The report describes what spiritual abusers look like and signs of abuse in your church. Read a summary of its findings here.
On the eve of the 49th General Assembly to be held in Birmingham, Alabama on June 21-24, 2022, the “Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault” has been released.
According to the PCA’s website, “The 47th General Assembly created a seven-man Study Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault in 2019.” The report covers multiple forms of abuse, including spiritual abuse by pastors and leaders in the church (Section 6).
We encourage you to read the entirety of Section 6 and the full report for yourself. A summary of some of the main ideas is presented below.
Recognizing Misuse of Spiritual Authority
The report begins with a chilling fact: “The reports of abusive spiritual leadership and/or moral failure by called and ordained shepherds is increasing worldwide.”
The report explains that “Spiritual abuse may be manifested by,” among other things, “[e]motional or psychological manipulation based on Scripture” and “[i]ntimidation, coercion, and demand for conformity to non-biblical standards.”
Abusive leaders employ “a misuse of Scripture and of the victim’s desire to please God and their leader,” and the consequence is that “Congregations and the Body of Christ suffer morally and existentially beyond the purely secular and legal definitions of abuse.”
“Spiritual abuse is an attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs. The Salvation Army includes ‘when spiritual authority is misused to manipulate peoples’ emotional responses or loyalty for the benefit of the church, institution, or of another individual.'”
Contrary to authoritarian leaders, the report says the “type of leadership Christ intended for His kingdom involves abandoning all self-serving motives and authoritarianism (described as ‘lording it over’ in Matthew 20) for the sake of God’s people.”
Abusive church leaders are described as rejecting the type of leadership Christ intended. “When confronted, they shift blame. Oppressive leaders wield power and are averse to sacrifice. They are unwilling to relinquish the control that power brings and instead use it to build their own kingdom. God casts the most severe judgment on this abusive type of shepherd.”
“Abusive leaders fail to apply the gospel to how they lead,” such as in the example of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. “Rehoboam was authoritarian in his leadership and Israel paid greatly. In Rehoboam’s foolishness, God’s people suffered a ‘split’ in the kingdom.”
While “the Lord repeatedly calls those who oppress to repentance,” sometimes going so far as to consume “them in His wrath,” those “who stand against oppressive behavior and on the side of the oppressed reflect the Lord’s heart for His people.”
Modern examples of spiritual abuse are cited from the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.
The church presents “a favorable environment” in which spiritual abuse can grow because it “enables the abuse of the people it purports to protect.”
Characteristics of Abusive Pastors and Their Supporters
Moving on, the report describes typical traits of spiritual abusers. “The primary leader of an abusive organization may be charismatic, charming, and/or particularly gifted at preaching. This type of leader draws others in and drives the system. People are attracted by magnetic personalities and may voluntarily or even involuntarily become participants in authoritarian and/or abusive leadership. Followers may be driven by the vision of the leader and will protect his position for the church and/or organization and for their own sense of power in the system.“
Successful abusers can indirectly persuade other leaders and church members to support him. “Non-abusive leaders and/or members may also become complicit in the misuse of spiritual authority if they turn away claims or ignore the occurrence.”
Even worse, these pastoral supporters may try to dissuade others with claims that speaking the truth is damaging to the church. “They may protect the leader because they have not themselves experienced the abuse others have. Complicity likewise occurs when people believe that truthfulness damages Christ’s name or the reputation of his church. When leaders practice oppressive behaviors, those who experience the abuse or receive a report have a responsibility to seek healing and justice. Christ’s name and reputation are glorified when the church stands against those who damage others.”
The Apostle Paul teaches us to reveal the truth: “Do not participate in the useless deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
Signs of Spiritual Abuse in Your Congregation
The report provides several warning flags that indicate your congregation may be suffering from abusive leadership.
Spiritual abusers may demand absolute allegiance. “For a spiritually abusive leader, the only acceptable path for followers is obedience.”
They may use language of exclusivity. “A spiritually abusive leader’s way is the right and true way; everyone else is wrong or misguided.”
Spiritual abusers surround themselves with yes men. “A spiritually abusive leader encourages a cult of personality consisting of ‘yes people’ isolated from the needs of others in the congregation. Often, a charismatic leader will slip into arrogance, defensiveness, and pride.”
Spiritual abusers remove their critics. “A spiritually abusive leader does this surrounding himself with only those who commit to absolute allegiance. Those with legitimate concerns are considered enemies, banished, or battered into submission, and/or crushed.”
The complicit session of a pastor who engages in spiritual abuse will not confront him because he has established a culture of “Unswerving allegiance from the inner circle.” This results in “Fear of a spiritually abusive leader” that “prevents anyone from confronting [him] with their concerns.”
In a congregation suffering from long-term spiritual abuse, the church members are afraid to publicly disagree with their session. “The leadership of the [abused] church has significant public prestige and has undue influence on their membership. Members have great difficulty disagreeing with their leaders due to the power of spiritual authority they exhibit.”
The abusive leaders will wield Matthew 18 as a weapon against anyone who does attempt to publicly speak up in order to maintain a false image of piety. “Much is made in the church of keeping up an image of piety among members and the church as an organization. The leadership may hide behind passages such as Matthew 18 when members complain openly about the leadership.”
Abusive church leaders will not admit guilt or accept responsibility. “When responding to criticism, they emphasize denial and damage control. Their first response to criticism is that leadership in the church would ‘never do such a thing.’ The leadership tends to first look for ways to lessen the impact on attendance, giving, and reputation. They may look for ‘scapegoats’ to shift the responsibility of leadership failure.”
Abusive leaders close their ears to criticism. They become “Willfully unresponsive” and their “Humility is lacking. There appears to be little willingness to hear criticism. Therefore, the church fails to change.”
How to Take Action
The problem with spiritual abuse by church leaders is that they have made it very difficult to take action against them.
“An organizational misuse of spiritual authority is particularly difficult for victims to identify and seek to rectify. Abuse typically involves more than one leader, so there may be little support to confront the abusive leadership. Because the organization (group) has exhibited the above abusive attitudes and actions, and any disagreement is seen as disloyal or rebellious, it is problematic for the victim to find others who can confirm abuse is taking place.”
Victims of spiritual abuse tend to doubt themselves due to their love of Christ and innate respect for His church, traits which have been taken advantage of. “Abuse by a ‘man of God’ is confusing, which creates significant difficulty for reporting. Spiritual abuse causes one to doubt their own perceptions. Victims may be paralyzed as they struggle with how to respond.”
However, the report provides encouragement on how to act in the face of such difficulty, supplying guidance on bringing charges against abusive pastors. It also explains how congregations can remove abusive leaders:
Should the congregation wish to remove a Teaching Elder due to his spiritual abuse, they are required to follow these steps: 1. “…there shall always be a meeting of the congregation called and conducted in the same manner as the call of the Pastor (BCO 23-1).” 2. The meeting must be presided over by a ruling or teaching elder of the PCA. 3. The will of the congregation (as voted upon) is presented to the Presbytery for approval for the “dissolution of the pastoral relation.”
The report issues a somber warning: “Some of the most charming and likeable leaders are also the most adept at hiding evil behavior.”
It defines “authoritarianism” as “The enforcement or advocacy of strict adherence to authority at the expense of personal freedom.”
“Harsh, authoritarian, and abusive leadership is roundly denounced by God and the Westminster divines,” the report determines. “It must likewise be denounced by the modern church.”
Read the full report by clicking here: Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault