Confronting Abusive Pastors, Part 4: Mandatory Public Reprimand

What if the local church refuses or otherwise fails to stop a pastor or other church leader who abuse his position of trust and power? Then he must be openly reprimanded as a public warning to all – no exceptions! 1 Timothy 5 teaches this.

Open Reprimand

1 Tim. 5:19-21 is part of a larger discourse on the duties and responsibilities of an elder. In it, Paul tells his protégé, Timothy:

Do not listen to an accusation against an elder unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses. Those who sin should be reprimanded in front of the whole church; this will serve as a strong warning to others. I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the holy angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (NLT)

These verses, and their context, reveal several interesting points.

Outside Intervention: These instructions were directed at Timothy, whom Paul had sent on a trip to check on the health of various churches. Even though Timothy was not part of those local churches, he was still commanded – not requested, but commanded – by Paul to deal with sinful leaders within those churches.

From this, we see that leadership sins are not a private matter to be quietly handled within the hidden confines a local church’s own leadership structure. In my experience, it often is impossible to handle leadership sins totally within the local congregation. In most churches the pastors are put on pedestals and have enough power and influence to thwart any meaningful and fair internal investigation into their own misconduct. When they realize that someone is about to confront their misconduct, they often launch a charm offensive built on lies, and use their charisma to manipulate and rally the church around them. As a result, if leadership sins are only internally addressed, there is a conflict of interest and real accountability is often thwarted.

Paul, therefore, wisely told Timothy – as an honest and impartial (although younger) man who was outside the local church leadership structure – to investigate and expose local leadership sins.

Mandatory Investigation and Judgment, Not Voluntary Mediation and Compromise: Often, when confronted with allegations of pastoral abuse, churches will seek to avoid any findings of guilt by insisting on mediation. But that’s not what Scripture says to do. In fact, there is NO scriptural mandate for mediation when it comes to church leaders. Instead, Paul commands Timothy to hear the evidence and then reprimand any man – no exceptions! – who’s leadership sins have become significant enough to compel multiple witnesses to come forward.

Unlike 1 Tim. 5, mediation is a voluntary process where someone is brought in to help the parties discuss their differences and reach a compromise.

At first, I was puzzled by why Paul didn’t want mediation. Isn’t peacemaking through voluntary discussion and mediation preferable to investigation and judgment? But as I have watched several of these cases unfold, I now see the wisdom of Paul’s approach. Mediation, where the local leadership itself is the problem, typically is a farce. It often is used by the church to wear down the victim and delay – if not outright avoid – accountability as the church manipulates the process. (For an excellent resource on common problems with mediation and related issues, see Responding to Clergy Misconduct by The FaithTrust Institute.)

Churches that want to avoid meaningful and effective confession and repentance love the alternative of mediation. It allows the wrongdoer to pick the mediator (or at least veto the mediator chosen by the victims) and set the rules, while continuing to deny everything and thus continuing to traumatize the victim in the hope she will go away. It drives up the costs by forcing the victim to pay for a mediator who, in reality, is powerless to act – thus allowing the church to fight a war of attrition that further abuses the victim.

Mediation, and its results, are not binding on anyone. Furthermore, it is not focused on determining who’s right and who’s wrong. It works, in my experience, between equals who are seeking help to resolve straightforward disagreements. But for someone struggling with an abuse of authority and trust and where there has been unequal power, mediation can feel like even more abuse – especially if the abuser is using the process to deny any wrong, shift blame and stall while rallying the church. The fact that there are no enforceable procedures or standards in mediation also makes it inappropriate where the focus needs to be on wrongdoing and the goal is justice.

Instead of such a nebulous process with such a nebulous outcomes, Paul tells Timothy to deal with the problem, take evidence, stand between the victim and the abusive leader, and render judgment. And frankly, it really didn’t matter to Paul if the local church leaders wanted Timothy’s intervention or not. In the face of alleged leadership sins, Timothy was commanded to intervene if multiple witnesses stepped forward – even if the local church and its leadership opposed it.

Unfortunately, few churches today would ever allow that happen.

