/ Nathan Eshelman

Bully Pew: the Problem of Spiritual Pewbuse in the Church

If you stumbled into a rabbit hole you may find several things that intrigue you. There may be keys and playing cards or caterpillars—and maybe even a rabbit. But just because you find keys, playing cards, and caterpillars does not mean that you’ve entered the world of the Red Queen and the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Sometimes it takes more. Jefferson Airplane said it like this: 

“One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall…”

I am working on a writing project that has taken me into various books on church relationships and communication. In the midst of that project, a beloved former professor of mine and churchman has resigned from the ministry, in part, because of what is currently being called "spiritual abuse." The idea of spiritual abuse is everywhere right now.

In the midst of my project, Michael Kruger’s Bully Pulpit was brought to my attention, so I read it. Bully Pulpit is subtitled “Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church.” As I read the book I was torn—do I think that the book is helpful? Do I think that it is a book that could do a lot of damage?

In some ways, “Yes!”

The book has useful information that can be used to discern a disturbing trend in the church—spiritual abuse. But at the same time, it may be used to find abuse that is not there. Both should concern us. In our catechisms, Presbyterians are very concerned for the relationship between superiors and inferiors. But in that same framework we also have a high regard for protecting truth and justice in an equitable way. This all troubles me.

I realize that as I write this I may be (will be?) accused of three things. The first is that I will be accused of gaslighting: “Of course he is taking that position—he’s probably an abusive pastor.” The second accusation will be that I am defending abusive pastors or protecting the good ol’ boys club. Also not true and I am willing to stand before my session, presbytery, synod, and Jesus Christ himself to give testimony to this as a fact. The third accusation will be that I am writing about a certain person or event--as if to defend so-and-so or against such-and-such. "Have you heard what's going on in my congregation?" "Have you read about that one church?" "I bet that you are thinking about that one thing!" Nope.

I believe that abuse in the church happens and I believe men must be held accountable for spiritual abuse. I have aided in cases where I believe leaders have been spiritually abusive and have sought justice for those hurting. And most importantly, I believe that Jesus will come in judgment on spiritual abusers of his little ones. It is serious business.

But not everything is abuse. Sometimes a white rabbit is just a white rabbit.

A Profitable Read

Bully Pulpit contained profitable insights and thoughts that pastors, elders, and educated laypeople should find useful. Kruger develops five traits of spiritual abusers that elders and others can look out for. He says that spiritual abusive leaders are: 


Yes on all five counts! He also expands the meanings of each. May Jesus protect his church from leaders that reflect these traits.

The Unloaded Gun

When I was twelve years old my father made me take a hunter’s safety course and to learn some skills to be able to go into the woods and hunt in a safe manner. Those lessons included “an unloaded gun is the most dangerous gun” and “don’t take the shot unless you are sure at what you are shooting.” 

You see there is nothing more dangerous than a person with a gun that is only looking for something to shoot. 

“I thought it was a deer!” 
“I didn’t realize it was loaded!” 
“I thought the safety was on!”

Every hunting season these types of excuses are made after someone loses an eye or a life. 

Bully Pulpit contains weapons that are powerful—weapons that, on the one hand, protect a church from spiritual abuse, but on the other hand, have the possibility of destroying a man’s ministry and family as well as destroying a healthy functioning congregation. Is the answer to say spiritual abuse doesn’t’ exist? Is the answer not to have these types of books that help churches to discern? No and no. Just like gun control does not stop senseless killing—denial does not stop spiritual abuse. 

We need wisdom, discernment, and training. If a gun is dangerous much more is a tongue not controlled by wisdom, "Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope for a fool than of him (Proverbs 29:20)." The words Bully Pulpit offers must be used carefully. What one sees as hypercritical may be discernment on the part of the pastor. What one sees as threatening may be passionate zeal for truth. What one sees as defensive may be explaining the Word of God. What one seems as manipulative may be Word-centered application. 

Is it always?
Does spiritual abuse exist?
Is the church in America on a spiritual-abuse-witch hunt?
"Well, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

If you are going to read Bully Pulpit, I would encourage discerning caution and discussing the book with someone that you trust, because there are red flags. It may be a better small group book where people have various experiences to shed light and to assist in discernment.

