In the Bible, we see the moral failure of many leaders and they act as a reminder to us that even those near to God are tempted to turn away. Many pastors fall as a result of unaccountability, pride, and a distorted view of the Bible or even the image of God in all. The rash of well-known church leaders that we have seen fallen within the past two or three years, have nearly all engaged in moral failure or departure from the truths of the Word of God. They have made wrong decisions regarding the proper and biblical way to act as leaders.
There are some churches that would tell you right up front that they are and want to be Biblical, and if someone is in such a church, they would have an opportunity to search the scriptures with their elders and the pastor, as the Bereans did. On the other hand, there are some churches that are openly liberal, openly experiential, and they have no interest or basis for understanding or for sound doctrine.
In a relatively short period of time, three of my closest friends shared their hardship about things going wrong in their churches, while they received very little to no support from their pastors to address and correct these issues. In all 3 instances, concerns relate to ideas that were promoted by their churches or some of its members, that have no Scriptural basis or completely go against God’s Word.
So now, the questions are whether to act or not and if needed to do so, how should the church and the pastor be approached?
The vision of the body of Christ as having different members must be recalled on a regular basis. Your own role in the church, whether larger or smaller, is critical. Therefore, we should know how to respond to spiritual abuse in our churches. Most people are paralyzed by such situations, not knowing what to do and often in shock that it could even happen.
As leaders, pastors’ call is to speak what must be said and to lead their people into places of safety and openness. If church members have questions over moral failings or unbiblical teachings and practices, they should be allowed to ask these questions in safe places and receive affirmation and comfort that their concerns are valid and will be addressed.
People are hurting in many churches, and leaders either often don’t know or aren’t responding as they ought to, to those who have serious questions and concerns. Some are placing their proverbial fingers in their ears in denial over the serious and deeply troubling conditions in the church today, while others are too afraid to address these issues and upset those in the wrong. A good pastor will never hide from people with hard questions. Sometimes it’s more than just a moral failure— and that may take an honest conversation of a different kind. This is called following Jesus in serving others.
Pastors need godly people, deacons and elders, Sunday school teachers, friends and well-meaning church members to hold us accountable and make sure they accurately handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15).
The pastor is supposed to confront members of his congregation who are involved in wrongdoing and false teaching and should also be open-minded if his own preaching or moral values are questioned. This is one of his responsibilities as a minister. He should preach on the whole council of God – “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction,” (2 Tim. 4:2). The Scriptures thus clearly teach that the pastor is to reprove, rebuke, and exhort the congregation. Since individuals are members of the congregation, then the pastor is supposed to go to those individuals and lovingly call them to repentance if needed.
Thom Ranier is a church consultant who has quantified fourteen symptoms of a Toxic Leader. Here are a few symptoms that come to mind: a toxic pastor…
- manipulates people to promote their personal agenda
- dodges, deflects, or rejects criticism
- consistently rationalizes and minimizes their negative behavior
- intimidates people with their biblical and persuasive arguments
- twists scripture to support his or her claims
- turns criticism back on the person who confronts them, shutting them down
- shields himself or herself from critics and marginalizes them
- insists on their agenda despite the concerns of others.
- justifies their agenda by saying that “God told them.”
The pastor’s inner circle is muted, eliminating any kind of accountability. Those on the outer circle don’t feel like they are close enough to the pastor to say anything. They notice questionable behavior but don’t have enough evidence, or proximity to the pastor, to feel confident to say anything. If the inner circle is silent, who are they to say anything? And so it goes.
As time goes by, habits are cemented into place. The pastor is effectively insulated from any correction. He or she is free to perpetrate their toxic behavior because the insiders are silent, and the outsiders have no access. The majority of the church has no idea what’s going on because they only see the pastor on Sunday. If someone does suggest a problem they are often shot down as being critical or rebellious because most people aren’t aware of what’s really happening.
SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
I do not encourage people to just pack your bags and leave. Someone once said if you’re looking for the perfect church and you find it, don’t join it because you will ruin it. Remember, we are not perfect ourselves. Things that we understand today, we did not understand ten years ago as we do now, and we cannot expect that everybody must have the same maturity in the faith and the same understanding of everything as how we understand these things. Check your motives. Do you want your pastor to be able to hear you and receive what you say? Or do you just need to get something off your chest?