Zero Tolerance: If the outside investigator confirms the sin through two or three witnesses, Paul says the local leader must be publicly reprimanded. Scripturally, therefore we must have a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to leaders who abuse their positions of trust and power.

No Benefit of the Doubt: Paul also commands Timothy to show no deference or favoritism toward an offending leader. This is very important, because Christians tend to give the benefit of the doubt to their pastor, and to seek any excuse to discount or discredit an accuser. Accusations against a beloved pastor make us very, very uncomfortable and defensive because, after all, we trusted the man and what does that say about us?

In addition, such accusations often strike at the bottom line financial health of the church – especially if the church is built around the offending pastor and his charisma. Thus, rather than reaching out to the victim with love, care and support, and honestly confronting any abuse, the entire church leadership typically circles the wagons around the pastor and shuns the victim.

Given the affection most congregations feel for their pastor, and the financial dynamics, it is all the more important to bring in an outside investigator who takes it upon himself, whether the church wants it or not, to evaluate the evidence and render judgment.

This is a very, very important point. Most people view sexual predators as shadowy, fringe figures who wear trench coats and lurk in dark alleys. But that is NOT the case. I’m a pastoring elder who has counseled literally hundreds of sex abuse victims, and around twenty sex offenders, as well as an attorney who’s helped investigate and respond to predatory pastors.

The reality, in almost all cases, is that sexual predators are the most charming, polished, trusted men among us. In fact, they need to be charming, polished and trusted to succeed in exploiting victims and getting way with it time and time again.

Get the distorted vision of the creepy-looking offender out of your mind. Rather, realize that it is the most trusted, influential people who have the ability and the power to suck others into their web of exploitation and abuse. And, Paul says, don’t treat them with any deference when they use their position of trust and authority to sin!

Mandatory Reprimand: Public exposure and rebuke is mandatory, and not optional, once leadership sins are confirmed by multiple witnesses. Timothy is commanded to do it.

Public Exposure: If handled Biblically, one way or another leadership abuses must go public: Either the sinning pastor will openly confess and repent by bringing the matter brought before the whole church and accepting appropriate sanctions, or he is to be exposed by an outside investigator and adjudicator through public judgment and justice.

But isn’t that the way God always works when confronting sin? The sinner always is confronted with only two simple choices: confess and repent, or face judgment and justice.

Why do we seek to impose any other standard when addressing leadership sins, where the consequences of the sin are far reaching and potentially very damaging to others?

No Avoidance: Paul does not provide any escape from the requirement of a public reprimand against a leader who abuses his position in the church, even if there’s been confession and repentance. If the sin is confirmed after deteriorating to the point where witnesses had to come forward to deal with it, Paul says it must be made public so others realize – and are warned – that abuses of power and position in the church will not be tolerated.

In my experience, this is not as harsh as it might seem. Where there is true confession and repentance, a sinning pastor will want public accountability and full restitution for his victims. Also, often his victims have been vilified in the church through lies, rumors and innuendos.

A truly repentant pastor knows that only when his sins are openly addressed, according to 1 Tim. 5, can others be protected (studies show, and my experience confirms, that most exploitive pastors are serial predators with multiple victims). He also knows that only by doing so can his victims find restoration, healing and closure from his abuse and from the scorn they likely faced within the church.

But What If They Are Still Recalcitrant?

So what, then, can be done when a church or its leadership refuses to confess and repent, or to respond to a public reprimand as per 1 Tim. 5, and there is the likelihood that the pattern of abuse will continue and more innocent people will be hurt?

Is it ever appropriate to seek help from secular authorities, including investigation, litigation or criminal sanctions, to deal with pastoral abuses? After all, doesn’t 1 Cor. 6 say we should not sue another brother?

I’ll take that up next, in Part 5 of this series.

(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 5 of this series: Civil and Criminal Law

Part 6 of this series: The Need for Restitution

For an example of how a church openly addressed allegations of pastoral abuse through public confession and repentance, check out Vienna Presbyterian Church Seeks Forgiveness, Redemption in Wake of Abuse Scandal, which was published as a front page story in the April 2, 2011, edition of the Washington Post. USA Today did an excellent follow up article.

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