On Bully Pulpits and Bully Pews

Spiritual abuse is real, but it’s certainly not the only issue involving authority in many churches today.

Chris Hutchison on February 20, 2023

I’ve been thinking lately about two problems seen across numbers of churches these days. The first is abusive leadership. The second is the idea that any real leadership is abusive.

  • The first problem is seen in pastors who think that anyone who disagrees with them is being rebellious. The second problem is seen in people who genuinely are rebellious.
  • The first problem is seen in pastors who think that their authority is the answer to every problem in the church. The second problem is seen in people who don’t think that authority has any place in the church whatsoever (particularly if it steps on their toes).
  • The first problem is seen in leaders who quote Hebrews 13:17 to silence any dissent. The second problem is seen in people who think that any mention whatsoever of Hebrews 13:17 is itself a problem demanding dissent.
  • The first problem is seen in leaders who are controlling. The second problem is seen in people who think that any attempt to lead them is controlling by default.
  • The first problem is seen in pastors who feel threatened by congregants who ask good questions. The second problem is seen in congregants who feel threatened by a pastor who doesn’t do whatever they want him to.
  • The first problem is bullies in pulpits. The second problem is bullies in pews.

The first problem is real and painful. It’s been getting more press lately, and for good reason. I’ve recently read Michael Kruger’s new book “Bully Pulpit” and found it to be helpful, well-written, and sadly necessary. Spiritual abuse needs to be addressed, and Kruger hits the nail on the head over and over again. Lots of people need to read this book.

Here’s my struggle, though: the second problem is also real and painful. It’s also gotten some attention in the last few years, albeit in a roundabout way: one of the sad lessons from the Covid experience is that a lot of church-goers really don’t like being told what to do. Today, as in ancient Crete, “there are many who are insubordinate” (Titus 1:10). And as I read Kruger’s book, I couldn’t help but read certain sections through the eyes of people who lean this way. I could picture them loving it, and for all the wrong reasons. It’s not hard to imagine “Bully Pulpit” being used as fuel for the fires of their spiritual anarchy.

That’s not Michael Kruger’s fault. He wrote a book about a specific topic, and he clarifies himself really well. The section called “Not Everything is Abuse” should help most people read the rest of the book properly. His target audience seems to be those who have excused or ignored abuse, as opposed to those who wave the abuse flag too quickly. For anyone who’s ever put up with a bully pastor because “look at all of the good he’s done,” this is an important—even necessary—book.

It still left me scratching my head, though. How do you get through to the abusive pastors themselves, who are likely to write off a book like this as “encouraging people to be rebellious”? And how do you get through to the folks on the other end, who buck at every call to biblical submission?

Maybe there is no human-level answer to these questions. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). Softening hard hearts is a job for the Holy Spirit. I’ve also been reminded that the twin issues of spiritual abuse and spiritual rebellion are primarily spiritual battles. We do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12).

Nevertheless, God uses human means in this great battle, and I pray that “Bully Pulpit” will be one of them. It’s an excellent book. I’m getting a copy for our church library, and I would love for many people to read it. I hope it will be a tool that will help us continue to safeguard our church from the tragedies which have brought so much shame to the name of Christ. By God’s grace, may it be so.

Picture of Chris Hutchison
Chris Hutchison is lead pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nipawin, SK. Have any feedback or questions about what you've read here? Get in touch at .
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