When Pastors Abuse

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.

There are some historical reasons for pastoral abuse. For practical reasons, in the Reformation context, Reformed congregations lacked pastors. Sometimes they became quite large and were served by one minister. Congregations took to calling their pastors “Dominie” (pronounced Doh-min-ee). This informal title was probably derived from the vocative case of the Latin noun, Dominus (Lord). This is the Latin translation in the Vulgate for the Greek Kyrios and the Hebrew Yahweh. It’s use of school teachers in Scotland and ministers in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) reflected the centralization of authority around the minister. It was common for Dutch Reformed congregations to refer to ministers alternately with affection and ruefully as Dominie. In recent years, the term has happily fallen into disuse but the attitude persists.

Finally, under this heading, there are men in ministry who simply should not be in ministry. The first and greatest disqualified is that the minister is unregenerate. Second, there are men who are not temperamentally suited to pastoral ministry. They may be gifted speakers, writers, or leaders but they are not shepherds of Christ’s flock. There are pastors who are not sufficiently spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically mature enough to serve as pastors.

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 such ecclesiastical settings, the model tends to be functionally episcopal, where the pastor is ostensibly accountable to some sort of board but, as we saw in the case of Mark Driscoll, there is no genuine accountability. Sometimes these boards are handpicked supporters and friends. In this informal episcopacy, the model is really drawn from the business world. The pastor, in the case of the mega-church or the would be mega-church, is a CEO more than a shepherd of Christ’s flock. In American evangelicalism (and likely elsewhere) conjugations are attracted to and oriented around not the ministry of Word and sacrament but rather around a central charismatic personality. Pastoral abuse flourishes in settings where pastors are not actually accountable to others or where those who are charged with exercising oversight are incapable of exercising that oversight or unwilling to fulfill their office.

As we seek to evaluate a pastoral ministry we need to use a right measure. In our therapeutic age, there is a tendency to assume that it is the function of the minister to affirm us and never to challenge or correct us. This is not what God’s Word says:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).

The Apostle Paul charged young pastor Timothy to “reprove” and to “rebuke” and to “exhort.” These are biblical imperatives. A minister is not free to neglect these aspects of his office. One would search the NT in vain for any indication that a minister is a therapist or has a vocation to make people feel good about themselves. Indeed, this is the very sort of thing that Paul denounced as “ear tickling.”

These charges, however, are not meant to be opportunities for abuse. They are sacred duties to be carried out with fear and trembling before the face of the living God.  Where abuse does occur, the sheep ought to seek help from other shepherds or elders. In a Reformed/Presbyterian polity there are two or three offices. Presbyterians sometimes speak of teaching and ruling elders and deacons. European Reformed churches speak of ministers (pastors), elders, and deacons. When real abuse occurs, a member has recourse to complain to the elders (session, consistory). If that does not lead to reconciliation, then there are avenues of appeal to regional assemblies (presbytery or classis), and failing that, to national assemblies (synod or general assembly).

Abuse happens but it isn’t normal and should not be accepted. By God’s grace there is hope and help. Our gracious Shepherd is always looking out for his flock and he has charged his under shepherds to feed and love his lambs (John 21).

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    • It isn’t but this is:

      And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4; ESV).

      which is used in contrast to “shepherd” in v. 2:

      shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly….

      “Undershepherd” seems fair way to reflect the relationship between the two.

  1. I found this reassuring. Thank you. Sadly, folks don’t always understand church polity and abuse can occur quite easily in that circumstance (just ask me!) but there is hope and good men who understand! Thanks again!

  2. What are your thoughts on Elders being initially voted in in by the congregation, yet holding office for life with no re-vote every 4-6 years for re-election by the congregation? Some NAPARC denominations practice the “in office for life” model, while others practice a re-election every few years. The typical justification for not having re-election is that the call for re-elections (re-votes of confidence by the congregation) is not found in scripture. That seems to be a misplaced RPW approach to this topic. I don’t see where it is forbidden by scripture to have re-elections every few years and indeed all Reformed declare it good & proper that the congregation elects (at least initially) the Elders. The “in for life” supporters will site the fact that even Elders for life can always be removed in event of heinous sin. However, this removal hardly seems ever likely in the case of a good old boy system or a heavy handed shepherding approach where there is nonetheless no marital infidelity or other such more heinous sin, etc. A congregation this year may look very different in 10-25 years, yet the congregation 20 yrs down the road may have many a member who never had the prayful opportunity to cast their vote.
    This system seems to take away with the left hand that which it just offered with the right hand. Seems the definition of a holy huddle. The potential to make the office of elder filled with pride and lacking in accountability is to great in the “lifetime” system in my view. Seems Biblically wiser to allow a re-vote every now and again.

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