The concept of abuse is floating around a lot at the moment. It is absolutely right that we recognise that there are pastors who abuse their sheep and, similarly, congregations who abuse their pastors. But it also bears saying that not everything that is called abuse is any such thing. Here are some things some people call abusive but are not.
When someone in authority disagrees with you
This is just what it is. Disagreement is not abuse. Someone disagreeing with you who also happens to have some authority over you is also not abuse. You may go to your pastor and ask for something to happen that he does not think should happen. That is not abuse.
The fact is, people will disagree with each other. It may be over minor stuff, it may be over major stuff. But disagreement is not abuse. Disagreement is just disagreement. And disagreement will inevitably have consequences inasmuch as you presumably have to do something in line with whatever it is you are disagreeing about (either doing a thing or specifically not doing a thing). But to disagree and act in line with what is decided is not abusive.
Someone in authority not doing what you want
Similarly, just because somebody with authority or power does not do what you want does not make them abusive. I have written various book manuscripts. When it comes to the writer/publisher relationship, I am very much without power in that I cannot make a publisher take my book. All the power lies with the publisher. Hold onto your hats for this shocker, but not every manuscript I have written has been accepted by publishers when I sent them in. Some of them had the audacity to say they didn’t want my book (imagine that! The impertinence!) There is nothing abusive about them choosing to do what they are within their rights to do. Just because they didn’t do what I wanted does not mean they have abused me.
Similarly, you may want to do something in the church that your pastor, vicar or elders determine is not appropriate (for any number of reasons). That, similarly, is not abuse. There are any number of reasons why your suggestion might not be adopted. But just because they say ‘no’ to your idea does not mean they are abusively trying to control you. They are just not doing something that you would prefer they do. That is not abuse.
Disliking the way somebody speaks to you
I know this will come as a huge surprise to anyone who has ever been in a church, but not everyone speaks to me with great respect and reverence. Sometimes people are even a bit rude (imagine that!) Sometimes I detect bit of an off tone in how people are speaking to me. It bears saying, they are not abusing me when that happens. There are any number of reasons why people might speak to me in these ways. Sometimes the issue is them and they should do better, sometimes it is them but there are understandable reasons, sometimes the issue is just me and what I am inferring though it isn’t there. In any case, it isn’t abuse.
Just to be totally clear, I don’t always speak to people as respectfully as I should either. For one, I am a jokey sort of bloke who makes little comments all the time (and expect and welcome people doing so to me too). But I appreciate, some people don’t get on well with it and, though I try, I misjudge that sometimes. Other times I misjudge the setting and get it wrong there too. Some people might find it inappropriate, others might just not like it, others still might feel it lacks respect. Whilst I do my best not to upset anyone unnecessarily, none of this constitutes abuse.
But sometimes I’m just having a bad day, or perhaps I am annoyed at something, and I speak to somebody in a way I shouldn’t. I should certainly apologise for that when I do it. But it isn’t abuse either. Sometimes people just speak badly to other people. It isn’t right, it isn’t nice, it may warrant apologies at times, but it isn’t abuse.
Someone pointing to scripture to persuade you of something
As believers, our final authority lies with scripture. Naturally, whenever we think something is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, we are likely to want to point to scripture. The Bible itself is full of examples of people, saying to other people, that the Bible says their behaviour is troubling or needs correcting. That is the bread and butter of church discipline and, according to James, a matter of life and death (cf. James 5:20). It is not abusive to point to scripture and suggest a course of action is wrong.
I appreciate, if you have decided you want to leave a church, it is difficult to have conversations with your elders about it. Often, they will disagree with your reasons and point to scripture as to why. If they are insisting that you must not and you cannot leave under any circumstances, we may be talking about something different. But for elders to point to scripture and suggest the reasons you want to leave are not rock solid and asking you to reconsider, even though the choice is ultimately yours to make, this is not abuse.
But anything short of that is not abuse either. Somebody pointing to scripture and suggesting something about your lifestyle bears thinking about is not abuse. Somebody highlighting scripture and suggesting there is something you might need to press into is not abuse either. Indeed, not only is it not abusive, it is something Jesus calls the church to do.
There are many other things we might say, but I have heard all of these things called abuse before. It bears saying I am not suggesting that there are no matters of abuse where these things may feature – often, but not always, to a very exaggerated degree. But it is to say, none of these things, of themselves, constitute abuse. Whatever issues we may have with our churches, leaders or other members, we should not ascribe the language of abuse to them just because they are doing these things.