Shepherds Protect the Flock: Five Changes Pastors Need to Make in Addressing Abuse in the Church
A guest post by an American pastor.
In his excellent book on pastoral ministry, Timothy Witmer proposes four duties of the pastor. Taking his cues from the Bible, he uses the image of a shepherd to describe these duties. A shepherd must know the flock, feed the flock, lead the flock, and protect the flock.
Witmer’s main idea of protecting the flock is geared toward protecting doctrine. A shepherd must warn and rebuke sheep who are being led astray by unbiblical teachings. But perhaps we should also take a more literal understanding of this duty. A shepherd must use the authority he has to protect those in the church who are oppressed. And this is no more applicable than in situations of abuse. Pastors must protect the sheep from those who would do harm, regardless of whether the harm is doctrinal, physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual. Here’s my contention for this article: pastors should take the lead in protecting the abused and in exposing the abusers.
In order for this to take place, we pastors must examine ourselves and how we think about abuse in the church. If we are passive, we will fail to lead. If we are well-meaning but ignorant, we will fail to understand and take action. If we are fearful, we will take the easy road and avoid confrontation. But if we are faithful shepherds, we will stand up for justice, protect and empower the abused, and stand up to oppressors. As Proverbs 25:26 reminds us, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.”
So, what must we do? How can we, as under-shepherds of the flock of God, protect the flock from those who would abuse precious children of God? I propose five changes we need to make.
First, we must reconsider our theological perspective.
In seminary I was taught that there are no biblical grounds for divorce. This is called the permanence view of marriage. I felt uncomfortable with the idea and yet I accepted it. The professors obviously knew the Bible better than I did, and who was I to disagree? But gradually, I came to see that much of what passed for biblical scholarship were exercises in how to be stricter than Jesus and more conservative than the Bible. Through much study, I eventually came to see that the exceptions Jesus and Paul provided for divorce were given to protect the afflicted.
But this was quite the opposite of our theological perspectives… we were inadvertently empowering those who were oppressive! Those who were abusers! I regret to reveal to you that I once sat across from a woman who had divorced her husband because of physical abuse and told her, as compassionately as I could, that physical abuse was not a biblical ground for divorce. I’m glad she knew better, even though she didn’t know the theology to back herself up.
I won’t, at this time, lay out a case for the biblical grounds of divorce. However, I now believe that abuse is a biblical ground for divorce. In changing my view, I don’t think I’ve become less biblical, but more biblical. You don’t have to come to the exact same conclusions I have in order to protect victims of abuse, but I would ask you to prayerfully examine your understanding of Scripture on this issue. Does your view protect the abuser or the victim? If it tends toward protecting the abuser, then I would contend you should either reconsider your view or diligently research how you can hold to your view and at the same time protect the oppressed in your church. We must protect the flock among us.
Second, we must recognize the characters.
I consider myself a terrible judge of character and experience seems to bear this out. However, there are key indicators for recognizing those who are abusers and those who are abused. Through much reading I became aware of these indicators and it was amazing how quickly things began to line up in my understanding.
I vividly remember a counseling session between a husband and wife. The woman was quiet and unsure of herself. She had trouble explaining what exactly the problem was. She knew there was a problem, but she couldn’t articulate what it was. She seemed like she wanted to work things out. She was eager for individual counseling, but very resistant to couples counseling.
The man on the other hand was quite confident and self-assured. He was ready and willing to confess his sins (or at least some of them). He was a champion of grace! Yes, he had messed up. But surely, since God forgives us fully and freely in Christ, so should his wife. He was resistant to individual counseling, but eager for couples counseling. After all, they were married and if they were going to work on their marriage, they needed to work on their marriage together.
As pastors deal with situations of abuse we can begin to experience something like “the fog” that those who are abused experience. There have been times I’ve questioned myself… Am I crazy? Am I just imagining things? Other leaders who have been with me had struggled with the same doubts. In those cases, if we hadn’t had one another, we likely would have fallen prey to those questions and ignored the issues. We stuck together and helped one other. And each time we came close to thinking we were actually the crazy ones, a new bit of information would come out that reinforced our commitment to the woman being abused.
Thankfully, the articles I read and the professionals I talked to helped to lift the fog from my mind and I was able to think clearly. Then it all began making sense. All of it matched up to what I’d discovered regarding the abuser and the abused. It all seemed so simple.
Pastors, if we’re going to protect our flock against abuse, we need to recognize the characters.
Third, we need to regain an understanding of the reality of evil.
I believe in the doctrine of total depravity. That means that every aspect of our humanity has been tainted by sin. Before I encountered abuse in the church, I’m not sure I truly understood the reality of evil that could take place in the midst of the church. Often, we in the church are so quick to identify and denounce sin outside of the church. Evil is that which takes place outside off the church, not within it, right?
I had to experience it firsthand to discover this truth: real evil exists sometimes within the church. Even during “the fog” I didn’t quite believe it, but it has become clear. As time has gone on I have come to see that abuse is evil. Wicked. Of the devil. There’s no other way to describe it. The abuser, then, must be confronted as one who is working evil against a precious lamb in the flock of God.
