I‘ve been interacting a little bit with the survivor blogger phenomenon.
These are individuals who claim they have experienced severe emotional and spiritual anguish under the rigid domination of abusive, overbearing church leadership. Now that these folks have “escaped” from the tyranny of these demagogic pastors, they believe they have a duty to warn everyone with a personal blog that details the spiritual abuse they suffered.
I can understand to a degree the passionate motivation of a person who believes he has been spiritually ill-treated at a church over a long period of time. A church is supposed to be a safe haven. It’s a place where a family can hear the Word taught and grow in the love of the Lord together with like-minded folks. Pastors who “lead” with a heavy, controlling hand, who for example implement unreasonable “holiness” codes among the membership and demand absolute conformity by everyone, can quickly sour souls against attending church. In some cases, such narrow legalism will forever turn away people from church altogether.
Despite the passionate motivation, as I wrote in a previous post, I believe survivor bloggers go over-the-top with their expose’ of their previous experiences. They will attribute to their former pastors a spiritual darkness that falls near the realm of demonic, and in some cases borders on paranoia if not the outright absurd. For example, commenters on one survivor blog I read suggested that recent internet connectability problems the blog was experiencing could possibly be due to abusive leadership hacking the account.
Typically, though, the accusations survivor bloggers level against pastors are so imbalanced they paint an unfair picture of their true character. The main pastor is often called a “wolf” who wants to only harm the flock, not protect and feed it like a faithful shepherd should. He will be accused of being a controlling bully, even to the point of claiming he employs a network of spies who secretly inform upon non-conformists in the church. Anyone, it is claimed, who asks pointed questions of him or the leadership are stifled, told they are rebellious, and threatened with dismissal. The pastor is said to have no accountability to any one and other leadership are merely “yes men” enabling his continued reign of power.
I’ve argue that survivor bloggers are unhelpful with these sorts of criticisms. There are a couple of reasons I draw this conclusion:
First, survivor bloggers only generate more strife and perpetuate divisiveness among church members by pitting them against the leadership. Pastors are a group to be looked upon with suspicion, to be nit-picked to death regarding every little sniggling decision they may make on behalf of the congregation.
Second, the claims of the bloggers are ultimately one-sided, and in some respects even dishonest. That is because they provide the readers with only one perspective of the story: the victims point of view. Hence, there really is never a concise way in which a person can ascertain the truth of the charges leveled against the former pastor. We can only take the victim’s “word for it.” The leadership is often accused of lying anyways, so why bother asking them their side of the situation.
However, a real major problem I see with survivor bloggers and their supporters is the imprecision with their use of terminology. For example, I noted in my previous article the inaccurate use of cult.
Another illustration of what I mean is the use of the word wolf to describe a bad pastor. A bad pastor who is automatically defined as a “wolf” immediately poisons the conversation because the charge ignites a specific image in the minds of the hearers. The idea of a “wolf” presents a man who is only seeking to prey upon and destroy people’s lives. This is a problematic charge when a pastor may only just be unqualified as to leadership and yet is identified as a “wolf.” His overall character as a Christian person is then tarnished, slandered, and ruined because of foolish descriptions thrown about on a survivor blog.
One of the key reasons I see for this imprecision is that these bloggers erroneously conflate the qualifications of an elder as outlined in 1 Timothy 3 with what truly defines a spiritual “wolf.” A man who is occasionally impatient and unyielding with congregants, who has a rebellious teen, and who may struggle with personal pride, may not be qualified as a pastor, but that hardly identifies him as a “wolf” bent on destroying men’s souls. It is these type of men I believe survivor bloggers are wrongly identifying with true spiritual wolves.
So how exactly do we distinguish between the two? I believe Scripture lends us some insights.
Let me consider a couple of passages. One from the OT and a second from the NT.
First, in Ezekiel 34 the prophet gives a word of judgment against false shepherds. Though God’s judgment is proclaimed specifically against religio-political leaders in Israel immediately before the Babylonian exile, there are some applicable points we can draw relating to pastors.
If one looks at Ezekiel 34:1-10, there are at least four observations to be seen.
1)The false shepherds feed themselves from the flock (1-2). In other words, these were leaders who only saw their role as designated leaders as a means to pursue their self-interests at the expense of those they were appointed to serve. Honestly, this is the attitude of true spiritual abuse because even though these leaders may not have direct, personal contact with the congregation, they were abusing their God given authority.
2)They do not feed the flock (3). Simply put, they do not strengthen the people by the proclamation of the Word. In the context of the OT, the leaders were to remind the people of their covenant obligations before God. This can only be accomplished by drawing the people to the written Scripture that reveals how they were to love the Lord and walk before Him in godliness.
3)They did not shepherd the weak (4). The picture is of an unhealthy, sick lamb that the shepherd essentially ignores and allows it to die from its illness. In like manner, those people who are spiritually sick are ignored by the leaders and left to themselves. There is no personal involvement or concern for their spiritual well-being.
4)By ignoring the weak sheep, they are allowed to wander off into spiritual error. They are led astray by every whim of doctrine away from spiritual truth and eventually spiritual doom.
Here we have at least four marks of a “spiritual wolf.” Leaders who are self-centered and uses the people for self-interests, who do not teach them the word of God, who ignore the spiritually weak, and allow them to wander off into soul-damning error.
Turning to the New Testament, there are a number of passages I could consider, but let me zero in on Acts 20 where Paul presents his final words to the Ephesian elders and the church. I should point out that with these final words, Paul, who will never again see these people, warns with much earnestness the need to be on the guard against what he calls “savage wolves.”
1)They come in among the body (29). This implies the “wolves” mingle among the regular members in the church. They are not necessarily limited to only being pastors, but could be lay level individuals. By application, this can mean that self-proclaimed survivor bloggers are capable of being a wolf just as much as the pastors they say “abused” them.
2)Wolves also come from among leaders or elders (30). These particular individuals, however, are primarily marked by what they teach. They teach “perverse” things; twisted, heretical doctrine that draws people away from the truth.
Notice, though, it is what they teach that marks them.
There is no discussion about whether they are “controlling” or overly “authoritarian” or shut down questions being asked of them. It is not the pastor’s inability to diplomatically manage disagreement among the members or him being short-tempered with dissenters that is in view here. What marks out a leader as being a “wolf” is the false doctrine he spreads.
Hence, a pastor may be sweet, loving, accepting and accommodating to everyone in the church, but if he teaches that homosexuality is not a sin and God approves of gay marriage, the man is a wolf. The people at Biologos, though they are not technically pastoring a church, are in essence wolves who destroy men’s souls.
In both of these passages, false shepherds who are spiritually abusive wolves are indicated by at least three truths:
– they seek their own self-interests with their appointed position,
– they do not guard the flock against heresy and
– they in fact will teach heresy leading disciples to ultimate destruction.
These are people we can confidently conclude are outside true salvation.
On the other hand, much of the leadership declared by survivor bloggers as being spiritually wolfish are not genuinely wolfish. They are Christians who may lack the biblical qualifications to lead the people because of personal areas where they are yet to be sanctified. They should be admonished and exhorted, not slandered publicly on a survivor blog.
to be continued…