EFAC Australia

How Does a Church Come to Terms With Revelations of Abuse by a Leader?

This article was prompted by some behaviour disclosures in the UK. Details (and a longer article by the author) can be found at walkingwith.uk. Christopher Ash is Writer-in-Residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

I recently wrote a blog post asking in general terms, how we should respond when a church leader falls. This paper follows on from that and asks the more specific question: how does a church come to terms with revelations of abuse by a leader? My general reflections in the previous blog post still apply. But I want to consider the more particular, and distressing, situation where there has been abuse.

In 1 Timothy 5:19, the apostle Paul writes, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Referring back to an Old Testament law, the expression “two or three witnesses” is a Bible idiom for careful and independent attestation of the truth of the accusations. This acknowledges that false accusations are sometimes levelled at church leaders. This paper is written for a situation where the facts have been established.

This paper is limited. It does not seek to address three vital questions. First, how ought we to comfort, love, and help victims of abuse? This is of paramount importance, but I am not addressing it here. Second, what lessons need to be learned by a particular church or denomination or Christian agency? That is to say, are there previously unrecognized elements in the culture of the church (or mission agency or para-church ministry) that may have allowed abuse to take place? Third, following from this, what can be done to guard – as best we possibly can – against any repetition of this abuse? While recognising that no church can ever be completely safeguarded, we will want to put in place every possible good safeguarding practice. This too I have not attempted to cover in this paper.

My reflection is in three parts. First, I want to focus on the dangers to our own hearts in even engaging in this response. Then I shall try to help us come to terms with the disorientation and even disillusion that may result from disclosures of abuse. Finally I seek to point forwards in terms of our corporate lament and prayer life.

A. We need to guard our own hearts…

Revelations of abuse arouse in us first disbelief and then dismay, shock, and horror. We rightly distance ourselves from abusive behaviours and see how terribly wrong they are. And yet the moment we do this we are in great danger. I want to suggest three dangers against which we must guard ourselves.

1. …against self-righteousness

There can be no place for self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14). The danger with expressing our horror and revulsion at abusive behaviours is that we slip into a pharisaic smug complacency, thanking God that we are not guilty of these sins. We must not do this. We have not, please God, been guilty of, or complicit in, the abuse that may have been uncovered. But there are many sins of which we have been guilty. We have been proud, we have been self-centred, we have cherished idols, we have loved the praise of people, we have indulged in lust, we have given space to greed in our hearts, we have been lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, and in many other ways we have sinned. We need deeply to repent. This scandal ought to move us to a fresh and honest repentance of our own sins. We stand before God as sinners forgiven in Christ; we have nothing of which to be proud, and we never shall.

2. …against an unhealthy interest

In the context of a Christian being “caught in...transgression,” Paul exhorts his readers: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). We may not be tempted by the ugly features of any particular abuse. But it is easy to gossip and, especially when (as often) abuse may have sexual content or sexual overtones, there is a terrible danger of indulging a prurient interest and wanting to know more and more. But sinful behaviour of any kind sticks to us like dirt; knowing about ugly actions is a little like pornography; it lurks in our memories and drags us down in our thoughts and emotions. Rather we need afresh to hear the exhortation, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

3. …against a twisted gladness

When Judah came under the judgement of God at the time of the Babylonian exile, the prophets have a special word of condemnation for the Edomites, who cheered on the Babylonians and rejoiced at the disaster that befell Judah. “But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin,” warns Obadiah (Obadiah 12). Schadenfreude is the German word that expresses this twisted delight when something bad happens to someone else. This too is a danger for us, and perhaps especially when a Christian leader falls. While the event of a leader’s fall is sobering, the responses to that fall can be darkly revealing about those who respond with something approaching gloating. Hidden agendas, long-nursed resentments, can surface at such a time. We need to guard our hearts against this.

B. We have to face our deep disorientation and even disillusion and trust afresh in Christ alone.

The shock of all revelations of abuse is peculiarly acute when the one whom they concern has been a blessing to many; this is so often the case when a church leader is guilty. How can something so good be intimately associated with something so evil, and all bound up in the same person? It is deeply disorienting to find that a man (for it is usually a man) we thought we knew, perhaps the man some looked up to as a father-figure1, is not the man we thought he was. It feels like the foundations are being taken away from beneath us. There is a painful sense of loss, akin to a bereavement. How are we to make any sense of this apparently senseless coming together of good and evil in one person?

