Recently I had an interesting exchange on social media regarding the extent of spiritual abuse by leaders in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. The charge is that spiritual abuse is a widespread problem in the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed world. I am unaware of any study that would vindicate such a claim and my first instinct was to defend the P&R Churches from the allegation. My experience over the course of 40 years, eight as a layman and thirty-two as a minister, including twenty-three years as a seminary professor, has been that most confessional P&R ministers are faithful, gracious, self-sacrificial servants of Christ, his Word, and his people. Last week we had an (online) meeting with some prospective students and one of them asked what we do at seminary to prepare future pastors to avoid burn out. It was an excellent question about a real issue. The reason that pastors burn out is because they are so devoted to their calling. They give, and give, and give to meet the endless needs of the congregation and the broader church (presbytery/classis, general assembly/synod) until they can give no more. Nevertheless, in the course of the week, as we discussed the problem of spiritual abuse, which has caused some to leave the confessional P&R world for other pastures, I recalled some very difficult situations in which P&R pastors were credibly accused of some gross malfeasance and even spiritual abuse. Over the years the HB has brought me into contact with laity who have written to ask for advice about what to do regarding a church discipline case or an instance of spiritual abuse by a ruling elder or a minister. In response I have frequently outlined how church discipline is supposed to work in P&R churches and what avenues laity have to get help in such cases. I thought it might be helpful to share here what I have shared with correspondents.
Defining Spiritual Abuse
One of the questions with which my colleagues and I wrestled this week is the definition of “spiritual abuse.”1 In Jacobellis v Ohio (1964) Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote,
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
It is tempting to take the same approach to spiritual abuse but we may not. By spiritual abuse I mean:
The malevolent, ungracious use of the authority or processes of the church to lord it over the laity or other officers in the church for personal gain, emotional or psychological manipulation, or for the exercise of ungodly or undue control over others, which infringes upon Christian liberty and that violates the second table of the moral law of God.
Let me say what I do and do not intend by this definition. The reader will notice that I did not include, in the definition, any mention of the feelings or subjective experience of the person affected. This is intentional and it is not because our feelings our experiences are unimportant. They are but they cannot be defining of spiritual abuse because feelings of hurt may or may not be an indicator of spiritual abuse.
There are two kinds of words in Scripture, bad news (the law) and good news (the gospel). One of the principal vocations of a ruling elder or a pastor is to give bad news to people, i.e., to tell them that they have sinned against God and man. Being told that one, whether believer or unbeliever, has sinned and needs to repent, and/or that one is liable to divine judgment is likely to produce feelings of distress or unhappiness. It should. The first thing that a sinner needs to know is the greatness of his sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism 2). That knowledge, as Luther once said, brings one that much closer to grace. It is not mean or unkind to warn someone that the stove top is hot. It would be mean and unkind to refuse to warn another about the hot stove top for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Thus, a layman’s feeling of distress or even anguish are not necessarily indicators of abuse. Nevertheless, there are ways in which one’s feelings, as Justice Potter implied, might serve as warning signs that something bad is happening. Christians trust the Lord and they come to trust their ministers and elders as Christ’s representatives. They do so with good reason: Scripture says: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17; ESV).
Those who have been abused frequently report that they felt confused, hurt, or angry by they way they were treated by the pastor. Those who have been victims of clergy sexual abuse have reported that the abuser told them that sexual contact was part of the counseling process. It felt wrong but laity sometimes trust their pastors such that they suspend their critical faculties and ignore their own fears and instincts. Our feelings do not define spiritual abuse but they can be an important signal that something is wrong.
