Sunday, April 15, 2012

Elders Behaving Badly

The following is taken from a Facebook comment by Kevin Johnson, who blogs at  Kevin responds to two FB commenters who state that speaking publicly of one's spirutual abuse stories amounts to the blemishing of the good name of Christ, soiling the reputation of the church, aiding the enemy, and other such things.

Johnson has a much different view and responds to the commenters in what I think is a reasonable fashion, and calls attention to some things not routinely addressed in the blogoshpere over such matters.  I think his comment is valuable for us to read in the light of the many recent stories of authoritarianism and abuse coming out on the internet.  Kevin graciously allowed me to post his comment here on From the Pew.


It is a mistake of course to pretend that passages like 1 Timothy 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 6 woodenly apply to particular situations involving spiritual abuse when no real justice is available for the offended party via traditional means. Really, though, when does the Law of God ever woodenly apply without recourse to godly wisdom? While I agree that we should not go to secular law courts in general to solve Christian-only issues, there are times when such is required as a result of spiritual and/or physical abuse. In our society, aside from civil charges, criminal charges are brought by the State anyway and not by individuals. In the case of sexual and physical abuse on the part of ministers any such activity should be reported and brought to the authorities because that is generally required by law. So, we can't just quote 1 Cor. 6 and say that's the end of the story.

In America, freedom of religion makes real discipline in any Reformed environment absolutely voluntary and well beyond the sort of environment where all parties are able to receive justice at the hands of an ecclesial court. Denominational loyalties also generally preclude any sort of fair trial for laymen when brought against an elder and therefore one should think long and hard before going down that road. Sometimes the only right recourse is just to let people know what happened.

In the case of elders behaving badly and participating in spiritual and other abuse, the church needs to take care of the real widows and orphans caused by such men in the life of the church and not pretend that double honor is due only where an office exists and no real performer of that office is found except in the manifest ways he can display and model wickedness in the community of the faithful. The most severe punishment in the Scriptures is reserved for those who knew better yet still violated the term and intent of their office.

The warnings in Matthew 23 do not appear to be cushioned with the sort of statements wanting to preserve the good name of Jesus Christ, the reputation of the church, or the right of the local church to handle the problem contra making it so public. Rather, Christ matter-of-factly calls out men by name -- those sitting in the seat of Moses -- in a rather small community of people who undoubtedly knew who he was talking about. Furthermore, Christ makes clear to show the community that the system is broken and only prophetic rebuke and his coming is left to fix it. So, there is no need to think this could even be handled by local church discipline as John 9-10 make quite clear. And, the sort of descriptive terms our Lord used generally outweigh any sort of invective we've seen in the likes of testimony against people like Mark Driscoll in the links above.

The prophets of the Old Testament mirror similar concerns in passages like Ezekiel 34 where the messianic promise of Christ is wrapped up in freeing men and women from oppression at the hands of pastors and ministers behaving badly. In other words, the behavior displayed by those who practice spiritual abuse and ministerial malpractice is directly opposed to the mission and work of the gospel in and among the community of the people of God. Paul, too, has no problem excoriating certain men by name when found to be in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ even to the point of wishing them emasculated.

In Reformed circles, we are happy to eject men both out of the ministry and the church on what may seem the smallest of theological technicalities (cf. Frame, "Machen's Warrior Children") but we will not take similar action when similar men abuse their ministerial authority and use the leadership they have in ways that are unfaithful to God. This is a huge inconsistency that shows us where our real loyalties lie as Reformed church men and women. Often, we demonstrate that we care for our doctrines and our pet leaders more than we care for our fellow believers. And, that's just idolatry.

The Reformers of course had no problem speaking against ministerial corruption and naming names. Sometimes, they even used anonymous and very drastic means to do so in ways that would make even the strongest among us today wince. For example, I haven't seen anyone draw a cartoon where Mark Driscoll is ushering demons out of his posterior and other sorts of lambasting sixteenth-century divines had for those who supported the papacy. That's hardly an objective and fair rendering of the truth sufficient for us to make a qualified decision on the matter (as if the real reason for making things public is so we have the right to decide)! Somehow the Reformers knew they were telling the truth and had authority to speak prophetically in the community. Christians have not lost that today either in spite of what [commenter #1] or [commenter #2] might argue. For all their interesting methods, the Reformers valued transparency and consistency in calling a spade a spade and that was most certainly true in exposing ministerial corruption. Why we can't do the same is beyond me.

Telling the truth is not a scandal and does not hurt the name of Jesus Christ. If that were true, the Bible would be so much more bland than it is--filled with the details of corruption prophetically confronted even in the highest of sacred places in both the Old and New Testaments. It is only when we attempt to hide the truth that real scandal comes and continues to be enabled. Providing the truth on the Internet does not aid the enemy. The enemy is aided by works of darkness which elders behaving badly do in spades and under cover of their title and work because many congregants don't take their fellow believers seriously over and above their devotion to their pastoral leaders even when presented with irrefutable evidence from a variety of reliable sources or witnesses.

And, to tell people to be quiet when they speak against their leaders when you have no basis to judge the veracity of their comments can be just as damaging to the truth as not. Since you don't know what the truth is, speaking against outspoken voices can work to unduly silence those whom God has moved to make certain things public quite outside normal means. Rather, we should let anyone speak as they feel led and then the church and community can work to take action as required. After all, how many witnesses did Nathan bring to David? Or, Elijah to Jezebel? Yet, would it not be a mistake to have been there and spoken against God's prophets and his word to David or Jezebel? We have to realize that the call to silence a voice is as much a judgment as one that raises a concern in the larger community of the faithful -- and that's the hypocrisy of the position presented to us by [commenter #1] and [commenter #2] even if they haven't personally come to such conclusions.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. - Rom 12:9-16 NASB


  1. This is good stuff and a topic that gets very little attention in the church, even though spiritual abuse is as much a heresy as any of the other historical heresies we love to crab about. The real problem is the system, system that seems to attract a disproportionate number of men inclined or attracted to the opportunity to abuse. Getting rid of the system is the first step to eliminating the abuse.

    1. Arthur,

      It is interesting that you bring up the system, especially in light of the author here memtioning that Jesus was calling attention to the same thing; the system of the religious leaders was broken. Not much has changed from 2000 years ago.

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