Confronting Abusive Pastors, Part 5: Civil and Criminal Law

So you’ve tried to follow the procedure of 1 Tim. 5, as discussed in Part 4 of this series, by investigating and exposing church leaders who abused their positions of power and trust.

But what if you were rebuffed?

Or what if – despite public reprimand, confession and repentance – you reasonably fear that they may continue preying on others or the church is not providing restitution for the harm you’ve been bearing? Scripturally, do you have additional options?

More specifically, is it ever proper to seek help from the courts and secular authorities to deal with pastoral sexual abuse or churches which allowed it to happen? After all, doesn’t 1 Cor. 6 say we should not sue another brother?

Suing One Another?

In 1 Cor. 6:1-6, Paul writes that I should not sue another believer in a secular court over a personal grievance I have against him, where that grievance is trivial. Rather, minor personal disputes should be resolved within the church. As Paul states:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? (ESV)

By its own terms, this passage only applies to situations where the wrong is “trivial” and does not amount to more than a personal “grievance”. It also presumes that the church is functioning Biblically, with an ability to wisely and fairly handle minor personal disputes between two believers.

By its own terms, therefore, this prohibition on suing or seeking help from secular authorities does not apply where someone – who happens to be a “brother” in the faith – is significantly violating secular law or harming others.

Although Paul says I should forgo outside adjudication over a minor personal wrong I suffered at the hands of another believer, nothing in this passage even suggests that we should ignore significant evil or legal transgressions.

Walking away is not advisable or Scriptural where secular authority is needed:

  • To bring closure against a major injustice that otherwise would remain unresolved and thus encourage continued evil;
  • To find restitution for substantial harm, thus insuring that the evildoer bears the cost of his wrongs rather than the victim;
  • To punish illegal acts that rip at the fabric of society and destroy social cohesion; or
  • To protect others.

These are necessary outcomes if any society expects to survive, and are exactly why God has ordained and empowered secular government and the courts to promote justice, punish evildoers, uphold the innocent, impose restitution and protect the common good. See Rom. 13. And the reality is that a church – beyond a public reprimand – is simply not able, nor is it delegated by God with the jurisdiction or power needed, to enforce these results.

In addition, studies and my own experience confirm that most pastors who exploit women or children have multiple victims. Even if they are dismissed or otherwise disciplined by their local church, they can always slip away into obscurity and attach themselves to another church in some other town. Without a public judgment or conviction against them, their past will not show up in any background check by a hiring committee and they will be free to start the cycle of abuse all over again.

So yes, forgo lawsuits over trivial personal grievances against another Christian. But predatory pastors who exploit women and abuse their positions of authority and trust involve far more than a purely personal grievance because of the need to protect others, and the harm suffered by their victims is never, ever trivial.

So please, don’t cause additional abuse by misquoting that passage!

God Ordains Secular Authorities to Restrain Evil

Scripture makes it clear that Christians are subject to secular courts and secular authorities, who are ordained by God to punish the wicked and uphold the innocent. Christians are not exempt, and in fact are commanded to help government officials carry out their God-ordained duty to promote justice and enforce the law – both civil and criminal – for the benefit of all.

Romans 13:1-6 says this to Christians:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (ESV)

And 1 Peter 2:13-17 likewise tells Christians:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (ESV)

In addition, the central theme of justice throughout the Bible is restitution, proportionate punishment tied to the actual harm suffered by the victim, and closure. Even in the Old Testament, the wrongdoer – rather than the victim – must bear the cost of his misconduct. Through restitution, the wrongdoer makes his victim whole – both emotionally and financially.

In fact, Deuteronomy and Leviticus require that anyone who steals, violates another’s personal rights, acts negligently and or commits other transgressions must make restitution to the victim several times over. In American jurisprudence, these are called punitive damages. They are Biblical, go to the victim, and result in punishment that is proportionate to the harm caused – which helps protect others by insuring that the wrongdoer has no incentive to ever harm again.

Finally, when there is restitution and proportionate punishment, there is closure because the victim’s God-inspired need for justice – which lies in the core of every individual – is met.