How might spiritual abuse manifest itself? There are almost as many ways to commit spiritual abuse as there are abusers but here are some possible examples.2 One overarching example is bullying or intimidation. It is one thing for a pastor to say, “sister, I believe that your behavior/attitude is sinful” but it is another thing for a pastor or elder to use his authority to bully or intimidate someone into cooperating or submitting out of fear of retribution of some kind. This is especially true if the bullying is done in the interests of covering up some other misbehavior or abuse. Bullying can even become cultic in nature, e.g., if the pastor/elder gives the impression that the believer’s salvation is in jeopardy if he does yield unquestioning obedience to the pastor. Should a pastor/elder threaten to abuse the processes of church discipline to exercise ungodly control over a member, that is a form of spiritual abuse. Of course, threats of violence or taking advantage of a member for sexual gratification are not only abusive but they are quite probably criminal and should be reported to ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Should a pastor/elder threaten to release confidential information, e.g., something disclosed in confidence during counseling or in a consistory/session meeting in order to coerce someone compliance, that is a form of spiritual abuse. The counseling room can be a place of great healing but it can also be abused as when a pastor/elder takes advantage of a counselee by seeking to alienate the affections of the counselee from their spouse. It is an abuse of office and a form of spiritual abuse for a pastor/elder to take advantage of a member or another officer for financial gain. One of the more difficult categories of spiritual abuse involve the intentional warping of reality wherein the pastor/elder knowingly lies or twists the truth in order to make a member believe something to be true that is not. This is otherwise known as “gaslighting.” Paul-Mikhail C. Podosky, distinguishes between naive or unintentional gaslighting and intentional gaslighting. Of the latter he writes, “…Gaslighting occurs when (i) a speaker uses words with (ii) the intention that hearers come to form (iii) negative attitudes toward their own interpretive abilities.”3 It is not just that the abuser creates doubt in the mind of a lay-member but that he intentionally works to create doubt in mind of a member about the member’s ability to interpret reality. This is particularly dangerous when this is done toward the end of gaining emotional, psychological control. We recognize this tactic when it is employed by abusive spouses or when it is used by cults to gain control over new converts or to retain members. We should recognize it when it is used by abuse pastors/elders. To be sure, there might be a case where a counselee is out of touch with reality and needs to be re-oriented. E.g., a counselee may come to think that people are against them when that is not the case and that person needs to re-think his interpretative framework. Gaslighting occurs, however, when a person, who is in his right mind, is intentionally given to think, in the interests of the pastor/elder, that his sense perceptions are wrong and that his framework for interpreting reality is skewed. In other words, Narcissism is built into gaslighting. In the first case, the pastor/elder is genuinely trying to help the member. In the second, the pastor/elder is abusing the member for his own ends.
The Gravity Of Spiritual Abuse
Ministers of civil justice (e.g., judges and other magistrates) have a great and solemn responsibility but the city of man comes and goes. Ministers of Word and Sacrament are entrusted with the greatest authority in human life. They help to use the keys of the Kingdom of God (Matt 16:19; Heidelberg 82–84). Thus, they bear an even greater responsibility than civil magistrates. Their ministry affects the eternal souls of image bearers and they have a sacred trust, for which they shall give an account to the Chief Shepherd:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet 5:1–4; ESV [modified]).
Notice that one of the abuses against which Peter warns is “domineering” others. Using one’s office for “shameful gain” is also a form of abuse. Peter was aware of the potential of spiritual abuse in the church. Our Lord Jesus warned,
…“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt 18:3–6; ESV).
Church history has justified Peter’s warning thousands of times over. The medieval church became deeply corrupted with all the kinds of spiritual abuse listed above and more. Priests and monks kept regularly mistresses and impregnated women and then sent the children to orphanages or gave them to monasteries and nunneries and sent the women into nunneries in order to hide their sins. Priests and bishops were assigned parishes and dioceses, which they neglected or in in which they never appeared. Perhaps the worst abusers of all were the bishops of Rome, who as their secular power and influence grew, competed with kings and emperors to see who could be more venal and corrupt. Of course, the bishop of Rome raised money by selling time out of purgatory and the sales tactics were worthy of the slimiest of television preachers. By the end of the late middle ages clerical (spiritual) abuse was so widespread that Luther was shocked when he went to Rome in 1510. The moral corruption of church “in head and members,” was so profound that the late-medieval diplomat and political theorist Nicolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), famous for his application of what is today known as Realpolitik, after whom we speak of “Machiavellian” politics, i.e., “cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous” (Oxford American Dictionary), was shocked at what he saw.
The Reformation Brought Hope For The Hurting
The Reformation sought to address the doctrinal roots of the moral corruption but also the practice of immorality in the clergy. Reformed polity was intended, in part, to curb and prevent moral corruption by holding ministers and elders accountable but the system only works if we are faithful to our callings.
