When I was in seminary there were two sins—all too common among pastors—that frightened me so much I nearly gave up my pursuit of the ministry. One of those was the sin of spiritual abuse. After all: “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed by lambs.’” Twice more he brought Peter’s love to the test, and each time bid him to have a careful regard for his sheep. Our love to Jesus is, to a certain extent, shown by the way in which we treat the sheep. If he is a liar who says he loves God but hates his brother, I suspect it cannot be good for that one who says he loves the Great Shepherd but hates the Shepherd’s sheep.
Yesterday Christianity Today reported that celebrity pastor Darrin Patrick, had been fired from the mega-church he pastored in St. Louis. They reported: “[The church] 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.” Unfortunately, Patrick isn’t alone. Manipulation and dictatorial rule are becoming an increasingly common headline, and that’s only from those instances that catch the public eye. There are countless untold stories of those who have suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of those who should be tending them. Even in my short tenure as pastor I have met those inside and outside of the church whose hearts have been wounded or crushed by those who “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). It’s as if many have become deaf to Jesus’ words: “Feed my sheep.”
I understand there are difficult questions. We live in a victimhood culture where biblical truth, boldness, and legitimate discipline are sometimes misconstrued and twisted into abuse. Whatever difficulties there may be, there remains absolutely no excuse for the spiritual abuse that has become prevalent in many churches. So we cannot afford to be mute on this subject. Spiritual abuse isn’t only perpetrated by celebrity pastors. No one is immune, and before we or our churches become the next headline—far more than that, before we bear the guilt of causing one of Jesus’ little ones to stumble, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As my former professor and friend David Murray challenged in his response: “Let’s shine the ‘Spotlight’ on ourselves.”
Even as Presbyterians—if I can write personally for a moment—we ought to be given to this self-reflection. It is too easy to point the finger and think such abuses and domineering leadership are more suited to organizations and congregations without a plurality of elders or a system of church courts. I hold firmly to my Presbyterian principles and am convinced that they often guard against and deter abuses of power or danger to the sheep. But Presbyterianism hasn’t for one day given immunity from sin. It is, to put it bluntly, no absolute safeguard against spiritual abuse. Even with our principles the weak can still be marginalized, the minority can still be silenced, the struggling can still be dealt with harshly, the questioning can still be gagged, the hurt can still be ignored, the pulpit can still be turned into the bully pulpit, the governed can still be domineered over, fallible elders can still feign infallibility, arrogance can still triumph over humility, and the very courts given for review and appeal can still become a good ol’ boys club. Spiritual abuse can flourish even within a biblical Presbyterianism.
Shine the spotlight on ourselves. Jesus said: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” We need to do better, we must do better. “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).