In our previous posts (part one and part two), we suggested that it might be good for a Christian to remain at their local churches even when the pastor(s) preach a false gospel or there’s been moral failure in the leadership. Those are good reasons to leave a church when it appears you’re in a significant minority as one who sees and opposes the problem. But those can also be reasons to remain in the church to seek change.
In this final post, we want to consider another excellent reason to leave a church that could also be a reason to stay: spiritual abuse.
This is a tricky issue because in most cases the absolute right thing to do is flee the abuse. But as we’ve seen in our previous posts, nowhere does the New Testament assume that the congregation belongs to the pastor. Instead, the pastor owes an account to the people. When things go wrong, the people have a responsibility to call the pastor to account—publicly (1 Tim. 5:19-20) and effectively (Gal. 1:6-9). The same is true when “leaders” become spiritually abusive of the sheep.
Let’s consider a couple of passages in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 7:2-4
2 Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. 3 I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. 4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.
2 Corinthians 12:14-18
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
2 Corinthians 11:20
20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.
In the first passage we see Paul’s Christ-like heart toward the Corinthians. As a pastor and apostle, his heart is open to them. He’s ride or die with the Corinthians. And in no way has he wronged, corrupted or taken advantage of them. That’s a true pastor’s heart.
But in his absence, Paul is getting some bad PR. Someone is throwing shade. Though he seeks their persons and not their purses, some people seem to be suggesting Paul is out for gain. They say Paul is “crafty” and “got the better of them by deceit.” Paul denies it. In fact, not only did he not do these things but none of his associates did it either.
It’s not until we focus on 2 Cor. 11:20 that we see the problem more clearly. Paul writes, “For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.” The Corinthians are being abused spiritually. Their leaders are autocratic and enslave them. Their shepherds eat the sheep. It’s not Paul that’s taken advantage of them but these false pastors who have. These pastors are puffed up show offs, and they even have a reputation for slapping folks!
According to these texts, what do you think Paul expects the church to do with these abusers?
I think the answer is implied in the phrase “For you bear it…” Paul is astonished that the Corinthians put up with this mess. They accept it. They bow beneath it. Rather than “bear it,” I think the apostle intends for them to rise up and cast off this abusive leadership!
Such men have no right to be in God’s church—much less lead it! They are to be rejected as leaders and removed as members. Congregations of blood-bought sheep should never endure this mistreatment. Instead, they should remove and discipline them.
If we leave too quickly, then we may be leaving unsuspecting sheep in the fangs of wolves. It may be loveless to leave in such cases.
Now, if you’re the one suffering abuse, leave. If you’re the object of some false shepherds cruelty, get to safety quickly.
But if you’re among the strong in the congregation, fight. Fight to protect the weak and vulnerable. Fight to protect the name and honor of Christ. Fight to protect future generations who may come to your community looking for the love of Christ. Christ’s bride is worth fighting for—even if you have to fight against a so-called “shepherd.”
Each of the situations we considered has something in common: the assumption that the congregation has some responsibility when leaders go off the rail. That responsibility includes pronouncing anathemas, rebuking publicly, and not “bearing” abuse from shepherds. Godly, thoughtful leaders disagree in some matters of polity, but ultimately it seems to me that the New Testament apostles place the body in charge in such instances. The members of the church sometimes have to protect themselves against false shepherds.
Sometimes it’s necessary to leave an unhealthy church to find a better one. But sometimes you get a better church without leaving the one you’re in. And that’s by insisting the church doesn’t belong to the pastor but to Christ who expects His people to shut a sinning leader down. May the Lord give grace and wisdom to our congregations when we need to do this difficult thing.