A Reformed “Spotlight”: Fighting Spiritual Abuse in the Reformed Church

I am so angry — and, I fear, not all of it is holy anger.

Earlier this week, I sat with a young man who, six years later, is still recovering from spiritual abuse at the hands of a “respected” Reformed pastor. He’s one of a number of this pastor’s victims, all of them gifted and godly men, but all of whom have had their confidence shredded and their faith devastated by this man’s abuse of his spiritual position and authority.

Within 24 hours I was sitting with another young man, whose details I cannot reveal, but let’s just say he had also suffered from another Reformed church’s failure to follow basic biblical, and even just humane, process.

I wasn’t looking for these men. They just “happened” to be in my life this week.

As I pondered their painful stories, I “happened” to watch an online video of a respected Christian leader abusing his position as a conference speaker to demolish the reputation and Christian character of a godly man and a friend of mine. He didn’t just criticize his views but his character, his faithfulness, and his spiritual state. All of this in front of a couple of thousand people and without any opportunity for the man to defend himself. (UPDATE: I’m not referring to T4G).

The Dam Bursts

And today the dam burst when I read in Christianity Today  that “celebrity-pastor,” Darrin Patrick, has been “fired for violating his duties as pastor” at the Journey Megachurch in St. Louis.

“The Journey cited a range of ongoing sinful behaviors over the past few years including manipulation, domineering, lack of biblical community, and a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms.”

As Christianity Today points out, this is just the latest in a way-too-long line of prominent “Reformed” pastors who have either voluntarily or involuntarily stepped away from ministry due to spiritual failings that have impacted many people (I think it’s unfair to include John Piper in this list as his case did not involve spiritual abuse). Sadly, Christianity Today’s list is incomplete as other prominent names could easily be added. Even more sadly, there are multitudes of other non-celebrity pastors whose stories will never hit the headlines, but will result in even greater multitudes of victims.

Apart from one exception, I’ve generally refrained from giving publicity to such abuses of spiritual authority, mainly out of a desire not to damage the church’s witness before the world and a fear of undermining Christians confidence in their leaders. However, that was the argument the Roman Catholic Church used for decades as it covered up their priests’ sexual abuse. And victims continued to multiply in the silence.

So, yes, for me the dam has burst. And it’s not just the past week. I’ve had increasing numbers of emails from victims of spiritual abuse over the past years. It’s now time to speak out. It’s time for the Reformed church to take responsibility and clean house. It’s time to stop pointing the finger at the Catholics’ sexual abuse scandals and start exposing the spiritual abuse scandals in our ranks.

There have been brave voices in the wilderness here and there who have been calling for reformation in this area for years. But they’ve been dismissed as cranks, as obsessive, as outside the mainstream. That’s what the Catholic church used to say of their victims and critics too. It’s time to listen to these voices and stand with these victims.

And I speak as a fellow victim. I too have a story of spiritual abuse. I too have a story to tell. I’ve not only seen spiritual abuse, I bear the marks of it in my mind, my heart, and my soul.

Five Roles

So what can I do? I don’t want to be a conduit for unsubstantiated allegations. I don’t want to be a gossip blog. I don’t want to abuse my position in the process of highlighting the abuse of others. I won’t name names unless in exceptional circumstances; a lot of good can be done without personalizing issues. Rather I see my role and responsibility in five areas: warning, preventing, confronting, recovering, and modeling

Warning: I will regularly highlight the warning signs of a spiritual abuser, how to identity them, what to look out for, how to spot them early on, and also how to see danger signs in oneself! That’s one of the most fearful aspects of spiritual abuse — the abuser is usually totally blind to it. It could be you! Or me!!

Preventing: I want to help churches prevent spiritual abuse in their midst, to stop it before it starts, to nip it in the bud, and so on.

Confronting: I want to help individuals and churches confront spiritual abuse and root it out; how to use legitimate spiritual authority, including church discipline, against abuses of it.

Healing: I want to aid the healing process, helping wounded individuals, families, and churches recover their sanity and their souls and build solid foundations for spiritual life where at present there is only rubble. And I’ve got to believe that healing is possible for the spiritual abuser too, that, by grace, the most deformed leadership can become the most cruciformed.

Modeling: I want to promote godly models of leadership both in the church and in the family; because this is not just confined to pastors. As too many stories confirm, Christian husbands and fathers can also abuse their God-appointed leadership roles. We need to skillfully apply the Bible’s principles to our practice, and to advance positive and beautiful models of what it means to lead both in the church and in the home.

In summary, I want to be constructive more than destructive. And I want to start with a definition of spiritual abuse — stay tuned.

Let’s shine the “Spotlight” on ourselves before Hollywood does.

**UPDATE** Thanks for all the comments. These will all be very useful going forward. I’ve closed the thread due to a couple of people abusing the privilege.

