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.

  • http://www.docsdining.blogspot.com/ Jason Kanz

    David, this is a good and important post. As I was reading, I was thinking about James’s admonition to not be in a hurry to become a teacher. It seems that one of the greatest burdens Christians must bear is themselves–our tendency to harm, to make much of ourselves. Last night, I was talking with our high school students about 1 Corinthians 11 and the contrast between self-centered pride and other-centered humility at the Lord’s table. Pastors and husbands should lead the charge in terms of service and humility. Ray Ortlund said, “I’m not into macho Christianity. It doesn’t work–it beats people up. The longer I live, the more I value gentleness.” Oh, gracious Father, may it be so with me.

  • David O’Connor

    Looking forward to this very much Dr Murray. A much needed discussion on this subject, in the reformed circles especially. I believe this problem of spiritual abuse can be more systemic than we think. It isn’t always just pastors who abuse their spiritual authority and position, but often Fathers in the church, as an extension of the influence of the pastors.

    You begin as a pastor, with the fear of the Lord, not a calling. And if you fear God, you ought to love people, because God loves them. Psalm 19 talks about the fear of the Lord as “clean”. It is not a servile fear. Its not a type of fear like that bestowed by someone unrighteous who means you harm. But it is clean and sanctifying.
    And the kids and young people who are the victims of spiritual abuse of pastors and fathers, often struggle to experience and know the filial and clean fear of God, because they only know a type of fear that is servile and means them harm.
    A huge spiritual blindspot of christian leaders can be lacking compassion for the people they serve. They dont understand “not to go beyond what is written” (1 cor. 4:6), and lay heavy burdens on people, teaching inadequate views of sanctification that thwart personal growth. Those who are impatient with those under them, and lack compassion and are harshest with others, fail to grasp their own sinfulness.
    Leaders should be above all others -teachable and servants to their people. Their people are not there to serve them. To be the greatest is to take the place of the lowliest servant.
    Will be in prayer for this. Keep on.

    • http://www.docsdining.blogspot.com/ Jason Kanz

      “You begin as a pastor with the fear of the Lord.” Yes. In the denomination I belong to, pastors are raised up from within the congregation. After teaching regularly for several years, I have been asked to step into the role of pastor/elder. That is not a request to be taken lightly.

  • Tom Cathy McArdle

    I think Presbyterianism , the one reformed group I have 14 years of experience with, has systemic problems that may foster an unhealthy environment. One problem is that in cases of discipline, the leadership acts and speaks for the whole church, often without input or involvement from the membership, excepy when they announce what they have decided already. I don’t have time right now to enumerate all the ways this deviates from scripture, but where are the elders equated with the whole ecclesia in passages such as Matthew 18?

  • Erick Loh

    Dr. Murray, thank you for desiring to take on this sensitive and difficult topic. I too have been in a spiritually abusive situation, and by God’s grace, I have experienced much healing and restoration. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects to sift through during that time was not having biblical categories to evaluate my situation and the fact that the abuse was done in the name of Christ, with lots of verses to back it up. I think this proposed blog series will be a wonderful help to many.

    One thing that I have wrestled with, as you do in this post, is whether to “name names”. I have no desire to needlessly drag someone’s name through the mud or promote slander. Yet, I do also think that I have a responsibility to warn brothers and sisters away from certain people and their tendencies. Would you consider writing another post sorting through your decision to not name names? Of course, we must take things case by case, but if a well-known pastor with public influence has exhibited abusive tendencies, should we not at least consider making those tendencies public if he is unrepentant?

    • glmeece

      Eric – you echo my sentiments as well. While none of us should promote gossip-mongering, there is still a real need to alert others to habitual abusers. I don’t know where it is appropriate to draw the line, but it does seem that sometimes abusers have to be named.

