Spiritual Abuse is real. It must be called out and confronted…
The case that spiritual abuse is rampant at Midway Presbyterian Church has been well made in the past. Former pastors who resigned have warned about it repeatedly, the unchecked misuse of church discipline make it evident, and the behavior of the Session under the Senior Pastor’s guidance continue to enable it.
The sad truth is that unchecked spiritual abuse is a self-perpetuating condition in the church. Each time a congregation allows an abuser to proceed in this behavior without consequence, the message is sent that this behavior is acceptable, and is therefore not the disgrace before Jesus Christ that it actually is.
There are many definitions and expositions of what spiritual abuse is and how it manifests. Perhaps one of the most concise definitions is provided by Dr. Scott Clark of the “Heidelblog”, a blog that focuses on ”Recovering the Reformed Confession”. In a post titled “A Beginner’s Guide To Addressing Spiritual Abuse In The Church”, he writes:
“The malevolent, ungracious use of the authority or processes of the church to lord it over the laity or other officers in the church for personal gain, emotional or psychological manipulation, or for the exercise of ungodly or undue control over others, which infringes upon Christian liberty and that violates the second table of the moral law of God.”Dr. Scott Clark, Hiedelblog, March 17, 2021
Dr. Clark is careful to avoid subjective feelings from being a part of his definition – and for good cause. He writes that this ”is not because our feelings and experiences are unimportant. They are but they cannot be defining of spiritual abuse because feelings of hurt may or may not be an indicator of spiritual abuse…Those who have been abused frequently report that they felt confused, hurt, or angry by they way they were treated by the pastor.”
He describes the misplaced trust and suspension of discerning instinct that sometimes can form between congregants and pastors in counseling settings which have led to sexual abuse. If it is common for one to suspend their critical thinking to such a degree that they can be convinced that sexual contact is a natural part of the counseling process, how much more can a wide range of people believe that submission in all things to the authority in the church is always proper? An extreme example of this is Ravi Zacharias and the shameful way the legacy of his ministry will be remembered. While there is no evidence of sexual abuse at Midway Presbyterian Church, it is not at all a stretch to see how a culture of blind submission and trust of church authority structures or personalities can lead to that destructive outcome.
Midway Presbyterian Church exhibits a church culture where the pulpit is used to remind the congregation to trust and submit to their elders (even to the point of sacrificing their duty to select their own leaders), and these same elders have codified policies that demand blind conformity of thought through the insistence that any elder that disagrees with the majority must resign or face church discipline. This policy has sadly been used to indict and charge one third of the Ruling Elders at the church.
Does anyone really believe that Midway has that many misbehaving Ruling Elders? Maybe this is why the basis for their charges are kept in secret reports and their trials are conducted in secret. The charade that is Midway’s Session holding the powerful sword of church discipline at the throats of their own is all too real.
A Key Manifestation of Abuse: Misused Church Discipline
“How might spiritual abuse manifest itself? There are almost as many ways to commit spiritual abuse as there are abusers but here are some possible examples. One overarching example is bullying or intimidation. It is one thing for a pastor to say, “sister, I believe that your behavior/attitude is sinful” but it is another thing for a pastor or elder to use his authority to bully or intimidate someone into cooperating or submitting out of fear of retribution of some kind. This is especially true if the bullying is done in the interests of covering up some other misbehavior or abuse.”Dr. Scott Clark, Hiedelblog, March 17, 2021
Look no further than the indictment and conviction of Ruling Elder Philip Dudt. He sent an email in temperate language to his congregation that included a publicly available report from the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) that exposed that Midway’s Session was improperly controlling who was to be allowed to serve on the Session. Was the subsequent church discipline he was subjected to in congruence with the Scripture, or was it more about bullying and punishing an elder for stepping out of line ”in the interests of covering up some other misbehavior or abuse”?
Consider also the indictment and charges against Ruling Elders Clay David, James Scott, and Don Barnett. They signed a credible report (the authoring of which is a protected right in the PCA) that outlined alleged procedural deficiencies and grossly unconstitutional proceedings of the Northwest Georgia Presbytery. This report has been found to be credible by multiple entities within the PCA and is under current investigation – which includes Midway Senior Pastor David Hall’s written false attestations. Was the subsequent church discipline they are currently undergoing in congruence with the Scripture, or is it more about bullying and punishing elders for stepping out of line ”in the interests of covering up some other misbehavior or abuse”?
