How Abusers Target Godly Leaders in the Local Church
We all know too well from personal experience that the state of the evangelical church today is, well, pathetic. Specifically, we know that many church leaders, for various reasons, render injustice to victims of abuse. In this article, I would like to explain my theory for you that, in part, attempts to explain why there is such a lack of godly, wise, empathetic pastors who are willing to pay the price for standing with victims against evil and injustice. My theory has been forged from decades of personal experience with abusers in the local church – though for much of that time I did not really understand what was actually happening.
One of the arenas that abusers select for their quest for power and control is the local church. Abusers who use Christianity as their facade of choice frequently target those in the church who they perceive as possessing the power and control the abuser considers himself/herself entitled to. It has been said that a new pastor should “carefully mark the person who picks him up at the airport upon his arrival.” There is more wisdom in that statement than you might realize.
Abusers operating in the local church, in my opinion, are largely responsible for driving away genuine, godly pastors. And guess what happens after such pastors are driven away? Someone is going to fill that vacuum. For a time, the abuser is quite happy, in his facade as an eminent saint, to fill the void, and the too gullible sheep are quite happy to let him do so. Ultimately he will have to yield to a new pastor, but as I will explain here, Mr. Jones-Pillar-of-the-Church (AKA Diotrephes, see 3 John), will unleash abusive tactics on him from day one. And if that new pastor chooses to make Mr. Jones and company happy, yielding to his reign of power, then what will you have in the pulpit? You will have exactly what we are seeing so many times – “nice” guys who won’t stand against injustice and evil and who may very well not even know Christ. Evil is once again safe in such a “church,” lying unexposed and unthreatened.
The abusers I have met have been in the local church context, the kind who want to control the whole church for self-glory and thus they expect the pastor to do everything they say and make them the center of attention and if you don’t do it they will try to murder you. Well, not murder because that would ruin their facade of godliness, but they will do all they can to destroy your ministry and run you off. The church that I pastor now waded through 8 pastors before me, with an average tenure of 3 years. The abusers of course, stayed on for a long time. Thankfully, they ultimately departed.
My contact with these people, both men and women, reveals an interesting trait and tactic that is really quite an identifier. Simply put, they say things that should not be said and that no one else in the church would ever say. They direct these things that they say at their victim in an effort to defame them, shame them, guilt them, and ultimately subdue and control them. Most commonly they announce what the victim’s thoughts and motives were in doing or saying something. Here are some real-life samples:
- Pastor, you said you had the church sound system updated because it had not been done for a long time. But I know what your real reason was, and you weren’t being honest when you told us it was just because it needed to be done. (Statements like this are most often made in front of other church members)
- Pastor, you did not consult me and the rest of the church board before you purchased your home. I don’t like it that it is not closer to the church building. I know that your motive was to distance yourself from your congregation. And now you are going to live there without any real accountability, having the internet there, and, you know…
- Pastor, I know why people have left this church over the years. You are cold to people.
- You have not forgiven the Smiths. I can tell you haven’t just from the way you act around them. You need to go tell them how sorry you are.
- I remember five years ago when you thought that I was in the wrong. You treated me very badly then, you know.
- I know that you have been gossiping about me because I can see it in the way other people are treating me. You had no right to have those two people come and talk to me and tell me that I have treated them badly. When you did that you slandered me and that is sinful.
Let me insert Barbara’s de-coding of this so common “gossip” accusation that abuser make:
I know that you have been talking in ways that permit and encourage people to recognize what they have long known subconsciously about my manifold character defects. How dare you encourage people to recognize and name my sins! How dare you condone them calling a spade a spade! How dare you let people say I hurt them! How dare you allow light to be shed on my evil ways! How dare you let people tell the truth about me! I will publicly shame and blacken your name, pastor, until you stop throwing spokes in my wheels. And if you don’t bow to me, I will take my checkbook and leave your church.
- “You know, brother, I don’t think you are qualified to be an elder. I won’t go into the details of why I believe this, because I don’t want to say things that are better left unsaid.”
Do you see what I mean? No one else in the entire church would say such things. But these guys will. I have come to realize (after being false-guilted by them for years) that THE THINGS THEY SAY ARE TOTAL FABRICATIONS! But they love to tell you what YOU are thinking, what YOUR wrong motives were, what YOU need to do, and they love to do this in front of people who they think will believe them. And they are normally quite successful. They watch what the pastor does (or whoever is their chosen victim). They read. They judge motives and thoughts, and guess what? They always conclude that the victim’s motives and thoughts are sinful and evil. Why? Here is why —
Titus 1:15-16 ESV To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
Things no one else would say, you see. And in a local church, I can tell you EXACTLY who these people are going to be! They are the “pillars” of the local church who hold powerful, informal authority. They are the choir director or organist who have held those positions for 30 years. They do everything. Oh, what servants they are. When people in the community think of a particular church, they will immediately think of these people who have been there for so long and who have such wonderful hearts.
This is EVIL. This is the very thing Scripture calls us all to root out, to expose, and to set our churches free from. But it is not being done. How do I know? Because churches all have these power holders. They meet you and greet you at the door and give you the kindest, warmest smile. Oh the hard life they have lived, but they have trusted Jesus through it all and everyone knows it. But they are the reason a godly pastor so often leaves.
Brothers and sisters, how foolish are we? Don’t we ever read our Bibles? Warning after warning after warning are given to us by our Lord to be on guard against these very kinds of people.
3 John 1:9-11 ESV I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.
One final note in closing, and I credit Barbara, Megan, and JeffS for their insights into this question. Abusers will turn the thing around on the victim and say “YOU are judging MY motives! Don’t accuse me of what YOU are doing!” How do we answer that perversion? Simply with this. Jesus said that we will know people by their fruits. That is to say, when you see GOOD fruit, you can assume it proceeds from a good heart. But when we see BAD fruit, like the rotten, stinking fruit as I have described above, we can make a judgment. That person’s motives and heart are evil. If the overall pattern of a person’s actions and words hurt and wound and tear down, then that person is evil. And guess what? We can and should announce that fact from the rooftops! If the abuser doesn’t like it, then he can confess and repent and change. But we make no apology for exposing him for what he is. If we have anything to apologize for, it is for covering for him too long.