In the late 70s and early 80s a group of well-meaning Christian leaders formed an ad hoc accountability group. Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, and Don Basham, along with Ern Baxter met regularly to hold each other to certain ethical and moral standards. They were independent church pastors and yearned for the accountability of denominational allegiance.
More and more pastors from around the country joined with them and each of these men helped their “lines” to form these groups. Soon however, these groups went beyond accountability and eventually they devolved into control. Shepherding went from the pastoral level to the congregational level. Church leaders were soon given authority to tell people exactly how to live their lives.
They could direct how much they gave to the church, where they could live, who they could associate with, and even who they could marry. Some groups went even further, and abuse situations were common. Cults were even formed as groups like Community Chapel ruined the lives of many.
At the same time, many evangelicals continued to practice strict authoritarian methodologies at the local church level, even if they didn’t resort to the extremes of the Shepherding movement. Over the years, I have been involved with holding churches and individual accountable for how they abused their authority over their members.
Along the way, I have kept a list of ways that churches abuse authority over their members. Here are the various degrees of abuse of authority. All of these are recognized as abuses in the courts. In a later article, I will delineate Scriptural reasons to be wary of all of these. But suffice to say, God does not allow for abuse in His Kingdom.
1. Sexual Assault of adults. This does not refer to a straightforward sexual relationship between two church members regardless of their leadership status. As long as there is both equivalency of position and mutual consent, there is no legal problem. But as soon as consent is lacking, it is assault. This includes groping, sexual touching and asking another person for sexual touching when it is non-consensual.
2. Sexual relationship with someone under your counseling care. Legally, in most states, the counseling relationship must be concluded for six months before a relationship is legitimate.
3. Sexual relationship with an underage minor or child. This includes ANY sexuality of any kind including watching pornography with them.
4. Using church authority to groom and control toward a sexual relationship
5. Using positions of authority to solicit sexualized photographs or explicit videos from members of the congregation or individual who have come under your ministry’s authority
6. Verbal assault using sexual language
7. Requesting individuals sexualize themselves for the prurient interests of someone with pastoral authority. For the most part, this means to ask a person to either talk excessively about their sex life or to mutually share information about each other’s sex life.
II. Financial Abuse
1. Coercing an individual to give a prescribed amount of money to the church without receiving any tangible product or service. This does not include the giving to ministries of the church which a member agrees to without coercion.
2. Directing someone to give a regular amount of money to the church, using authority to demand such money.
3. Stealing money from anyone in the church.
4. Directing how a person may spend their money and forcing this direction through threat of expulsion
5. Taking money intended for one purpose in the church and using it for one’s own purposes. This is true regardless of your level of authority within the church.
III. Counseling Abuse
1. Disclosing information shared in confidence without the permission of the individual. The exception to this rule is when the information regards the abuse of children, the welfare of children, or if the individual has disclosed they are about to harm themselves or another.
2. Through the counseling process, directing a person to marry another person. This is abuse of authority because the person in counseling allows the counselor the position to direct their lives.
3. Using shame, guilt, or threats to coerce a person into doing their will or submitting to the wrongful behavior of the counselor.
4. Violence or violent words against a counselee.
IV. Institutional Abuse
1. When a person makes a disclosure of abuse of authority to others in the church, the abuser or others on their behalf attacks the person making the accusation.
2. Putting someone out of membership of the church when they will not submit to any of the abusive behaviors mentioned in this article.
3. Paying an individual not to disclose abusive behavior
4. Threatening violence against someone to prevent them from disclosing previous abusive behavior.
5. Minimizing or rationalizing the abusive behavior of a church member in order to prevent the abuser from facing consequences for their actions
6. Deliberately covering up abusive actions of the members of the church.
7. Refusing to disclose to police or other law enforcement that a child/minor has been assaulted.
8. Rallying church members to harass a person who has made a disclosure of abuse to cause them to be quiet or recant their testimony.
If any of these behaviors has happened to you, it is likely you have been a victim of abuse of authority. In upcoming articles, I will lay out the healthiest ways to handle this.
And if it has happened to you, please be assured there are those of us who care. Though not everyone does, there are some who do.
If you are part of a church leadership team where any of these behaviors has happened, it is time to consider taking more aggressive approaches to dealing with it than you have previously taken. If churches will truly take all abuse seriously, then people will once again view churches as safe places.
In future articles, I will break down several of these abuse situations and outline what can be done when one sees any of them.