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.

15 thoughts on “Shepherds Protect the Flock: Five Changes Pastors Need to Make in Addressing Abuse in the Church”

  1. Bravo! Excellent post! I wish there had been an article like this 9 years ago when my abusive ex walked out and yet stayed at our former church trying to gain allies and prove he was really the victim in that marriage. It was astounding to me how people, especially the men’s group, flocked around him and yet only told me how much God hates divorce and that I needed to forgive and reconcile because after all, we are all sinners.

    And the worse part was not receiving support from the pastor or Elders. On the contrary, one Elder actually encouraged my ex to return to our home because he told my ex that as head of the household that was HIS home and this same man told me that God hates divorce and cares much more about marriages staying intact no matter what is happening within them. To this day, if I run into this man he will not speak to me.

    I will be sharing this post on my Facebook and blog.

  2. It is heart-warming to read a pastor writing this. I, too, wish I could have included it in my email to my pastor last fall where telling the truth about my ex resulted in my being outed and my ex welcomed with open arms.

    It is very well written and I appreciate that this pastor is aware that if it were not for good counsel he also, would have gone the way of most pastors. His honesty, humbleness, and thoughtful treatment of the subject is refreshing. Thanks for posting!

  3. Thank you for this. I completely identified with the “indicators”. My ex husband said all the right things that made it sound like he was truly repentant, pushed for couple’s counseling, and tried to get the wives of the men in the church with whom he had spoken to to reach out to me and ask if there was any hope of reconciliation. The divorce was finalized just this past December, but as I am preparing to step out on my own, the feelings of loss and hurt and anger and second guessing my decision to leave are flooding back in. It is articles like this that reinforce my belief that I made the right choice to leave.

    1. Christian10_28, I have not left yet, but from the stories I have read, the second guessing and the emotions are normal. God bless you as you start your new life in freedom.

      1. Thank you, STL. I’ve never really given myself time to grieve the death of the marriage, I was just always moving on to the next thing that I needed to get figured out. Now that I have it sorted, the emotions are starting to flood in. I will acknowledge them, then let them go so I can move forward.
        I’ll be praying for you as you decide what is best and safest for you (and your kids, if you have them).

      2. Thank you for your prayers, Christian10_28. I do have kids and they (custody, etc.) are a big part of my decision-making. I am so happy for you that you have gotten out.

  4. Outstanding article to get into the hands of pastors. Is there a way for those of us not so high-tech to send it anonymously? We are in the middle of a messy situation and would not want to be identified at this point. Your blog is appreciated so much. Thank you!

  5. Spot on, brilliant post! You covered all the ground, including defining what abuse is. It seems too many churches refuse to call it abuse if there are no bruises or broken bones. As a mentor for women leaving abusive marriages, I’ve observed so many churches approach the problem by calling it a personality issue that the victimized spouse should pray about and attend joint counseling to work through, which only further victimizes him / her by making that person accountable to fixing the brokenness.

  6. 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.

    Amen to this!

  7. Your emails have been very helpful to me. But, I’m not receiving any since this last one. Am I still on your list? Thank you.

    1. Hi jme,

      I added your name to the subscribers’ list. You should be receiving an email to confirm. I don’t know why or how your name would have been removed from the list. Maybe a cyberspace glitch.

      Let me know if you have any other problems. My email is

  8. It’s just clicked with me – my wife never was a member of the church I attended. She did not agree with certain doctrinal views. She hardly ever attended. Yet when it came to the pastor protecting the flock – did he protect me, an attender since childhood through junior membership to adult membership, lay preacher and co-worker, etc. No!!

    On one phrase from her mentioning the “not on my patch“ dreaded divorce words. I received a berating, admonition and what I now know as spiritual abuse. Was my membership and loyalty, faithfulness and character over many years even thought about? It certainly seems not – truly the devil was at work and motivated one man’s decision? Many avenues of ministry were destroyed within seconds.

    Was the flock protected? No!! I believe they lost a lot that day from a faithful and hard-working, ever present servant, and loving support and prayer partner through good and troubled times, through to regular financial support, and much more. The present pastor and his wife still comment everywhere they look, or turn “my stamp”, or name turns up, or is commented upon by members. Such was the extent of giving in many aspects. I don’t say that in a proud sense – no way, just in a thankful sense but to highlight how a church loses out and IS NOT protected when they spiritually abuse a member or one who has been faithful. It only serves to warn off others that “there is no help for your troubles here.” Totally unbiblical and very much not Christ-like. How can they call themselves Christ-ones [Internet Archive link] [April 25, 2022: We added the link to a page where we found a definition for the word “Christ-ones”. The Internet Archive link is a copy of the page where we found the definition. Editors.] (Christians) when they are in no way like Christ!!

    Seems to me protection of the flock for some pastors and leaders only comes secondary to their first love i.e. self-protection and protection of their own position and ministry. They are not true shepherds as Christ described who give their lives for the sheep. Who sleep across pen doorways to protect from the wolves who seek to devour the flock. Nor are they ones who go out of their way to seek those who are wandering, hurt.

    Warning: Pride (selfishness) comes before a fall!!!

    Woe to them for their unjust judgment and self-protecting interests!! I am frightened for them!

    I’ve always said it serves a church far more in the eyes of the secular world to stand up for truth and justice, rather than covering up or getting shot of [“Getting shot of” is slang for “getting rid of”.] the problem. They think their witness will be destroyed if such stories emerge, when I believe it will actually do the opposite. It will also serve to strengthen the flock and ward off wolves in sheep’s clothing, therefore creating a safer haven for a hurting and dying world. To me that serves more as a solid witness (and more Christ-like) to a world who is crying out for compassion, truth and justice.

    When will pastors and leaders wake up and stand up!!!?? Be true men and true women! Stand with faith and trust God and speak truth, rather than cover up injustice, brush matters out of the way, under the carpet and cower in silence! Truly Satan has blinded eyes to truth in this whole area of abuse, and the flock are off wandering alone, injured and many others killed.

    Double warning: to many so-called shepherds who send abused ladies or children (or men) back into unsafe homes or away to lonely places to FURTHER endure injustice and pain, suffering and abuse in whatever form it may take; leaving children and young men and women in family situations to endure more sin. Let’s call abuse for what [it] is!! Sin that destroys spirits and devastates souls, sin that forms characters, and as so often forms a young abuser in the making. Woe unto you for not helping that mother, father or child to break that abuse cycle!!
    Jesus has a very special place in his heart for children. His warning to you is severe and applies here.
    Matthew 18:1-14
    I tremble literally as I write for fear of what is coming to “shepherds” who do not truly protect their flock and more-so the vulnerable little lambs!!

    Repent and turn before it’s too late!

    PASTORS / LEADERS!! It’s well over due time to WAKE UP to the REAL WORLD!!!

    Matthew 18:-6-7
    Causing to Stumble
    (6) “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (7) Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!

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