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.

A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in your Church

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by a reader of this blog and asked if I would be willing to read and review his book on abuse and the church. The author, Jeff Crippen, is a pastor and former police officer. His book, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in your Church, was written after his church went through a terrible and eye-opening experience. Pastor Crippen’s desire is to equip pastors, elders, church leaders, and even church members to recognize the signs of abuse and to be prepared to help the victims.

I agreed to read Pastor Crippen’s book, and he was kind enough to send me a copy. After reading it, I decided to write a series of articles addressing the main themes of the book. The first article, this one, will be on the basic premise of the book: what is an abuser, what typically happens in a church when a victim seeks help, and how to help a vicitim. The second will be on recognizing and dealing with abusers in other relationships. The third will be on the very sensitive topic of divorce, remarriage, and abuse.

First off let me say that I highly recommend Pastor Crippen’s book. It is an extremely important topic, and I believe all pastors and anyone else in leadership would benefit from reading this book.

Now, to get down to the purpose of this article, Pastor Crippen begins his book by explaining that there is a growing problem within the evangelical church:

The local church is one of the favorite hiding places of the abusive person. Conservative, Bible-believing religion is his frequent choice of facade. Within the evangelical church, women (and sometimes men) are being terribly abused in their homes and marriages. The children of such abusers are suffering as well. And when those victims come to their churches, to their pastors, and to their fellow Christians, pleading for help, well … Victims of abuse are often discounted by their churches (12).

According to Pastor Crippen, the church doesn’t understand the true nature of abuse and the effects abuse has on its victims. (128) His goal in writing, then, is “to educate the reader in the nature and tactics and mentality of abuse and, in doing so, to help us all to come to understand the pathology of this unique sin (15).”

So what, then, is an abuser? How does one recognize him? [As Pastor Crippen points out, the vast majority of abusers are men. Because of this and for the sake of brevity, he (and I) will use the masculine pronouns, although we are not suggesting that men are the only ones who are abusers.] Pastor Crippen spends a good majority of the book explaining the “tactics and mentality” of abusers. Here is a brief definition of “abuse” and “abuser”:

Abuse then, is a mentality of entitlement and superiority in which an abuser uses various tactics to obtain and enforce unjustified power and control over another person. The abuser thinks that he is absolutely justified in using these tactics to maintain this power and control over his victim. Abuse is effected in many ways: both physical (including sexual) and non-physical (verbal). It can be active (physically or verbally) or passive (not speaking, not acting). Abuse, therefore, is not limited to physical assault. Indeed, the non-physical forms of abuse often are far more damaging, deceptive, and cruel (18).


An abuser is a person whose mentality, mindset, and even worldview is dominated by:

  • Power

  • Control

  • Entitlement (to that power and control)

  • Justification (in enforcing that power and control) (19)

Pastor Crippen points out that “it is a serious mistake to assume an abuser thinks like everyone else does.” (19) An abuser has no problems doing horrible things to others and then sleep like a baby at night, without any remorse or attacks of conscience. (42) This is because very often abusers “operate in a world largely or entirely devoid of a functional conscience.” (48) Because of this abusers do not act like everyone else, instead they:

  • Lack shame.

  • Have no empathy.

  • Experience little or not real anxiety.

  • Display false repentance very convincingly.

  • Lie, even in the face of plain facts that controvert their lie.

  • Use what appears to be real emotion or feeling, but in fact is just an act designed to manipulate. (49)

Pastor Crippen believes, despite the fact that many of these abusers are members of churches, that abusers are very likely unregenerate as they do not show evidence of saving grace or true repentance. (43)

While I’m sure that certain abusive tactics are familiar to most people, Pastor Crippen give a list of common tactics used by abusers. Some of these are: controlling the activities of others, abusing things that belong to the victim, harsh criticism (usually with very vulgar language) of victims physical appearance, isolating his victim, sleep deprivation, keeping his victim in poverty, preventing adequate medical care, cruelty to pets, and alienating the children from the victim. (33-34)

There is a great deal more information in A Cry for Justice on the tactics and mentality of abusers. It’s important to remember that not all abusers will use exactly the same tactics. However, after familiarizing yourself with the typical behaviors described in the book, you will be much more aware of the warning signs.

