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What Is Spiritual Abuse? An Interview with Bully Pulpit Author Michael Kruger

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Editor’s Note:  This interview was originally published by World News Group as part of its “Listening In” podcast.  You can hear the audio version of that interview here.  It is used with permission, and it has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Dr. Michael Kruger is not, at first glance, an obvious choice to write about spiritual abuse, which has become one of the hot-button issues of the evangelical church.  He’s best known as a New Testament scholar, and the president of Reformed Theological Seminary-Charlotte.  But it is precisely at this intersection of his two vocational passions that he found a third passion.  After all, what better place is there to talk about spiritual abuse than an institution that trains future pastors?

Michael Kruger believes we need strong pastors who are also gentle shepherds.  He warns against the lure of celebrity status that has led many pastors to ruin, and he says first and foremost that churches should prize character as much as we prize giftedness when we look for pastors to lead our churches.

Michael Kruger was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2019, and he is the author of Christianity At The Crossroads:  How The Second Century Shaped The Future of the Church.  He spoke to me from his office in Charlotte.

Warren Smith:  Why did you write this book?

Michael Kruger:  This book is, in some ways, new territory for me. I write more on New Testament canon and origins of the Bible.

But I’m also a seminary president. I’m also a pastor. We spend a lot of time here at RTS [Reformed Theological Seminary] thinking about the kind of leaders we’re producing.

And I see what’s going on out there. I’ve been concerned about what I’m seeing, In the last several years, that concern coalesced.  I could put my finger on the problem and articulate it.

This was long before the whole concept of spiritual abuse became the national topic, before Mike Cosper’s podcast [“The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”].  Everyone seems to be talking about it now, but I had actually been already in the weeds before that.

As a seminary president, I think we need to do some sharp thinking about what kind of leaders we’re producing.

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WS: Very early in your book you write, “We need to think more carefully about the type of leaders we are producing.” Now that seems to suggest that the very process we’re requiring people to go through might be a contributing factor here, and that we need to actually change the process. Is that what you’re saying?

MK: The process is part of it. A large part of it is what we’re looking for. We’ve trained ourselves in the American scene to look for a certain type of person to be a leader. I argue throughout the book that I don’t see those characteristics highlighted in the Bible as primary leadership characteristics.

If you look at a passage, like 1 Timothy 3, which is one of the classic texts that tells you what someone who’s called to be a pastor should be, every one of the qualifications but one is about character.  The only one that’s about giftedness is the ability to teach.

So we should start with a recognition that you need to be able to teach, then — after that — character is the main thing that matters. Instead, what we’re looking for in the church today is not so much about character, but about someone who’s dynamic, someone who is a powerful leader, someone who’s inspirational, someone who’s strong, someone who, “gets things done.”

There’s nothing wrong with strong leaders, and there’s nothing wrong with someone who gets things done. But when you only look at those qualities, at the expense of character, you end up setting yourself up for a real problem.  Those aren’t the kinds of leaders who are held accountable very easily. And if the character isn’t there, they’re going to need to be held accountable.

So we’ve created this problem.  We put someone up who doesn’t necessarily have the character, but we have no accountability structure to go with it. And why are we so surprised that we’re having all these problems?

You could call that process.  You could also call that a model of ministry. Do seminaries play a role in this? Yes, we do. And we could do a better job, obviously, all the time.

But I always remind people, we don’t ordain anybody. We just train people. I think we’ve just been trained to think a certain kind of person is the kind of leader we need.

WS: I don’t mean to go too far down a rabbit trail on this, Mike, but it seems to me there is a nexus, a perverse synergy, in the Christian publishing world, combined with the Christian conference and speaker world, between leadership and pastoral ministry.  We often see the word “leadership” in the title of Christian conferences, and I’ve noticed that when a pastor washes out of pastoral ministry because of a character issue, he ends up writing a leadership book, or pivoting toward leadership consulting or executive coaching.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  Let’s stipulate for the record that leadership is not inherently a negative thing. But it I think this phenomenon is tangible evidence of exactly what you were saying:  that we value the wrong things when we look for leaders.

