I knew of six seminarians who shared a house—all of them eager to serve the Lord and his church. Ten years after graduation, three of them were broken and wounded, having left churches after prolonged spiritual abuse from a senior pastor. Sadly, such experiences are far too common for the people of God. They come to a church looking to be fed and instead are fed upon.
There is no more timely work on this topic than Bully Pulpit by Michael Kruger, the president of Reformed Theological Seminary-Charlotte. In an age of pastoral scandals, spiritual abuse is often overlooked in relation to sexual abuse, but it is very prevalent and leaves incredible destruction in its wake. Kruger takes on this issue directly, biblically, and sensitively.
First, Kruger is very direct in engaging this issue, both by providing definitions and concrete examples. It would be easy to hedge on both fronts. Instead of introducing yet another anomalous term into our present linguistic mud puddle, he offers a foundational definition of spiritual abuse that allows ample room for assessment:
“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader—such as 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.” (p. 24)
Kruger proceeds to unpack each part of that definition. Alongside such precision, Kruger is not reluctant to name names. Yes, names such as Driscoll, Zacharias, and Hybels are by no means surprising to us. We might have preferred that he avoid stirring up or prolonging controversy by mentioning these names, yet it is precisely these examples that are so instructive for the rest of us. In learning these stories, we better understand why these things happen and how we can better care for the flock of God.
Second, Kruger engages this issue biblically. We can take this point for granted, but it is particularly necessary in light of the modern tendency to plug every issue into the culture wars narrative. Is the claim of spiritual abuse woke, or does it represent a victim mentality? Are we not just punching down on the church? Like “Trinity,” or “inerrancy,” there is no mention of spiritual abuse in the Bible.
Yet the theme of spiritual abuse is prevalent throughout Scripture. There are few who receive more scathing judgment from the Lord than those shepherds in the Old Testament who fed upon the flock rather than feeding them. One such rebuke comes in Ezekiel 34, where we’re told the shepherds did not feed the sheep, or heal the sick and wounded sheep, but fed and clothed themselves while ruling the sheep harshly. As Kruger concludes, “It’s not just that they failed to care for the sheep; rather, their domineering authoritarian leadership style proactively wounded them” (p. 46).
The predations of these Old Testament shepherds casts greater light upon the glory of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. “They saved their lives at the expense of the sheep, whereas Jesus will save the sheep at the expense of his own life” (ibid.). In Mark 10, Jesus subsequently rebukes James and John for desiring the power that would accompany sitting at his right and left hand. The One who would lay down his life for the sheep instructs us that it is the Gentiles who lord their power over others, but it shall not be so for Jesus’s own disciples. They shall make themselves into slaves of all (pp. 50–51).
Finally, Kruger deals sensitively with this sensitive issue in the church. He strikes just the right pastoral tone and blends stories and Scripture together in such a way as to make his case clearly while avoiding hyperbole. He shows how shepherds abuse, are aided in that abuse, and leave bloodied sheep behind them. While this pattern of sin and abuse stretches through history and the pages of Scripture, the reader cannot help but feel the tragedy of it all. It so twists and perverts the very heart of the gospel—that a Shepherd would lay down his life for the sheep.
Lest any of us ministers try to escape the burden of these charges, Kruger concludes the book by having us examine our own hearts and notice the indwelling sin that makes its way out in ministry. This closing diagnostic will leave the reader convicted and humbled. Not all of us are abused and some of us may very well be the abusers. The atoning work of Christ should be balm for the abused, conviction for those with abusive tendencies, and comfort for the church that still rests in the gentle palm of Jesus.
This book is essential reading for any pastor—alongside Dangerous Calling by Tripp and The Imperfect Pastor by Eswine, and it should be mandatory reading for sessions—alongside The Shepherd Leader by Whitmer. In accord with Scripture and our confessions, it should be used to mold a culture in our churches that encourages transparency, vulnerability, and accountability. Shepherds must take care not to wound the flock, nor should they fear wounds from the flock. Jesus shows us how to bear wounds and there is no one more uniquely qualified than him to bind wounds as well.