Why is There So Much Pastoral Abuse in Churches? Part 1

photo of church during daytime

One of the most talked about topics in Christendom today is the subject of spiritual authority. Christian women are told to remain under the covering, or authority, of their husband, no matter how irresponsible, irrational, violent, and ungodly the man becomes. Congregates in the local church are told to submit to the authority of elders, who are to rule over them. Simple maxims are proclaimed to remind individuals to submit. “The Obedient Needs Only to Obey.”

Is it any wonder that there is much abuse in the home, based on the contractual commitment of marriage? Is it any wonder there is much abuse in the local assembly based on a signed contract of church membership?

More often than not, Church membership is mandatory in both Catholic and Protestant structures, if a Christian desires to be useful in the local assembly. Almost without exception, the membership document contains a provision which is designed to ensure the authority of the priest, pastor, elder, or deacon over every facet of one’s life. All of this is being done in the name of Jesus. Praise be to God!

Only too late do individuals realize that spiritual autonomy in Christ, and the priesthood of the believer, is being eroded, or surrendered, when a document is signed submitting to an authoritarian structure.

Only too late are individuals realizing that the oath they have taken in order to join a local church is helping to perpetuate pastoral abuse for “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). Time and again pastors and elders in local churches are assuming absolute power over church members to the point that individuals cannot divorce without the approval of the session, take a new job, get married, relocate, or leave the assembly at will, without being placed under church discipline, if permission is not granted.

It was for a good reason that Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, had something important to say about taking an oath.

“But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word “yes’ be “yes,’ and your “no’ be “no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:34-37, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

The modern-day practice requiring prospective members to take an oath, or to sign a document, referred to as a Membership Contract, a Church Membership Covenant, or simply a Church Covenant is nothing less than a binding legal contract, designed to enhance the power of those in charge, and also, to make sure money flows from your pocket to the coffers of the assembly. Requiring ten percent of one’s income is common.

In the New Testament, there is no fixed amount a person is required to give. The principles of grace giving are set forth in 2 Corinthians 8 – 9, but never a percentage. Guided by the Holy Spirit the time, place, and amount of God’s resources that are to be distributed, should be based on the overarching concept, that Jesus Himself set forth saying, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

With a steady flow of finances, and a signed contract surrendering personal spiritual autonomy, the foundation is laid for pastoral abuse.

Upon close examination, many church membership covenants are written in such a way as to protect, and enhance, an authoritarian structure. Some church covenants use precise legalese language, containing instructions on whether, and how, questions, criticism, and concerns can be raised. Why? Because pastors and teachers, and other congregational leaders in an authoritarian church is vigorously opposed to Christians who think and act independently of the church’s leadership. It is better to come under their spiritual covering, or authority. It is for you own good. Always.

While the Bible teaches that God’s work is to be done God’s way, decently and in order, the policies and stipulation in many church membership covenants allow for pastoral abuse, even if a person has a legitimate concern, criticism, or simply desires to leave the fellowship to avoid controversy.  

In his book, Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek To Rule Over Others, Wade Burelson offers contemporary examples of this truth.

Example 1:

In a high-profile case, several years ago a woman in Texas annulled her marriage after discovering that her husband engaged in sexual abuse.

Her church subsequently ruled that she had violated its covenant by failing to obtain church leaders’ permission to file for an annulment.

The church explained that by “signing the Membership Covenant, a member agrees … to receive our care ….”

When she then wished to withdraw her membership, the church would not allow her to do so. It explained that since the woman had refused to come under their care, the leaders had placed her under church discipline — and members under discipline cannot withdraw from membership.

We have been perplexed by your decision to file for an annulment of your marriage without first abiding by your covenant obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders. As I [Pastor Matt Younger] mentioned in my first letter, this decision violates your covenant with us–and places you under discipline. Per section 10.5 of The Village Church bylaws, you are prohibited from voluntarily resigning membership while subject to the formal disciplinary process. We cannot, therefore, accept your resignation.

After much negative publicity, church leaders later apologized to the women, stating that “after further review of her situation, that she did have biblical grounds for divorce or annulment, that she should have been released from Covenant Membership as she requested and that she should not have been put under church discipline.”

Some view the apology as an effort at damage control, rather than a genuine sign of repentance over having engaged in spiritual abuse.

Members under church discipline cannot withdraw their membership

Example 2:

After suffering through many years of emotional and psychological abuse, a woman in Massachusetts divorced her husband.

She told her pastors that shortly after she and her then-husband had completed several months of biblical counseling, the man had reverted to his abusive behavior.

The church leaders disagreed with her reasons for divorcing her husband, and tried to pressure her into reconciling with him.

The woman then sent a letter to the church, resigning her membership.

The church refused, stating, “The covenant that you entered into when you became a member does not permit you to resign during circumstances such as these.”

A local newspaper reported:

Despite her break with the church — and even after her lawyer sent two cease-and-desist letters asking church officials to stop contacting her — she received a letter from the church’s elders that said, in part, “if you will not re-engage in conversation or repent of   your own sinful response then we are called to continue to pursue you.”

In their letter, the church leaders outlined their intended course of action, which included sharing details of her ‘sinful response’ with others “[if] we have not heard from you by December 23rd ….”

The church finally accepted her letter of resignation two weeks after the paper had sought the leaders’ comments on this situation.

Meanwhile, such spiritual abuse continues not just in that church, but in many churches like it. (APOLOGETICS INDEX, on the web).

Why is there so much pastoral abuse in churches? One reason is because an oath is taken, contrary to the counsel of Christ.

To be continued…

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