When it comes to movie bullies, perhaps he is one of the most famous. In the classic film A Christmas Story (1983), the red-headed Scut—wearing a coonskin cap and flanked by his shorter partner in crime, Grover Dill—would often torment young Ralphie and his brother on the way home from school.
The reason this movie (and this scene in particular) resonated with audiences is because people can relate. Most everyone grew up knowing a bully in their school; someone who would intimidate, threaten, and domineer the other kids.
Indeed, bullies are part of the human experience. So prevalent, in fact, that one could easily make a list of famous movie bullies: Biff Tannen (Back to the Future), Johnny Lawrence (The Karate Kid), Ace Merrill (Stand by Me), and Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter).
Of course, bullies don’t just disappear when you graduate from high school. They are still around, though maybe in more subtle form.
And, perhaps most sadly, bullies are even in the church. Although we’ve always known this to be the case, the depth of this problem has become more and more evident over the last few years.
At the beginning of 2019, Sam Allberry called attention to the problem: “How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors?” There he lamented that “a sad trend has developed in recent years: Pastors having to leave for bullying.”
At the end of 2019, Collin Hansen echoed Allberry’s concerns:
This [problem of bully pastors] is the next pressing issue our churches must face. For far too long we’ve tolerated this kind of leadership that should plainly disqualify pastors by several standards in Titus 1:7–8. Why do we think it’s okay for pastors to abuse their members and fellow leaders so long as they don’t steal money or have sex outside marriage?
Hansen and Allberry were remarkably prescient, because just a short time later, Christianity Today wrote a story about how Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis was removed because of “abusive leadership” and “bullying.” Ironically, these were some of the same concerns that led to the removal of the founder of Acts 29, Mark Driscoll.
Even more recently, we see the problem of abusive behavior in the downfall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. Prior to the revelations about sexual misconduct, Falwell’s reign as president of Liberty University was riddled with concerns about bullying, abusive behavior, and intimidation.
Sadly, high profile cases like these are just the ones we hear about in the news. Behind the scenes, there are many more cases of spiritual abuse that are happening that we will never hear about. Indeed, in a recent conversation with some of our counseling staff here at RTS Charlotte, I was shocked to hear about how many cases of spiritual abuse they have seen over the years.
And it’s not just an American problem. Over at Premiere Christianity in the UK, Heather Tomlinson tells of an organization that was set up to help victims of spiritual abuse. After opening, “They were inundated with Christians contacting them. So many people were seeking help that they had to shut down the support group, because they did not have enough resources to respond to all the queries.”
In short, spiritual abuse is more widespread than we think.
Of course, it needs to be said that the vast, vast majority of pastors and leaders are godly, wonderful people that don’t abuse their sheep. Most pastors shepherd their flocks gently and patiently. But, that doesn’t mean we can ignore the small (and growing) number that do not.
It’s not all that different than the way we view the problem of abusive police officers. The events of 2020 have highlighted the reality that some police officers do use excessive force. This does not negate the fact that the vast, vast majority of police offers are honorable, kind, and brave. But that doesn’t mean we ignore those who abuse their office.
And as a seminary president, and as someone who has taught at a seminary for nearly 20 years, I think the growing problem of spiritual abuse is an important issue that seminaries have to address. I have realized that our curriculum does not adequately address this issue; and I would imagine that the same is true of most other seminaries. This means that we are sending out folks into ministry who are not prepared to spot spiritual abuse nor adequately deal with it when they do.
As one small step in the right direction, I am launching a new blog series over the next few months on this vital topic. Hopefully this will be a helpful resource for pastors and Christian leaders out there who, like me, are concerned about this issue.
But, there’s another reason why I think the issue of spiritual abuse needs more attention. Not only is it more widespread than we think, it is also more damaging than we think.
When we think of leadership failures that really damage the church, we tend to default to the two big ones: sex and money. Thus, most of our attention is devoted to making sure pastors are not sexually immoral or financially irresponsible. Indeed, so myopic is the church’s focus on these two issues that a pastor is rarely removed from office for anything else.
