By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
Abuse contradicts the gospel of Christ. It is completely antithetical to the way of Jesus. Any pastor or priest that willfully engages in abusive behavior directly violates his or her ministry. There is no wiggle room; this is not up for discussion or disagreement. This is a fact.
Sadly, we know all too well that abuse occurs in the church. The people we trust for spiritual healing and guidance deeply wound the vulnerable of their community. It seems far too frequent of an occurrence; a pastor is removed from his or her leadership due to allegations of sexual misconduct, financial embezzlement, or emotional and physical abuse.
Abuse in the church is often a sustained pattern of behavior. Many times, such behavior is known but explained away. Toxic leaders and abusive pastors wrap up their behavior in holy language. Scripture is taken out of context and twisted to legitimizes the leader and his or her inappropriate actions. Sadly, these justifications can seem all-too convincing.
Below are some of the phrases commonly used to mask abuse. The first step in addressing abuse in the church is to recognize the lies abusive pastors tell. Scripture never justifies harm; abuse can never be explained away.
1. “This is godly discipline”
Abusive pastors often attempt to explain their comments or behavior under the rhetoric of discipline. The appeal to discipline becomes an argument for carte-blanche behavior; the leader can do, or say, whatever they want because they are simply acting as the duly appointed leader. Discipline, as the pastor defines it, justifies verbal attacks and insults, sometimes from the pulpit, often in private.
Any verbal beating by a leader in the church is not discipline, it is abuse. The discipline spoken of in Scripture pertains to allowing the consequences of behavior to be realized in a person’s life. For example, say a church has a rule that a worship leader is not to be intoxicated. Any leader who violates this rule will receive the consequences of the behavior. He or she may even be removed from ministry. This is discipline. Holding people accountable for their actions is the healthy way to live in community. Every community or organization has avenues of discipline to deal with activity or behavior that harms the community or its members. This is good leadership practice.
Yes, disruptive behavior within the church must be addressed. Yet when true Christian leaders exercise discipline, it is always done from a position of love and grace. There is a willing desire to walk with the other; to restore relationships and enjoy fellowship. Discipline is never about anger or condemnation.
Still, church discipline is not the same thing as God’s righteous discipline. The “Lord’s discipline”, spoken of in Hebrews 12:4-10 pertains to our natural struggle against the hardships of life. Importantly, this discipline of the Lord is given by the Lord – it is not an instrument wielded by the human leaders. God, at times, leads us into uncomfortable places where our faith is stretched. This serves our growth into holiness. This means that the Lord’s discipline is rooted in God’s loving presence. The Lord journeys with us as we undergo the time of discipline.
The Lord’s discipline does not involve lighting bolts beings hurled from the sky. The god of lighting bolts and smiting is a god that pertains more to Greek mythology than scripture. God forgives. God heals. God’s discipline is not divine mockery, insult, or public humiliation. God’s discipline never involves physical violence.
When a leader continually mocks a member of the staff or publicly humiliates a member of the church, they are emotionally and verbally abusing the individual. When a leader strikes another person or acts in a physically aggressive way, they are not engaging in discipline; they are being a bully. This is unacceptable.
Abusive pastors love to refer to godly discipline, or the need to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:5). Yet being a pastor does not give leaders the right to verbally abuse their congregation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Congregations have not been entrusted to [Pastors] in order that they should become accusers of their congregations before God and their fellow human beings.” No one should ever feel threatened by the church leadership. No one should ever fear “stepping out of line” lest they land on the receiving end of ranting emails, angry phone calls, or the proverbial “tongue-lashing” from the leader. All these things testify to an abusive spirit within the pastor, and it cannot be tolerated in the church of Christ.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Stephen Barnes
2. “This is a private matter”
There are far too many cases of sexual abuse in the church. Sometimes the abuse is between a leader and a minor. Sometimes, it is between two adults. A romantic relationship between a pastor and a member of the congregation is wrong. This is because the romantic relationship is often less about love and respect, and more about domination and power.
