Ezekiel 34 was in my Bible reading this week. What a sombre passage for pastors, for shepherds of the flock.
‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: "Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? … You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered...”
The term ‘spiritual abuse’ has crossed my radar several times in the last year in connection with evangelical churches, along with accounts of leaders stepping down or being asked to step aside because of the impact of their approach to ministry. These are not instances of sexual misconduct or violent temper, but of something more subtle.
Most recently a report was issued on the leadership of Steve Timmis, once pastor of a UK church network called The Crowded House, CEO of the Acts29 church planting network, and author of a number of books. A key finding in the report is that,
‘There is sufficient evidence … to conclude that whether intentionally or unintentionally the culture at The Crowded House was one in which some instances of emotional and/or psychological abuse took place as a result of persistent coercive and controlling behaviour in the name of Christian vision and ministry.’
Those are troubling words—“persistent coercive and controlling behaviour in the name of Christian vision and ministry.”
Ministry isn’t easy. Firm leadership and visionary leadership are necessary at times, hard decisions need to be taken, and church discipline needs to be exercised, but there can be an overall tone, or an underlying current to a man’s ministry that is far from helpful—and is in fact damaging to individuals and to the church. And being firm, or even being visionary, can cross over into being a bully. Or the manner of being firm, or being visionary, is not that of a biblical shepherd, but that of a coercive, manipulative bully.
A man may be a good preacher, and may be good in a variety of pastoral situations, but the key issue here is “How does he handle disagreement with his vision or viewpoint, or how does he handle people when they aren’t where he would like them to be?”
As I watched an interview regarding the report on Timmis, and in response to some of the things said there, I drew up this as a starter list of assessment questions for pastors and elders.
(I am well aware that those who are chaffing, or who have chaffed, under proper biblical leadership may want to use this article to point the finger, but that is not its purpose. I am also aware that for some it may flag up that what they assumed was right behaviour from their leaders is in fact far short of the standards Christ requires. May God grant help and wisdom.)
Nevertheless, those of us who are pastors or elders need to hold a searchlight on ourselves to ensure that we are not straying in Ezekiel 34 territory—shepherds who have ‘ruled harshly’ and ‘scattered’ the flock.
- Are you actually accountable as a leader? (Not just in theory, but can and do your elders hold you to account?)
- Do you retrofit your preferences with theology to push people into doing what you want, under the pretext of being gospel/biblical?
- Do you turn your preference for a particular behaviour into a sin issue when others fail to display it?
- Is it your way or the highway?
- Do we insist on getting our way—either by force of personality, huffing, emotional blackmail, or relentlessly grinding down opposing views?
- How do we treat those who haven’t agreed with us—ignoring, isolating, being distant, cutting them out of the loop?
- Is your expression of Christianity as seen in your temperament/personality the only valid expression?
- Are you one person in the pulpit and a different one out of it?
- Are we shepherds of the flock or bullies of the flock?
Many more questions could be added. But this is a place to start.
May God grant us humility to hold a mirror up to ourselves.