So, tying all of these verses together, our Scriptural mandates are clear:

  • I may not sue another Christian over a trivial dispute involving a personal grievance, but should resolve it within the church (assuming, of course, the church is properly functioning and able to handle it).
  • But every Christian also is commanded to be subject to and support secular authorities as they enforce the law of the land, punish evildoers, and protect the innocent.
  • Where someone – including a Christian – is doing evil in violation of secular law, God has given us secular authorities who are ordained by Him to punish the evildoer, preserve order, uphold justice, impose restitution and protect the innocent.
  • No Christian is exempt from, and we are all fully accountable to, secular authorities and secular law.
  • When I know that someone is harming others, perpetuating injustice or doing some other significant evil in violation of secular law, then I may not engage in any “cover-up for evil” – even if I am the primary victim and I am the one in need of restitution, protection and justice.
  • In other words, as a Christian I am required to help achieve justice and stop evildoers – even if the evildoer is a Christian and even if I must seek the intervention of the courts and secular officials.
  • God has empowered secular government and secular courts, and not the church, to achieve and enforce those goals

Again, these outcomes are necessary if any society expects to survive. The vital need to ensure these outcomes is exactly why God has empowered secular government and the courts to act as His ministers for justice.

Touching God’s Anointed?

Finally, I often get emails from people upset that I dare to challenge abusive, predatory church leaders. They generally quote King David’s admonition in 1 Chron. 16:22 and Psalms 105:15 to “touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.”

Here’s a typical response I got in a private Facebook message on this series about confronting abusive pastors:

In my opinion Jim, you should seek God and HIS word. Does not the bible say “touch not mine anointed and do my profits no harm.” Pastor [Name Removed] is anointed and is right where he should be.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the misspelling of “profits” for “prophets”, because protecting the income of the church is often a key motive for sweeping allegations of pastoral abuse under the rug. Maybe that was a proverbial Freudian slip! This response, however, was from a woman who is deeply concerned about showing mercy, but here her mercy is misplaced.

Rather than wanting to protect innocent women from pastoral predation, she was defending a man who created a culture of predation in his church as around six men under him exploited at least ten women (many less then half their age and just barely out of high school) over the last several years. As discussed in Private or Public Sin?, that senior pastor knew that at least three of those men were serial predators but repeatedly put them in positions where they could, and did, exploit yet more women.

These two verses about not “touching” God’s anointed are the last refuge for abusive pastors and those with misguided mercy towards them. They use it in a way that is grossly distorted to deter others from confronting evil. Even if you get past the exegetical hurdle of somehow saying this applies to an unrepentant predatory pastor, the Hebrew word for “touch” means to physically assault.

I can assure you, I have never physically assaulted any pastor – predatory or not! But I have no hesitation about confronting them, on behalf of their victims, and taking all legal means – if necessary – to stop them. And if I need to use the law like a bat to whack them along side the head – metaphorically speaking! – to get their attention and protect others, then I will.


Even if we follow 1 Tim. 5 (see Part 4 of this series) by investigating and publicly reprimanding church leaders who abuse their positions of authority and trust, we may not have done all we can to stop them, achieve justice, or guarantee restitution.

Even where a local church or denomination takes appropriate internal disciplinary action, it has no power to restrain them, impose binding legal sanctions or force them to make restitution. God gives those powers, for the good of all, to secular government.

For example, without the intervention of our secular courts such men can move to another town, work for another church, and keep on exploiting others. Beyond the need for restitution, obtaining a criminal conviction or civil judgment against them – and getting them listed on the national sex offender registry if possible – is needed if we want to protect others. Only then can we insure that their history of abuse shows up in any future hiring committee’s background check.

Like Nathan, who confronted King David for abusing his position of trust and power by exploiting Bathsheba and then killing her husband to cover up his sin, we need the courage to speak truth to power. We need to Biblically confront abusive church leaders as commanded in 1 Tim. 5, then if their evil is confirmed by multiple witnesses we must publicly rebuke them as again commanded in 1 Tim. 5. We then, I believe, need to turn to our God-ordained secular authorities and courts for justice, restitution and proportionate punishment so they never abuse again.

(c) Copyright 2011, James Wright. All Rights Reserved.

Part 1 of this series: Speaking Truth to Power

Part 2 of this series: My Personal Angst

Part 3 of this series: Private or Public Sin?

Part 4 of this series: Mandatory Public Reprimand

Part 6 of this series: The Need for Restitution

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: