Unfortunately, scandals involving the abuse of authority by leaders in churches seem to be occurring on a more frequent basis.
Pastoral abuse of any form – whether it is emotional, psychological, social, physical, financial or sexual – occurs when pastors overstep their boundaries and view congregation members as a means to an end.
Abuse occurs regardless of the racial makeup or denominational affiliation of a church, and there are similar traits for those who abuse.
Abusive leaders frequently hold an authoritarian rule over the people they abuse. Their style of leadership is rooted in a hunger for power, control and self-fulfillment. Yet, they often defend their behavior as loving, genuine and biblical.
Abusive leaders may think that they have been sent by God directly to their congregations. They then act as if it is the congregation’s duty to follow them without question, as they would follow God.
A Scripture that is often used to justify this thinking is the King James Version of Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”
When all else fails, abusive pastors and their defenders may fall back on the conversations between David and Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 26 where David refuses to take Saul’s life because he is “not allowed to touch God’s anointed one.”
Abusive leaders then say “because pastors are the ‘anointed’ of God, no one should stand against them under any circumstance.”
I believe that these passages are taken out of context and grossly misapplied to fit the desires of abusive pastors and their defenders.
In general, the New Testament teaches that pastoral leadership brings with it great responsibility to serve and protect those that are led.
In his first epistle, Peter addressed the issue this way, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder … 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.”
These, and other passages, show that the practice of pastoral authority is always exercised for the benefit of those under authority. It is never for the benefit of the person exhibiting the authority.
Pastoral authority is not a matter of controlling, manipulating, coercing or ordering people around. Pastoral authority is about protecting the sheep that God has entrusted to your care.
In cases of pastoral abuse, these types of defenses are a clear misinterpretation of pastoral authority at best and a perversion of God’s Word at worst. Additionally, it shows a lack of concern and care for those who experience abuse.
But how can the church respond?
1. We should hold leaders to the same standard that Jesus held Himself
He was a servant, not a dictator. He gave more than He received.
He saw His ministry as a gift from God that was to be shared in order to build the coming Kingdom, not an empire that would secure financial and social status for Himself and His most trusted advisers.
Jesus served in order to bring glory to God, not Himself.
2. Become accountable for your actions and motives
Find someone, or a group of people, with whom you can be honest about the temptations, desires, struggles and so on that you experience.
Identify your areas of weakness and allow this person or group to help you stay accountable for fighting them.
3. Talk about pastoral abuse of authority with members of your church
Preach about it from pulpit. Teach about it in Bible study and Sunday school. Invite health care and pastoral care professionals that have an expertise in the field to come to your church to talk about the signs of abuse and how to handle them.
Pray for yourself that you would not fall into the trap of abusing or allowing abuse to occur.
Pray for those who have perpetrated abuse. Pray for their repentance and healing.
Pray for those who have experienced abuse. Pray for their strength as they deal with the stigma that follows them. Pray for their healing and peace.
5. Proactively advocate for victims of pastoral abuse
Consider forming a victim support group at your church or partner with an already existing support group like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), and provide donations and volunteers.
Instead of defending pastoral abuse, we have the opportunity to follow Peter’s encouragement to protect and shepherd God’s children.
By taking a stand, we can hopefully break the cycles of spiritual and physical abuse in future generations.
Terrell Carter is currently interim pastor at Webster Groves Baptist Church in Webster Groves, Mo.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.