When Shepherds Harm the Sheep

In the church of Jesus Christ, those serving under the Good Shepherd have the responsibility of protecting the flock entrusted to their care. For pastors and other leaders to harm the sheep ought to be unthinkable — but it happens. Equally tragic is the fact that too often fellow officers in the church fail to take action to protect the sheep.

Michael J. Kruger, President of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, is well known for his academic work on early church history and the formation of the canon. He recently authored Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church.

This post is not a book review. An excellent review can be found here (p. 20). Rather, this gathers some thoughts used as I discussed the book with some fellow pastors a few weeks ago.

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Ministerial Voices

Several years ago the presbytery of which I am a member was so seriously affected by divisions that the General Assembly appointed a committee to visit and seek to assist us. While there was a theological issue that was the focal point of much contention, the Committee to Visit the Presbytery of the Northwest reported to the General Assembly its view of underlying problems which had resulted in two congregations withdrawing from the OPC with their pastors and a third minister renouncing the jurisdiction of the OPC. The Committee spoke of “divisive speech and attitudes” in the presbytery. It reflected on “the mistaken notion that the PNW merely suffers from a theological dispute leads to an unhelpful tendency to inadequately address and acknowledge the more significant causes of division…. On the personal level, brothers within the presbytery have failed at crucial times to deal openly and honestly with one another about various personal grievances.” (quotes from the Minutes of the Eighty-third General Assembly, p. 326).

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Walking through Judicial Process

Thinking about judicial process may strike you as soporific but imagine trying to work through church discipline without a guide! Many churches try just that. Faithful church discipline is one of the identifying marks of a church. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a member cannot be formally disciplined by either the pastor or the ruling elders simply accusing him of sin. Rather, a trial must take place. The Book of Discipline of the OPC provides the constitutional guidelines for conducting such a trial.

A colleague and I recently served as co-counsel, helping a session in a particularly challenging situation. Since members of the church planned to attend the trial, I tried to describe in informal, non-technical language, some of the highlights of what the book says about a trial, as judicial process can be confusing, particularly as formal charges are, thankfully, infrequent. Subsequently I expanded and modified that paper slightly. Here, in case it might be helpful or thought provoking, is a link to “Walking through Trial Procedure.”

I am well aware that the Book of Discipline is imperfect. Thought needs to be given, I believe, to improvements, particularly in the area of providing protection and care for those who have been harmed by the sins of others. And even the best book is administered by imperfect people.

Yet, I am grateful that we do have a Book of Discipline. And I am thankful for faithful officers who seek to honor the name of Christ, provide protection for those harmed, promote the purity of the church, and reclaim the sinner. Church discipline, done well, is pastoral.

Further Thoughts on Protecting the Sheep

Last week I reflected on the responsibility of a presbytery to protect sheep who are being attacked. A number of readers expressed appreciation. I was also contacted by a half dozen or so members of the presbytery involved. A couple of them asked that I modify or take down the post. Several raised concerns and questions, wondering if I properly reflected the context of what happened.

I appreciated the conversations. Even though we may not have convinced one another, we were able to have good communication. I told the brothers that I would give prayerful consideration to their concerns. Upon reflection, while I am not persuaded that I should withdraw my post, I want to add this, both to correct some possible misunderstandings and to respond to a couple of the more major concerns raised.

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When Shepherds Allow the Sheep to Be Attacked

The calling of a shepherd, by definition, is to care for the sheep. That includes nurturing, feeding, and protecting. On occasion, if the sheep is straying, it can involve correction and discipline. But attacking or abusing the sheep violates that calling and is offensive to the Good Shepherd.

At a recent meeting of a presbytery (not my own), as was reliably reported to me, a young minister, speaking on the floor of the meeting, used the terms a “ruthless wolf” and “Jezebel” to describe a member of the denomination who was not present, a member in good standing. The presbytery meeting, as is normal in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was open to the public.

My purpose here is not to comment further on the speaker—I don’t think I need to. He may be facing ecclesiastical charges, and I abhor doing church discipline on social media. In any case, he will be afforded due process which he fails to grant the sister whom he attacks.

What appalled me is that, although two presbyters rose to object to that language being used against a member in good standing, the presbytery allowed the speech to continue. While the speaker is accountable for his choice of words, the body as a whole bears responsibility for what it allows as acceptable ecclesiastical discourse. The terms used refer to enemies of the cross. The presbytery permitted them in an attack on a sister who is a member in good standing.

Any attack by a shepherd against the sheep is abhorrent. But when a body which is a group of shepherds allows that kind of speech, it is giving tacit approval to abuse. Addressing my fellow presbyters, this ought not to be. Not only do we need to guard our own tongues and pens (and fingers on keyboards), but we need to take responsibility for what we allow as acceptable discourse. To my brothers in the presbytery involved, I plead with you: you can do better than this.

A presbytery allowing this kind of language on the floor is not the core of the problem. Behind it lie some deep issues, including whether we value one another, male and female, as fellow images of God, and whether we are using our ecclesiastical authority to serve the flock (for which the Good Shepherd laid down his life) or to protect ourselves. Our heart issues will not be resolved by sustaining points of order. But that might be a small, but significant, first step.

Peter addresses those he calls fellow elders: “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 Peter 5:2–4, ESV)