Bully Pulpit: On Spiritual Abuse

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In the last several years, our society has become increasingly attuned to the prevalence of abuses of power and the incredible damage that is all-too-often inflicted by the powerful. Since some of this movement has been accompanied by our culture’s allergic reaction to some legitimate authority, we may be tempted to react against the reaction—by emphasizing authority and submission, “trusting” and not questioning leaders. This would be a grave mistake, however.

Michael Kruger, in his recent book Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), offers penetrating insights into the devastation of spiritual abuse that Christian churches—ours included—face. I’m guessing that a good number of those reading this post can relate to my own experience: I’ve witnessed abusive church leaders firsthand, and I’ve listened to the experiences of friends and acquaintances. Sadly, some readers may recognize their current situation in what follows below; if you do, I hope that (as has happened to people I’ve shared this with before), you find the material helpful and hope-giving. On the other hand, other readers may find this material foreign to their experience; if that’s you, please still take it seriously. There will likely come a day when you will be called upon to support victims of spiritual abuse—or perhaps face it yourself.

With our emphasis on servanthood, community, self-sacrifice, and discipleship, Anabaptists should be at the forefront of Christians who are known for caring deeply about this issue and for exemplifying healthy, non-abusive spiritual leadership. It is with this goal in mind that I will summarize key points from Kruger’s book—while encouraging readers to go and read the entire book themselves!

One further note: When I first read Kruger’s book, I remember feeling so grateful for the pastors I have at my church currently. They are men marked by genuine humility, servanthood, and gentleness. I thank God for them.

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

First of all, not everything is spiritual abuse: being intimidating, unfriendly, or confronting people about sin isn’t abuse. This is Kruger’s definition of spiritual abuse:

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.

Spiritual abuse, Kruger notes, is considerably more harmful than, for example, an emotionally abusive employer, because the person abusing you is someone who represents God, and is acting almost as though God is abusing you.

Kruger lists three elements of spiritual abuse:

  1. “Spiritual abuse involves someone in a position of spiritual authority.” It’s not simply a fellow church member being emotionally abusive; it’s a church leader weaponizing their authority, the authority of the church, and the authority of Scripture against someone in their charge. 
  2. “Spiritual abuse involves sinful methods of controlling and domineering others.” Spiritually abusive leaders employ a variety of tactics: they are often expert manipulators, they shift blame, lash out and accuse others, destroy people’s reputation, and are hyper critical. 
  3. “Spiritual abusers seem to be building God’s kingdom (but are really building their own).” They want to control the staff, vision, and direction; their own power and people’s loyalty to them are paramount. But at the same time, the leader “may be convinced he is building God’s kingdom, not his own.” “If people get run over, then that’s because they got in the way of the great kingdom work he’s doing.” (A notorious example of this is Mark Driscoll’s infamous “pile of dead bodies” remark.) Abusive leaders usually are doing kingdom work, and their ministries do look blessed. But instead of judging by the fruit of the Spirit, onlookers (and those involved) too often allow ministry “success” to whitewash sinful behavior.

Kruger cites this haunting line from Johnson and VanVonderen: “It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things, that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to.”

Spiritual Abuse & the NT

If we’re tempted to think that all this talk of “spiritual abuse” is a modern concern raised by “snowflake” types, we need to think again. Warnings against spiritual abuse are a critical part of the foundation of NT teaching on leadership. Kruger reminds us that Jesus “spends an inordinate amount of time critiquing bad leaders … and calling his disciples to the better way.” Kruger points to four key passages:

  1. Mark 10:42–43: Gentile rulers, Jesus says, “lord it over them [κατακυριεύουσιν], and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” Jesus’ hearers would have known exactly what he meant: economic oppression, unjust use of violence, using power for personal enrichment, arrogance and superiority. Abusive rulership was commonplace. But Jesus explicitly, emphatically does not want his disciples to be abusive leaders.
  2. 1 Peter 5:2–3: Peter, speaking to church leaders, exhorts them to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you,” and then employs the same word Jesus used to forbid gentile-style leadership: “not domineering [κατακυριεύοντες] over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Pastors are to lead not by coercion or by manipulation but by example and discipleship. This does not do away with their authority (e.g. Heb 13:17); but it does reshape it.
  3. 1 Tim 3:3: Paul writes that church “overseers” must not be “a bully but gentle” (CSB).
  4. Titus 1:7: Once again, Paul stresses that an overseer “must be blameless, not arrogant, not hot-tempered … not a bully” (CSB).

