Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of the Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

In my previous editorial (April 15, 2023) I stated that one of the issues underlying many of the troubles in the church at present is the matter of authority. I asserted that one aspect of this crisis of authority is a critical approach to the idea of authority that essentially wants to destroy structures of authority in the church altogether. I explained some of the basics of “critical theory” as that is found in the world at large, and warned against that mentality shaping our view of authority in the church.

But that is not the only danger that the church faces. Not only is the church threatened by a wrong view of authority by those who are under authority, she is also threatened by the misuse or abuse of authority by those occupying leadership positions in the church. These two dangers collide because those who wrongly adopt a critical approach to the church are sometimes reacting to the real misuse or abuse of authority in the church. Recognizing that most often the church has to deal with the misuse of authority through weaknesses and failures, I want to devote this article to a brief examination of the subject of the abuse of authority in the church.1

An age-old issue

In recent years the church has become more aware of the dynamics of the different forms of abuse, and that includes the concept of spiritual abuse. But the abuse of authority by those in leadership positions in the church is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the fall of our first parents. When we take stock of what the Bible has to say about this subject, we see that the Bible gives many examples of this sinful behavior and warns repeatedly against it.

Many examples of this behavior are recounted in the Old Testament. When the people of Israel asked for a king like the other nations around then, aged Samuel warned them of the kind of king they would receive: “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons…. And he will take your daughters…. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards…and ye shall be his servants” (I Sam. 8:11-17). The king would be a cruel man, who used the people for his own advantage.

Later in the history of the kings we have another example of a hard, self-seeking man. After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam was asked to lower the tax burden on the people. He asked the advice of the old men who had counseled his father, and they told him, “If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever” (I Kings 12:7). These wise men understood the nature of good leadership. But Rehoboam rejected their advice, and instead listened to the advice of the young men: “And the king answered the people roughly…saying, My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (vv. 13-14).

In Psalm 82:2, the Word of God questions earthly judges: “How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked?” And then the judges arecalled to “defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked” (vv. 3-4). This was evidently what they were not doing.

In the time of the captivity, Ezekiel issued a scathing condemnation of the spiritual leaders of Judah who took advantage of God’s people:

Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them (Ezek. 34:2-4).

We have examples and warnings not only in the Old Testament but also in the New. At one point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, James and John requested to be given the positions of honor at Jesus’ right and left hands. When the other ten disciples heard of this, they were furious, which indicates that they wanted the same thing for themselves. Jesus issued a strong warning to them regarding their wrong view of leadership in the church: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you…” (Matt. 20:25-26).

First Timothy 3:3 gives as essential qualifications for elders that they be “no striker…but patient, not a brawler.” Second Timothy 2:24 says: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men….” Titus 1:7 says that an elder must be “not self-willed, not soon angry…no striker.” A striker is a violent, quarrelsome man who strikes at others with his actions or words. A striker is a bully, someone that is a fighter in the wrong sense of the term. He is domineering. People are intimidated and scared of him. He wants his own way and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

Similarly, in I Peter 5:1-4 the Word of God calls elders to “feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof,” and adds that this must not be done “as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” The exercise of authority in the church may not be a lording it over the sheep.

The profile of an abusive church leader

Drawing from these biblical examples and warnings, we can begin to build a character profile of an abusive church leader.

What do we mean when we talk about spiritual abuse in the church? It is important whenever we are talking about forms of abuse to give careful definitions. If abuse is defined very loosely, then anything and everything can be called abuse, which is not helpful for those who genuinely are abused. The same is true of spiritual abuse. With that in mind, here is a definition of spiritual abuse that I believe 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.2

Take note of three key elements of spiritual abuse stated in this definition.

First, spiritual abuse is perpetrated by one in a position of power and authority over others in the church, such as pastors, elders, and deacons. This is similar to other forms of abuse (for example, spousal abuse, sexual abuse) which almost always take place where there is a “power differential,” that is, where one wields a greater position of power and authority in relation to another. This element of spiritual abuse makes it a sin against the fifth commandment of the law.3

Second, the individual in a position of authority in the church uses sinful methods to maintain control over others. He often makes use of things like manipulation, being hypercritical, intimidation and threats, and being cruel and domineering. To some people he can turn on the charm and appear very likable, but with other people the mask comes off and he shows himself to be an angry, controlling, hurtful person. This element indicates that spiritual abuse is a violation of the sixth commandment, which requires that “neither in thoughts, nor words, nor gestures, much less in deeds, I dishonor, hate, wound, or kill my neighbor” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40).

Third, the individual in a position of authority in the church resorts to these methods to gain something for himself. He is interested in his name, his advancement, his agenda, his kingdom. It is for this reason that such abusive leaders are labeled, whether clinically or otherwise, as narcissists. Likely, this behavior is a mask for the bully’s own deep hurt and fear. The adage is usually true: Hurt people hurt people.