Other posts in this series here.

Check Out


100 Questions to Fuel Mentoring Relationships | Laura Booz, True Woman Blog
“Just in case you’re curious, here are the 100 questions that I think would encourage many fruitful conversations amongst women.”

Ten Lessons from Ten Years of Pastoral Ministry | Timothy Raymond, Credo Magazine
“I hope these lessons are of some encouragement to you, my brother-pastors.  Please pray for me as a pastor and my church. Keep your hand to the plow.”

4 Of The Best Pieces of Marital Advice I’ve Ever Heard | Mark Altrogge, The Blazing Center
“1). Try to be the biggest servant in the house.”

Navigating Dangers and Temptations in Ministry | Joe Thorn, Reformation21 Blog
“But there are four principles that should guide us through the dangers and temptations connected to ministry. In fact, these principles are not only for leaders, but for all of God’s people.”

Always A Woman | Aimee Byrd, ByFaith
“While society is trying to figure out if gender is a biological trait or something we feel from within, the church is also struggling with the purpose of our design. We have all kinds of resources now for so-called biblical womanhood and biblical manhood. Some of it is helpful, and yet some of it adds to the frustration. Many women feel sidelined, left to contribute in the nursery, children’s classes, and the nebulous world of women’s ministries.”

My Love/Hate Relationship with Leadership | Ed Stezter, The Exchange
“The lack of leadership development is, in my view, one of the primary reasons churches plateau. Too many pastors are incapable (or unwilling) to identify and cultivate leaders within the church. They struggle mightily just to recruit workers! But, until pastors are able and willing to train leaders and leaders of leaders, the church will always stop growing at the furthest reaches of the pastor’s own ability to work.”

Kindle Books

The Pastor’s Ministry: Biblical Priorities for Faithful Shepherds by Brian Croft ($3.99)

The Promises of Grace: Living in the Grip of God’s Love by Bryan Chapell ($2.99)

Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness by Edward T. Welch ($2.99)

What is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics by R. C. Sproul ($3.99)

Why Believe the Bible? by John MacArthur ($1.99)

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“It’s not always the big things that impact your productivity. In fact, when it comes to time management, it is often the little things you do.”

Theology Conferences Part I of II: A Brief How-To Guide | Adam Johnson, The Scriptorium Daily
“If you are interested in an academic career, welcome to the world of conferences. For all their weaknesses, these are one of the main heartbeats of the academy. Over two posts, I will do my best to pass along what I have learned, thus speeding up the learning curve.”

Why Write New Books When There are Good Old Ones? | Ryan McGraw, Meet the Puritans
“So, should the church keep writing books today? Manton would say ‘yes.’ Why? Because we need to use every means possible to combat the darkness of sin, because we will continue to gain fresh discoveries of God’s glory in Christ, because believers need to be godlier, and because truth needs defending.”

4 Questions for Women Considering Seminary | Mary Willson, TGC
Not an argument for females in office but for well-trained women in other important roles within a congregation.

Five Reasons Leaders Must Encourage | Eric Geiger
“If you read any leadership book, you are likely to be encouraged to encourage the people you lead. If you have served with an encouraging leader, you know the impact the encouragement makes on the morale of the team, the focus of the people, and the commitment to one other. Here are five reasons leaders must encourage.”

Job’s Miserable Counselors: How Not to Counsel | Bob Kelleman, RPM
“I often learn best from how not to do something. So, we can learn how not to be a compassionate biblical counselor from the bad example of Job’s ‘miserable comforters’ (Job 16:2) ‘Miserable’ means troublesome, vexing, and sorrow-causing. They were the opposite of ‘comforters’– a word that means consoling, sympathetic, feeling deeply the hurt of others.”

New Book

Church Revitalization from the Inside Out by Robert D. Stuart

Kindle Deals

For your non-Kindle book buying needs please consider using Reformation Heritage Books in the USA and Reformed Book Services in Canada. Good value prices and shipping.

Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk by Ben Carson ($0.99)

Portraits of Faith: What Five Biblical Characters Teach Us About Our Life with God by Joel R. Beeke ($2.99)

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken ($4.99)

Planting, Watering, Growing: Planting Confessionally Reformed Churches in the 21st Century edited by Daniel R. Hyde and Shane Lems ($2.99)

The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters by Albert Mohler ($3.82)

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3 Reasons Why Religious Liberty Laws Don’t Discriminate
“Supporters of religious freedom laws are not interested in discriminating against persons. What many find objectionable are participating in services that have an overtly sacramental meaning. Once you understand the true face and nature of discrimination, you’ll see that religious freedom laws in no way commit the type of di scrimination defined above.”