All church polities (governments) are flawed. Episcopal polity tends toward tyranny by bishops and popes. The radically democratic polity of congregationalism tends toward the tyranny of the mob. The weakness of P&R polity is that it relies upon fellow elders and ministers to hold one another accountable. It is a great temptation for the consistory (session) to defend the minister at all costs. It is a greater temptation of the classis (presbytery) to become a sort of union, where the ministers and elders deflect criticism and charges so that it becomes a sort of old-boys network: “I will not charge you if you will not charge me.” The strength of P&R polity, which we will address in the next installment, however, is its graded or broader assemblies (courts). If a local assembly fails in its duty to correct or remove an abusive officer, there is another assembly who can address the matter. If that assembly fails or refuses, there is yet a third and sometimes a fourth assembly to which an injured layman can complain or appeal for redress. The system is not perfect and sometimes all the assemblies fail to do the right thing but in my experience usually one of the assemblies involved in the process will step up and seek justice for the injured party.
Pastors is the Latin word for shepherd. With the elders it is his vocation to love his sheep (John 21:17), to care for them, and even to lay down his life for them should it come to that (John 10:11). Abuse of the sheep is entirely contrary to the nature of his calling and a violation of everything for which the offices of elder and minister stand. It is a gross sin and ground for removal from office and more, e.g., in the case of impenitence, suspension from the Lord’s Table and finally excommunication and removal from the church, in which final step the church regards him as an unbeliever and prays for his salvation (1 Cor 5:4). Next time we will consider what the laity can do when they are believe that they are being abused.
Establishing Abuse By Two Or Three Witnesses
The spiritual abuse of the laity by officers in the church is a sin and grave dereliction of duty. When it occurs it needs to be discovered, stopped, and corrected. For all the weaknesses that exist in the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches they do have a process for addressing sin, including the sin of spiritual abuse. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that abuse has actually happened. The next question is what to do? First, what not to do. It has become a commonplace for abuse and sin to be tried in social media or in the traditional media before there is any investigation. This is not the process established by our Lord. The biblical pattern is “two or three witnesses.” Deuteronomy 17:6–7 says:
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (ESV).
Our Lord Jesus appealed to this pattern in the institution of church discipline in the New Covenant church:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:15–20; ESV)
To be sure, there are some questions remaining. Abusers do not always commit their sins in front of other people. In such as case, documenting and proving an allegation of spiritual abuse can be likened to sexual abuse. Both can be difficult to document. I will address this below. The difficulties notwithstanding, we must adhere to this principle. We have seen some notorious cases in the age of “Me Too” in which allegations of sexual abuse have been made without evidence or witnesses only to see those who demanded that the allegations be accepted as fact turn around and demand that we follow due process when someone whom they support is facing allegations. The institution established to address and correct spiritual abuse is the visible church established by Christ.
Beginning The Process
First the victim must realize that abuse has occurred. This can take time. Abusers can be skilled manipulators so that the victim may not immediately realize that a behavior pattern is neither normal nor godly. I am not counseling that Christians should go about looking for reasons to be offended. Far from it. The visible church ought to be a gracious place where sin is recognized, confronted gently, and where repentance restores broken relationships. That is the goal of Matthew 18. It is the goal of the use of the “keys of the kingdom” in Matthew 16:19. Here the definition offered above 1 may be useful. Not every disagreement is tantamount to spiritual abuse but when there is abuse, it should be recognized and addressed for the spiritual welfare of the victim, the abuser, and the congregation.
Spiritual abuse should be addressed in the visible church and it can be done. In a case of spiritual abuse (as defined above) the victim should document the episode as soon as possible. This can be done with contemporaneous, dated, notes. Ideally, such notes should be made on paper and not merely on digital media (e.g., a computer or a phone). Should the victim realize that he has been a victim over a period of time, that should be documented too, including as much specific information (e.g., when, where, by whom, who was present, what was said or done etc.) as possible. Recording a conversation, though easily done in the age of smart phones, may or may not be legal in your state or country and thus may be risky. Such steps should probably only be taken with the advice of ecclesiastical and possibly legal counsel.
