When Pastors Abuse

Abuse happens but it isn’t normal and should not be accepted. By God’s grace there is hope and help.

Third, sometimes church discipline is exercised in the context of a poor structure in which the pastor is without sufficient accountability. Some evangelical groups that identify with some aspects of Reformed theology are not actually Reformed in their polity. In many cases, these groups are congregational in polity and are not sufficiently connected and accountable to other congregations nor to broader (or higher) assemblies (church courts).


In the wake of the recent discussions about church discipline there have been many online discussions about whether churches should exercise ecclesiastical discipline (yes, it’s one of the three marks of the true church—see Belgic Confession art. 29), how, and when. In connection to these discussions, sites such as the Wartburg Watch have raised the issue of pastoral abuse, i.e., those instances or that pattern of behavior in which a minister exceeds his authority and in which he treats the congregation with harshness the ill befits an under shepherd of Christ’s flock.  There are at least three facets to this problem:

  • Sin by a member
  • Sin by a pastor
  • Sin by governing ecclesiastical authorities (e.g., elders, consistory, session)

First, there is such a thing as pastoral abuse but that reality does not mean that there can be no church discipline. To reiterate the point made in the earlier post, there is a biblical, legitimate doctrine and practice of church discipline. All discipline is not abusive. When members sin they are accountable to each other, first of all, and secondarily to the visible, institutional church. The goal of discipline is repentance and restoration.

Second, discipline is always exercised, in this life, by sinners and sinners sin. They sometimes sin (i.e., they violate God’s moral law) in the exercise of church discipline. After the fall, the heart of every minister is desperately wicked (Jer 17:9). It is only by God’s sovereign, regenerating grace that a minister is of any use to Christ, his church, and his gospel. No minister is fully sanctified and none of them will be in this life. Sin leads to errors of judgment and worse.

There are many practical reasons pastors abuse. As it is in families, some pastors abuse because they themselves have been abused and become bitter, disillusioned, and lash out in response. Parishioners sometimes say and do cruel, thoughtless things. Those hurts can become a source of bitterness. Sometimes pastors abuse because they have never seen gentle ministry modeled. Pastors tend to reproduce what they themselves have experienced and seen.

Sometimes pastors fall into a pattern of abuse out of frustration or impatience. The reality is that churches are typically understaffed, underfunded, slow, and even bureaucratic. Getting from point A to point B in even the simplest matters can become a series of exhausting committee meetings. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m convinced that our Lord instituted church government by committees (elders, presbyteries/classes, synods) in order to protect God’s people. I’m convinced that there’s no evidence that our Lord is much interested in efficiency. Pastors, like every other Christian, are too often unduly influenced by the culture, which emphases not faithfulness and patience but efficiency and success.

It may be that a pastor is not ideologically committed to ministry (serving) but to magistracy, i.e., to ruling. By definition a minister is a servant. The Greek noun (diakonos) is transliterated into English as Deacon. There are deacons (servants) of practical needs and there are deacons of the Word. The minister is a diakonos of God’s Word. He does not determine the Word. He does not create the Word. He does not, he cannot norm the Word. He works for the Word. The Latin term that we often use is Pastor, or shepherd. This is a great image for the minister. A shepherd is with his sheep. He guides them gently, he protects them, and even, on occasion, lays down his life for them. Our Lord Jesus was the Shepherd (Mark 6:34). He has compassion on sinners as a shepherd has compassion upon a scattered flock. He does not leave them to their own devices or make weekly visits to look in on them. In John 10 Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd.”

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them (John 10:11–12).

In contrast, a thief is all about himself, his own welfare (John 10:10). He enters into the sheep fold not by the door by illegitimately (John 10:1). The true shepherd, like the Good Shepherd, is all about the sheep.

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