But, as we will explore in a later post, the Bible is clear that pastors’ can be unfit for another reason: if they are domineering bullies (Matt 20:25; 1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:3). And there’s a reason for that. Such behavior wounds much more deeply than most people can possibly imagine.
Unfortunately, the public stories like the ones above—as sad and tragic as they are—can never really communicate the depth of suffering that spiritual abuse causes. It is only when you actually sit across from a real person and hear their story of their pain and disillusionment, that you will come to grips with how deep the problem can really be.
And most people have never done this.
And so, we have an obligation as a church, and as Christian leaders, to pay better attention to this problem. While all shortcomings of a leader have potential to harm the flock, there’s something exponentially painful about bullying behavior. People are being hurt by the very people who are supposed to protect and care for them.
At the end of A Christmas Story, Ralphie had finally had enough. A new light kindled within him, and he realized that the bullying had to stop. He stood up to Scut Farkus—for himself, for his brother, for all the kids in the neighborhood.
Perhaps the church should take a cue from little Ralphie. We need to recover the biblical requirements for pastor/elder—not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the flocks we protect.
(Note: A version of this article previously appeared on The Gospel Coalition).
Ron Quiggins says
Simple answer to this is – if a pastor goes over the top with bullying, leave the church. The problem sounds like postmodern thinking (or overthinking). Stick to your knitting, the gospel.
Diane S. says
Narcissism and bully behavior go hand in hand. Perceived personal power is the primary goal, whether they are self-aware of it or not. People are viewed as means to gaining or keeping that power. A Narcissist cannot handle anything or anyone that threatens that illusion.
B. Johnson says
Could we perhaps consider a sort of “spiritual Stockholm Syndrome” as a contributing factor? One solution is to encourage our pastors to educate believers as to how to study the Bible for themselves, rather than solely relying on them to interpret. Illumination and discernment would be a couple of the results.
HC Wap says
In my lifetime I have seen more of the opposite, a segment of a congregation being the bully toward a pastor…and forcing issues through intimidation until the pastor leaves, either tired of the fight or is forced out.
“not prepared to spot spiritual abuse nor adequately deal with it when they do.”
Abuse is not necessarily easy to spot because it masquerades as spirituality and hides behind the twisting of Scripture (Heb 13:17 being a favorite verse). B Johnson’s suggestion about believers being taught how to read Scripture is helpful but not a cure because if a person contends for something from Scripture to their abusive ‘pastor,’ he will simply tell them they’re wrong or not being submissive. Because the ‘pastor’ is living in sin, he will also want to avoid biblical authority as a whole. I’ve seen this.
“leadership failures that really damage the church, we tend to default to the two big ones: sex and money.”
Immorality, financial gain, and abuse can be intertwined, the former two driving the abuse, possibly for the sake of covering up the other sins. It’s about self-preservation.
WCF 20:2 contains such wisdom that guards against spiritual abuse – Christ alone is the Christians’ head and he executes his headship by his word; this is sola Scriptura applied to the ministry and one’s life (conscience) before God.
2. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
Matt 15:9; 23:8-10; Rom 14:9-11; 1 Cor 7:23; Jas 4:11-12
“so myopic is the church’s focus on [immorality & money] that a pastor is rarely removed from office for anything else.” Yes, and 1 Pet 5 et al indicate, abuse is disqualifying from the ministry; contrary to Christ (Matt 12:20).
As one who has suffered–this is too public a forum for the details–I am very glad you are recognizing this issue, and addressing your self to possible remedies. May God be pleased to use whatever you do.
“In short, spiritual abuse is more widespread than we think.”
I agree. And it’s never been more prevalent than in two evangelical circles today: the charismatic movement and the so-called “woke church”. Both of those are egregious violations of sound doctrine and biblical shepherding. Thank you for calling attention to these two biggest dangers that the church faces today.
