Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, Michael J. Kruger. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022. Hardcover, 164 pages.
Back in about 2006, there was a lot of excited talk about a new celebrity pastor in Seattle. Guys especially appreciated Mark Driscoll’s no-nonsense approach to being men. And the fact that he claimed to be a Calvinist (albeit four points) was an added attraction. So I bought his book Confessions of a Reformisssion Rev.. While thought-provoking, it also contained some deeply concerning language about people in his church. He asked, “Do you have the guts to shoot your dogs?” By that he meant, among other things, eliminating “loser leaders” and “pathetic people.” Elsewhere in the book he referred to the church needing a colon so it can get rid of sick people. In due time, Driscoll’s world came crashing in on him along with allegations of spiritually abusive behaviour. It was all documented in the powerful Christianity Today podcast, ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.’
Now it’s easy to throw stones over at Driscoll and other fallen celebrity pastors, but we need to consider whether we have our own problems with spiritual abuse. For example, there are stories of victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence being placed under discipline, while their abusers aren’t. As I look back over my own ministry so far, I feel convicted that I’m implicated in this problem as well. It’s an easy trap to walk into.
That’s why this book by Michael Kruger is so important. As a pastor (PCA) and seminary professor (Reformed Theological Seminary), he’s been around and seen a thing or two. He’s written this book as a church leader for other church leaders to help identify and stop spiritual abuse.
What is spiritual abuse? Kruger defines it like this:
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 means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals. (p.24)
Now, as he points out further, applying this definition can be tricky. Just being unfriendly or intimidating by nature isn’t spiritual abuse. Nor is accidentally hurting someone or confronting sin (although sin is sometimes confronted in an abusive manner). These complexities can make it difficult to identify and to hold accountable those responsible.
Though it’s not a long read, Kruger seems to cover all the questions that might arise. How do powerful spiritually abusive men manage to get away with it? What about Matthew 18 and “meeting with the monster”? How do church leaders deal with their suspicion of false accusations? What are some ways that the risk of spiritual abuse can be mitigated? Kruger answers all these questions and more with sound, biblically-informed wisdom.
It’s a weighty problem. Kruger writes, “Anyone who thinks spiritual abuse is a minor problem has not reckoned with the documented devastation” (p.109). He notes how it can lead to doubts concerning the church, Christianity itself, about God, and finally about oneself. Kruger describes how spiritual abuse can result in trauma and subsequent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
For spiritual abuse survivors, experiences that remind them of their abusive pastor or church situation usually trigger these [PTSD] effects. These triggers could be something as simple as going to church, hearing a sermon, or seeing individuals from their former church. A complicating factor in spiritual abuse cases is that the abuse is perpetrated by an institution or a person the victim knew and trusted, known as ‘institutional betrayal.’ Studies have shown that abuse within a trusted relationship is significantly more traumatic than abuse by a stranger. (p.101)
When a parishioner struggles with church attendance, it might be worth considering whether he or she has experienced spiritual abuse in the past.
I’d recommend Bully Pulpit to all pastors and elders. It would definitely be a worthwhile book for consistories to discuss. In addition, it should be required reading for all seminary students and other aspiring office bearers. For the sake of the gospel and out of love for Christ’s sheep, we have to do better — Michael Kruger will help us.