A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Abuse and Limits of Pastoral Authority

Hebrews 13:17, “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.”

Recently I have been thinking much about the nature of pastoral/church authority, because I am encountering cases in which Christian women who are the victims of abuse are also being abused by their pastor(s) and churches.  We have discussed in numbers of other articles how Christians and church leaders so often react to a victim’s request for help with an abusive spouse, but here I want to deal with a specific aspect of that reaction.  Namely, the all-too-common abuse of power and authority over the victim on the part of her pastor and elders.

Genuine Christians want to obey Christ.  If Scripture calls us to obey our leaders and submit to them, we want to do it because we want to please our Lord, and because we know it must be for our good.   We will all admit that as sheep, we need to be shepherded – fed, protected, and so on.  There are wolves out there looking for lamb chops and it takes a seasoned shepherd many times to spot them in their disguises.  We want to be in a real flock of Christ.  But this genuine desire can also make us prime targets for abusive leaders if we are not careful.

Notice the Scripture above that we are instructed to submit to our leaders — for they are keeping watch over your souls.  Furthermore, they are to do so with the full knowledge that they are going to have give an account to the Chief Shepherd for how they cared for His flock.  These are the marks then of a true shepherd, functioning as Christ has commanded.  They shepherd us for the good of our souls, and they shepherd us as Christ would shepherd us.  Notice that a true pastoral ministry works to our advantage, and furthermore it produces joy in our pastors because they see us growing in Christ.

Now, the moment a pastor or elder ceases to exercise this overseeing ministry in accord with those two qualities of Christ-allocated leadership, they cease to be true shepherds – at least in the particular case in which they err.  And thus, they lose any authority as they are functioning outside of the boundaries Christ has established for them.  Remember:  the only reason any human being has authority is because it is granted by the Lord, and it always has its limits.  For a pastor, those limits are defined by the Word of God.  It is the Word of God that gives a pastor his authority — which really is never vested within him himself, but in the Word of God.  Pastors only have authority — this is true of every Christian as a matter of fact — as they faithfully adhere to and speak the Word of God.  The Church’s authority does not reside in the Church, or in any office-holder in the Church, but in the Word of God.  We say “thus says the Lord,” not “So say I.”   So, for instance, the only reason we can tell someone that unless they repent and believe in Christ they will die in their sins is because that is the Word of God.

As a pastor, I am becoming more and more aware of how easy it is for me or any church leader (or a husband) to drift into an unbiblical abuse of authority.  It happens slowly and often without notice and before we know it, we can be found “lording it over” our flock.  When, for example, a pastor stands in his pulpit and says “you have no right to divorce, ever, for any reason.  If you come to us (he and his elders) we are going to tell you…..” — he is speaking in an abusive manner.  He has lost his authority.  He is lording it over his people.  You can hear it in the way he is talking “down” to them, with a tone of “WE” dictating to “YOU.”   Let me give you another example of this.

A survivor of over two decades of terrible abuse at the hands of her “husband” goes to her pastor for help, and is told that both she and her husband need to come for counseling.  In the course of that counseling, the pastor tells her that she “must” submit to a number of rules that he is establishing for her.  For example:

  • She is to obtain the pastor’s approval for any books on marriage that she is reading
  • She must obtain the pastor’s permission before seeking counsel from anyone else
  • If she does not abide by these rules she may find herself under the discipline of the church
  • She has no right to separate from nor divorce her abuser
  • She is to speak to her husband in such and such a manner

I am being told by abuse victims in numbers of cases that this is how they are being “shepherded” by their pastors.  And I believe them.  Why?  Because I can see in myself the temptation to slide into this very same kind of abuse of authority, thinking I am working for her good and for the glory of Christ.  But there is nothing glorifying in any of this.

What is the difference between genuine, biblical shepherding of God’s people, and the abuse of power?  Many of you will have some thoughts on this, but let me just suggest at least one aspect of it.  A shepherd of Christ’s flock becomes an abuser of Christ’s flock when he ceases to bring the truth of the Word of God to bear upon a situation, and starts insisting that the flock do what he himself commands.  We become abusive ourselves when we speak “down” to the flock, as if our authority resided in us personally.  We may dupe ourselves into thinking that we are “preaching the Word” but in fact we can end up merely “preaching our word.”   In my opinion, pastors and churches today who are laying the load of the “permanence view” of no divorce ever, no remarriage ever as long as a spouse is still living, are guilty of this abuse.   They have come forth from their holy counsels and announced “thus saith the Lord,” to their flocks, when the Lord has not spoken it at all.