Dr. Clark reminds readers of the exhortation in 1 Peter 5 to elders ”So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
Using the unscriptural Tally Resolution to suppress dissent is the means by which the Session has perpetrated a vile war against its own elders as it demands compulsion in the most domineering fashion. The Session has not exercised oversight, it has exercised spiritual abuse.
A Key Manifestation of Abuse: Misused Pulpits
Another kind of spiritual abuse outlined by Dr. Clark is a playing loose with the truth. Examples of this at Midway Presbyterian Church have been documented elsewhere and at great length. Dr. Clark states:
“One of the more difficult categories of spiritual abuse involve the intentional warping of reality wherein the pastor/elder knowingly lies or twists the truth in order to make a member believe something to be true that is not. This is otherwise known as “gaslighting.” Paul-Mikhail C. Podosky, distinguishes between naive or unintentional gaslighting and intentional gaslighting. Of the latter he writes, “…Gaslighting occurs when a speaker uses words with the intention that hearers come to form negative attitudes toward their own interpretive abilities.” It is not just that the abuser creates doubt in the mind of a lay-member but that he intentionally works to create doubt in mind of a member about the member’s ability to interpret reality.”Dr. Scott Clark, Hiedelblog, March 17, 2021
Recent sermons from Midway’s pulpit have clearly outlined that the leadership of the church believes it has special discernment not possessed by the mere members to solve problems in the church as well as to select its leaders. Clear assertions that purging the church is healthy and good are preached and all the while the tired mantra of ”trust your elders” makes all too clear that those who fear loss of their authority must continually reassert that they have it.
Dr. Clark correctly ties this sort of behavior, described by others as Eisegesis, as a dangerous form of narcissism. The consequences for this sin are great as one day each who has misused the pulpit will have to give an answer to Christ for how they behaved in His Father’s house:
“Ministers of Word and Sacrament are entrusted with the greatest authority in human life. They help to use the keys of the Kingdom of God (Matt 16:19; Heidelberg 82–84). Thus, they bear an even greater responsibility than civil magistrates. Their ministry affects the eternal souls of image bearers and they have a sacred trust, for which they shall give an account to the Chief Shepherd.”Dr. Scott Clark, Hiedelblog, March 17, 2021
Consider Those Who Can End the Abuse
Dr. Clark had much more to say on the topic of spiritual abuse. Notably, he identifies spiritual abuse as nothing new in the history of the church. Particularly for Reformed audiences he observes:
“The Reformation sought to address the doctrinal roots of the moral corruption but also the practice of immorality in the clergy. Reformed polity was intended, in part, to curb and prevent moral corruption by holding ministers and elders accountable but the system only works if we are faithful to our callings.
All church polities (governments) are flawed. Episcopal polity tends toward tyranny by bishops and popes. The radically democratic polity of congregationalism tends toward the tyranny of the mob. The weakness of P&R polity is that it relies upon fellow elders and ministers to hold one another accountable. It is a great temptation for the consistory (session) to defend the minister at all costs. It is a greater temptation of the classis (presbytery) to become a sort of union, where the ministers and elders deflect criticism and charges so that it becomes a sort of old-boys network: “I will not charge you if you will not charge me.” The strength of P&R polity, which we will address in the next installment, however, is its graded or broader assemblies (courts). If a local assembly fails in its duty to correct or remove an abusive officer, there is another assembly who can address the matter. If that assembly fails or refuses, there is yet a third and sometimes a fourth assembly to which an injured layman can complain or appeal for redress.”Dr. Scott Clark, Hiedelblog, March 17, 2021
The message is clear. Readers are encouraged to consider that what the Senior Pastor at Midway has criticized as “congregationalism” is in fact the proper working of the Presbyterian court system in the PCA. The complaints and credible reports ongoing are not divisive. They are proper, appropriate, and needed cries for help to those who can end the abuse.
The only question that remains is will the Northwest Georgia Presbytery hear the cries of the people at Midway Presbyterian Church and act to curb clear abuse, or try in every way to protect the “old-boys network”. The truth of it will soon be known.