MK: I would argue that the term “leader” isn’t really even a very common biblical category. Some English translations use the term leader in certain passages, and that’s fine. I’m not objecting to that.

But people have in their mind in our day when they use the term “leader” something that you can’t just impose on Scripture. In our day, as you indicated, we’ve taken more of a corporate business model for leadership and then just stuck it on the church.

So when people think about John Maxwell or others like that, you’re looking at corporate models for leadership and thinking and how can we utilize them in the church.  We’re creating little CEOs, running churches like companies.

Now again, some of those principles are common grace insights we can be we can benefit from. I’m not saying all those books are inaccurate. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure they have helpful advice. But we’ve got the cart before the horse here. We’ve got to start with a biblical structure of what a leader should be, and make character primary and then we can massage some of the ways to improve the way he executes his role. But not at the expense of Biblical qualifications. I think that’s where we get in trouble.

WS: Can you define the term “spiritual abuse” for us? What do you mean by spiritual abuse?

MK: Abusive leaders are leaders who are authoritarian and domineering over those in their charge. Spiritual abuse is when a leader like that is in a position of spiritual authority over somebody.

Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader, endowed with spiritual authority, executes his office in such a way that he sort of domineers, runs down, and rules in a harsh and authoritarian way those under his leadership, all the while thinking he’s accomplishing God’s good work.

There’s a lot of things spiritual abuse is not.  Spiritual abuse is not just making a mistake in a conversation. Spiritual abuse is not just is just making a relational misstep where you say something bothersome or offensive to somebody on occasion.  Standing up for biblical truth is not spiritual abuse.  If I tell someone something is sin, that’s not abusive, if it is in fact sin according to the Bible.

WS: Whenever I write about spiritual abuse, I get pushback that sounds like this: “Touch not God’s anointed.”  They will say, “These folks you are criticizing are having great success. People are coming to Jesus as a result of their preaching. Folks are maturing in their faith.  Families are thriving.  Churches are growing.  Money is being poured out from this church to missions. Touch not God’s anointed.” What’s your response to that?

MK: First of all, it is entirely a misapplication of that verse, which is language referring to how David thought of Saul. Obviously, we’re not talking about God’s anointed king here. We’re not talking about anybody with that direct divine office.

More than that, even people who were kings, even people like David, were not above the law in a way that would allow them to behave however they wanted, with no accountability.

The idea that someone in leadership is insulated from critique because they’re successful in ministry is exactly the problem. That’s not a defense. That’s exactly the thing that’s been going wrong.  People are turning a blind eye to the people who get crushed by these leaders under the auspices of “they’re doing good stuff.”

God can use people to do good stuff, even when they’re wicked.  That’s His sovereign prerogative. But we’re also called to uphold people to biblical standards. So we should not shy away from addressing these people’s problems just because they have successful ministries. In fact, that’s exactly the problem.  We use success to protect people from accountability.

WS: The other one that I hear a lot is Matthew 18. Whenever I have criticized a pastor or a ministry leader, I will inevitably get an email asking, “Did you go to that person? Did you confront them? Did you then take two or three more?

They get very prescriptive about applying Matthew 18, saying that it is a prescription for every context.  So talk about that. Does Matthew 18 apply in this situation?

MK: People are remarkably obsessed with process over the actual problem of abuse.

I’m amazed that you have a situation where you have an abusive leader, and rather than being upset by the abuse, which seems like a good biblical way to respond, people are actually obsessed with making sure that you follow the right steps and do the right paperwork.

I don’t want to pretend for a moment, the process doesn’t matter. It’s important, like any judicial system. But what I’m routinely shocked by is it’s almost like the real problem is the person coming forward. The real problem is the person making the accusation. The real problem is whether you follow the steps.

Now, secondly, as it pertains to Matthew 18, in the situation you describe, Matthew 18 does not apply. Matthew 18 applies to someone who sinned against you directly, not just whether someone has sinned in a way you can see. If someone is sinning in a way that I can see, I’m free to call that person out publicly. And I don’t have to go to them privately, according to Matthew 18.