With these clear exhortations and the example of our Lord, the servant-king, why don’t we stop spiritual abuse from happening in our churches?

Why Abusive Leaders Aren’t Stopped

As Kruger points out, abusive leaders are often Jekyll and Hyde characters: only the victims see the dark side. Time after time, abusive behavior continues unchecked for years, with no one speaking up (or getting attacked if they do—by the leader or even by other loyal church members). We ought to trust good leaders. But one of my pleas to all of us is to never blindly “trust the leaders” to such an extent that we refuse to hear the cries of victims. It is our role as church members to protect our fellow believers and to provide accountability to our leaders. Godly leaders will welcome this.

Kruger explains a few key reasons why spiritual abuse is often unchecked:

  1. “Inadequate accountability structure”: Victims are silenced or forced to leave. The leader gets to control the narrative, and sometimes the victims themselves are blamed. In a culture of silence (fostered by the leader), the pattern of broken relationships is “often not revealed” to others. When they are mentioned, problems with the leader are often “downplayed and minimized.”
  2. “Wrong view of depravity”: Thinking that so-and-so “could never do this” isn’t necessarily true and is a dangerous assumption! All of us are deeply sinful, and none are above the possibility of shocking transgressions. Kruger points to Gladwell’s “default to truth theory” (from his Talking to Strangers): We tend to think that people—especially “respectable” people or people we like—are telling the truth and that we’d be good at spotting liars. But we’re not. We’re particularly bad at accepting a difficult truth about someone when it would rock our world or cause us to lose them as someone we respect. In such cases, it is much easier to believe that a church member is “overly sensitive” than to believe that a beloved leader is a bully. What is needed, Kruger writes, are “truth tellers”: people like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes who has little to gain or lose.
  3. “Misunderstanding of grace.” In situations of spiritual abuse, Christians can want to flatten out sins. Instead of treating a situation as abusive, where there’s damage inflicted by a powerful person on a victim, we would rather call it a “conflict,” and talk about how “both sides” didn’t handle everything right, but they’ll work through it. It is severely damaging and wrong to turn abuse into a “relational conflict.” These are two very different matters. Some sins are more heinous than others, and spiritual abuse is one of them. It is a grave misunderstanding of what it means that “we’re all sinners” to make abuse victims feel guilty and abuse downplayed.
  4. “Improper view of reconciliation”: When churches reframe spiritual abuse as a “conflict,” they then feel that “they don’t need to focus on justice or accountability.” Instead, a rushed “reconciliation” process is forced upon the victim, and the abusive leader is able to move on. Dealing with accusations of spiritual abuse necessitates arduous fact-finding work and church discipline. A prayer meeting followed by mutual apologies is a cop-out for truly dealing with behavior Jesus finds reprehensible.

Tactics of Abusive Leaders

Abusive leaders “employ aggressive and well-orchestrated tactics to keep from being discovered,” Kruger writes. They are masters at “flipping the script.” An abusive leader’s playbook includes the following tactics:

  • Build a coalition of defenders (and control the narrative). 
  • Insist that proper process wasn’t followed. Change the focus to procedural rather than substantive issues.
  • Claim to be the victim of slander. 
  • Attack the character of the victims. 
  • Tout their own character and accomplishments. 
  • Play the sympathy card. 

Effects of Spiritual Abuse

To quote Gandalf (as Kruger does), “There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured.” Kruger rightly pushes hard against the “get over it and move on” mentality toward victims of spiritual abuse. The effects can be truly devastating. 

