What is spiritual abuse and how common is it? How should Christians handle spiritual abuse in the church? Our guest today, Dr. Michael Kruger, has written a new book called Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church. We talk with him about how to best understand and address spiritual abuse in the church and wider Christian community.

Michael J. Kruger is president of Reformed Theological Seminary's Charlotte, North Carolina, campus, where he also serves as professor of New Testament. He was president of the Evangelical Society in 2019. He is the author of multiple books including Surviving Religion 101 (2021) and Christianity at the Crossroads (2018).

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: What is spiritual abuse and how common is it? How should Christians handle spiritual abuse in the church? Our guest today, Dr. Michael Kruger, has written a new book called Bully Pulpit Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church. I'm your host, Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: This is Think Biblically, a podcast brought to you by Talbot School Theology, Biola University. Michael, I got to tell you, when I first saw this book, I had two thoughts. Number one, I was surprised. I thought, wow, a New Testament scholar is waning into the issue of spiritual abuse. And then my second thought was, thank God, because every voice that weighs into this thoughtfully is helping to move the ball forward. So maybe tell us why you as a New Testament professor chose to write this book.

Michael Kruger: Oh yeah. Well, you guys nailed it. Thanks, Sean. Thanks, Scott. Great to be on the show and you're exactly right. This is not a book that is in the topic of my normal repertoire. Normally, as perhaps some of your listeners know, I'm in the field of canon and text and New Testament studies. And so this is actually a book that I sort of wrote in a way because I felt like it needed to be written. And I felt like, okay, if perhaps God is opening the doors for me to write it, maybe I need to write it. And perhaps by doing so because I'm so outside of the box, maybe I could gain a hearing from some people that wouldn't otherwise listen about the importance of this question. And I think that probably says a lot about our cultural moment. I think the listeners probably know, I'm not the first one to talk about this issue, but many of the people who talk about this issue tend to be in certain spaces that maybe aren't getting the hearing that they ought to get. And so perhaps it's an opportunity to be a voice into the discussion and I hope God uses it for that.

Scott Rae: Well, I think Sean would agree with me on this. It's been a very effective voice at this point. So Mike, help our listeners understand what do you mean by the term spiritual abuse, and how's it different than emotional or sexual abuse?

Michael Kruger: Yeah. Well, as you might imagine, the topic of definition is key to this whole thing. And I spend a lot of time in the book mapping out what I do mean, what I don't mean by the term spiritual abuse and how to distinguish it from other kinds of perhaps problematic behaviors that don't rise to the level of abuse. But I would encourage the listener not to get hung up on the terminology. I make a point that the terminology to some extent is secondary. Effectively what we mean by spiritually abuse is a Christian leader, a leader in a position of spiritual authority, that wields that authority in a way that's domineering, heavy handed, harsh, and authoritarian to those under their care. And once you realize that's the definition, all you got to do is reflect back on many, many biblical stories, some of which of course I cover in the book, where people are leading in exactly that way. And so that kind of oppressive leadership style is what we mean by the term spiritual abuse. And it's been picked up in church history too. I mentioned how a number of folks have used other terms, spiritual tyranny, spiritual oppression. We use the term spiritual abuse. I think the terminology is neither here nor there on one level. And what makes it different from something like emotional abuse, which is also a real thing in the world, is just the spiritual dimension to it. It's done by somebody who's been put in a position presumably by God at some level in spiritual authority over you. And so if your boss at work treats you this way, you might call that emotional abuse, but when your pastor treats you this way, now we're into the world of spiritual abuse and it can be really, really damaging.

Sean McDowell: One of the terms that's used sometimes with spiritual abuse is PTSD and I go to admit, when I first heard that, I thought, oh my goodness, we're comparing it to war. This is overstated. But then when I really talked to people who experienced it and studied it, I thought, wow, there is an element where there's something about spiritual abuse that is uniquely devastating. Why is spiritual abuse so devastating?

Michael Kruger: Yeah, this is really interesting. As I did my research for the book, I learned a lot myself. I felt like I had a decent grasp on some categories going in, but I learned a lot. And I think when you look back historically in the last 50 to 100 years in the church, I think our view of abuse is basically kind of like the basketball phrase, no blood, no foul. So as long as you're not bleeding, just take it and move on. And so we've sort of minimized the problem and we've relegated abuse to purely physical, and then not only purely physical, but also blatantly physical, literally beating somebody. But I think as time has ticked on and with the help of common grace, insights from modern science and other things, realize that, wait a second, there's other ways to really harm and hurt people. And the reason I think spiritual abuse is so damaging, and of course I have a whole chapter on how it's damaging, is because of the trust you have and the legitimate trust you have for those that God has placed in your life as those who are supposed to care for you spiritually. And then when that person is supposed to care for you spiritually turns around and hurts you, and profound and deep ways, there's something extra damaging there. And the analogy I give is it's like child abuse. If you get a kid with a broken arm and they got that broken arm in a football game, one kind of pain, but if they got that broken arm from their mom who did something to them, you realize the pain is more than the physical act. Now you've got a family member who's supposed to love you, but then harms you, and that just has a whole level of mental and emotional damage.