2 Timothy 2:23-24 says, “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient.” On the other hand, we may never compromise with the gospel. Make sure that this is a real issue and that you have gone about it in a gracious, loving, humble manner.
Deal with the issues you have quickly and wisely. Some people wait for year before they raise an issue which had been rankling them. During that time, the individuals who are holding back become bitter and distance themselves from the pastor or church, and sadly, in some instances from the ministry of the Word. Deal with matters in a timely manner in order to prevent bitterness. As Scripture says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and give opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26).
Seek confirmation. Before you confront a pastor, talk to your spouse or a trusted friend in confidence to make sure it’s not just you. Be careful not to use this as an excuse to gossip. The goal is to check the accuracy of what you see as wrong.
Pray before you go. Ask God to season your words with salt and to help you to speak the truth in love. Pray for wisdom as you speak. We may believe that another person, like a friend or even the pastor, will have all the answers to our questions. Here’s the thing: they won’t. Jesus calls us to bring our hurt and pain to Him first. He reminds us that He is the answer to all the wrongs in the world, and that He will one day make things right.
Going to the pastor can feel overwhelming. Who are you to challenge a pastor? Well, if the pastor isn’t open to being challenged then he or she shouldn’t be a pastor. Pastors need to model transparency and humility. The door should always be open. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s fair to speak to a trusted friend or counselor to prep you for the meeting, and even go with you for support.
Ask permission to “go there”. When you approach your pastor, give him a heads-up that you need to “create a little chaos.” It gives the pastor the opportunity to humble himself and pray for a teachable spirit.
How you deliver your message is everything. Humbly, graciously, not with the idea of being right and the others wrong. Raise a sincere question and ask the pastor if you both could go to the Word of God, that he can show you the contrary to what you believe, if he differs from your views. Remember, in the Bible Paul said to Timothy not to rebuke an elder, but to entreat him as a father. Seek to edify and build up your pastor (Eph 4:29). If your goal isn’t to strengthen and help him and the church, even if you need to say difficult things, then you have no business approaching him.
When giving criticism, be ready to receive criticism. Your problem with your pastor may simply be a spiritual problem in your own life. If you object to something he preaches or allows in the church, it may be that he never intended to preach falsely or did not realize what was going on in the church. That said, he is a sinner just like you and may also have been unfaithful in his preaching. Remember that both you and your pastor are sinners. There may be fault on both sides. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
If the pastor is truly toxic, he will either reject your criticism or placate you with false assurances. Then you need to take your concerns to the next level. Jesus said the next step is to go again, but with two or three witnesses (Matthew 18). These witnesses are people that see the same problem you see or at least trust what you see and will support you and your concerns. If they agree with you, ask them to go with you to the pastor and have them support you and even represent you.
The church is supposed to be a blessing to the world. The pastor should be a champion of grace and truth. There is nothing more perverse and distorted than a toxic pastor. Please do something! Leave or confront. But don’t sit by passively and allow it to continue. So much abuse has been allowed to happen because people have been overly cautious.
If you are not being heard, then you have to decide whether you should leave the church or not. Some people choose to stay and persistently stand opposed to the toxicity. Others feel that a biggest statement is made by leaving. There is no right or wrong response. You must do what you feel is best – but pray for guidance in your final decision.
Never leave a church without having attempted to resolve problems with your pastor. Ducking out is not an option. It is just plain sinful. It is sin against God chiefly, but also against His church. You may have genuine concerns with the ministry of your pastor and the direction of the church. But to leave without speaking to them may lead to further damage in the church. Your voice, rightly and humbly used, may be the instrument God uses to bring godly change in a man’s life. “The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Prov. 16:23-24)
Philippians 2:14-16 reads, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.”
Don’t give up hope. These may be dark days for the church, but Jesus is the light of the world, and as we press on to purify ourselves, his light will shine brighter and brighter. Hebrews 12:12-13 reminds us, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”
Indeed, we are in a very difficult season and by all outward standards the church is on a perilous path. But for the grace of God who works in us. It is hard. But it is essential as people matter and the gospel matters.