    • Ted Bigelow

      Eric, may i suggest a deep reading of 3 John to you? Diotrephes had spiritually abused many in that church for doing good (wanting to support the missionaries sent by John’s church). They had been thrown out, and I suspect they are “the friends” mentioned at the end of the short letter. Look at both what John was going to do, and what he wasn’t going to do.

    • Erick

      Thank you for your kind responses, brothers. Amen to both! 3 John is a wonderful text to bear on this difficult and sensitive question.

  • shanea7

    Thanks for speaking up. I grew up in the fundy Baptist world, and it was replete with examples of abuse. Friends from Pentecostal churches tell the same story. Same thing, sad to say, in Reformed circles. It’s a wicked human condition where power isn’t used to help the weakest but to reinforce power. To whatever extent we have influence over people we have a greater responsibility to care and serve. And, as leaders/elders/pastors we ought to be willing to be wronged rather than to wrong.

    This sad reality of pastoral abuse is further fuel for our anti-authority, first-one-to-claim-victim-status-wins culture = a perfect storm.

  • http://whatfoodisfor.wordpress.com/ RStarke

    Thank you, David. As a woman who has worked with and wept alongside women who have either been sexually abused by congregants (and then had their accusations dismissed by callous leaders) or who have suffered under abusive husbands (And then, same dismissal as above), I think it’s important to note the abuse of authority can take many forms; ftentimes it is active denigration and slander, but it can also be passive disregard of or disfavoring of the weak over the strong. Jesus’ ministry was defined by his continual welcoming and heeding of the weak, oftentimes *over* the protests of the strong. His shepherds need to model the same attitude.

  • Blue Nosed Puritan Student

    Well you know my story David. I must say, that even as a thick skinned Glaswegian, its not easy to roll with spiritual punches. One of the marks left upon me was a rising cynicism and disillusionment. “How can this happen in a Reformed and conservative denomination?” But i must admit, I can see the seeds of this in my own heart. Perhaps that’s why it happened to me. The more I have reflected on my experience the more I see that the Lord was holding up a mirror to my face. I’m thankful that he opened my heart to see what I see.

  • Carson

    Thanks for linking this issue to the passion it should engender more broadly. Power corrupts in every domain of humanity, so it inevitably leads to that end in the church body, as well. It’s one of only three things Moses warns would-be kings of Israel to guard against using their position to pursue (wealth and personal repute were the other two).

    But so long as personal gifts are seen as key to the ministry of churches and associations, variances in godly behavior of the gifted will be accommodated so as not to lose the benefits of those gifts. In my experience, there has never been a shortage of modelers of good behavior — there are lots of good people (this blog author included) — or healers and counselors or warnings against the temptations of position. But there have also been many situations of calculated tradeoffs made when people with gifts stray from godly behavior in their use of their positions of influence and authority. This is common in corporations, large law firms, sports teams at every level and it is, very tragically, pretty common in churches. First among the tradeoffs is the “don’t name names” rule — speak, instead, of principles and desired practices. The abusers will get the message; the abused will know we care.

    Until good behavior includes identifying and stopping bad behavior, vulnerable members of the flock will continue to be hurt and the rest will understand that the ministry of the church or association includes some of the same value system they see in sports and corporations; in the end, we really aren’t all that different from having “been with Jesus.” Specifics will come out when the RICO charges are filed.

  • Dick Knodel

    Very interesting thread. I would contribute two comments: 1) Secular culture impinges here on sacred culture. If “celebrity-ism” wasn’t pandemic in America, its excesses in the churches wouldn’t be possible. The more covenantal people would be (allegiance/governance to/by an objective set of doctrines and behaviors) the less open they would be to personal manipulation.

    But alas, since the end of the 19th Century, Americans have more and more lost this Protestant understanding. Hero worship is pagan in origin; yet the common people hunger for it today. Sad but true. I have worked in every church I’ve pastored to avoid this, but often I’ve felt as if I were swimming against the current!

