[Scott Holman, M.T.S., is the SCP Blog Moderator and our blogger for the month of April. This is his fifth post. He also blogs at School of the Broken Heart.]
Recently several high profile ministries have come under increasing fire for alleged abuses (not going to go into specifics here, for we will be talking generally anyway). Documentation and stories increasingly emerge online and it seems to have a polarizing effect. Those faithful to these ministries feel a need to defend them and those like them; those who feel they are victims feel that they need to be heard so that others can know and be warned; others join in and the circle grows wider, all the while the Church becomes more fractured. Each camp cries, “foul!” without really hearing what the other is trying to say. It is helpful to think through what needs to be acknowledged and affirmed in the midst of these situations. I will begin by making some affirmations then some suggestions on how to move forward.
1. There is legitimate biblical authority in elders that is to be respected and obeyed (Heb 13:17; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2-4). Similar to the parent-child relationship, there is a responsibility (and authority) to care for those under their charge (shepherding authority)
There is a danger though in thinking that those who feel abused by the church are merely being rebellious and are in need of church discipline. There is also a danger in rejecting all forms of authority as abusive.We need to acknowledge that shepherding authority can be abused, and that other people can be used for our own purposes of narcissistic control.
2. There are legitimate cases of spiritual abuse going on that need to be addressed with great wisdom and care. Similar to parental abuse, deep relational wounds are created in the abuse of authority in the Church. The position of authority does not give one the right to abuse. Outside help is often needed to address the situation.
Here there is a danger in coming to believe that all authority is abusive, and there exists no place for church discipline within the local congregation. Also there is the possibility of associating the theology and offices of the church automatically with abuse.
Further, we should note that there is a difference between the perception of abuse and actual abuse. The former may be due to our own pathology getting stirred up. How do we tell the difference? Does our reaction outweigh the apparent offense? Is this reaction a pattern in my life?
3. The way we navigate through these issues will determine if the church is built up or torn down; it will also determine what kind of witness we have within our culture. The world is watching, as well as many wounded Christians who are desperate to believe that authority in the Church can be used for their good and not their harm.
4. Very rarely does putting the dirty laundry of the church online do any good, rather the opposite. There is a disturbing trend today where those offended by their local church air their grievances online instead of going directly to those who have wounded them. This should be a very last resort, when all other attempts at private reconciliation have failed. Some people feel that they have no choice, that the church leaders involved are so “unsafe” that making it known online is the only way to warn others. This may be the case in certain situations, I don’t know.
Lastly, I offer some meager suggestions for those who feel abused by the Church:
1) First you need to know that you are loved. Any and all abuse of God’s authority breaks his heart, and you need to know his heart is broken over your pain. God’s Shepherds will have to answer to the Chief Shepherd one day. He will settle all accounts.
2) Following Matthew 18 is still the best option, when available. Sometimes a third party (mediator) may need to be involved.
3) Before “telling your story” online in a public setting, seriously consider a) why you are doing it, and b) what good it will do the church.