You are not alone. I have known cases where the members did know or were never made aware that they were members of a Presbyterian or Reformed congregation and that, as such, they were connected to other churches in their area and to churches across the USA and across the globe. In Presbyterian and Reformed church government (also known as polity), there are layers of assemblies (or courts). They exist, in part, to serve as resources to help Christ’s sheep through a crisis such as this. The victim of spiritual abuse should reach out first of all to other members of the session or consistory. These are the bodies in P&R congregations which have the responsibility to oversee the spiritual welfare of the church. Again, there can be challenges here. In the case that the victim has good reason not to trust the local session or consistory, because he believes that they are complicit in the abuse, he has the option of seeking counsel (help, advice, and even representation) from another minister or elder in a nearby congregation. Assuming that there is an elder or minister who is not involved in the abuse, that is where the victim should begin. He should schedule a face-to-face meeting (if possible) with a member of the session/consistory to report the abuse and to ask for help. That member of consistory/session is duty-bound to help you. he should hear your report and take appropriate action. That will likely mean that he will take it to the consistory/session and begin and investigation. It may be that, in a Presbyterian congregation the session may ask for the help of the Presbytery (the neighboring ministers and elders) to form a commission to investigate the issue and to address it with the session and the abuser. In a (Dutch) Reformed congregation, the consistory may ask for help from neighboring consistories or for Classis (the churches in the region) to send church visitors (two or three elders/ministers) to meet with you and with the consistory to investigate the charge and to provide guidance in moving forward.
In the best case scenario, the abuser is believing, repentant, and demonstrates that repentance not only by seeking forgiveness for the abusive behavior but by demonstrating a genuine change of heart and mind by the turning from his abusive ways. It may be that the church visitors/commission may recommend that the abuser seek psychological and spiritual help. It may be that the consistory/session grants the abuser a sabbatical, i.e., time off from active service in office to seek counsel. It is possible that the abuser is simply unqualified for office or by his behavior has disqualified himself from holding ministerial or presbyterial office. In that case, the penitent abuser would follow the recommendation of his consistory/session or his presbytery/classis to “demit” his office, i.e., to resign his office and to seek counseling and secular employment.
Getting More Help
Let us imagine, however, that things do not go as well as we hoped and prayed. Let us imagine that, when confronted by two or three witnesses, the abuser refuses to acknowledge his behavior and his sins. This is entirely possible. At bottom, abusers are bullies and what they want is control. They are using their office to satisfy a psychological/emotional need. Perhaps the abuser is not even a Christian? It is possible for officers to fool the assemblies/courts of the church(es). I have seen it myself and I have participated in more than one disciplinary process involving a church officer who showed himself to be impenitent and unbelieving.
In any case it is important to begin with the local session/consistory. If the victim skips this process he will be told by broader/higher assemblies/courts to go back to the local elders and minister(s) to lodge the complaint. Should the process with the local church not produce the hoped-for results then the victim has the right to seek help outside the local congregation. The processes vary but the victim is essentially complaining to the broader/higher assembly/court about the failure of the local body to address the sin properly. This is important. You are essentially appealing a verdict. Appellate courts and broader assemblies (e.g., classis) do not usually address the substance of the issue. They address the process. Here it is important to get counsel from an experienced elder or minister, who can help you through the process. Think of him as you would a lawyer in a secular court action, without the expensive hourly fees. If you do not know whom to ask, call the nearest congregations in your denomination to ask for advice. If there are none, if may be necessary to ask for advice or help from a minister or elder in related congregation, i.e., not one in your denomination (or federation of churches) but who might be able to give you advice and possibly even help you bring the matter to your consistory/session or presbytery/classis.
It is vital that the victim seek help from the church. Again, you are not alone. There are ministers and elders dedicated to shepherding Christ’s church the way Christ intended. The existence of an abusive church officer does not indict all church officers. I understand that it can be difficult to trust other officers after being abused. The breakdown of trust is a reality. Our trust, however, rests in Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. It is he and not sinful humans, who established the visible church and who instituted the process of church discipline. Yes, it has to be executed by sinful men but Christ is with his church by his Spirit. He has not abandoned it. There are shepherds to be found who will help.
The process should begin locally and then proceed to the regional assemblies/courts, and from there to synod/general assembly as necessary. These degrees or grades of courts and assemblies help us to get things right. Sometimes it is necessary for a case to go all the way to the end of the process to get things right but when that happens it is good for the church. It helps to correct the earlier assemblies and alerts the broader church to a problem.
- In P&R polity, form and process are important. More than one case has been dismissed because the complainant or appellant did not follow the process. E.g., it is essential that the vicim remain a member of the congregation where the abuse occurred. In the providence of God, human beings are wired with a fight or flight response to a threat. It is very tempting for a traumatized person to flee the congregation where the abuse occurred. Should the victim do so, however, he loses his standing in the courts/assemblies of the church and his ability to seek redress. If, after the process is concluded, you desire to transfer your membership to another congregation in the denomination/federation or to see dismissal to another P&R congregation, you are free to do so.
