A Reformed “Spotlight”: Fighting Spiritual Abuse in the Reformed Church

The need to acknowledge and confront spiritual abuse in the church.

I want to promote godly models of leadership both in the church and in the family; because this is not just confined to pastors. As too many stories confirm, Christian husbands and fathers can also abuse their God-appointed leadership roles. We need to skillfully apply the Bible’s principles to our practice, and to advance positive and beautiful models of what it means to lead both in the church and in the home.

 

I am so angry — and, I fear, not all of it is holy anger.

Earlier this week, I sat with a young man who, six years later, is still recovering from spiritual abuse at the hands of a “respected” Reformed pastor. He’s one of a number of this pastor’s victims, all of them gifted and godly men, but all of whom have had their confidence shredded and their faith devastated by this man’s abuse of his spiritual position and authority.

Within 24 hours I was sitting with another young man, whose details I cannot reveal, but let’s just say he had also suffered from another Reformed church’s failure to follow basic biblical, and even just humane, process.

I wasn’t looking for these men. They just “happened” to be in my life this week.

As I pondered their painful stories, I “happened” to watch an online video of a respected Christian leader abusing his position as a conference speaker to demolish the reputation and Christian character of a godly man and a friend of mine. He didn’t just criticize his views but his character, his faithfulness, and his spiritual state. All of this in front of a couple of thousand people and without any opportunity for the man to defend himself.

The Dam Bursts

And today the dam burst when I read in Christianity Today  that “celebrity-pastor,” Darrin Patrick, has been “fired for violating his duties as pastor” at the Journey Megachurch in St. Louis.

“The Journey cited a range of ongoing sinful behaviors over the past few years including manipulation, domineering, lack of biblical community, and a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms.”

As Christianity Today points out, this is just the latest in a way-too-long line of prominent “Reformed” pastors who have either voluntarily or involuntarily stepped away from ministry due to spiritual failings that have impacted many people (I think it’s unfair to include John Piper in this list as his case did not involve spiritual abuse). Sadly, Christianity Today’s list is incomplete as other prominent names could easily be added. Even more sadly, there are multitudes of other non-celebrity pastors whose stories will never hit the headlines, but will result in even greater multitudes of victims.

Apart from one exception, I’ve generally refrained from giving publicity to such abuses of spiritual authority, mainly out of a desire not to damage the church’s witness before the world and a fear of undermining Christians’ confidence in their leaders. However, that was the argument the Roman Catholic Church used for decades as it covered up their priests’ sexual abuse. And victims continued to multiply in the silence.

So, yes, for me the dam has burst. And it’s not just the past week. I’ve had increasing numbers of emails from victims of spiritual abuse over the past years. It’s now time to speak out. It’s time for the Reformed church to take responsibility and clean house. It’s time to stop pointing the finger at the Catholics’ sexual abuse scandals and start exposing the spiritual abuse scandals in our ranks.

There have been brave voices in the wilderness here and there who have been calling for reformation in this area for years. But they’ve been dismissed as cranks, as obsessive, as outside the mainstream. That’s what the Catholic ,Church used to say of their victims and critics, too. It’s time to listen to these voices and stand with these victims.

And I speak as a fellow victim. I too have a story of spiritual abuse. I too have a story to tell. I’ve not only seen spiritual abuse, I bear the marks of it in my mind, my heart, and my soul.

Five Roles

So what can I do? I don’t want to be a conduit for unsubstantiated allegations. I don’t want to be a gossip blog. I don’t want to abuse my position in the process of highlighting the abuse of others. I won’t name names unless in exceptional circumstances; a lot of good can be done without personalizing issues. Rather I see my role and responsibility in five areas: warning, preventing, confronting, recovering, and modeling

Warning: I will regularly highlight the warning signs of a spiritual abuser, how to identity them, what to look out for, how to spot them early on, and also how to see danger signs in oneself! That’s one of the most fearful aspects of spiritual abuse — the abuser is usually totally blind to it. It could be you! Or me!!

Preventing: I want to help churches prevent spiritual abuse in their midst, to stop it before it starts, to nip it in the bud, and so on.

Confronting: I want to help individuals and churches confront spiritual abuse and root it out; how to use legitimate spiritual authority, including church discipline, against abuses of it.

Healing: I want to aid the healing process, helping wounded individuals, families, and churches recover their sanity and their souls and build solid foundations for spiritual life where at present there is only rubble. And I’ve got to believe that healing is possible for the spiritual abuser too, that, by grace, the most deformed leadership can become the most cruciformed.

Modeling: I want to promote godly models of leadership both in the church and in the family; because this is not just confined to pastors. As too many stories confirm, Christian husbands and fathers can also abuse their God-appointed leadership roles. We need to skillfully apply the Bible’s principles to our practice, and to advance positive and beautiful models of what it means to lead both in the church and in the home.

In summary, I want to be constructive more than destructive. And I want to start with a definition of spiritual abuse — stay tuned.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.