Thugs in the pulpit: Avoiding abuse from church leaders

By | October 28, 2019

“When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies. Because you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.” Michael Ende link

Over the weekend, I decided to Google church and pastoral abuse. Normally, we already have a situation in mind when we start a post. This time, I wanted to see if there were any posts that I might have overlooked. One caught my eye! In 2004, Ministry Today published Thugs In The Pulpit. Once again, look at the date-2004. This was 5 years prior to our start in blogging. The Calvinista dude-bros were just arriving on the scene. Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Mark Dever, Acts 29, Sovereign Grace Ministries, 9 Marks, Together for the Gospel were not well known and some had yet to get started.

Quacks in the pulpit

Obviously, a number of pastoral abuse situations were already known to the publication since it started off with these statements

Why are so many pastors abusing the trust of those God has placed in their care? 

Few leaders in our society have more power over others than ministers–power to abuse or power to set free. However, people are more likely to have a healthy wariness of “quacks” in law, medicine and counseling than they do of “quacks” in religion.

Although most pastors are both gifted and godly, many Christians are naive enough to assume that any man or woman who is able to build a congregation is healthy. It is such naiveté that makes people vulnerable to unscrupulous pastors.

Two things contribute to allowing abusive personalities in ministry.

1. Religious credentialing has overlooked abusive personalities seeking to enter the pastorate.

 Unfortunately, few religious credentialing bodies take any precautionary measures to protect the public from abusive personalities attempting to enter the ministry. 

2. Lay people tend to trust their pastors and do not view them in the same manner that they view civic leaders.

Think about it. We demand accountability from our politicians. We carefully look at their finances, demeanor, history, etc. Magazines are replete with stories of “I was an administrative assistant for Mayor Smith and he treated his employees horribly.”

However, when it involves a pastor, we suddenly apply the *no gossip* rule. We are told to follow the vision casting of the leader since he is a “man of God.”

For example, It is not uncommon for members of a congregation not to know the salaries of their pastors. Today, I was reading a church website in which the pastor was calling for *excellent* compensation for the staff that reflects the average salary in the area and is enough to allow their wives to stay home. This area has average home prices in excess of $400,000. I checked to see if the salaries of the pastors were available to the lay person. They are not. However, I know that the young lead pastor lives quite well.

They do not look at their pastors with the same discretion or suspicion that protects them from other harmful people in their communities. This enhances the pastor’s power and gives them greater opportunity than any other civic leader to hurt or help people.

Abusive pastors force *unity* by handpicking supporters.

I had a former pastor who told me that his elders had only disagreed with him twice in the span of 28 years! At that moment, I knew there was a serious problem in the church. There is a term that gets bandied about that causes me grave concern when it come to pastoral misconduct. That word is *unity.*

Just about every church covenant that I read (I believe covenants are often misused by abusive pastors) utilize the term unity. The word *unity* seems to mean that we must never disagree with the leaders in charge. This is quite dangerous to the church. Ephesians 4: 11-16 (NIV, Bible Gateway) points out the results of unity.

 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

It is evident that unity occurs when we, meaning all of us in the church, become knowledgeable in the faith. This knowledge leads to maturity. Unity does not mean saying YES to every whim of a leader. We should carefully assess, in the light of Scripture, what is being proposed. Maturity may actually involve disagreeing with leadership. It might even involve reporting an abuse situation to the authorities.

There were a number of Mars Hill members who disagreed with Mark Driscoll and were on the receiving end of his wrath. However, unlike a number of the members of The Gospel Coalition and Acts 29 fan-boys, those members proved to be correct. They demonstrated true Christian unity by being concerned for the welfare of Mars Hill. The fan-boys, on the other hand, wrote reams about the wonders of Mark Driscoll. Who was truly mature in this situation? It should give lots of people pause as they look at the leadership of these organizations. 

It is important to understand that abusive pastors will be sure to surround themselves with yes boys. This means that lay church members must be prepared that they will not garner support from the elders if they must confront a hard reality. That was the case in my former church as we dealt with a poorly handled abuse situations. The article put it this way.

