2) The Abusive Man in Relationships, 3) The Abusive Man in the World, and 4) Changing the Abusive Man. Why Does He Do That? is a very helpful resource because it gives details about the various mindsets of abusers. For one example, in chapter three Bancroft explains the mentality of an abusive man: he is controlling, he feels entitled, he twists things into their opposites, he confuses love and abuse, he strives to have a good public image, and he denies and minimizes his abuse (etc.). In the next chapter, Bancroft examines the different types of abusive men, and later in the book he addresses how a man becomes abusive and what it is like for a woman to live with an abusive man. The last few chapters are about getting help for abusers and how to work towards an abuse-free world. Whether dealing with an abuse situation in the home or in the church, this book is a very important resource to utilize.

Specifically concerning abuse in the church, Michael Kruger’s Bully Pulpit[2] is perhaps the best resource for churches that are dealing with bully pastors or elders. In a word, this book explains the problem of abuse in the church and advises Christians on how to biblically navigate abuse situations. In this book, Kruger shares his observations and research about how bully pastors function. From gaslighting to manipulation to narcissistic behavior, Kruger does a fine job explaining the various evil tactics bullies use to dominate the flock.

In Bully Pulpit Kruger also gives insight into spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is something that Christians might not think about too often, but it definitely does happen. Kruger’s definition is helpful: “Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals” (24). Chapters two and three cover the topic of spiritual abuse, and later in the book Kruger also explains some of the damaging effects of spiritual abuse.

Bully Pulpit also gives some insight into why churches fail to stop leaders who bully. This book also helps readers learn how abusive leaders retaliate. The various information about bullies is useful when dealing with such leaders; it helps Christians protect themselves and others against such men. The last chapter contains Kruger’s recommendations for creating a local church culture that is resistant to spiritual abuse. Although this book is only around 150 pages long, it is full of extremely important, beneficial, and practical information about abusive leaders in the church. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this book should be read, marked, and studied by all elders and pastors.

There are quite a few other resources on abuse in the church and in the home. Other very good resources include A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church by Anna Wood and Jeff Crippen, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick, and  Is It Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims by Darby Strickland.[3] Indeed, more resources could be listed here as well, and interested readers should look for other resources that aid Christians in dealing with abuse in a biblical, wise, and just manner. Abuse does happen in Christian circles. It is not a myth; it is not a joke. Christians should add it to their prayer lists: “Lord, help the victims of abuse, bring abusers to justice as you will, and give your church the resolve to deal with abuse in a biblical way.”

Endnotes

[1] Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (New York: Berkley Books, 2003).

[2] Michael Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022).

[3] Anna Wood and Jeff Crippen, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church (Greenville, SC: Calvary, 2012); Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2013); Darby Strickland, Is It Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020).

Shane Lems serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: February 2024

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