    2) Honestly, in the American setting, I have witnessed this far more OUTSIDE the organized NAPARC denominations than inside. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (of which I was a member for almost 30 years) zealously guarded the concept of Christian Liberty — which occupies a whole chapter of Westminster’s Confession (Chapter XX).

    Christian Liberty teaches that since every Christian must face God alone in the Final Judgment, he/she bears final responsibility for his/her ethical choices. UNLESS our admonitions can be shown to be CLEARLY SCRIPTURAL, we owe each other freedom to “work out our own salvation (our walk) in fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

    Thus, this doctrine works against the “traditions of the elders,” as condemned in Mark 7:3-4, etc. Presbyterian Elders can err grievously here, even as their forebears, the Elders of Israel erred! Eldership-ordination in no way guarantees inerrancy; ONLY THE BIBLE does that!

    “Traditions” are simply the cultural common sense & instinct which generations consolidate around — which ground themselves NOT on sure-Scripture!

    But, as I said, error on this is far easier in the more independent “reformed” churches, and fringe micro-presbyterian movements than in the more organized denominations.

    This is one of the reasons I have long-suffered in such denominations, often enduring party discouragment (being a “TR” amongst those suspicious of such people). They have forced me to prove my ortho-praxis (“theological behavior worth fighting for”) instead of proceeding on presumed scriptural assumption. And I have been the better man for it.

    I have sailed through such a squall in the last five years for which I am sure I’ve been mis-understood: How could I second-guess “the Elders???” If not for Jesus’ own experience with this, and scriptural teaching, I might have felt more intimidated. I have been glad to build my house on Christ’s rock (his Word) rather than on the sand of human (even ordained) thought!

    And I know judgment awaits those elders who managed a workable majority — yet disagreed with the Lord! It is a TERRIBLE THING to equate our own wisdom with God’s, and harm His flock. We’re warned against this with his most stern warnings! See Matthew 18:6!

    If one is susceptible to such godly fear, then one is slow to pontificate, and fast to listen and consider! I have never suffered for being “slow on the draw,” in church gun-fighting. Better to be wounded oneself than to wound another arbitrarily!

    But the strongmen of modern culture have different instincts; and the people who flock to them “love it to be so!” We live in a wicked day in which hardly any dogmatism can be found; and that which exists is often tyrannical (governed by man-made laws)!
    But Christ led in a different way. His yoke was/is “easy!” (Matthew 11:29-30)

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  • Barnabas

    Yes, we could really use an inquisition to root out subjective and unfalsifiable “spiritual abuse” such as being manipulative or domineering. While we’re at it lets imply that such things are morally equivalent to priests sodomizing children.

    • Jason Hagglund

      You seem pretty interested in shouting down this discussion. Maybe you should ask yourself why that is.

      • Barnabas

        I’m eager for the conversation. I would invite anyone who feels that they have been spiritually victimized by David Murray or Jason Hagglund to get in touch with me immediately. In fact, since abuse can be really hard to spot. Anyone who works with these two men and any of their congregants should contact me and we can talk through all your interactions with them to see if you might have suffered spiritual abuse that you’re not even aware of.

        • Charles

          Barnabas, there’s a saying, “throw a rock amongst a pack of dogs and the one who yelps is the one who got hit”.

          • Barnabas

            Yes, and anyone not up for a good witch burning must be a witch themselves. The only sure way to make sure you don’t get named is to accuse a few old ladies of cavorting with the devil and making your cow stillbirth a calf.

          • Charles

            So you are accusing Dr. Murray of stirring up a witch hunt?

          • Barnabas

            To be specific, he has claimed to hold gnostic knowledge of a mysterious but pervasive form of sin. He claims a unique ability to define these sins and investigate for them. What he is proposing is exactly a witch hunt and casting himself in the role of chief inquisitor. When he gets around to defining these abuses they will not be things clearly outlined in scripture but will be hazy extrapolations from scriptural principles, showing himself to be a uniquely sensitive soul.

