Renouncing abusive patterns in following Jesus.
by Richard Coekin, Senior Pastor, Dundonald Church
July 2020

In recent years, various kinds of dreadful pastoral abuse and lamentable attempts to cover them up, have been exposed across a range of churches – from cases of sexual abuse, mainly in Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches, to cases of what’s being called spiritual abuse across a range of evangelical churches. Recent examples include the abusive bullying of Mark Driscoll, the abusive discipline of naked massages and corporal punishment by Jonathan Fletcher (echoing the beatings of John Smyth) and now, ominously close to our own kind of ministry, the reportedly abusive abrasiveness of Steve Timmis – described in Christianity Today as, ‘a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipleship, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty’.

We’re not talking about bold Bible-teaching that challenges Christians to counter-cultural obedience to God. And we’re not just talking about pastoral misconduct where others involved are consenting adults. We’re talking about abuse of the power that pastors do have in their congregations, over people entitled by God to expect compassionate care.  We’re talking about what Oakley and Humphreys define in ‘Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse’ as emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context…often involving manipulation, pressure and exploitation, expectations of excessive commitment, enforced accountability, removal of personal decision-making, censorship of discussion (without freedom to ask questions, raise concerns, disagree or talk about abusive behaviour), with coercion to conform through fear of rejection, public shaming or church discipline. This is often enforced by claiming divine warrant from wrongly interpreted Bible passages to assert an excessive authority in the pastor, unjustified conformity in areas where the Bible is silent, and sometimes threatening frightening spiritual consequences.

Such abusive behaviour brings terrible, prolonged suffering to victims and terrible, prolonged damage to the reputation of Christ’s church (not to mention the humiliation of men once revered for their ministry). While it’s probably true our culture has become more critical of authority and eager to expose the sins of the past, we should welcome Christ cleansing our ministry patterns for the sake of drawing unbelievers. For after washing his disciples feet he said, ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples’ (Jn.13).

To help us frame our consideration of this painful but pressing topic, I’ve been asked to briefly reflect on some Bible passages that bear on our understanding of healthy Pastoral Ministry. Let me highlight five familiar Biblical principles for Pastors and Elders to discuss and hold one another accountable to…

  1. Pastors must SERVE – not EXPLOIT

In Mk.10: Jesus said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’;  and in 1 Cor.10, Paul writes, ‘I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ’.

As Christians, we must take up our cross in serving the good of others, especially their salvation, whatever the cost. And aspastors we are to teach the Bible to present Christ the good shepherd to harassed and helpless sheep in need of his pastoral care. We must not displace Christ in his people’s lives as their Saviour, Lord and Shepherd who leads, protects and provides for them, nor presume to speak to them as Jesus speaks, with divine authority in expectation of obedience. Paul reminds the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20, ‘I’ve not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing…remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ i.e. we must be givers who serve not getters who exploit; so…

Let’s beware of greedy acquisition of ministry trainees or finance; beware of overly directive advice about career moves or training options; beware of wanting to be someone’s guru or counsellor in the place of Christ; 

Paul writes in 1 Tim.3,Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle’; and in 1 Tim.5, ‘the Lords servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance’; and in 1 Pet. 5, we read, ‘Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock’. Pastors must learn to be gentle and not rough with people, even if they are frustrating or hostile – it is for God to grant repentance not for pastors to compel it. And where the Bible requires church discipline, it is to be a collective last resort to encourage repentance and restoration and to protect the church, not a pastor’s punishment; so…

Whatever our style of leadership needs to be in different phases of our ministry, and while we’ll always want to confidently proclaim and contend for Biblical convictions and offer bold, clear strategic vision – let’s lead like Jesus – by example from the front, not pushing from behind; let’s beware of presenting our own views and ideas as beyond challenge or change in the name of mission – even if the cultural context in which we work quite likes us to behave like a celebrity, chief, guru, commander or pope.

2 Tim.3-4 says ‘All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ and so pastors must…’preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction’ – the pastor is to expound God’s word to teach, rebuke, correct and train people – not impose our own personal opinions or tribal traditions; so…

This used to be called, ‘heavy shepherding’; it’s most common in 1-1 discipling – being overly directive about who people should marry, where they should work, whether, when and where they should train for pastoral ministry, what house they should buy, what education they should provide for their kids – perhaps condemning private education or home schooling; condemning how people spend their money on holidays or home improvement, or indeed their plans to leave our church. Yes, we can share Bible passages that might challenge their behaviour, to ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine’ (Tit.2:2) – but if our application is not explicit in Scripture but only implicit, we should acknowledge our interpretation may be wrong (especially if other Evangelicals take a different view). Our own personal views, however wise we or others think they are, must not be imposed. We must grant and respect the freedom of others to disagree with us with patience and grace.