We won’t easily come to this conclusion if we think that evil people are simply outside the church. Perhaps this is one area by which we have been infected by our culture. Why are we so reluctant to call something evil for which no other description will do? The Scripture in Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” But we have failed in this: we have hesitated in calling evil, “evil”!
One challenge you may face is that people will call evil anything but evil. They’ll call it lack of communication. They’ll call it personality. They’ll call it misunderstanding. They’ll call it anything and everything except what it actually is: evil.
But if we are to protect the flock, we will have to identify evil and label it. We will have to call evil, “evil”. We will need to regain an understanding of the reality of evil… and know that it can sometimes take place in the church.
Fourth, we need to reassess our pastoral capacity.
As I mentioned previously, pastors feel “the fog” when dealing with abuse cases, especially if it’s all new to them. When I first encountered abuse, it was like walking through a pitch-dark, unfamiliar room. The truth is I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t competent. I didn’t have the capacity to deal with it myself.
In fact, without the advice of professional Christian counselors I don’t think I would have stayed the course of protecting the flock. Without them I very likely would have gone down the wrong path, ignoring the signs and turning a blind eye to abuse.
I learned from these counselors that you can’t do couples counseling in an abusive situation (The abuser hates that, by the way). I learned from them the signs of an abuser. They helped me put the pieces of the puzzle together. They helped blow away the fog of confusion and uncertainty. When I wasn’t sure, they were, and it gave me confidence.
I also had elders, and for this I am immensely thankful. Without them I may have caved, and without me they may have caved. If we hadn’t been together, on the same page, we likely would have failed to protect the one who was being abused. That’s what I mean. We need to reassess our pastoral capacity. We need others. Others who are educated and skilled in the areas of abuse. And for those times of wavering we need brothers and sisters to hold us up. To stand with us. To not give up no matter what the cost will be.
In fact, there may come a point at which you’ll have to decide what loss you’re willing to take to protect the flock. Will you stand your ground no matter the cost? If the whole church collapses? If you lose your reputation? You probably won’t be able to make that stand alone. If you reassess your own pastoral capacity, you’ll likely conclude that you need a team of counselors, leaders, and faithful friends in order faithfully protect the flock from abuse.
Fifth, we need to revamp our approach.
I haven’t done everything perfectly in abuse situations. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I have regrets. Two stand out in my mind.
The first regret is this: In some cases, the church leadership should have worked more quickly to remove the abuser from the church. Even if pastors and church leaders know enough to move toward removal, there may be an internal pressure to wait… to see if the man will repent… to make sure you aren’t making a mistake. Admittedly, this is a difficult call. However, looking back I can see instances in which we should have moved more quickly to remove an abuser from the church.
Here’s why: Often an abuser will make attempts to broaden the circle of those in the know. He will work to gain allies, often good men, but good men who aren’t aware of the whole truth. Although some allies of abusers are abusers themselves, some are ignorant of the circumstances and have the best of intentions. They mean well, but often they are deceived because of their reasonability and goodwill toward the abuser. Moving more quickly can help minimize the damage done to these good men and to the church as a whole.
The second regret is that in some cases we should have named the abuse earlier and more explicitly, especially to the congregation. The word abuse is taboo in the American church. No one wants to say it even if it’s taking place. We try to reserve it for what we view as extreme cases, as if all abuse isn’t extreme. Some reserve the term for physical abuse only, but we should consider that abuse takes many forms (spiritual, emotional, verbal, sexual, etc.) and all of them are serious and wicked.
Naming abuse explicitly accomplishes a couple of things. First, it educates the congregation. It educates them that abuse includes more than simply physical harm. It educates them that abuse is real and present even in the most theologically astute, devotionally vibrant, or morally strict churches. It educates them that abuse must be called out… must be named… must be exposed.
Second, naming abuse explicitly helps the congregation know how to relate to the abuser and the one being abused. This is a difficult call, and specific to each situation. But in many situations a congregation can be helped to think through these relationships more clearly. In order to protect the whole flock and not simply one member of the flock, we will need to inform the church of the evil schemes of the abuser. If they’re not informed it’s more likely that they will be confused about how to relate to each of the persons involved. If confusion exists, it is possible that the abuser will continue to be welcomed and the victim will be further alienated.
Pastors have been given a great responsibility. We’re reminded of it in Paul’s words to the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:28–32:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
The church of God that we are called to care for has been obtained with his own blood, the blood of Jesus Christ. Our task will prove challenging at times. Cases of abuse, no doubt, will often prove to be beyond our own abilities. Our work is often filled with triumphs, but also with tears. But we can be confident of this: that Christ endured much more for our sake and for the sake of his church. He gave his very life for the protection and salvation of his flock. And now, we as under-shepherds have been given the task of reflecting, in some way, the sacrifice of the Great Shepherd. We do so not by our own strength or for our own glory, but as those who have been commended to God and to the word of his grace, which will build us up and give us the inheritance all God’s people are promised.
The question I’ll leave you with, then, is this: What will you need to do in order to faithfully protect the flock of God among you, especially when it comes to abuse?
The ACFJ team are very grateful to the pastor who wrote this post for us! We hope it will be shared widely.
For further reading
As a pastor, what are the most important things for me to know about domestic abuse? — this is one of our FAQ pages.