          • David Murray

            Hi Barnabas. Thanks for dropping by the blog. Obviously we disagree on this issue. Maybe you could give me a chance to outline these concerns further. I do accept there are potential dangers in tackling this subject – which is why I set limits upon what I think I can do in this blog. However, there are also dangers in continuing to ignore the problem. As I say, please return in the coming weeks, give me a chance to further explain this issue and maybe you’ll be in a better position to judge whether what I am doing is just hyper-sensitivity or whether my manner is that of a witch-hunt. I hope to build everything on the Word of God.

        • David Murray

          Hi Barnabas, as you hopefully read, I am not in the business of naming names nor of inviting allegations against named pastors as you have done here. However, I can promise you that if anyone in my congregation contacts you, I will take it most seriously, as will my elders. I want to be a servant and a shepherd, not a sovereign or a wolf. Speaking of which, I do believe that what I’m proposing is really just an application of Matthew 7:15ff and John 10:7-14. The Apostles also frequently highlighted the marks of false prophets. But I do appreciate the interaction. I’m sure you will keep us in check going forward.

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  • Steven Birn

    Here are my two cents, which I’ll give you for free whether you like it or not. If you’re going to do a series on spiritual abuse within the church the first thing you need to do is define what spiritual abuse is. We could literally be talking about anything so I would suggest before you go further you need to define your term. What is generally meant by the term spiritual abuse?

    • Sylvia Peck

      I wonder if it is the best term. Abuse in a church can break a person’s spirit, but so can other kinds of abuse. Is “ecclesiastical abuse” “clerical abuse” “church abuse” or something else, more appropriate?

      In addition to that, I do see the term being defined too broadly, not in the instances mentioned here, but in general. I’ve seen human failings on the parts of ministers, that would not be considered abuse under any other circumstance, lumped in with the serious manipulation (and more) that we’re talking about. That’s not entirely helpful to the discussion either.

    • David Murray

      I agree Steve. That’s why, in my penultimate sentence, I said I would do that next.

  • shawn mathis

    Thank you for your carefully worded, yet strong words against such abuse. For those readers that are ecclesiastically independent, such words will be encouraging. However, from a connectionalism (presbyterian/reformed) perspective, the admonition seems misplaced: “It’s time for the Reformed church to take responsibility and clean house”

    We do take responsibility and when we don’t at least we have the structure to handle such problems. But, perhaps, your hints about other “Reformed” pastors having issues is directed to Presbyterian and Reformed men. If so, then those who have suffered under such ministries have a biblical mechanism to deal with the problems, bring correction to the leadership and even bring healing.

    When members complain about their pastor and do nothing about it, that just perpetuates the cycle. Perhaps a posting on the duties and privileges of church discipline is in order to help inform future parties (see Adams book by the same name).

    thank you for your courageous effort to confront pastoral abuse.

    Pastor Shawn Mathis

    • Leanne

      Pastor Mathis…you nailed it with your note on congregants complaining, but then doing nothing about it. From my experience, if all who were abused by our former pastor would’ve spoken up, the leadership would have had to confront the issues. The confrontation aspect is crucial when addressing spiritual abuse.

  • Barnabas

    Warning: I will regularly highlight the warning signs
    of a witch, 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 witchcraft — the witch
    is usually totally blind to it. It could be you! Or me!!

  • Mark G

    This blog is part of the problem with the American Church. Rather than dealing with matters in a biblical way, problems are dealt with in an American way. Why do we need courts when we can just post media “bumper stickers”? Americans think they can understand an issue without hearing the other side (Prov. 18:17).

    I have no doubt that what this author claims is a problem. However, it should be dealt with in a biblical way. If you or anyone has a charge against leadership in the church, then you should bring the charge (Paul and Peter Gal. 2). Otherwise this is unsubstantiated gossip against elders in Christ Church.