Scott Rae: Mike, I don't know if you were able to get a handle on this in your work on this, but how common would you say the problem of spiritual abuse is in our churches today?

Michael Kruger: Yeah, that is really tough question, Scott. I do bring this up in the book, and the answer I actually give is we don't know. There's a sense in which you could make the argument that it's not really that we're seeing an increase in abuse. We're seeing an increase in awareness of abuse. So you might be able to say that this level of abuse has always been there and we're just more aware of it now, perhaps through social media and so on. And I think that's possible. My gut though, and I don't have... There's no hard statistics on this because spiritual abuse is still so much a topic that's at the front end of its research. But my own gut is I do think there's been a spike. I do think there's been an increase in it. And I do think that it's possible that a lot of that is the result of the cultural moment we're in. We're in a cultural moment where the church is being disparaged and relegated and being told it doesn't mean anything. And so understandably, I think pastors are feeling like their authority is in doubt and their authority in question. And sometimes when you feel like your authority is endowed or is in question, you can react one of two ways. One, you can just give it up entirely, or two, you can double down on it and make sure you really want to remind people of your authority a lot. And I feel like a lot of folks have fallen into that second camp in order to counteract the cultural anti-authority movement, we feel like, well, we better show people that we really mean it. And I think that's led to some abuses of authority.

Scott Rae: Let me sort of relate it to that. I'm curious if you were able to connect any of this, because I seems to me one of the things that makes this so serious is that one is, yeah, these are spiritual leaders who people have entrusted their lives and often the lives of their families too. But I could see that it would have a spillover effect onto their own faith itself. Is that a common thing that if they're abused by a pastor, they sort of project that onto God?

Michael Kruger: Oh yeah. You mean the victim of abuse?

Scott Rae: Yes.

Michael Kruger: Is that what, you mean?

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Michael Kruger: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think makes spiritual abuse particularly damaging is of course the broken trust, we mentioned that, but also the sort of unofficial link that someone makes in their mind where they begin to assume that God must be like this person that's leading them. Because in one sense, they do represent God, right? I mean, at some level, a pastor does represent God, not that they're inspired or anything like that, but they do at some level represent God. And so people begin to think, well, God's displeased with me. God's mad at me all the time. God's harsh with me. God has a short temper with me, and it can really do damage. And one of the big things that happens to people who are victims of spiritual abuse is they begin to question their faith. They begin to question the goodness of the church. And we see a lot of people converting actually in light of that spiritual abuse. I don't think it's a surprise in our cultural moment that we have a lot of conversation about deconversion at the same time we're having a lot of conversations about abuse in the church.

Sean McDowell: For the past 18 months or so, I've been reading a lot of books on abuse, listening to lectures, talking to people who've experienced spiritual abuse, talking to some experts. And one of the things is I just see stuff now that I would not have seen before. You can almost say my eyes have been opened up to see certain things. And you talk about in your book how when somebody is accused of spiritual abuse, it's like they just follow a certain script and you see that same script in different churches, different organizations, and it involves covering their tracks, flipping the script when charges are raised against them. So maybe lay out for us just a few things that people do to cover their tracks, flip the script when charges are raised that someone has spiritual abuse somebody else.

Michael Kruger: Yeah. One of the things that I was struck by too, Sean, is that in my own research how eerily similar all these different cases are that I've studied. I mean, each of them have their own nuances of course, and their own particularities, but at the end of the day, it is almost like everyone's playing off the same playbook. In fact, it's so much that way that when I did my blog series and then even when the book has just been out a month, I've been inundated with emails from people saying, are you talking about my church?

Sean McDowell: Holy cow.