1 Tim.5 says, ‘The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching’; Heb.13 says, ‘Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you’; and 1 Thes.5 says, ‘Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work’ (1 Thess.5). There may, sadly, be those who attack a pastor’s character or ministry because they dislike his theology, or who are judgemental campaigners, mischievous troublemakers or mentally unwell; it is vital for the Elders in any church to establish good processes for inviting but also carefully testing accusations – and if plausible, consider consulting safeguarding specialists e.g. Christian Safeguarding Services or Moore Barlow solicitors. Of course if the charges are of seriousness that may make the issue a safeguarding issue, or involve children or adults at risk, then we must follow our safeguarding policies rigorously. In making that decision, do consult your own safeguarding officer or our Co-Mission safeguarding co-ordinator at the Co-Mission office. In all such matters, affection or respect for the ministry of the person being accused, even over many years, must not be an excuse for hiding or protecting abusive behaviour. So…

Let’s not collude with ruining the reputation of a pastor by dining out on exaggerated stories (or fail to allow for leaders to mature and change over time, especially as planting boldness gives way to mature pastoring). But let’s ensure that our church members know how they could make a complaint in confidence if they need to e.g. talking to your Elders. Let’s ensure the credibility of any complaint is checked and that both sides of every story are heard before arriving hastily at judgements. However we must not allow personal affection or respect for years of ministry excuse abusive behaviour, for the safety of church members and the glory of Christ; let’s follow our protocols carefully; so…

1 Tim.5 says, ‘Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that others may take warning’; Pastors must not be unaccountable. We are all sinners vulnerable to the temptations of money, sex and power; and our position gives us opportunity for great influence, especially over those who are younger in the faith and easily impressed by us, and our opinions gather weight over time. So we are all, sadly, potential abusers. In the past, some Church leaderships have stupidly or wickedly sided with their Pastors instead of victims – and have sought to hide abusive behaviour to protect the reputation of their church. Not only is this terribly unjust, but such a church can eventually be destroyed when the truth finally emerges, which could have been avoided if appropriate action had been taken earlier. Indeed, it is kinder not only to victims, but also to the church and to pastors to call us out early in the development of any abusive tendency – while serious hurt is avoidable and repentance still possible. To this end we need to develop genuinely plural elderships (where decisions can be debated and owned collectively), team ministries where ministry is genuinely audited and discussed, and ensure we have real accountability for all leaders, especially senior pastors. Churches need and benefit from godly, gifted, experienced and visionary senior pastors to (a) cast vision; (b) craft teaching programmes; (c) recruit staff; and (d) manage liaison with other churches, networks and denominations. But major decisions should be offered for debate by plural governing elders; and senior pastors must welcome assessment and accept critique of their approach to personal interactions, meetings, discipleship and preaching etc.; so…

To protect our church from ourselves and ourselves from failure and a miserable legacy, let’s welcome review, preferably including annual 360 reviews, from staff/elders – and Senior Elders please ensure this happens. Let’s seek critique and correction from others e.g. I have a termly meeting with our Senior Elders with whom I am honest and to whom I am accountable – never knowingly going against their views. Let’s accept wise protocols like meeting one-to-one with people only in public or in open offices where others are present to avoid putting ourselves at risk of temptations or misperceptions. And where we see signs of abusive tendencies in colleagues, let’s say so gently without delay before it gets more difficult and serious. And when we ask for critique, let’s remember how difficult it can be for those who respect us to be honest – we need to genuinely give permission and learn to listen humbly to criticism (and anonymous 360 reviews enable this).

We’re all different – with very different personalities, working in very different churches in very different cultural contexts. Some of us probably need to be a bit bolder and offer a bit more of a decisive lead; others of us probably need to calm down and listen a bit more.

It may be a helpful diagnostic concept for Elders in helping their Senior Pastors reflect wisely upon their ministry in their personal interactions, meetings, discipleship and preachingto recognise a leadership spectrum: ranging from Cold behaviour at one end (from criminal irresponsibility to shocking neglect to shameful laziness to frustrating inertia) – through Christ-like WARM servant hearted ministry towards increasingly HOT behaviour – starting with annoying bluntness (needing loving challenge(s) to gentleness) to bruising abrasiveness (depending upon severity may need rebuke to listen and/or formal warnings and/or eventually dismissal or perhaps even criminal proceedings), to pastoral abuse (depending upon the severity of this coercive behaviour warranting public repentance, disciplinary protocols and/or immediate dismissal perhaps with criminal proceedings with help e.g. from Christians Safeguarding Services) through to criminal abuse (requiring immediate notification to the police with probable criminal proceedings and seeking help) – always of course in full compliance with our Safeguarding Policies (See Appendix for this Spectrum) – and always seeking provision of appropriately experienced Christian pastoral support and counselling for victims.

What we want to encourage is WARM ministry: Christ-like, Bible-shaped, cross-inspired, Spirit-empowered, servant-hearted leadership: leading by example from the front not pushing with coercion from behind.

Perhaps it’s helpful in an Elders review with their pastor, to begin this discussion with two simple questions:

In what situations am I prone to be too passive?

In what situations am I prone to be too pushy?

Let’s take this very seriously in all our churches, to protect potential victims, protect our churches, protect one another and protect the honour of Christ.

More about the author :

Clayton Fopp

Clayton Fopp

Clayton is Senior Assistant Pastor at Dundonald Church and leads the Train ministry in our WITNESS structure. As Senior Assistant he oversees the staff team and tries to ensure we care for people well as a church. Before coming to Dundonald, Clayton was a church planter and pastor in the Trinity Network of Churches in Adelaide, Australia. He is married to Kathy, and they have 3 school-aged children. Clayton lectures and teaches principally in the areas of preaching, leadership, and church planting. He has served as a judge in the Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards, and also as Vice-President of the Church Missionary Society in South Australia/Northern Territory.

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