One immediate response is perhaps to remind ourselves of the depth and extent of our sinful depravity. The heroes of faith in the Bible are flawed people; even the great and pious King David committed adultery and was complicit in murder (2 Samuel 11). Solomon had great wisdom and failed terribly. We too are deeply sinful even as regenerate people (Romans 7). This is true. Any one of us is capable of committing all manner of terrible sins. And, if we think we are not in such danger, we need to take heed lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

But while this is true, it does not entirely explain the particular tragedy of abuse by a church leader. What I think we need to grapple with is how good things and evil things can be very close. We are talking about the deceitfulness of sin.

Let us begin with a wholesome model of pastoral care. A pastor who is a more mature believer in Christ takes a younger believer under his (usually ‘his’) care. He prays for them. He instructs and encourages them. He keeps in touch with them. He meets with them and, in the context of friendship, exhorts them to keep on following Jesus faithfully. Many a young person has been grateful to God for such pastoral care; I am myself, from those leaders who mentored and encouraged me early in my Christian life.

But then extrapolate from this. Perhaps the loving care is so intense that the friendship becomes a little exclusive. The older believer begins to think of this younger believer as ‘his’ – not only his pastoral responsibility, but his prerogative, so that no one else is really allowed to encourage this younger person in their faith. It is perhaps not difficult to see how a wholesome pastoral care might metamorphose into something much darker, and the younger man ends up being used for the purposes of the older pastor rather than the older pastor sacrificially serving the younger disciple. Who knows what are the thoughts and intentions of the heart in this process? Probably the leader is not fully aware himself, such is the deceitfulness of the human heart.

What might be the warning signs of this dark exchange? Exclusivity might be one. Favouritism might be another. When there is a perception that some are ‘the favoured ones’ and others are not, danger lurks.

C.S.Lewis2 makes the point that it is precisely in the human experiences that most closely approach the character of God that we are most at risk of confusing them with God. He uses the analogy of being almost home at the end of a ramble, but finding ourselves at the top of a cliff overlooking our home. On the map we are close to home, but in reality we have a lot of walking still to do. Lewis applies this to erotic love and patriotic love for one’s country, both of which are like God’s love and yet very far from it. Perhaps in a slightly similar way, the kind of close and affectionate pastoral care that approximates the care of Jesus our Good Shepherd may begin to arrogate to itself the prerogatives of authority and influence that belong properly to Jesus alone.

And so, by a diabolical alchemy, something wholesome and nourishing metamorphoses into something abusive.

But even if we can slowly begin to grasp something of how the abuse might have happened – and such a grasp will be at best tentative, for we cannot see the heart of another – even then we need to face the frightening fear that the blessings we thought we had experienced through this leader might not be true blessings at all. Might they not be in some way invalidated by these revelations, tainted beyond recovery by the sin with which we now know they were associated? These are truly frightening questions, for the blessings we are considering concern salvation and eternal destiny.

Paul encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” presumably meaning Timothy’s godly mother and grandmother, and indeed the apostle himself (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14). As Timothy remembers the godliness and integrity of those from whom he learned faith in Christ, he is encouraged to continue on the path of faith. But what if we discover that one from whom we learned the things of Christ did not have the integrity and godliness that we thought he had? Is that not deeply disturbing? It is.

And yet we must come back to the fundamental truth that

the blessings we have – all the blessings we have – come to us through and in Christ, and Christ alone, in whom there is no sin, in whose life we see pure goodness, unbroken sacrificial service of others, and the polar opposite of each and every kind of abuse.

Repeatedly the scriptures warn us not to put our trust in people other than God and his Christ. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” warns the King in Psalm 118 (Ps.118:9). “Put not your trust in princes,” warns the psalmist in Psalm 146, for blessing comes only to the one “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Ps.146:3- 5).