Transgender thoughts
“Some thoughts about last night’s 60 Minutes segment on Schuyler Bailar, a transgender swimmer at Harvard.”

5 Ways to Make It through a Difficult Season
“when God calls you to endure in difficult environments, here are five strategies I’ve learned to abide by.”

Kindle Books

For your non-Kindle book buying needs please consider using Reformation Heritage Books in the USA and Reformed Book Services in Canada. Good value prices and shipping.

The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach by Bryan Chappel $3.99.

Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Greg Allison $32.48 $7.99.

Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives by Bob Kellemen $16.52 $6.99.

Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ by Bob Kellemen $15.90 $6.99.

Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones $3.99.

Why You Should Buy A Theology of Biblical Counseling

I’m conscious that my recent criticisms of the early chapters of A Theology of Biblical Counseling by Heath Lambert could overshadow the tremendous help most chapters in this book will be for Biblical Counselors and Pastors everywhere. I would like to interact with these later chapters in more detail in the future, but let me just fast-forward to them in order to begin to balance out my reservations about the first part of the book. Yes, there are still the odd sentences here and there that I’d question, but from page 103 onwards you’ve got a couple of hundred solid pages of some of the best biblical counseling writing I’ve come across.

It’s why I’ve decided that despite my earlier reservations and criticism, I will be using this book as an integral part of my Foundations of Biblical Counseling course next semester and making it required reading for my students. I’m looking forward to lively and edifying discussions! But more than that, chapters 4-10 have already re-oriented my heart and mind and infused me with hope and optimism as I face some challenging counseling scenarios in my own ministry. So let me give you a quick summary of these chapters to whet your appetite.

Chapter Four: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of God
This is an outstanding chapter of warm practical theology. The deepest truths about God are brought into life-saving and life-transforming contact with the deepest human problems. It finishes with five responses for biblical counselors that were convicting, encouraging, and doxological.

Chapter Five: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Christ
Heath faces the difficult question of “How can we comfort people with God’s grace and mercy, if we can’t be sure they are for them personally?” That’s a great question that biblical counselors have sometimes found difficult to face and answer. Heath’s answer takes us on a grand whistle-stop tour of Christology that puts the person and work of Christ at the beginning, center, and end of every counseling session, and leads to three powerful truths: (1) Counselees need the Person and Work of Christ for Forgiveness; (2) Counselees Need the Person and Work of Christ for Power; and (3) Counselees need the Person and Work of Christ for Comfort. I like the way Heath answers the initial question so clearly in his conclusion: “Jesus Christ is the key to all counseling. Everything we need from God requires us to trust Jesus to receive it” (155).

Chapter Six: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of the Holy Spirit
Heath emphasizes what we are to quick to forget — that “for counseling to be successful, the Holy Spirit must take the words of our biblical counsel and press them into the hearts of people…” (163). We must not depend on our skills or knowledge but upon the Holy Spirit both in us and in our counselees. Heath’s greatest accomplishment in this chapter is to remind us of the incredible resources we have at our disposal in the power of the Spirit to convict, indwell, teach, empower, and gift. 

Chapter Seven: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Humanity
Three huge issues are explored here — humanity as made in the image of God, as body and soul, and as male and female. It’s obviously impossible to go into much detail about any of these topics in one chapter, but Heath manages to articulate excellent summaries of the main principles in each area which will form a good framework for further thinking on each issue.

Chapter Eight: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Sin
Heath traces the devastating impact of sin in every dimension of human existence and carefully distinguishes between three different ways we experience sin — the sinful world we live in, personal sin, and the sins of others. As Heath says, “typically, counseling is a complex combination of each of these contexts” (228). The chapter goes on to deal with each of these contexts and the biblical response to them in a sensitive and balanced way.

Chapter Nine: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Suffering
This chapter reminds us of how painfully complex so many of our problems are, but also that God has provided sufficient answers. No, not all the answers but enough answers, if we would accept them and believe them. You’ll never approach a suffering person in the same way after reading this.

Chapter Ten: Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Salvation
This follows a fairly ordinary “order of salvation” but, in his application of it to Lorie, Heath produces something that is far from ordinary. It reminds us of our extraordinary salvation and its power over the most extraordinary sin. Heath also ably deals with the question as to how biblical counselors can counsel unbelievers.

Chapter Eleven: Biblical Counseling and A Theology of the Church
Thankfully, but not surprisingly for biblical counselors, Heath comes to a close with the local church and a practical ecclesiology (yes such a thing is possible) demonstrating how vital the local church is to successful counseling.

As I said, I’d like to unpack and explore these chapters at greater length, but I hope these summaries are enough to interest you in the book, my earlier reservations notwithstanding. And don’t forget to check out Heath’s book on counseling pornography problems. It’s #1 in my Top 10 Books dealing with that topic.