How regularly do we expect Luthers to pop up in church history? Apparently, a lot!

A lot has been said of pastors abusing their congregations. There are certainly wolves out there who seem to view the sheep as their personal resource to exploit for their own ends. It is not okay and such people are rightly removed from office when character disqualifying sin is brought to light. You can search this blog for various posts that dig into this more deeply. The Lord is very clear on what he expects of his under shepherds and we have some fairly clear guidelines on what disqualifies a man from office – these things should rightly and properly be insisted upon.

Far less, however, is said about pastors, elders and church leaders who are themselves on the receiving end of some fairly difficult behaviour. Sometimes it may be wolves who have settled in among the sheep. Sometimes it is hurting sheep who can have a nasty habit of kicking and biting because they don’t trust any shepherd anymore, even gentle and loving ones. Sometimes – in fact, I suspect a lot of the time – it is neither hurting sheep nor ravenous wolves. It is just ordinary Christian folk sinning and behaving badly because – and I know this will come as a total shock – sinners are gonna sin and Christians sometimes don’t act and behave like Christians should. There is no hurt behind it, there is no wolfy desire to harm others intentionally, it is just Christian people behaving badly, sometimes obliviously other times not, and it is deeply unpleasant.

I’ll be honest, I suspect the average person does not know the damage some of their behaviour does to their leaders. I am reminded of the time I tried to highlight to someone just how difficult their behaviour had been and why I didn’t think it was godly. I was rebuffed with a wave of the hand and the dismissive comment, ‘well, that’s just ministry!’ Apparently, their ungodly behaviour was not the problem, it was my unwillingness to concede that being a pastor meant welcoming ungodly behaviour and sucking it up. And, in a sense, sometimes you do have to just suck up ungodly behaviour – so let’s be straight about that. But it is not the case that members ought to be ungodly with impunity and insist the nature of ministry means nobody can call them on it.

The truth is, leaders are gossiped about, have confidences broken, have their reputations tarnished and sometimes downright lies spread about them. When such things have happened to me – and people have been caught in doing so – it is quickly dismissed as maybe not the best but nevertheless not a big deal. When the shoe is on the other foot and someone is hurling around accusations towards leaders, however, those self same people are often very quick to call for their leaders heads until it is proven those accusations are not true. Even then, the stench of a no-smoke-without-fire assumption lingers on in those who are always looking for such things.

We now, however, have a culture in which any sleight – no matter how small – is increasingly getting labelled abuse. People are weaponising what has been a genuine problem and using it to get their own and settle any grievance they perceive in the church. Any time the elders do what they do not like, any time their sin is named and they are called to repent, any time they do not like something going on, insinuations are made, sometimes outright threats.

Of course, if an issue is genuinely abusive, most people recognise you may simply need to get out of the situation. The problem is because we are using this language so haphazardly now, many are using it to paint any issue as abusive in a bid to free themselves from any need to address it properly. If the pastor has been abusive, I don’t actually have to speak to him. If the elders are abusive, I don’t need to justify my position or talk it through with anyone, I can just go. If they are abusive, I can throw around my accusations and I don’t need to follow any processes because they will be overseen by abusers who are not to be trusted. It is carte blanche for many to throw around unattested accusations with no comebacks.

If a pastor really is abusive, the place to bring the matter is before the church. Let others witness to whether they see in this person the same pattern of behaviour. Let others attest to whether, if a pattern is discernible, it is ministry disqualifying. What we should not do is leave without even attempting to go through any due process and then throw around our accusations which, to all intents and purposes, are just how we personally feel about the matter. That is neither godly nor biblical.

All too often, people who haven’t had their own way, or who don’t like something that is done, leave. Other times it is simply differences of personality. On other occasions, it might just be two mutually exclusive positions and one of them must be done and you didn’t get your way. If anyone dares to question whether it is credible grounds to leave a church, heavy-shepherding and abuse is quickly thrown around. Anyone daring to say, ‘do you think the bible is okay with you doing that?’ is deemed to be aggressive. Anyone disagreeing with you is deemed inappropriate. When these things are entertained, the toll it takes on pastors is enormous. These are not issues of abuse or manipulation. Yet we are binding the hands of church leaders to a point where it is becoming increasingly difficult to do the job.

One elder of a church not very long ago lamented, ‘does anybody actually want to be pastored?’ He told us of how there were issues in his church. He pleaded with people. He went to speak with them for hours and hours about the issues. He listened. He answered their objections. He showed them the scriptures. But all to no avail. They just upped and left as if all that time was a total waste. It wasn’t as if any answers were coming back to these things. It was just that they had decided and that was that. And this wasn’t a one off thing, but a repeated and recurring theme. Which led to his question: do people even want to be pastored? Increasingly, many are concluding the answer is no.

And I have heard people say the most appalling things about their pastors and elders. Things that just get passed around. And when all is said and done, their gripes tend to boil down to little more than that they didn’t get their own way on a given issue. We simultaneously complain that our leaders aren’t leading and then get angry when they do because we don’t like the way they’re doing it. People don’t seem to know what they want but they are adamant that whatever it is, it’s not whatever you’re doing!

Again, don’t get me wrong. I do think there are legitimate and appropriate times to leave churches. I do think there are leaders who are leading in ways that are wrong. But there are ways to address those things. You take it to your church. The only time to leave without doing so is if you church literally has no means to do that. But you should be able to approach your elders at least, listen to them and, if unsatisfied, seek to bring it up at a members meeting or something. You take your accusations to the church and you ask them to rule on it, submitting yourself to the collective view of the church body. But all too often, people simply don’t want to do that. For all their talk of heavy-handed pastors, they are often not keen to submit themselves to the view of the church and – if things do not swing their way – are even happier just to leave in the face of the church’s collective position. They would naturally expect their pastor to step down and submit to the view of the church, but they don’t feel any need.

Bad leaders need addressing by the church. We have biblical polity given to us to implement in scripture for addressing this. Equally, bad church members need addressing by the church too. We have biblical polity given to us in scripture to address this. If someone is unwilling to submit themselves to biblical polity, their accusations and opinions should be treated with same regard as they hold the church processes. If a church does not find against a pastor or a member, those of us outside the church must take seriously the collective view of those within the church. It is unlikely to be the case that one person saw things totally clear. Not impossible. Martin Luther did exist after all. But ask yourself honestly, how likely is it that you are Luther? And ask ourselves more widely, how regularly are we truly expecting Luther to pop up in church history?