  • There are emotional effects, including fear, anger, depression, shame (feeling that it’s their fault, or dealing with a tarnished reputation), and PTSD. Tragically, victims of severe spiritual abuse can have their PTSD triggered by even going to a church or hearing a sermon.
  • There can be physical effects. Kruger describes how the stress / PTSD effects of spiritual abuse can induce long-term health problems—particularly if the victim felt unable to escape, which is often the case in church abuse. Kruger writes that “spiritual abuse is prone to create deep and serious mental scars that in turn can produce long-term physiological consequences.” These can range from insomnia and high blood pressure to heart problems, chronic fatigue, and autoimmune conditions.
  • There are relational effects: Countless relationships can be destroyed. Victims are often driven out of and cut off from their churches. Friends and former churches often are “turned against” the victims, and label them troublemakers. Victims watch others continue to legitimize the abuser. Those who stay claim they want to be “neutral” and not “take sides”—but they are taking a side. Kruger quotes Mullen: “Sometimes supporting the victim means immediately withdrawing support from those who have yet to speak the truth about the abuse and refuse to let the light shine.”
  • There can be spiritual effects. Spiritual abuse often crushes a person’s spiritual life, and can call into question their beliefs. Spiritual abuse can lead to doubts about the church and an inability to re-engage even in a healthy church. It can lead to doubts about Christianity: If the church is so corrupt and abusive, is Christianity even true? It can lead to doubts about God: victims may think of God as being like their spiritually abusive leader. (One cannot help but think of Jesus’ words in Matt 18:6: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV.) It can lead to doubts about oneself: Spiritual abuse can lead to the “paralyzing combination” of trusting neither oneself nor others—which results in profound isolation.

Kruger concludes with these sobering words (which he backs up by listing the considerable research on the subject): “Anyone who thinks spiritual abuse is a minor problem has not reckoned with the documented devastation.”

Steps to Resist Spiritual Abuse

Kruger lays out structural steps that churches can take to help reduce the likelihood of spiritual abuse. Readers are encouraged to work through his full material on the subject, but here are a few highlights.

  1. Prevention: Churches ought to work to keep abusive leaders from gaining power. This means valuing character over competency in potential leaders, valuing teamwork over hierarchy, and valuing accountability over secrecy.
  2. Accountability: Churches ought to oversee church leaders once they’re in a position of power. This includes limiting their power in various ways, providing real, honest feedback, and gathering independent “truth tellers” around the leader—people who are not “yes-men/women” but will stand up to the leader if need be. Kruger emphasizes that accountability structures need to include women and other groups that may be at greater risk of becoming victims of abuse by powerful leaders. Also, Kruger helpfully—though perhaps counterintuitively—encourages churches not to insist on unanimous decisions. While this may appear to foster unity, it can actually end up silencing dissent.
  3. Protection: Churches must care for those who bravely call out abuse. This includes awareness / training on spiritual abuse, setting up processes for dealing honestly and justly with abuse allegations, and providing emotional and spiritual care for victims. (Kruger rightly observes that “sadly, most churches spend more time caring for the abusive pastor than for the victims.)


Spiritual abuse is not something that all of us have experienced. The point of this post and of Kruger’s Bully Pulpit is not to make church members suspicious of all spiritual leaders. But spiritual abuse is a serious and devastating problem, and it is something that can impact any church. At some point in our lives, probably most of us will interact with victims of spiritual abuse or become a victim (or even, God forbid, an abuser) ourselves.

Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart, and he calls leaders in his church to follow his example. He cares deeply about his sheep, and he calls all of us to protect those who are vulnerable. Michael Kruger’s Bully Pulpit is an excellent resource to help prepare churches to fulfill Jesus’ calling.

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About the Author:

Dr. Paul Lamicela (PhD in biblical theology) teaches biblical studies through his Biblical Storyline Academy (biblicalstoryline.org). Paul’s passion is to help people know, be shaped by, and love the truth, goodness, and beauty of the one grand story of Scripture—which we are swept into through Jesus. Paul loves teaching and enjoys good conversations and good books (especially biblical studies and classic fiction). Paul is a very happy husband to Laura, and a member of Charity Christian Fellowship in Leola, PA. Paul and Laura’s hobbies include cooking (especially Mediterranean) and travel (especially in Europe).

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