Jim Pemberton says
Not always is it the pastor who is abusive, but it is some non-pastoral church leadership that is abusive. I would distinguish this as perhaps institutional abuse rather than what is meant as spiritual abuse, although there is usually some overlap. Often these are people who are in leadership because they have the resources to pay most of the bills in the church, not because they have the spiritual maturity to lead a church well. They hire and fire pastors because of their influence. They will find a pastor who preaches what they want him to preach or get rid of him. My context isn’t Presbyterian, but Baptist, which is Congregational, and Lutheran, which is hierarchical. So I know this happens in both of those systems of church polity.
“Such behavior wounds much more deeply than most people can possibly imagine.”
It’s truly amazing, even when the tongue is filled with ignorance and falsehoods. Spiritual abuse is to ministry what adultery is to marriage. Spiritual abuse is a devil-pleasing rape.
ACTS 29 is a broken, dysfunctional leadership model. The Parable of the tree and it’s fruit in Matt. 7 should serve notice. Matthew 7:20 (ESV): “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” The Church should avoid it and all who are associated with it.
I agree that this can be a problem and one that needs to be addressed, but also think the term spiritual abuse could be potentially problematic. I think the danger with the label spiritual abuse is that it is a catch-all that is being used in some circles to describe any type of difficult discipleship conversation. For instance, examples of by the book church discipline cases have be categorised as spiritual abuse by those who were asked to step down from leadership roles due to unrepentant immorality. The most notable example of this is Steve Chalke’s recent opinion article in the guardian where he argued that telling someone that homosexuality is wrong and they must abstain from improper sexual relationships is and example of spiritual abuse: (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/17/uk-churches-urged-to-wake-up-to-spiritual-abuse-of-lgbt-people).
Is the heavy shepherding being described in this article not just a form of emotional abuse and if this is the case would that be a better term to use?
Early in life I attended a church with a bully preacher, as well as some of the staff. It took me 35 years to get over the lies we were told. They made me terrified to seek the truth on my own and even to pray. Someone mentioned that people need to learn for themselves what the Bible says. I wholeheartedly agree, and have just finished writing a book for new Christians about that very thing. Thank you for this post.
LAYNE BAUGH says
YES, I WOULD LIKE TO BE NOTIFIED OF FUTURE POSTS ON THIS SUBJECT
I experienced it with a pastor’s wife. And it definitely masqueraded a spirituality. Any calling on their behavior was labeled as “not submitting to authority”. It was a very hard situation. And how do you talk to the pastor about that when it’s his own wife?
Robert H says
Our present Western society is like Corinth – the lure of worldly wisdom, affluence and worldly power are everywhere. Members need to hold their pastors accountable according to 1 Corinthians chapters 2-4. Can you, pastor, say you are not anything (1 Cor 3:7) for it is God’s work? Are you, pastor, exhibiting yourself as a servant of Christ willing to be last of all (1 Cor 4:1, 9ff)?
CLT Pastor says
I’ve been in public ministry for over 30 years. This is a growing issue of personal concern. As some have mentioned, it is much more complex than most people people could appreciate. Spiritual abuse is not a term that I use lightly or too generally. Neither is it limited to any denomination or church network. The often subtle and unseen nature of true spiritual abuse, makes it very difficult to address in a God-honoring, Biblically healthy way. And this is equally hard on congregants, who are not (and shouldn’t be) aware of critical details when it is being dealt with by church leaders. Very sadly, I’ve had to personally resign from 2 pastoral positions over the years after all efforts to address matters in an honoring way were ignored. Unfortunately both situations resulted in mass casualty within a matter of months, starting with the pastor’s own families. The impact that this has had on my personal family, as well as so many others of whom I’ve had the privilege of shepherding, has been both heart-breaking and yet fruitful at the same time. It has allowed for a much greater appreciation of church government, the necessity for transparency and accountability within church leadership (including myself) and through an increased perspective of how great God’s love is for HIS Church in spite of how messy we all are. Looking forward to the continued discussion, encouragement and insights on this topic.
Brent Hoover says
Michael, this is a great step forward.
True evaluation of ministers and ministries is thoroughly biblical and necessary. But unfortunately churches have not used evaluation positively.
We also need great living examples of how to do it right.
Here is one of a man who just finished his race without an ounce of spiritual abuse. So encouraging.