To those faithful shepherds of Christ’s flock who labor and strive to be true to His Word and watch over the souls of their charges, blessings upon them.  Unfortunately, these kinds of shepherds seem to be growing harder and harder to find.

13 Comments

  1. “Hebrews 13:17, “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.””

    So the next questions is– who *are* my leaders? Is someone my leader because a church board someplace ordained them once upon a time? Because I to go sit in a pew and hear them preach for a few months or years? Because I sign a church card or ‘join’ by attending membership classes?

    I’ve had to learn the hard way that leaders are called by God, not man. God places those among us who are leaders and we must discern the Body of Christ precisely *because* the church has become a sad, sick place full of deception. A career pastor is a hireling (by ‘career’, the distinction is someone who decides to enter ministry in the same way one decides to enter the military or the accounting field.) And we cannot forget the warning that some had already entered the fold way back in the first century who wanted to have preimenance over others.

    We *discern* the Body of Christ– by their fruits, we know them. By their love, we know them. I’ve met many a pastor, teacher, prophet and priest in God’s kingdom that had no qualitfying papers, no position in any local church and no desire to acquire same. But dadgumit, you know. Quality shows.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Ida Mae – This all tells us how badly we have gone astray and we have constructed this monstrous trap for ourselves. As you note, just think about how we “call” pastors to our churches. Today it has very, very little to do with evidenced godliness and a genuine call to the ministry by Christ. The Corinthians did the very same thing and they ended up rejecting the Apostle Paul and embracing wolves who slapped them in the face! How do most churches “call” a pastor? They look at resumes. The interview them and make the “cut.” Then they have the guy come and preach a few times – which is really not much more than a sales job. They we superstitiously “pray about it” and vote, assuming that the Lord is overseeing the casting our out lots. Think about the average level of Christian maturity in the average congregation. Yet these are the people casting the votes. Do the children like him because he gives them candy? It’s all a bunch of politicking. How often do we ask — how has this man suffered for Christ? No, what we want to see is SUCCESS! GROWTH! A proven track record of results!

      My “career” ladder terminated a long time ago. I have no doubt that were I to put my resumes “out there” and honestly describe my last 20 years of pastoral ministry, I would be rejected. Those are not the kind of results most churches want today.

  2. Hebrews 13:17, “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 them.”

    Notice what it says only ten verses before that (v. 7):
    “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

    To me, this wraps it up. And it answers the question “Who are my leaders?”
    Verse 7 tells us who our leaders are: “those who spoke to you the word of God.”
    And it also tells us to “consider the outcome of their way of life.”

    So …. if someone in a pulpit does not speak the true and balanced word of God to us, we need not consider him our leader. And to help in our evaluation, we can consider the outcome of his way of life – look for the fruit, look for whether he put his sheep in bondage or whether he preaches the grace, mercy, justice and righteousness of God’s precepts.

    It’s vital for us to discern right doctrine. In handling domestic abuse we must know right doctrine regarding separation and divorce, and right doctrine regarding the limits of submission for sheep and for wives, so we don’t get falsely guilted and held in bondage. Ordinary Jewish believers in Jesus’ day were falsely guilted and held in bondage by the Pharisees. Jesus taught his followers not to obey or imitate these false leaders. When we firstly discern and then disregard or disobey false leaders, we are merely following in Jesus’ footsteps.

    • Jeff Crippen

      That is excellent, Barbara. Dead on. It is not only our leaders who exceed their authority who are to blame for the mess we are in, but ourselves as well. When we grow lazy and let our celebrities do our Bible study and thinking for us, we are in big trouble. If we become spiritual sluggards, too lazy to raise our hand to our mouth with the bread of God’s Word, we will look to someone else to spoon-feed us. More often than not, the one who comes along with the spoon is a wolf.