- Get to know your form of government and the rules governing church discipline. Few laity have spent time studying the church order of their federation or denomination. The church order of my federation of churches, the United Reformed Churches in North America, is relatively brief and can be understood relatively easily. Some collections of church law, e.g., the PCA’s Book of Church Order or the OPC’s Book of Discipline are more extensive. The church orders and books of discipline are valuable tools. The victim need not become expert in the BCO or CO but the more you understand about the process the more likely you are to achieve a better outcome.
- Know your officers. Every consistory or session has a chairman (president), and a vice-chairman (vice-president). The consistory/session has a clerk. Your regional presbytery/classis has a clerk. The clerk can be a valuable source of help to direct you to a minister or elder who can help you through the process. Typically, correspondence to a church assembly/court is directed to the clerk. Sending your written complaint or appeal to the wrong officer can slow down the process.
- Send official correspondence through the mail. Register your letters so that there is a signature upon receipt. This is serious business and should be treated as such.
- Proof your documents. Print them out and make sure that they are grammatically correct. Get help with this if you need it. A sloppy document will diminish your credibility.
- Keep a copy. Do not send original documents unless requested by the church assembly/court. Always make a good, clean, hardcopy of any document in the process and retain them for your files. Electronic files are fine but do not rely on them as they can disappear in glitch.
- Your counsel (a pastor or an elder) will help you develop the documents you need in the process but it can be helpful to see documents from other cases to see how they are to be formatted. As in civil court cases, in church assemblies, there is a format to be followed. E.g., I always advice laity to use the line numbering function in their word processing software so that the body considering their complaint and appeal can refer to page numbers and line numbers. It helps the court/assembly to do their work.
- Be patient. It is hard to be a victim. As in civil courts, in church assemblies it can sometimes seem as if the victim is being hurt again. The assembly/court, however, has a vocation before the Lord. They have to follow a process to make sure that they are getting it right. When they ask you what happened, they are not calling into doubt your honesty. In order to render a just judgment, they have to hear about your experience and to see whatever supporting documentation you might have. They need to hear from other witnesses according to the biblical pattern. Further, unlike secular courts, church courts do not meet full-time to adjudicate issues. They try to respond quickly but a classis/presbytery may only meet twice a year. A General Assembly probably only meets once a year. In the URCNA, synod only meets every three years, so, if a case is appealed from consistory to classis, and from classis to synod, it may take a long time. The bodies are not necessarily delaying justice or covering up. The ministers and elders helping you have full-time jobs and are helping you on top of everything else that they are called to do.
- Be specific. “He made me feel uncomfortable” is vague. “On January 16, 2021 Rev. So and so, said, ‘such and such’ and when I objected he did such and such” is more detailed.
- Take a witness when you go to speak to the abuser. I know of a case where a minister quite lost his mind during a meeting with another staff member. There was a witness. Without that witness, people might not believe the report. If it is not safe to confront the abuser, documents may have to serve as the witness. If a pastor or elder is an abuser you are probably not the only victim. An investigation will likely discover other victims.
- If the abuse is more than verbal or emotional, i.e., if a church officer commits an assault, sexual or otherwise, it is entirely appropriate to notify the secular authorities. If a minister or elder kicks (I know a case where this happened) or hits you (it happens) or commits sexual assault you should notify the police immediately. They are trained to handle such cases. Again, document the episode as soon as possible, with as much detail as possible, so that the authorities can investigate the incident, arrest the abuser, and prosecute him.
- If a church officer solicits sexual contact you should report him to the consistory/session immediately and you should contact the police since it is illegal in most states for a minster, counselor, or therapist to use their position to solicit sex.
This is a lot to process but your main takeaway, as they say, is that you are not alone and that there is a way in P&R churches to address spiritual abuse in the church. It will take longer than you think it should but the process is important. It is designed to protect the victim and the person against whom charges are being made. After all, anyone can claim anything. You would not like to be the victim of unsubstantiated allegations. The process is necessary for the peace and purity of the church.
1. I was part of an online lunch discussion last week with Justin Holcomb, where he walked us through his work on abuse in the church, including a discussion of spiritual abuse and some of this series is the product of those discussions.
2. A few of the examples in this paragraph were modified from this list. My use or revision of some of those bullet points in no way implies an endorsement of the author’s theology, piety, or practice.
3. Paul-Mikhail C. Podosky, “Gaslighting, First- and Second-Order,” Hypatia 36.1 (2021), 210.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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