  • David Murray

    Thanks to everybody who has taken part in the discussion so far. I have already learned a lot from what has been written. I hope to take up consideration of many of these points in coming posts.

  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/135745353@N03/ Amy Mitchell

    I experienced spiritual abuse in a southern Baptist church with a reformed pastor, nearly 13 years ago. I realise now that after we left I probably had PTSD and needed professional counselling. We tried to get help for our pastor as he became more paranoid and manipulative, but that just made us a target. We left in order to protect our children. He turned other pastors, who we trusted and considered friends, against us. He lied about us and slandered our character. He tried to turn my own mother against me. Thank you so much for speaking out David. I know MANY people have experienced this, far more than most in reformed circles want to admit.

  • Carson

    Reading this blog post last week reminded me, as I thought about it this weekend, of how much of Moses counsel to Israel had to do with care for and protection of the vulnerable — and how much time the minor prophets, in particular, identified exploitation of the vulnerable as a key sign of Israel’s apostasy from their covenantal relationship. Moses gave pastoral advice and encouragement in Deuteronomy regarding treatment of the poor, the weak, the diseased, the widows, the orphans, the ‘stranger’ in their midst, the new wife or newly divorced wife and more. Amos spent quite a bit of time pointing out to a wealthy and successful and very religious society in Israel that they were actually corrupt — a significant portion of the evidence presented to them was their treatment of the vulnerable in their midst: while they were in religious ceremony their minds were on the next day of transactions and how to leverage power into personal gain.

    So I personally took this blog post as more timely now upon reflection than I did initially. In times when mature economies like that of the U.S. create disproportionate roles in terms of position, influence, wealth and opportunity, the testimony of the Christian community should, on the positive side, follow Moses’ instruction to stand in sharp contrast in its commitment to avoiding exploiting this demographic stratification for personal gain and, on the negative side, be sensitive to Amos-like critiques telling us that we are “bearing Jehovah’s name emptily” in abusing power and if we act like the Canaanites, God will treat us like the Canaanites.

    Times of secular stratification, pace Moses and Amos (and even, e.g., the French economist Piketty) provide a challenge to the Christian community to maintain commitment to biblical care for each other as brothers and sisters, all equal family members; it also provides an important opportunity to demonstrate by example how Christ changes our core character because our reaction to stratified power and wealth is to use it as the One who provided the wealth intended: the broader culture will know we are Christians by the way we treat power and wealth — and each other.

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  • Mark Schaefer

    Okay, I’ll bite. Here’s an example that hits close to home. Since this is all public, I feel it is appropriate to use names. Joel Beeke in his book “Family Worship” promotes child abuse. He says, “Some of our family members won’t participate. There may be homes in which it is difficult to hold family worship. Such cases are rare, however. If you have difficult children, follow a simple rule: no Scripture, no singing, and no praying means no food. Say, “In this house, we will serve the Lord. We all breathe, therefore every person in our home must praise the Lord.” Psalm 150:6 makes no such exception, even for unconverted children. It says, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.””

    So, Beeke is advocating refusing to feed your children if they refuse to participate in family worship. He has apparently not repudiated this. He said this during a conference in 2012 on the subject:

    “So the next day you have family worship or that same night and there you see one of your children not singing, you pull him aside afterward and say ‘son, you will participate in this family worship’, and if he rebels and says, ‘Dad, I won’t do it’, you say, ‘son, no singing, no food.’ He will sing.”

    I think the problem is a problem of fear. We are afraid of calling out the abusers because we fear men more than God. God says the light exposes the deeds of darkness, but we have a better plan. We display grace through restoring the wolf and we show strong church discipline by beating the sheep. The sheep are powerless and the wolves have teeth. I will admit that I continue to live in fear of being bitten. I wonder if you’ll ever get to that. Abused sheep are messy, messy people. They’re bitter, they’re angry and they act out in very visible ways that church leaders think need to be disciplined, and the cycle continues.

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