  3. Good lesson, Barbara, for ANY quote from Scripture. We can never take one verse alone, but have to look at the context of the passage it is included in, the situation and circumstances during the time it was written, and then, if we happen to know someone who actually speaks the original language of the text (as my beloved does), check and see with them what it truly says and if translation into English changes the meaning in any way.

  4. Jodi H.

    This is so true! I never confided in my last pastor about my marriage-I was still in a fog, but I knew things were very bad-but I was still blaming myself mostly. This pastor tho, would constantly “take my inventory” and reprimand me for any and all perceived sins Icommitted. Such as, not having the right tone of voice when speaking to someone else about my husband being out of town constantly-or saying in an email that I was a slave to my husband’s schedule (as an explanation for why I may not be able to do a certain thing he asked of me)- if he didn’t like a joke a told-it was time for a talk, if I didn’t sign up to bring a meal for a church function-we had to talk- if I wasn’t grateful enough for something my husband “did for me”- he reprimanded me. It was constant- as it turns out, my STBE wasted no time confiding in the pastor right away that I was somehow a deficient wife-so he began to work on me. I was never able to speak about my husband’s mistreatment of me, because it was obvious I would not be believed and would only be blamed. The pastor did all of this under his cloak of “authority”.
    Jodi

    • Jeff Crippen

      Jodi – “Cloak” is a very good description. It is a word that describes a covering for some deeper, sinister something. Let’s face it, while there are some true shepherds of the flock of Christ out there, we would be very naive if we fail to realize that there are also wolves who are themselves narcissists and even abusers of the flock. 2 Cor 11 makes that plain as do many passages in Jeremiah, for instance. Just because a man wears a clerical cloak does not make him a true undershepherd of Jesus. We shall know them by their fruits.

    • Thank you for that, Jodi. You’ve just helped me understand something I’m dealing with in my own life right now.

  5. EverydayBRAVE

    The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. Jeremiah 23:10

  6. Finding Answers

    Ida Mae commented We *discern* the Body of Christ– by their fruits, we know them. By their love, we know them. I’ve met many a pastor, teacher, prophet and priest in God’s kingdom that had no qualitfying papers, no position in any local church and no desire to acquire same. But dadgumit, you know. Quality shows.

    The “letters” after a person’s name….

    Education may be necessary, yes, but when education becomes idolatry, someone inevitably pays the price.

    When someone is “not allowed” to get a second opinion, when someone is treated with contempt for asking questions, when someone – male or female – is condescended to because of their gender, there is likely to be found a false god.

    Not all false gods are found in ‘c’hurch. And as Ida Mae wrote “by their fruits, we know them.”

  7. Nate

    Wow! The comment section is as edifying as the article. Thanks to all!

    Though this is couched in terms of how church leaders deal with married couples in abusive situations, much of what is written is pertinent to other abused members of the body of Christ. It is so difficult to convince a “leader” who is (in his own estimation) “called”, “gifted”—and furthermore educated—that none of those things are substitutes for genuinely godly leadership.

    As Barbara wrote, “When we firstly discern and then disregard or disobey false leaders, we are merely following in Jesus’ footsteps”, she is SO spot on! The scriptures cited in the article and the surrounding context lay such a clear and simple structure for discernment. I tire with the allegiance of those stuck in the system of my former church, with whom I’ve discussed the false and abusive nature of the leadership, who feel compelled to humbly endure and submit themselves and their families to that which is simply false. Considering how long it took me to act on these conclusions and remove my own family, it’s clear that we have to extend those who remain great grace. At the same time, I am so thankful for the renewed freedom of having my family outside of such a system.

    Sorry to wax verbose as my comments are somewhat unrelated, but your article and the comments are just so refreshing that a response is warranted.

    • Hi Nate, welcome to the blog! 🙂

      I didn’t think you waxed verbose, and your comment is certainly related to the post, because you are right: perpetrators of abuse have many characteristics in common regardless of whether they target their spouses, their children, other people’s children, their congregation, people in the workplace, or people at large on media and social media platforms.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you might like to look at our FAQ page.

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  1. Church discipline and church permission for divorce – how my mind has changed | A Cry For Justice

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