Red Flags 

Several of the areas that I would call “red flags” in the book are more like
rose flags…
Or vermillion flags…
Or pink flags. 

Here are some of them:

Power & Presbyterianism 

Early on in the book Kruger argues that “power” is to be limited in church leaders, such as pastors and elders. He said that this should be done because men have an ability to abuse power. By the end of the book he sets up a structure of accountability and structure that he claims will be useful in stopping abuse in the church. But early on he says that even in the 19th century James Bannerman agreed that power should be limited. Kruger said, “He argued we should limit the power of church leaders because it “excludes the the possibility of that power becoming an independent despotism or lordship in the hands of the rulers….” Kruger, 25.

What Kruger failed to tell his reader is that Bannerman is arguing that the way this is done is through the Presbyterian form of church government. This quote is in Bannerman’s section on ministerial and magisterial ideas of church government (See The Church of Christ, 247). To limit power as Krueger says--a good and necessary thing--may not mean developing new structures of accountability but by practicing the government already established in Presbyterianism!

Throughout Bully Pulpit Kruger speaks of bishops and American mega church structure—but not in a critical way; not discerning that our failure to follow Jesus’s ministerial model for church government has been part of the reason for spiritual abuse in the first place. We have given the scepter to men that are called to bend the knee to Jesus.

That’s a red flag. 


I have alluded to Kruger’s definition of spiritual abuse already, but here is his full definition. He says:

“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.” Kruger, 24. 

This definition is difficult. Imagine a man who is leading and is convinced he is “seeking biblical and kingdom related goals” but is being accused of being domineering, bullying, and intimidating. I understand that each of these things can occur and do—but they are so broad as terms that I would caution reading ministries through this lens. 

He thinks he’s building God’s kingdom. Was that bullying? Was he seeking to be domineering in what he just said? Again, I understand the definition, but I am afraid it is not the full story. Witch hunts are started with only half stories. 

I remember one time a young man approaching me who had taken a community college-level religion and Bible class. Smugly he started quizzing me on my knowledge of JEDP theory in relation to Mosaic authorship. His introduction to religion class had given him just enough boldness to confront me on my “fundamentalism” but not enough genuine knowledge to stand in the battle of the conversation. Kruger’s book gives some helpful and interesting insights, but it is a dangerous book in the hands of a novice. Ministries, pastorates, pastoral families, and congregations may be destroyed by a novice wielding this sword. We will see it happen. 

That's a red flag.


I hate to bring this up because not only will I be called a defender of abusers and a gaslighter (is that the right way to say that?)—I will also be called a misogynist. Kruger is a member of an egalitarian denomination. In the Introduction he says that he will use the pronoun “he” out of convenience and grammatical consistency. But he also says, that “This is not to suggest that women cannot be spiritually abusive…” Kruger, xix. Earlier he said that spiritual abuse is “when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization” acts in these ways? That means that women can be spiritual abusers--and spiritual leaders.

This egalitarian-bent surprised me because Kruger is the president of a seminary that primarily trains men for ministry in NAPARC churches—yet Kruger is not a member of a NAPARC church; he’s a member of a presbyterian denomination that allows for the ordination of female elders and pastors. Why does this matter? It matters because it makes me question where else God’s Word is compromised. Again, I understand how that makes me sound, but I am serious. If a man compromises on women in the leadership offices, where else does he compromise on areas of God’s Word? Not an accusation--but a question. I’m just being honest here. 

That is a red flag.

The Bogey Man

I wonder how pervasive spiritual abuse is in the church? Kruger seems to think that most of our churches are filled with abusers in leadership, at least that is how he presents the numbers. Kruger says that “63% of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of spiritual abuse, including coercion, manipulation, and and the defense of such behavior with a divine rationale.” Kruger, 5. That is a huge number! Scary actually, because there’s a bogey man in most of our churches at that rate. But it gets worse! Kruger says, “Whatever the hard numbers are for spiritual abuse, there is a good reason to think most instances still go unreported.” Kruger, 5. He says that in his research for the book, he "learned just how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Kruger, 5.

