Abusers in the church

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. – 3 John 1:9-10 ESV

In his book, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church, Pastor Jeff Crippen gives an excellent description of an abuser’s tactics and mentality. Having studied what abusers do and how they act, Pastor Crippen realized that not only are there domestic abusers “hiding out” in churches, there are also people who use these same abusive tactics to attempt to control churches. Sometimes these are members of the congregation, and sometimes these are leaders of the church: pastors, elders, deacons.

Pastor Crippen uses the 3 John passage quoted above as an illustration of the type of person who uses the tactics and mentality of an abuser to bully his or her way around a church:

I originally planned to entitle this book In Search of Diotrephes, because abusers, like Diotrephes, so effectively disguise themselves as “sheep” and hide in the local church. If you are a faithful pastor or church member, the probability that you have met one or both characters in this evil duo is quite high. In Scripture, Diotrephes and Jezebel were both abusers. Today, they still exist within many if not most churches. Masquerading as pious saints, they set themselves up in power and expect the pastor, the elders, and the people to do their bidding, all the while ready to punish any who resist them. Diotrephes and Jezebel are bullies (263-264).

As a pastor’s daughter and a faithful church member, I can vouch for the truth of Pastor Crippen’s statement. I have seen these abusive men and women in many churches. I’ve even been on the receiving end of this type of abusive behavior myself. Pastor Crippen devotes a chapter in his book to applying what he’s learned about an abuser’s tactics and mentality to the Diotrephes type abusers in the church.

So who are these abusive people?

These are people who have caused great harm to Christ’s flock, and in particular, to Christ’s under-shepherds- pastors. Such people see themselves (as Diotrephes apparently did), as entitled to power and control over the flock, and thus regard their abusive tactics, which they use to gain and maintain power, as fully justified. This is one of the most common reasons pastors have short tenures in many churches (264).

Going back to 3 John, Pastor Crippen lays out a description of Diotrephes in the church:

  • He opposes genuine servants of Christ.
  • He undermines the real work of Christ.
  • He exercises an evil power and control over the flock of Christ.
  • He slanders Christ’s servants.
  • He works to isolate Christ’s people from genuine servants of Christ.
  • He opposes the Word of Christ, not acknowledging the Apostles.
  • He drives genuine believers out of the church.
  • He is motivated by a craving to be first. (265)

Pastor Crippen believes that Christians should not be surprised to find these “worst of the worst” in our churches. Scripture warns believers many times that there will be wolves in sheep’s clothing in the church. We should be prepared for people who seem pious but are not actually regenerate. When we recognize them, we should, as John writes in 3 John, expose them for what they are doing. (265)

What kind of tactics can Christians expect from modern Diotrephes in the church? Just as we saw with domestic abusers, there will be:

  • Blaming, false guilt.
  • Re-writing the facts.
  • Playing the victim.
  • Pitting people against one another.
  • Threatening in order to instill fear.
  • Morphing the victim’s words (and God’s Word).
  • Accusing.
  • Deceiving with a cloak of excessive charm.
  • Gathering allies.
  • Particularly targeting the pastor and other genuine believers who are active in the Lord’s work. (Sometimes Diotrephes is the pastor himself. An entirely new dynamic of abuse occurs in such a case.) (266)

A pastor who has come under the influence of a Diotrephes may very well exhibit certain signs and symptoms in his behavior:

  • A loss of personhood.
  • A mind dominated by the presence of the abuser.
  • Erosion of his ability to focus his thoughts, prayers, and energies upon his flock.
  • A loss of confidence.
  • Loss of enthusiasm.
  • A sense of isolation.
  • A burden of guilt and a sense of failure. (271-272)

That last point is one that I’ve seen a number of times. As Pastor Crippen points out, having created an unbearable atmosphere of division within a church, the abusers are “quite masterful at convincing everyone, including the pastor, that this division and unpleasantness is all his fault.” (272)