The spiritually abusive leader has an array of weapons at his disposal to protect himself. He often has carefully assembled a small group of loyal defenders who will protect him at all costs. If accused, he does not have to say a word in his own defense because others are doing that for him. He will often employ something called DARVO, which stands for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.” He will deny the allegations vehemently, and eventually turn things around so he portrays himself as the victim of slander and portrays the victims as the real troublemakers who are obviously rebellious, perhaps unstable, probably unfaithful to the cause, and assuredly out to get him. Often he succeeds in forcing them out of the church. To paraphrase one abusive pastor, “Either you get on board the bus, or you’ll be under the bus as it runs you over.”

And that often is one of the indicators that a person in authority may be guilty of spiritual abuse: the presence of a long trail of broken relationships and hurt people in his wake.

It is important to remember that not everything a pastor, elder, or deacon does wrong constitutes spiritual abuse. The fact that an officebearer might be somewhat unfriendly or have a personality that is a bit intimidating does not make him a spiritual abuser. The fact that an officebearer might sin against a member of the congregation, or make a mistake, or fail to be as sensitive as he ought does not make him a spiritual abuser. Certainly the fact that an officebearer does things that some people might not like, such as confronting them for their sins or making an unpopular decision, does not make him a spiritual abuser. We ought to be careful not to throw that charge out carelessly. At the end of the day, good, wise officebearers are still mere men, and it is necessary for members to bear patiently with them in their weaknesses.

The fact that not every failure on the part of leaders constitutes abuse means that spiritual abuse can be difficult to identify. There must be evidence of a regular pattern of sinful behavior over the course of an extended period of time, perhaps (sadly) for years.

No one ought minimize the severity of spiritual abuse, perhaps by suggesting that it is merely a by-product of the weak, anti-authority society in which we presently live. Real spiritual abuse has devastating effects. Godly members want to submit to leaders as representatives of Jesus Christ but, being the objects of spiritual abuse, they find it nearly impossible to trust any officebearer. They love the church, but going to church now becomes anxiety-inducing misery rather than a joy. They spend all week looking up against Sunday, rather than spending all week looking forward to it. Some find themselves labeled as a troublemaker, forced out of a church they loved, shunned by those they once counted as friends. Some may forsake the church altogether.

An uncomfortable question of church culture

One might think after reading this that it is relatively easy to identify the characteristics of a spiritually abusive leader. But the reality is that often spiritually abusive leaders are allowed to continue in their leadership positions for many years. What explains this?

Part of the answer is certainly the deceptive nature of the spiritual abuse itself. But that does not answer the question fully. Often there is an unhealthy system, an unhealthy culture in the church, one that may not actively approve what the abusive leader is doing but at the very least makes it possible for the spiritual abuse to go on.

One possible factor to consider is inadequate accountability for the leader. There may be churches that provide no accountability structure whatsoever for the leader, or there may be churches that have these structures in place but they do not actually hold the leader accountable. He is given free rein, or at least a long leash, to do what he wants in the church. Often such a leader is a “lone ranger” who has no friends to set him straight.

Another possible factor to consider is the church’s prioritizing of certain outward gifts over spiritual character. For example, a pastor may be of questionable spiritual character, but because he is a gifted speaker the church makes allowances for his sinful behavior. Sometimes the “gift” that is valued is doctrinal precision. One author says, “If a pastor can articulate his theology, cite the Puritans, defend the truth against the liberals, and keep the church doctrinally ‘pure,’ then character can take a back seat.”4

The church also ought to consider how ecclesiastical pride creates an environment in which spiritual abuse can occur. A church may adopt the mindset that it is purest of all, that there is no other church on earth that can compare to it. In pride, the church does not have the ability honestly to evaluate itself. In a situation where the church or its leaders comes under scrutiny, the response is to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect the reputation of the institution at all costs.

Another aspect of church culture to consider is a lack of openness to critique and correction. In a church where the leaders promote the attitude of “We are above criticism, so sit down and keep your mouth shut,” an environment is created where a spiritual abuser may flourish. To be clear, I am not talking about leaderswarning members against sinful gossip or encouraging members to bring their grievances in a proper way, but I am referring to a situation where all critique is stifled and the leadership is never ready to admit it erred.

What often explains the fact that abusive leaders are not dealt with is fear. Others in a position to hold that man accountable are afraid of losing their own position of authority. Members who are hurt are afraid of being hurt further if they raise their concerns. This culture of fear allows the sinful behavior to perpetuate.

Conclusion

I hope and pray that all of us who are in positions of leadership in the church will take seriously this warning, humbly examine ourselves, confess sin where that is necessary, and strive by the grace of God to exercise our authority in a more Christ-like way.

I also hope and pray that the church as a whole will honestly face these uncomfortable questions and humbly examine whether an unhealthy culture exists that makes possible the abuse of authority.


1 In writing this article, I found especially helpful the following two books: Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), and Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020). I also found the following podcast to be insightful: Mike Cosper, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, produced by Christianity Today.

2 Kruger, Bully Pulpit, 24.

3 In this connection, see the helpful application of the 5th commandment to the sins of “superiors” in the Westminister Larger Catechism, Questions 129 and 130.

4 Kruger, Bully Pulpit, 12.