Michael Kruger: Are you talking about my pastor? Was my pastor part of your research? Because you've just described my pastor exactly. And that is kind of frightening to be honest. And I think it speaks to the type of abusive patterns that when you misuse your leadership, it does fall into certain tracks and trajectories. So there's ways that people try to cover their tracks as you indicated. And I mentioned some of these in the book, and they include things like silencing the victim so no one even knows there's a conflict at all, driving out the people who are the victims so that the problem never surfaces and is never explained or shown to the board. There's retaliatory accusations. This is probably one of the saddest and most common tactics, is that in, you have an abusive leader, instead of them being admitting they have a problem, they just dredge up all these claims about the victims and their sense. So these people are overly sensitive. These people have their own sin patterns. These people are slanderers and so forth. And so the tragedy of spiritual abuse isn't just that the spiritual abuser gets away with it, so to speak, but that the people who are the victims actually are the ones who are attacked and maligned. And that is just so tragic. And actually when you sit down from across the table with abuse victims and see the tears in their eyes and hear their stories, you realize, whoa, this is more significant than I realized and it's very sobering.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Mike, I wonder, you have a good section in the book about the leadership qualities that many of our churches look for versus what the scripture says we ought to look for. But I wonder why do so many of our churches select narcissistic pastors to lead them?

Michael Kruger: Yeah, we are at a point in the American church at least, and I would say in American theological education, which the three of us are all involved in, where we have probably focused more on competency and doctrine than we have on character. And it is true that doctrine matters. That matters a lot. And I know we all agree with that, but we also know in scripture that having right doctrine does not mean you have right character. And I point out in the book that when it comes to the qualifications for ministry, that character outnumber doctrine or outnumber outnumbered giftedness about 12 to 1, it's a shocking imbalance that I think perhaps we've even reversed. And there's probably lots of reasons why we've reversed it, and we could unpack some of those, and I'll be even eager to hear your thoughts. I think there is a sense though that churches feel like they're in competition to become the next great thing in such a way that we idolize success. And the way you succeed in American culture is you find a franchise player to build your team around. And so it's not that different than sports or business. You get a great CEO or you get LeBron James on your team and you go win. And so I think churches recruit what they think are powerful dynamic leaders so they can become what they want to be. And they don't realize that the goal in the first place is maybe the problem. Why is the goal to always be a superpower church? Why can't the goal just be the faithfully shepherd the people that God has given you? And so I think there's something in the water there that has led to the desire to get leaders like this.

Sean McDowell: I think it's really helpful when you spend time walking through this. Spiritual abuse really is a problem of leadership, and we just have systems set up that encourage this, and we got to take a deep look at who we hire, what the Bible says about leadership, and even the terminology, I'm trying to remember the terminology you said rather than pastor who was key servant. What was the terminology?

Michael Kruger: Yeah, servant minister was the language, the word minister actually is the word servant in the Greek. And one of the things I make a point of is that too many churches have taken the servanthood quality and assumed it's only should be only true of deacons. And so if you meet somebody who's a servant hearted person, we use that language sometimes in the church, we think of that person as, oh, you'll make a good deacon, and we kind of direct them into that trajectory. What I was trying to say is that no, the concept of a servant hearted person is actually what an elder should be a pastor. And why are we assuming that it's just deacons? It should be, first of all, generally speaking, all Christians, but particularly the minister. So I'm not suggesting that the term senior pastor is wrong or sinful. No, I know titles are complicated things, but I even made the point that even how you view yourself, even if you don't change the title on the church letterhead, I mean, maybe you just viewing yourself as a servant minister instead of a senior pastor could maybe even mentally in theologically help remind you what your real role is.

Scott Rae: Well, and I think it's sort of ironic too that we typically don't view deacons as leaders. We view elders and pastors as leaders, and deacons are the servants. And it seems like we have mixed the categories up in some pretty harmful ways. Mike let's say someone has committed spiritual abuse and they've been confronted about it. They recognize that sort of like somebody who has affairs or is sleeping around on their wife or something like that, they're confronted, they admit it, they confess, and then they want to be restored back into their position of spiritual authority. What kinds of things in your view have to happen before someone can be restored back to a leadership position, if at all?

Michael Kruger: Yeah, that's a great question.

Scott Rae: It may be that being guilty of spiritual abuse is maybe disqualifying for maybe longer than we first think.