And to prove how overwhelming of a problem spiritual abuse is in our reformed and presbyterian churches, Kruger spends most of his time and examples on a few famous and extreme examples: Mars Hill's Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, Ravi Zacharias, and James McDonald. There were a few other examples of “cases he’s studied” but almost all of the examples in the entire book are these few over-the-top cases that made national and international news. 

Surely if 63% of respondents are being spiritually abused, there could be some Rev. Average Joe examples. Sensationalistic examples are unhelpful because they are so rare. It reminds of the oft-repeated story of the Puritan session that disciplined a man for not having sex with his wife enough. This case is shared to illustrate just how much Puritans appreciated marital sexual unions. Why is this story told on repeat? Because it is rare, not because it is common. 

If spiritual abuse is as common in more than half of our churches as the non-discerning reader may believe; then why are the examples sensational rather than examples from presbytery records in the more common corners of our average churches where pastors are doing ordinary things through ordinary means? I am not saying Kruger’s wrong—he may not be at all--but I am saying that we need to push pause and open our Bibles and discern what’s here. 

That's a red flag.

Not Everything is Abuse 

This is a helpful statement, but it is not enough. Kruger spends four pages out of 164 (plus front material) helping the reader—most likely a reader who picked up this book because he or she believes that spiritual abuse is occurring—to see that not everything is spiritual abuse. Kruger mentions several things that pastors and leaders may have that are not evidence of abuse: 

Intimidating personality
Not getting along with someone
Accidentally hurting someone
Confronting people’s sins 

This section needed much more ink spilled to help people to think through whether or not they’ve been abused by church leadership. He then tells us what Christian leaders are to be like, but in an overly simplistic and overstated way:

Gentle and lowly
Kind to everyone. 

If these are the required traits and a man is not living up to them, surely the claim of spiritual abuse is not far off. Many pastors will not be able to live up to this Victorian Jesus standard. (Was Jesus gentle and lowly? Yes. Does Jesus wear a MAGA hat? No.)

This is a red flag.  

Procedure and Churchmen

Kruger ends with some helpful and not-so-helpful advice for what to look for when looking for a spiritual abuser (See page 81 and following). Two of the “abusive” traits were that the abuser will gather a coalition of defenders around him and will insist on proper procedure being followed or complain when it is not. 

Sorry, what?

Defenders and procedure sounds an awful lot like biblical presbyterianism to me! Even Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery based, in part, on defenders and lack of proper procedure. And yes, that’s part of the Bible! 

If we are telling our people to look out for those that insist on proper procedure and use the courts of the church, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. We are gutting the checks and balances of presbyterianism and moving away from the biblically instilled protections that Jesus has put in place. Remember that Jesus created an institution—and one with courts. Courts presume procedure and… let me say it… parliamentarians! If we cannot follow proper procedure—agreed on procedure—then where is the abuse? From the one that won’t follow the pre-agreed on procedure or the one who insists that we should play by the rules we agreed to? 

This is a red flag.

Culture Creators 

The creating a culture that protects against spiritual abuse section was more helpful in some places than others. The red flag for me is that it seems (and I could be wrong) that Kruger would have us put down our presbyterianism and to bring in the professionals and the outside accountability to do the work of the church courts. This is dangerous as it sets up an alternate court—in one sense—a higher court; a court of professionals. 

That's a red flag.


WebMD is an interesting website. In the past week I have consulted it for some numbers related to glucose; I have read about a life-support machine; and have checked on some blood pressure facts. And that’s how WebMD is supposed to be used. For some though, WebMD is a constant reminder that a person has cancer… or maybe has cancer…
doesn’t have cancer.

WebMD can be misused because there’s just enough information there to inform some and to scare others. If you suspect you have cancer—go to your doctor, don't just check WebMD.

Bully Pulpit has just enough information to inform or to scare. Hopefully those who are abused are getting the comfort—or beginnings of comfort—that Jesus Christ promises to his hurting lambs. Some do have cancer.

Other’s don’t. For some, Bully Pulpit is being picked up and used against pastors and elders who are not abusive. Bully Pulpit may lead to Bully Pews. We need to be cautious and wise. 

Not all in the rabbit hole is to be feared—go ask Alice. 

“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head”

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

Read More