Let’s be honest; there is no way to justify an extra-marital affair, even if it occurs between two consenting adults. An affair directly contradicts both the 7th and then 10th Commandments. Any person in church leadership that carries on a romantic relationship with a person other than his or her spouse does not embody Christian holiness. Furthermore, whatever excuses they use to justify the affair are fraudulent lies aimed at protecting their image.
But what happens when a pastor is unmarried? Don’t they have a right to pursue a romantic relationship? Why should the church care about the priest’s private life? These questions frequently come up as a reason to support romantic relationships within the church.
If an unmarried pastor develops a romantic attachment to a member of the congregation, there are conversations that can be had, and decisions made, that ensure the relationship occurs in a healthy way. Openness and transparency are key. In these occurrences, the pastor ought to disclose the relationship to a denominational head or an elder of the church. This is for their protection and health, as well as the protection and health of the church member. After all, the role of pastor or priest is a public role. The leader stands before the congregation week after week in a place of influence and authority. This means that there is a certain amount of transparency that must occur in all areas of the pastor’s life. And yes, this includes who he or she is dating, and how serious that relationship is.
Abusive leaders, however, keep romantic relationships silent and hidden. If it does come to light, the matter is quickly declared private in nature; no conversation is allowed. The refusal by the pastor to acknowledge a romantic relationship should be a red flag for the church community, not to mention the individual involved in the relationship. Any hiddenness of a romantic relationship testifies to a power imbalance, and that power imbalance fundamentally makes the relationship unhealthy.
Furthermore, abusive pastors often have multiple sexual partners within a congregation over the years. Despite what they may say, abusive leaders don’t “fall in love” with their church members. They use them. The sexual relationship is entirely one-sided. It serves only the pastor’s ego and desire. In the end, the member of the congregation feels hurt and violated, and many abandon the church altogether.
3. “Look at the fruit”
Another phrase often employed to justify abusive behavior is an appeal to the growth of the church or the fruit of the ministry. Whether the community is growing numerically or engages in robust outreach or evangelism, the abusive leader appeals to the good work of the community as a justification for God’s blessing upon their leadership or behavior. Yet this lie insinuates that abusive behavior is a necessary precursor to God’s blessing upon church. The unspoken assumption is that discordant or abusive behavior should be simply ignored.
Does God ever bless a community through the road of emotional, spiritual, sexual, or physical abuse? Is that the God we worship and serve? Is abuse ever the way forward? Despite the appeal to the fruitfulness of ministry, there is simply no justification for harming others. This lame appeal to some positive benefit stemming from abusive behavior is no different than declaring that Mussolini’s dictatorship was justified because “he made the trains run on time.” It is logical absurdity of the gravest fashion.
A person’s trauma, emotional distress, or spiritual pain is not an acceptable cost for the furtherance of the leader’s ministry or popularity. Believing so suggests that individuals in the church can be used and abused with no consequence. No matter how fruitful a ministry is, no pastor or priest has the right to take advantage of another. Nobody deserves to be victimized by even the most effective of church leaders.
Whenever abuse takes place within the church, there are often people who have a hint that something is wrong. In fact, this is exactly why the sayings above are employed. Someone begins to question the leader’s behavior or actions, and in response, the leader explains why the actions are misunderstood. “It’s God’s discipline,” “It’s a private matter,” or “just look at the fruit,” they will say. And because we love our leaders, we tend to accept such statements at face value. But it is all a smokescreen. It is a lie. Abuse cannot be explained away.
Every person who belongs to a church community, no matter how big or small, is to be involved in the care and protection of the community. This means that if you suspect that your community may have an abusive leader, it is imperative that you speak to someone. If there is a denominational head you can speak to, then do so. If there is a board of elders, a parish council, or elected representatives, seek a private meeting and disclose your concerns. It is never wrong to voice your feelings, particularly when you feel that someone is being spiritually, emotionally, or physically harmed. True Christian leaders welcome this care and concern for the congregation.
If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, please reach out to your local authorities or call the local helpline. People are willing, and waiting, to help.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Life Together; Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5, Fortress Press, MN. Pg.37
Photo Credit: ©Juan Pablo Rodriguez/Unsplash
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.