One of the main reasons that Pastor Crippen wrote A Cry for Justice is that all too often churches, pastors, and well-meaning Christians end up hurting victims and protecting abusers. Here is an example from the book that outlines what happens when a victim comes to her church for help:

1. Victim reports abuse to her pastor.

2. Pastor does not believe her claims, or at least believes they are greatly exaggerated. After all, he “knows” her husband to be one of the finest Christian men he knows, a pillar of the church.

3. Pastor minimizes the severity of the abuse. His goal is often, frankly, damage control (to himself and to his church).

4. Pastor indirectly (or not so indirectly!) implies that the victim needs to do better in her role as wife and mother and as a Christian. He concludes that all such scenarios are a “50/50” blame sharing.

5. Pastor sends the victim home, back to the abuser, after praying with her and entrusting the problem to the Lord.

6. Pastor believes he has done his job.

7. Victim returns, reporting that nothing has changed. She has tried harder and prayed, but the abuse has continued.

8. Pastor decides to do some counseling. …

9. As time passes, the victim becomes the guilty party in the eyes of the pastor and others. She is the one causing the commotion. She is pressured by the pastor and others int he church to stop rebelling, to submit to her husband, and stop causing division in the church.

10. After more time passes, the victim separates from or divorces the abuser. The church has refused to believe her, has persistently covered up the abuse, has failed to obey the law and report the abuse to the police, and has refused to exercise church discipline against the abuser. Ironically, warnings of impending church discipline are often directed against the victim!

11. The final terrible injustice is that the victim is the one who must leave the church, while the abuser remains a member in good standing, having successfully duped the pastor and church into believing that his victim was the real problem (21-22).

It may sound far-fetched, but I know of a woman whose experience fits this to a “T.” This is the all too common experience for many, many women (and some men) in our churches. This should not be so.

So, how then can churches, pastors, and concerned Christians help the victims of abuse? The first step is to become very familiar with the tactics and mentality of abusers. Books such as A Cry for Justice can help a educate leaders and others on what abuse looks like and how abusers and their victims often behave.

When a victim comes to you for help, you will need to be ready. Pastor Crippen lays out some guidelines to help leaders do the right thing. The first is to believe the victim. Pastor Crippen points out that this is not blind acceptance but that “in most cases those who report abuse are speaking with honesty.” (186) Other guidelines include not being swayed based on who the abuser is, understanding that all forms of abuse (not just physical or sexual) are serious, reporting abuse to police and allowing the justice system to act, protecting the victim from accusations, a warning not to attempt to cover up the abuse, and preach

ing on the topic of abuse to prepare and protect your congregation. (186-188)

In addition to giving guidelines on how to help victims, Pastor Crippen also gives a list of rules for how to deal with abusers:

1. Question everything. Even “facts” he states with absolute confidence.
2. Believe nothing without corroboration.
3. Assume he is attempting to deceive you.
4. Accept nothing less than full, unqualified repentance.
5. Do not pity him, no matter how emotional he might be.
6. Accept no excuses.
7. Do not let him blame others. (237-238)

If this seems harsh to you, remember the definition of abuse and the abuser:

Abuse then, is a mentality of entitlement and superiority in which an abuser uses various tactics to obtain and enforce unjustified power and control over another person. The abuser thinks that he is absolutely justified in using these tactics to maintain this power and control over his victim. Abuse is effected in many ways: both physical (including sexual) and non-physical (verbal). It can be active (physically or verbally) or passive (not speaking, not acting). Abuse, therefore, is not limited to physical assault. Indeed, the non-physical forms of abuse often are far more damaging, deceptive, and cruel (18).

Abusers are not acting and thinking like everyone else.

In closing, I’d like to say to anyone who recognizes her (or his) situation in reading this article, to please seek help. There are good resources available to you. If your church will not help, please find one that will. My prayers are with you.

Lord willing, parts two and three of this review will be finished soon.