Matthew 18 says if your brother sins against you, not if he just sins in general. People use Matthew 18 like it’s a cure all, as if it was written to solve every possible church conflict. And I think I don’t think that’s the case.

WS: At what point does the church polity, church discipline, play a role in this process?

I ask because when I hear you talk, there’s a part of me that wants to say, “Hey, guys, this is really not that hard.” If a pastor is no longer meeting the qualifications set out in Scripture for leadership, then they should be removed from ministry or they should a season of rehabilitation and restoration. But that rarely happens. Is that part of the problem here?

MK: There are plenty of churches with systems in place that do nothing about abuse. There are plenty of churches with sophisticated church policy with thick books on how to run every judicial process that are not solving or addressing the problem of abuse.

Why? Because they don’t understand it. They don’t know how to spot it. They don’t even know what it is. They’re not equipped to identify the problem. They don’t also appreciate the inherent bias, even in a judicial system, to protect your buddy, to protect your friend. You basically are being tried by your friends.

And when organizations investigate themselves, it rarely produces a good result. Usually, they just defend themselves and defend their friends. I wish it wasn’t that way. But case after case I’ve seen, it’s exactly that way.

So is polity enough? At a minimum, you have to have it. But you also have to have it well trained, well-educated, and structured in a way that actually acknowledges the realities that we’re talking about here.

WS: I also wonder if we don’t have an adequate appreciation for the negative consequences of spiritual abuse. That that if we really understood, just how damaging it is, we would take it more seriously. You have a chapter in your book called “Suffering in Silence” that talks about how spiritual abuse has wrecked people’s spiritual lives and emotional lives and, in some cases, their physical lives.

Can you say more about that?

MK: Yeah, I appreciate you bringing that up, Warren, and that’s exactly right.

I put that chapter in there because people don’t take it seriously. They don’t really know what effect it has. They don’t really know what it is. They’ve never experienced it themselves.

Spiritual abuse is not just domineering behavior from a person, it’s domineering behavior from someone who at least at some level represents God to you.  The damage that does is really remarkable.

And in my studies, in my research, I realized the damage emotionally, the damage physically, as you noted, spiritually.  And there’s an area that is not talked about, the relational damage. The friends they lose, the splits in the church.  It’s really, really awful to look at.

I want the reader to get up close and really feel the impact of that. And my prayer is that church leaders and elder boards can say, “Oh, wow, this really does damage; we need to take this seriously. We need to we need to put this on the radar.”

WS: I’d like to pivot in our conversation because your book does not leave us hanging. It does offer some solutions. Can you say more about the solutions you propose?

MK: I tried to lay out some practical steps. And in the scope of things, they’re really tiny. They just try to get churches thinking differently, and structurally changing a few things.

One of them is the way we assess potential candidates. One of the ways to deal with spiritual abuse is to keep them from getting in positions in the first place. In other words, how do we weed out the people who have abusive tendencies?

That means we need to rethink the way we assess character. I’ve done a lot of interviews myself.  I’ve been in a lot of interviews over the years.  We know how character is assessed. You have your references, you give them to somebody, they read their two or three references, and they assume all done here.  The references are handpicked friends.  They’re not really that insightful in terms of really getting to the heart of somebody.

I suggest a number of ways to go deeper, further, and really penetrate into the character question.  And you’re going to find stuff if you do that. But at least you’re honest about the person you’re hiring. You know what you’re dealing with, rather than this sense of hiring the perfect pastor, put him up on a pedestal, and then you only find out later that he’s not a perfect pastor.  We got to deal with that.

WS: Another thing that you talk about, is that the whole issue of accountability. That’s a big question. In my role as the president of Ministry Watch, I basically say that our ministry comes down to two things: transparency and accountability.  So I was delighted, of course, to see both of those ideas in your book.

But you unpack these ideas in ways that I thought was helpful. You talk eliminating secrecy and limiting power.

MK: The American church takes their pastor and puts him in a unique position, above everybody else. Even if they say they’re not doing that, they are doing that.