Michael Kruger: Yeah. So it's interesting in the book, I don't ever get to that question because the book was designed of course, to just deal with how to recognize and stop abuse, but you raise a great question is, okay, let's assuming that you've done that, how do you think through what you do after that with this abusive leader? Do they get restored? Do they get put back in leadership? And I think I have a few thoughts on that. For first of all, I think you're going to be looking for evidence of genuine repentance from that abusive leader. And I can tell you this because I've seen these cases and I've studied them my own research, there's a level at which many spiritual abusers will acknowledge something, but they often don't acknowledge the severity or the depth of it. Say things like, yeah, I know I can be a little rough around the edges. Yeah, I realize I'm a strong leader that ruffles people's feathers. Yeah, I can sometimes say things in direct ways, and so they'll sort of pad it as if it's not really abusive, it's not really a problem, it's just a little bit of a personality flaw. So I think the first step in whether a person could ever even possibly be restored is do they really comprehend that they are behaving in a way that's contrary to the fundamental direction that God calls a shepherd to be? The other thing that I think is a sign of repentance is the willingness to give up power. Spiritual abusers, the main thing is to retain control. And so one sign of repentance is in a willingness to let that go, to say, I'm stepping down. I'm voluntarily, not going to wait to be removed, I'm going to voluntarily step down and say, I got issues and I'm going to have to go deal with them. As far as whether they can ever be restored I mean, it depends on the severity, it depends on the level of repentance, depends on the time that passes. And those all are complicating factors, obviously. But I certainly would say this, we would need to be very cautious and very patient about restoring spiritual abusers to positions of authority because that's the very thing that got them in the trouble in the first place.

Scott Rae: One thing I'd be inclined to do is somewhere in that restoration process to require them to serve in ways that they think are beneath them, like have an assignment in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen or out among the poor in the community, something that in their previous life would never have been caught dead doing. What do you make of something like that?

Michael Kruger: No, absolutely. And I think you're just trying to get at the fundamental issue, which is an issue of humility and loneliness. One of the things about spiritual abusers is not only do they think everybody else is the problem and not them, but there's a hierarchical top-down issue there. And as a side note, it's not just a hierarchal issue with one person, usually it's a systemic built in hierarchy. And so that's another corollary question that needs to be addressed too at some point, which is that it's not just the one individual that's the problem. Sometimes it's the larger church culture that's the problem. But the point is that type of culture does not allow for humble people to excel. And so we in one sense have created cultures where humility isn't even allowed at some level. And so in order to get back on track, we need to see evidence of that humility. And I think you're right, we could ask them to pursue certain things to demonstrate that, but those are her things to show and hard things to evaluate.

Sean McDowell: Michael, if I'm going to be totally honest, I don't have a lot of confidence in most churches being able to recognize spiritual abuse, genuinely bring her about the right kind of repentance and then restore somebody back to ministry. And I say that for a couple reasons. Number one, before I really started studying this topic 18 months ago, I was pretty confident that I could do that. But this research has made me realize, holy cow, there are experts and levels to this I did not understand. And I also see a ton of stories in just the media and the church today where people are rushing right back into leadership and this pastor gave approval and I pause, I'm thinking, wait a minute. It almost feels like the pressure is to get somebody back into ministry really quickly rather than to make sure all the damage that has been done has been reconciled first, and we've learned from it then move forward. Is that your sense?

Michael Kruger: Yes it is. These things we see play out, and I think we all know even in recent weeks we've seen some of this play out where there seems to be a rush to restore that I would say is abuser centric, not victim centric. And so it's like all the attention is on, well, this guy's doing his best and we don't want to leave him by the side of the road. We want to get this guy back. And I'm like, what about the victims? So if we talked about them, have we lamented over what happened to them? Have we talked about the suffering they've endured? And so I think there's a focus there that's broken. But I you're right, the trust level of many people out there, Sean, beyond yourself, I think shares your feeling, which is, I don't know that I feel like many churches are able to do this very well. And this is why one of the things I recommend in the book is churches getting outside help. I recommend not only genuinely independent third party investigations for abuse accusations, but also that same genuinely third party group helping churches understand it and how to deal with it. And then eventually, if ever possible, restore someone after it which is a complicated question because most people in churches, even if they love Jesus and are solid Christians, just don't have an awareness of the complexities of the problem.

Scott Rae: Mike, I think a common misunderstanding when spiritual abuse takes place is to not name it for what it is, but to see it as a conflict between two somewhat equals who should follow Matthew 18. If we get these two brothers or two sisters into the same room together, they can work it out.

Michael Kruger: Oh, that's exactly right.

Scott Rae: But you suggest something, you suggest that that's a really bad idea. How come?

