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.

Although the topic is somber and difficult, the book is 164 pages and reads easily. The author illustrates challenging material with references to popular culture. A single sentence quotation heads each chapter, from such varied notables as C. S. Lewis, Albus Dumbledore, Gregory the Great, G. K. Chesterton, and Gandalf.

After identifying the problem, Kruger provides his definition of spiritual abuse:

Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader — such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization — wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals. (p. 24)

He writes carefully, noting that not everything that is called spiritual abuse is indeed abuse. Pastorally, he not only writes about the dangers of spiritual abuse, but also has the explicit goal of preventing people from becoming abusive leaders.

Questions worth discussing: what can pastors do in the churches and overseeing bodies in which they serve to prevent such abuse? How can they encourage the broader assemblies of the church, to police themselves, to actually recognize, and then to deal with spiritual abuse? After outlining the problem of false shepherds in Ezekiel 34 and the Lord’s condemnation of Eli for failing to restrain the horrible behavior of Hophni and Phineas, Kruger observes:

Here we see a critically important principle. God will hold accountable not only the bad shepherds but also those who protect and enable them. This is a weighty warning to all churches and the elder boards that lead them. Those who prop up bad leaders and turn a blind eye to their abusive behavior will someday have to give an account of their own actions. (p. 48)

What are we willing to tolerate?

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