Abusive pastors also carefully select the leaders for their congregations. They choose men and women who are willing to give total and unquestioned allegiance to the pastor in return for positions of prominence and power in the church. These leaders become the abusive pastor’s agents for controlling and manipulating the congregation.

Think about this. When The Village Church went after Karen Hinkley, not one elder or pastor (There are quite a few of them) spoke out against the unjust, abusive actions in the matter. Matt Chandler had effectively surrounded himself with a bunch of yes men and not one of them had the maturity or the concern for the unity of TVC to say “This ain’t right.” I wonder if he has since remedied this lack of mature elder and pastoral leadership?

Abusive churches control people by making them feel worthless.

There are a number of churches these days which love to proclaim the *wrath of God.* That wrath is directed at all humans since we are *unworthy* of salvation due to our wretched state. Recently, I read a comment by a woman who claimed that she is nothing but a *worm.” I was irritated that the editor did not attempt to affirm this woman. Then, I realized that the editor may also feel that way about herself. A person who feels worthless is easily controlled.

 Our self-worth was established at Calvary (see 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 Cor. 6:19-20). We are not worthy of the price Christ paid for our redemption, but the fact that He paid it assures us that we are not worthless.

People who have been abused by churches often feel separated from the love of God.

This makes me sad. It was the fact that the God of the universe loved me, a nobody teen, that led me into the arms of Jesus. It is concerning to me that today’s authoritarian churches tend to stress God’s anger while downplaying God’s love.  They claim that speaking *too much* about God’s love will cause a Christian not to be obedient. However, it is my contention that stressing God’s wrath doesn’t make anyone more obedient since many of those folks, fearful of God’s wrath, sin just as much as the next guy. Never, ever forget how much God loves you. Run from any church in which a pastor downplays this reality.

Traits that lead to spiritual abuse.

I think this list of traits is worthwhile for all of us to consider, especially if we are in a position to influence others. Also, this list may help you to assess a current or past leader who is/was abusive. These are definite warning signs that things are amiss with your leaders. I saw 10 of these traits in a former pastor. I have also seen most of these in the stories told of Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, etc. 

I saw or see none of these weaknesses in Pete Briscoe and Joanne Hummel of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship or Wade Burleson. May you find a church run by people like these.

  • I have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and tend to exaggerate my talents and achievements.
  • I am preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success.
  • I see myself as someone “special” who can only be understood by other “special” or high-status people.
  • I require excessive admiration and feel entitled to special treatment.
  • Others are expected to automatically comply with my expectations.
  • I take advantage of others to achieve my own goals.
  • I lack compassion, and am unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • I am arrogant and haughty.
  • I am preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends and associates.
  • I fear confiding in people since they may maliciously use any information I give them to do me harm.
  • I read demeaning or threatening meanings into innocent remarks.
  • I bear grudges and am unforgiving of others I feel have harmed me.
  • I am quick to perceive attacks on my character or reputation that are not apparent to others and react angrily or counterattack.
  • I am deceitful and seduce others for my own profit or pleasure.
  • I am impulsive in my actions and fail to plan ahead.
  • I may be excessively devoted to work to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships.
  • I am inflexible, stubborn and controlling, insisting that others submit exactly to my way of doing things.
  • I unreasonably criticize and scorn other ministers and people in positions of authority in the church.
  • I am uncomfortable in situations where I am not the center of attention.
  • I believe I am doing a much better job than others think I am doing.

I look forward to hearing from you about abusive church leaders and the traits you noticed. I commend the authors of Ministry Today. They were ahead of the game. I wish I had read this when it was published. It might have saved me from some heartache. Also, there are a whole bunch of people that should have learned their lessons from this post. But, The Gospel Coalition, T4G, Acts 29, 9 Marks and others didn’t. Abuse continues to be rampant in many churches 12 years later. In fact, perhaps it is even worse. Time will tell.

Courtesy of The Wartburg Watch and Dee Parsons.

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