He does all the teaching. He does all the leading.  He chairs the session or the elder board. He’s the one that is the pivot point for everything in the church. That creates a level of power that makes someone sort of untouchable and unassailable.

You need to make sure that that power is dissipated in a sense. It doesn’t in either role. I don’t think, if possible, they should do all the teaching, because that creates an environment in which the pastor is “the only guy we listen to.”

They shouldn’t chair the elder board. They should be on the board, and a key member of it. But there should be a sense in which other people do that.

They should not able to just fire staff whenever they want to. They’re not football coaches, who come in and fire the previous coaching staff and bring their own guys in.  I think that’s very dangerous to let senior pastors have that kind of authority. So those are some ways I suggest limiting power. And I think those are practical and helpful, and I hope people implement some of them.

WS: When I was doing a lot of reporting on the Mark Driscoll situation back when Mars Hill Church was still around, one of the things that that stunned me — until I started digging around and realized it was really not all that uncommon — is that often the staff members were also the elders. If my paycheck is signed by the pastor, or he has the ability to hire and fire me, there’s a pretty serious financial and career disincentive for me to fulfill a biblical understanding of what my role as an elder should be. Is that a fair statement?

MK: That’s right.

Not all elders are on paid staff, of course. But, you’re right, a number of them are and at Driscoll’s church, a lot of them were because it was a big church, with a lot of paid staff.

I bring this up in the book because having someone who is both your pastor and your boss is weird. The idea that they could fire you if you don’t submit to them and go along with them creates a real conflict of interest.

WS: I don’t want to get too much in the weeds here, because I know every situation is different, but I want you to say a little bit about annual reviews, performance reviews.  One of the things I appreciated about the book is did it had specific, practical suggestions. Having annual performance reviews is not earth-shattering, but when I thought about it more, I realized that it could be a real leverage point.

MK: If we have them, it’s all pretty informal.

WS: It really is. What can we do differently? What should a really helpful performance review look like for a senior leader?

MK: First of all, it needs to be 360, meaning that it can’t just be the elders.  It needs to be the people who are under the senior pastor and work for him. So it can’t just be the elder saying, “We think we’re doing a good job.” How do the people this person leads think he’s doing? How are they responding to his leadership?

Also, secondly, there needs to be a certain level of anonymity. You’ve got to be able to speak freely without getting repercussions.

Third, there needs to be full disclosure of the reviews. I can’t tell you how many churches I study where the pastor gets reviewed, and the elders never see the reviews.  They have no idea there’s a problem, because it’s in some subcommittee, which is another major problem.

And the senior pastor has to review his staff. That sounds odd to people.  Why is that? How does that help?

It protects the staff. I can’t tell you the retaliatory tactics of these abusive leaders.  If you cross them, they’re going to accuse you of everything. But if you’ve got eight or 10 years of good reviews and, suddenly, the pastor is accusing you of everything – that looks vindictive.  It doesn’t look like he’s got any real basis for saying that. So those annual reviews protect the staff.

I think that’s a really key part of keeping people safe.

WS: Yeah, well, I found that part of your book to be helpful. Mike.  I’d like to pivot one more time, and come back around to the beginning.  We began by mentioning that you are the president of a seminary.  Will the research you did for this book change the way you lead RTS?

MK: Absolutely. I think there’s two layers to it. One is a personal layer. Leadership can really bless people, and really hurt people. One of the personal applications of my own book is I just want to continue to work even harder at being a gentle leader, as much like Christ as I can be.

There are times I need to stand up for truth and be strong, yes. But I realized that leaders don’t realize how influential they are and how impactful they are. So on a personal level, I’m trying to apply the book to myself.

But then structurally, in curriculum, my goal is to try to build this into our curriculum in some key places. As I finished writing the book, I realized we don’t even really address this in our curriculum. And that’s just not acceptable. We need to have a place that we address this. So I’m working on that right now, trying to figure out what slots in the curriculum where we can put people face to face with this issue so that they know how to not be an abusive leader themselves, and then that they know how to spot it if it happens to them.


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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.