So what is a pastor or church member to do when a Diotrephes has been sowing division and abusing the church? Pastor Crippen believes that the best approach is to confront them. He highly recommends that pastors and leaders familiarize themselves with the tactics and mentality of abuse. When we know who we are dealing with, we will be better equipped to recognize them and to confront them. (273)

We should also be familiar with the weapons we have to fight against this enemy. Knowing that abusers are not harmless, we must stand against them, and we must put on the whole armor of God. (277) Pastor Crippen uses the passage from Ephesians 6 to show how we must prepare ourselves to do battle against Diotrephes:

These are not imaginary or mystical items. They are very, very real. And they are mighty! They work! In fact, the powers of hell cannot stand against them. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4) (278).

At the end of the chapter on abusers in the church, Pastor Crippen describes four types of approaches that pastors (and others) should be aware of:

1. The Flatterer: This type of approach is used by abusers to appear pious and draw others into trusting them. Always be careful of those who lay the praise on way too thick. (280)

2. The Concerned Citizen:

Feigning a genuine concern for the cause of Christ, the abuser uses this deceptive tactic to launch what is actually a wicked, discouraging accusation. If you feel a fearful, uneasy knot “in your gut” when someone does this, recognize that you are feeling this way for a valid reason. … As soon as you feel that “pang” of fear or sense that you are talking to an unsafe person, take a deep breath and slow down. Very often your feelings will tip you off before your thoughts will! (280)

3. The Setup:

Abusive, entitled individuals often work to “set up” the pastor for criticism. … Set-up scenarios are most often launched in front of other people int he church. … The best way to respond is to not respond. By this, I don’t mean not saying anything, but rather not permitting yourself to be drawn into a question which is really an accusation (280-281).

4. The Friend: This approach may take a long time to unmask. Abusers are good at hiding their real actions and motivations. Be aware that abusers will attempt to win you to their side. (281)

Interestingly enough, when I had just finished reading this section of the book, I was contacted again by my own personal Diotrephes, a “friend” who turned out not to be. While I would never equate my experiences with those of the victims of domestic abuse, it was both encouraging and freeing to realize what was happening to me. Thanks to having read Pastor Crippen’s book, I was able to recognize her behavior for what it was and act accordingly.

Again, I highly recommend Pastor Crippen’s book, especially for pastors and leaders. Too many people have been hurt by abusers, both domestic and ecclesiastical. Too many churches have been damaged as well. I share Pastor Crippen’s hope that greater familiarity with the tactics and mentality of abuse will allow the church to protect victims and to stand up to abusers.

4 thoughts on “Abusers in the church

  1. Dr. Regina Marie Baldwin (Pastor) says:

    Thank you so much Rachael. I have just fled myself leaving all my possessions behind except for clothes, books, computer and my loving little shitzu Bandit. This is the second time; however, since I am in this field and still didn’t see it coming (my ex boyfriend moved next door to me)…my focus has been on educating and bringing dv programs into the surrounding churches. Before I ever found all these Christian DV resources I felt called to do this. I am so happy I don’t have to reinvent any wheels but share the news. Hopefully as churches become more educated as to the seriousness of violence in the marriage and family and even teen dating…they can become a true refuge and well of healing water not only for their congregation but for the community as well. May God bless you and keep you and enable you to continue doing mighty works in the name of Jesus.
    Dr. Regina Baldwin


  2. Barbara Thayer says:

    This was an excellent post Rachel. I appreciate your recommendation on the book. My husband and I got caught up in an abusive church situation. The pastor turned out to be the abuser in this case and we eventually left the church. It took us quite a while before we could ever trust again and be healed. People need to be aware of this who scenario. Blessings to you!!!


  3. Sue Botchie says:

    yet another tragic fact about these wolves leaving their droppings in the church is, abused people leaving the church and going to places like ex-christian – have read more than several posts over there from people who were abused in their “christian” homes, who had received from the church all legalism, but no mercy.


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