My friend Wendy over at Practical Theology for Women has started writing a bit about spiritual abuse. She mentions that there is something afoot in evangelicalism now surrounding the misuse of authority. I basically agree. I would get more specific and point out (as other bloggers have already) that one focal point for scandals and controveries and bad blood surrounding the misuse of spiritual authority is the young, restless Reformed world. The most recent case would merely be Sovereign Grace Ministries but it's not the only case. People will remember the pastoral firing cases at Mars Hill in Seattle from 2007. Other people will remember the fracas about R. C. Sproul Jr and the allegations about tax identification number fraud and the allegation of abuse of spiritual authority over there.
Still others will be mindful of Doug Wilson's alleged flip flop about how sexual predators should get the death penalty unless the convicted sex offender is someone he considers repentant and sufficiently valuable to keep in an important part of the Kirk. Then people got upset that it seemed Wilson was trying to have things both ways. If a person attempts to dismiss all of this as so much false accusation it's still perplexing that such a wide variety of groups in neo-Calvinist land seem able to land in controversy over even ALLEGATIONS of misuse of spiritual authority.
From Ezekiel 34
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
The bad shepherd of God's people takes care of himself and his own interests. He eats the curds, clothes himself with the wool of the sheep, and slaughters the choice animals from the flock, but does not really take care of the flock. He does not strengthen the weak, heal the sick, or bind up the injured. He doesn't go bringing back the strays or looking for the lost. Those sheep are not valuable to him. He rules harshly and brutally and the sheep scatter because this shepherd is not really a shepherd and the scattered sheep then become food for wild animals.
This bad shepherd feeds off the milk and milk products of the sheep. He shears the sheep for wool with which to clothe himself. He slaughters the choice animals once in a while. But this metaphor seems too simple to stretch for application, doesn't it? It couldn't be that there are pastors who value church members because they tithe regularly and for little more than that. It couldn't be that there are pastors who keep track of who has been giving and only make a point of counseling and helping the "faithful" sheep. It's not really likely that in the midst of a dispute about the use of power or the direction of a church on doctrine or polity that a pastor would slaughter the choice sheep in the flock just to prove a point. It's not as though pastors exist who decide that when the best sheep in the flock leave by hundreds or even thousands that they're just bad sheep and they can just get more who are more useful. And it's not as though when this happens that they would just decide to tell themselves that those old sheep just didn't have what it took to live sacrificially enough to be of service to the church.
Now God does address bad sheep who destroy the soil and devour the grass, who muddy the waters so that other sheep cannot drink clean water, but this blog entry is chiefly (and obviously) concerned with what the Lord says through Ezekiel about shepherds. The wicked shepherd sees the flock as something to be used and from which to extract profit rather than a flock to be served.
A commenter named Luma pointed something out over at Wendy's blog, not all spiritual authority is misused in formal church settings. Another kind of misuse of spiritual authority happens in the home. If parents use their spiritual authority inherent in being parents in ways like the bad shepherd this is still a misuse of authority, too. Yet there are Christian parents who would be alert to the misuse of authority in someone else who don't think twice about pulling rank in the absence of a truly compelling position.
Conversely, there are churches where their leaders speak swiftly to address what they consider spiritually abusive uses of authority by the parents or family members of church members but do not observe that they themselves employ the same kinds of tactics. I know of counseling pastors who could confidently tell church members their families were spiritually abusive and yet thought nothing of pulling rank, refusing to explain things, and assuming the worst about people ... those things they considered spiritually abusive in people who weren't members of the church. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then if it's not a duck what is it? A spiritual authority who would say "a duck" for anyone else will, for himself, say that he's really a pheasant and that we must not misunderstand the reality of the God-given authority he has to serve us. Or so he may say.
A pastor once wrote that one of the peculiarities of sin in our lives is that an adulterer may denounce adultery in others yet rationalize his own philandering. There are kinds of Christians who would not hesitate to denounce a prosperity gospel in another preacher or teacher who think nothing of a de facto prosperity gospel in their own life and teaching. There are Christians who are keenly alert to a propensity to use authority (actual or presumed) as the basis from which to demean, belittle, denounce, and attack others coming from other Christians who habitually, even on an hour by hour basis, do the same kind of thing. This has been so commonplace that now the world expects every high profile minister who rails against perverted sex to be a sexual deviant himself. Ted Haggard was famous for speaking up against homosexual activity before he was caught with a male prostitute and purchasing drugs.
But one of the things that is not a scandal for conservative Protestants that should be a scandal is that we focus on sex scandals. Don't get me wrong, sex scandals and sexual sin are definitely bad ... but back in 2007 when the firing controversy happened a Christian once told me that at least the scandal wasn't one involving sex. True, but Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees was not that they were sexually immoral. He objected to their regard for money and the abuse of their power.
Power comes in a variety of forms and a form of power I hope to eventually address is the power of narrative. Yeah, no surprise there. If you know me and the brothers and sisters in Christ I've hung out with in the last ten years I'm keenly aware of the potential a narrative has to shape lives. I want to hold off on writing in detail about that until later. Leftists, Marxists, and their opponents all recognize the political and social power of a compelling story.
One of the things to keep in mind is that sometimes a misuse of power does not originate in any obvious political gaming but comes in the kind of story we tell about ourselves. In Jesus' harsh verbal confrontation with the Pharisees in John 8 this is the flashpoint, the Pharisees have lied to themselves about what the their true story is. Each step they take to affirm what they are certain their real story is Jesus confronts them about the lies they believe and they lies they have told themselves and others through their rejection of Him. The further they go in affirming that they are on the side of God and that God is on their side the more trenchantly Jesus declares that their real father is Satan.
I submit as some food for thought that misuse of spiritual authority among genuine Christians (and by extension all frauds) is a fraudulent narrative of the self and the self's group which becomes the basis for deceit, bullying, manipulation, and a consumeristic attitude toward the flock of the sort Ezekiel 34 denounces. We're in the "Great Recession" right now and now is not the best time for high profile pastors who have solid economic means to be saying anything about consumerism at all. Jesus condemned Pharisees for their love of money and their willingness to manipulate piety in a way to preclude helping impoverished family members. There may come a time when faithful Christian service is demonstrated by not tithing. I haven't tithed to a church in years because I've got no income. I've spared a few quarters and dimes, so to speak, but there are people in the church who are too poor to "give sacrificially" and if a church and pastoral leadership have no use for such people because they are not "faithful givers" or "good stewards" (i.e. because they're poor) then this is dangerously close to the consumeristic/abusive shepherd of Ezekiel 34.
But I've rambled enough on that topic for now.