Bully Pulpit, Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Michael Kruger has correctly observed that spiritual abuse is far too prevalent in the church and getting worse. He believes the problem can be traced to tolerating and even celebrating precisely the kinds of leaders Jesus warned us against—men who are domineering, authoritarian and heavy-handed (p. xiv). The poster boys of abuse, ones Kruger turns to time and again, are Ravi Zacharias (pp. xix, 64, 85), Mark Driscoll (pp. 3, 27), James MacDonald (pp. 3, 29, 126), Steve Timmis (pp. 6-7, 30, 126), and Bill Hybels (pp. 77, 84, 126), with Jerry Falwell, Jr. (p. 4) and Judy Dabler (p. 4) joining the cast. Spiritual abuse is defined as “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” (p. 24). This definition is fleshed out on pages 24-35, and the anatomy of a spiritual abuser is detailed on page eight.

The author believes a rise in bullying is due to churches and Christian organizations seeking celebrity pastors (pp. 9-10, 117), elevating giftedness over character (p. 10-12), having a lack of accountability (pp. 12-14), misunderstanding authority (pp. 15-16), and defensiveness (pp. 16-18, 31-32, 133-137). The author clarifies what abuse is not (pp. 35-39) and traces abuse throughout the Old Testament (pp. 42-49) as well as the New Testament (pp. 40-57). Chapter five is devoted to a key and tragic strategy used by abusers—flipping the script. That is, they turn on victims and make them out to be the evil ones. It is for this reason that many victims of spiritual abuse never come forward and bullies are allowed to continue their abuse for years, sometimes even decades.

Kruger’s objective is clearly identified toward the end of the book: “My goal has been to show that the problem of spiritual abuse is real, to give the proper definitions and diagnostic tools to identify it, and to motivate churches and Christian leaders to take the necessary steps to stop it. But there is one final thing I want to do… [prevent] people from becoming abusive leaders” (p. 133). In many ways, he accomplished his goal. But as with most books of this genre, it identifies the problem far better than it provides solutions. The author believes that the best way to stop an abusive pastor is to never let such people achieve a position of power in the first place (p. 113). This is good advice, but how can this be done? The very fabric of American Christianity fosters the celebrity leader who can build an empire in the form of a megachurch, or a huge parachurch ministry. Since the 1970s, the church has sought CEOs for pastors, men who could create and run complicated and effective organizations. Gone are the days when the pastor is seen as a shepherd who feeds, loves, and protects his flock. Seventy percent of all church-goers in America now attend large churches, which some think require the very kind of leaders targeted in Bully Pulpit. To reverse this trend would require a return to the biblical paradigm of both the church and the pastor. This reviewer thinks Kruger would agree with this assessment, but his recommendations are more pragmatic in nature, and often lacking in workability and/or wisdom. For example, Kruger:

  • Recommends secular experts and the legal system in the investigation of abuse to avoid turning to “insiders” (pp. 66-68, 111-132).
  • Makes suggestions for search committees that might aid a particular local church but sadly would not hinder the broader problem (pp. 114-117).
  • Recommends an independent committee of elders and non-elders, including women (pp. 118-120), to give oversights to leaders.
  • Suggests annual reviews of all staff much as the business world does (pp. 118-119, 124).
  • Rejects unanimous decisions by elder boards (p. 121).
  • Misunderstands Matthew 18:15 (p. 82).
  • Has a too optimistic view that the church will “be fine” no matter what (p. 135).
  • Uses Matthew 11:28-30 out of context and balance (p. 140).

In addition, most of Kruger’s suggestions could be navigated only by large churches, which have the finances and personnel necessary for the kind of investigation he has in mind (pp. 128-131). Unfortunately, spiritual abuse is not limited to megachurches. As a result, Bully Pulpit is an interesting read and sounds an important alarm but offers little to remedy spiritual abuse. But to be fair, absent a complete overhaul of the evangelical culture, little improvement on the spiritual abuse front is likely.

by Michael J. Kruger (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022), 164 pp. + xxii, hard $14.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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