Michael Kruger: Yeah. So the idea of abuse being simply conflict is one of the biggest mistakes that churches make. And I think this is as evidence actually of just a lack of understanding of what they're seeing and this desire, and somewhat I understand the desire, but desire to quickly solve it and get everybody in a room where you can hug and apologize to each other and move on. And so there's a peacemaking impetus there, which I understand, and I appreciate the desire for peacemaking, but I would remind churches, and I do in my book, that abuse is not simply a conflict. It's not two equals who one offended the other and you go into room and apologize. But rather it's someone who's hurt and oppressed someone else by misusing their spiritual authority. And in that case, you have to look at it in the full picture in Matthew 18, and that's a very important biblical text and I addressed it in the book, is not a one size fits all thing. And I'll give you an example of this. When Bill Hybels case, and that's a public case, and I mentioned it in the book, when Bill Hybels was accused of sexually abusing these women in the church, the women came forward to the leadership and brought their concerns and they were actually rebuked for not going to Bill Hybels privately. And I think that's just a profound misunderstanding of the way Bruce works. I can't imagine telling my wife to go back into the room alone with Bill Hybels and say, "Hey, you sexually assaulted me." That seems completely contrary to the intent of Matthew 18, and it also overlooks the church's obligation to protect the people under its care. So I try to nuance Matthew 18, recognizing of course how important it is, but it's more nuanced than most people give it credit for.

Sean McDowell: And I think back to one of the earlier questions we had about the damage of spiritual abuse is how scripture is weaponized against people is particularly painful and just adds to the spiritual abuse and Matthew 18 is a passage that often falls into that. One last question for you. What can churches do to create a climate in which spiritual abuse claims are taken seriously? Now, before you answer this, let me just answer what I think every church should do. And I don't know that I've done this for the book before. I think every church needs to get a copy of your book, Bully Pulpit, study it, talk about it, discuss it, and then start to create a climate where they will see this kind of abuse, set up a system to recognize when spiritual abuse happens that doesn't favor the one who's being charged or the one who's raising the complaint but deals with it fairly. So as you answer this question, I want to get it out there for you, Michael. My two senses, I don't think I've endorsed a book as strongly, but it is eye-opening, convicting. It's quick, easy to fall, it's practical. Step number one, I want pastors to get a copy of Bully Pulpit and take their staff through it, but give us some other steps that churches can do to better recognize spiritual abuse and deal with it.

Michael Kruger: Yes, thank you, Sean, and thank you for that very kind shout out there I really appreciate it. And my prayer is that churches would use this as a tool, and I hope it's helpful to them. In the last chapter of my book, I spend my time trying to bring out the practical applications that you hinted at of what churches can do to deal with cases that they're faced with. And what's interesting about that last chapter is that after I wrote it, I thought to myself, wow, this is also basic and so simple and so non rocket science, but I also realize how few churches actually do it. And what you realize is that sometimes the most basic things can still really make a huge difference. So I mentioned a ton of them. Of course, I won't mention all of them in this brief moment, but some of the things I really encourage churches to do is first, when they hire a pastor, you've got to think better about your vetting technique of their character. You can't rely on, I got my two best friends to write me a recommendation system any longer. There has to be some really deeper dive into the character you hire, of the person you hire. And then once you hire them, the accountability structure needs some deep consideration. There needs to be a way people can come forward with concerns without retaliation, without getting fired, without getting their lives destroyed. And so there has to be a system that they're protected as a independent investigation ensues. And then one of the things I really encourage is a posture of transparency and openness in churches, which includes annual reviews of all the staff, annual reviews of the senior leader, and open sharing of those reviews and in a way that allows people to be confident that nothing's being hidden or swept under the rug. So there's a number of things in that final chapter that get at that, but I think some of the recommendations I have are really kind of simple, but if they would be followed, I hope and pray they really would make a difference in the long run for churches today.

Sean McDowell: Michael, it's real interesting. I had a conversation a number of months ago with Rachel Den Hollander, and I know who she is. We've had her on our podcast, was one of the former gymnasts now a lawyer who really broke the Larry Nasser sex abuse scandal, so widespread in gymnastics at the time, and now has committed herself too, helping victims in the church. And we're talking about a particular issue, and I just made some kind of comment like this is taking so much of my time away from my ministry. And she's like, Sean, this is a part of ministry. Even your ministry in apologetics, it is one of the biggest objections people have, how poorly we handle abuse, how poorly the church uses power. And that was such a game-changing thought for me that this should be a part of all of our ministries in greater and lesser degrees. So that's why, whether somebody's a church leader or not, I really hope they'll pick up your book Bully Pulpit. And as a New Testament scholar, we appreciate you writing it. I'm guessing you're going to get people trying to drag you into doing counseling. You're probably going to take some criticism for this, but really, really appreciate it, and thank you for coming on.

Michael Kruger: Well, thanks Sean. Thanks, Scott. Great to be with you guys. Grateful for the conversation. Really enjoyed it.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Biola University offering programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.