So, while it is a good thing, and an encouraging and reassuring experience, when those from whom we learned the things of Christ prove to be godly and to have integrity, it is not essential. Writing from prison to the church in Philippi, Paul is sad that “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry”; but he takes comfort that, whatever their motives – whether bad or good – “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil.1:15-18). The channels through whom we hear the good news of Jesus will never be perfect; sometimes they will prove deeply flawed, whether through bad motives (as in Paul’s day) or even through the ugliness of abuse. But the blessing comes from Jesus Christ, and no flaws in the channel can take away from us the sheer goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in Jesus.

The reformers grappled with a similar question. Article 26 of the 39 Articles of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England is entitled, “Of the unworthiness of ministers.” In it we read this: ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

The article goes on to say, “Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed. ”

But for our purposes the point is this: the blessings of the gospel (in the preached word and also signified in the gospel sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are effective in our lives “because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men”.

Suppose someone came to faith in Christ through the ministry of this leader, or someone else looks back to a signal time of growth in grace and faith through his preaching, or another is in Christian ministry or cross-cultural mission because of this leader’s encouragement. How are these now to view their conversion, their growth in grace, or their being in Christian ministry?

The answer I think is this: they may be grateful to God for his overwhelming kindness to them, that God appointed a channel through whom they heard the gospel, through whom they grew in grace, through whom they entered ministry. Nothing about any of those blessings is invalidated by the subsequent sad discovery of the flawed behaviour of this leader, for all these blessings rest upon Christ and not one of them rests on the character of this leader or any other leader.

There may need, for some, to be a period of painful readjustment. We may need to hear afresh the admonition not to put our trust in “princes” (including Christian leaders), perhaps to repent if our trust has become mixed, with some of it focussing unhelpfully on a leader, but in the end to take fresh comfort from all that is ours in Christ.

C. We lament together, repent together, and are humbled together under the mighty hand of God.

I want to conclude with a brief reflection that focuses on the church of Christ corporately.

When the Old Testament church, the assembly of the covenant people of God, came under God’s judgment in the Babylonian exile, those who were true and even blameless believers were caught up in the judgement with those who were arrogant idolaters. We hear the voices of these true believers in a number of places. In Psalm 79, for example, provoked by the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem (verse 1), this godly Spirit-inspired psalmist grieves when the surrounding nations taunt them all with the mocking question, “Where is their God?” (verse 10). It is said to him also; it is not said only to those whose idolatry had provoked the exile. In his prayer in Daniel 9:1-19, the godly Daniel laments the “open shame” that has come “to us” (verses 7,8) for we have all “become a byword among all who are around us” (verse 16). The godly Nehemiah laments that, because of the ungodliness of the people, “we are slaves” (Neh.9:36); all of us come under the shadow of this disciplinary judgement of God, whether or not we have individually and personally been guilty of covenant-breaking and idolatry.

When abuse from a church leader is exposed, we must expect that the whole church of Christ will be reviled. We will be taunted as hypocrites. We will be laughed at when we seek to speak of godly virtue and the law of God. We should not be surprised when this happens. Some who are lifelong enemies of the gospel of Christ will use these sad events as a vehicle to make life miserable for the church of Christ. Others – and this is more tragic – who might have seemed to be seeking and to have a genuine interest in Christian faith, will be driven away from a message whose messengers now seem to them to be hypocrites or worse.

All this is desperately painful and we must expect it to be so. As believers did after the exile, we too may learn to lament together for the desperate and sad state of the church of Christ. We grieve for the victims and seek to love and care for them as best we can. We grieve for the honour of Christ.

And yet, even as we lament and repent afresh of our own sins, we still claim and hold on to the promises of God. For Jesus Christ has said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt.16:18). That promise stands on the darkest day. So let us encourage one another to hold more firmly yet to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom is our only hope.


1. Incidentally, the whole concept of a “father figure” is fraught with danger. While it is true that Paul can address Timothy as “my beloved child” (sc. in the faith, 2 Timothy 1:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15), we need to heed the warning of the Lord Jesus to “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). This warning needs, at least metaphorically, to be emblazoned above the office of every pastor.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977). pages 10-12.