Spiritual abuse is far from new, but recent scandals involving high-profile leaders have drawn renewed attention to this reality. Michael J. Kruger’s Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church brings a new resource to the conversation, rich with biblical foundations and practical applications.
Kruger isn’t the first name you might expect to see on the cover of a book about spiritual abuse. He’s a well-respected scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet, in his role as a professor and seminary president, he has witnessed several recent cases that compelled him to address the issue of spiritual abuse. “Sometimes,” he points out, “you do things not because you want to but because they need to be done.”
Bully Pulpit isn’t aimed primarily at abusive leaders. The book is directed first toward Christian leaders, churches, and parachurch organizations that may be hiring and enabling leaders whose practices are opposed to the ideals described in Scripture. Such leaders may embrace orthodox theology even as their habits of leadership distort or ignore the New Testament’s witness.
What spiritual abuse is—and isn’t
Early in the book, Kruger acknowledges potential misunderstandings related to the term spiritual abuse. He is careful to point out that not every sin a leader commits is spiritual abuse; nor is every slight that a member feels. Spiritual abuse can be confused with calling out someone’s sin, initiating church discipline, and engaging in other legitimate practices of pastoral care.
So why use the term spiritual abuse at all, given the possibility of such misunderstandings? Other terms have been deployed over the years, after all. In a work from 1868 entitled The Church of Christ, Scottish theologian James Bannerman used phrases like “spiritual tyranny” and “spiritual oppression” to describe patterns that we identify today as spiritual abuse. And yet Kruger rightly recognizes that even if it may be misunderstood at times, spiritual abuse does accurately describe abuse perpetrated by persons with spiritual authority.
Rather than abandoning the term, Kruger chooses to define spiritual abuse with clarity and care. His definition is central to Bully Pulpit and merits quotation in full: “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 a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.”
Kruger is careful not only to define what spiritual abuse is but also to point out what it isn’t. Although spiritual abuse can overlap with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, it shouldn’t be conflated with any of these. At times, it may be difficult to separate abusive tendencies from personality traits that are intimidating, unfriendly, or unintentionally insensitive. And yet love for the church compels every Christian to pursue the holiness of the church by identifying and confronting these patterns, despite the occasional difficulty of determining whether a particular act qualifies as spiritual abuse.
In the early chapters of the book, almost all the examples seem to come from high-profile megachurches, which could inadvertently give the impression that spiritual abuse happens primarily in these contexts. By the time Kruger moves to providing practical advice, however, it’s clear that spiritual abuse is no less common in small and plateaued congregations than in rapidly growing megachurches.
Authority isn’t the problem
The solution to spiritual abuse is not flattening an organization so that authority no longer exists. As Kruger points out, “the Bible doesn’t solve abusive authority by eliminating all authority.” Spiritual abuse is a real possibility precisely “because spiritual authority is a real category.” To make this case, Kruger turns to Scripture, beginning with humanity’s first sin and continuing through Eli’s failures as a priest and Israel’s demand for a king before moving to the words of Jesus and his apostles. The result is a deeply biblical vision for the proper function of authority among the people of God. Part of this vision is recognizing that, as Kruger puts it, “God will hold accountable not only the bad shepherds but also those who protect and enable them.”
Kruger is unabashedly complementarian, believing that God has ordained distinct and complementary roles for men and women. Yet he is not blind to the ways that abusive leaders distort biblical complementarianism. When that happens, a woman may be expected to submit to an abusive male leader not only because of his position in the church but also because of the mere and sheer fact that he is male and she isn’t. Kruger rightly refuses to excuse such misapplications of complementarian theology. This willingness to challenge those of us who share his convictions strengthens his argument.
Prevention, accountability, and protection
Bully Pulpit provides a concise guide to the tactics that an abusive pastor may employ to evade accountability, as well as a compassionate presentation of the impact of spiritual abuse on victims. In the end, the solutions that Kruger offers are not surprising, but they’re also not easy to faithfully adopt. Strategies include preventing abusive leaders from gaining positions of authority in the first place, holding leaders accountable and limiting their power, and providing protection and care for those who report spiritual abuse. He ends the book with a plea for leaders to watch their lives so that they don’t become spiritual abusers.
One of the most helpful sections of the book describes the ways an abusive pastor may manipulate people through partial—and usually highly emotional—expressions of apparent remorse. By confessing just enough misbehavior to elicit sympathy or to awaken hope that repentance has taken place, the abuser can manage to hold on to his position of authority. Chuck DeGroat, a pastor and prominent writer on spiritual abuse, has dubbed such tactics “fauxnerability.”
Kruger’s recommendations of prevention, accountability, and protection aren’t earthshaking or groundbreaking. They’re simple suggestions that require time, effort, and vigilance to implement. But they’re also deeply biblical responses to the problem of spiritual abuse. Here and throughout Bully Pulpit, one of the strengths of the book is its simplicity. Kruger is a scholar, yet he’s managed to produce a book that’s brief and straightforward, peppered with references to Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. A layperson can easily pick up this book and read it in a couple of days.
When the abuser is also the founder
The simplicity and brevity of this book are some of its greatest strengths, but that also means much had to be left out. There are several common dynamics that might have been helpful at least to mention.
To give one example, in several of the high-profile cases mentioned throughout the book, the abusive pastor was also the church’s founding pastor. Kruger rightly recognizes the importance of preventing a spiritually abusive leader from being called as the pastor of a church in the first place. But what happens when a successful founding pastor is also a spiritual abuser? In such scenarios, staff and members may be willing to enable abusive behaviors not because they fear the abuser but because they fear what will happen to the church if the founding leader is no longer in charge. People are unlikely to confront spiritual abuse if they believe that the abuser is necessary for the church’s survival.
Because of this dynamic, removing a spiritually abusive founding pastor can seem like removing a diseased organ from the body. The organ may be diseased, but it still feels as if the body cannot go on without it. And sometimes, the church has, in fact, been so built around a founding pastor ’s vision that the church will not survive in the same form after this leader’s exit.
But this is a tiny gap in an exceptional book that will serve churches well in years to come. The biblical and theological focus of Bully Pulpit provides a particularly helpful balance when read alongside more psychologically focused books like DeGroat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.
Recent scandals have forced us to face the issue of spiritual abuse in the church. Kruger calls us to admit the problem and equips churches with initial steps to take in the direction of lasting change.
Timothy Paul Jones is the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry and chair of the Department of Apologetics, Ethics, and Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.