“How can we trust anyone—especially pastors?”
A tenderhearted sister asked this question during a recent study in 2 Timothy. We had just discussed the danger of false teachers and the apostasy of pastors like Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Demas. She struggled with how to respond.
In the wake of the recent admissions of reports of abuse, corruption, and cover-up in the Southern Baptist Convention, her question resonates with many others.
When men who are supposed to represent Jesus hurt people under their care, it’s atrocious and disorienting. Whether you’ve been wounded directly or indirectly by such hypocrites, we all need a path forward that avoids forsaking either faith in God or trust in his church.
9 Warning Signs
While we must avoid harboring a spirit of suspicion toward all leadership, we are called to be discerning, sober-minded, and on guard (1 Pet. 5:8; 1 John 4:1). Not all pastors who exhibit the following traits are abusive wolves. Undershepherds are also struggling sheep. But if these sins characterize your pastor, serious concern and severe action are necessary.
Shepherds should be known by their sheep. Appearing in the pulpit is only a small part of a pastor’s responsibility. If church members lack any visibility into their pastors’ lives, they are unable to “consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Dangerous pastors insulate themselves to avoid detection, and sin flourishes in isolation. A pastor’s life must be open to observation.
To be clear, pastors must be able to have private time with God, family, and close friends. And not every member of the church is going to have a close, personal friendship with every pastor. However, it should be clear and observable that a pastor is living in godly, mature, Christian community. Pastors who avoid intimate relationships with anyone are highly suspicious.
Trustworthy pastors plead for accountability. Any pastor unwilling to be held accountable by godly gospel partners is vulnerable to all sorts of evils.
A pastor who leads alone is a pastor empowered to oppress. Whenever possible, then, a plurality of qualified elders should be established. Obviously, there will be seasons and locations where co-laborers may be few, but my point here is more about disposition than demography. Even when there are few pastoral hands on the plow, a shepherd can exhibit a desire for accountability from friends and other leaders.
God designed the church to have this built-in accountability structure for many reasons, including to protect pastors from sin. So these pastors or friends shouldn’t be “yes men,” unwilling to offer critique. Instead, they must courageously love the lead shepherd by holding him to God’s standard (1 Tim. 3:1–7). We all need men around us to support and encourage us, but we must we wary if the lingua franca shifts from biblical love to biased loyalty.
Continuing this theme, godly pastors will encourage members to give feedback, share concerns, and help them grow in faithfulness. Beware of pastors who cannot receive critique or who become defensive whenever questions arise. A church where criticism is treated as high treason is not a spiritually safe environment for the pastor or those under his care.
For example, I’m convinced that some sort of a formal review of a pastor’s pulpit ministry—for encouragement and for constructive feedback—is both a proof of humility and an antidote to defensiveness. This might take place at a staff meeting or an elders’ meeting or a time set aside for a “service review.” Regardless of context, it should be clear that a pastor is himself open to correction, committed to continued growth, and desirous of learning from others around him.
Instead of seeing service to Jesus as a high honor, some pastors think they’re indispensable to God’s work. They feel entitled to special treatment.
I know of a church where people were hesitant to push back on the pastor since he had done so much for them. Sadly, he was cultivating a secret life of indulgence that took advantage of enamored sheep. He had a huge impact on lives for good—and ill.
Rather than being entitled, it should be clear that a pastor desires a system of “checks and balances.” Pastors will rightly do spiritual good for many people. But part of that discipleship ministry should involve empowering and encouraging those same people to correct you if needed. I’ve often told my church that I’d never pastor a church I didn’t trust to fire me if I became unfaithful to the Lord. And I’ve told countless Christians that they need people in their life who love them but aren’t impressed by them. This is certainly the case for pastors as well.
Pastors who mimic Jesus will be generous with their resources and time; ungrateful pastors will be marked by greed. This can show itself in a lust for money, power, attention, or affirmation.
Sexual abuse is an especially horrendous form of greed.
Greedy pastors use others for personal gain—and sexual abuse is an especially horrendous form of greed. Abusers care about their satisfaction above all. They are like leeches who take and take and don’t care who’s hurt, so long as their needs are met (Prov. 30:15). The recent SBC abuse report is filled with the rotten fruit of greedy men who lusted after sex, power, and the appearance of godliness that denied its power (2 Tim. 3:5). This is a grievous evil.
I once heard a pastor quip, “Since I’m in charge, we’re gonna do things my way!” Shockingly, the people replied with a hearty, “Amen!” Domineering shepherds will use Scripture to shame people into submission to their will.
Not all control freaks are harsh, though. Some use flattery to manipulate and control the vulnerable. Such predators appear encouraging, but their compliments are fueled by ulterior motives. This is a common tactic of those who sexually abuse people under their care.
We ought not to confuse this, or course, with the need for courageous leadership during difficult times. It would be inappropriate to sound the alarm any time a pastor exercises his leadership gifting. But we should expect such leadership to accord with a spirit of gentleness and humility.
How does the pastor talk about sin? Does he joke about immorality? Does he fixate on one sin and minimize others? Does he dismiss accusations of abuse as the world’s agenda?
How does he speak about women? Does he chauvinistically characterize women in ways that portray them as less valuable? Does he belittle sisters, especially strong ones?
How does he speak about and care for vulnerable people like widows, orphans, minorities, and foreigners?
How does he speak to or about those with whom he disagrees? Does he do so gently and respectfully (2 Tim. 2:24–26), or is he condescending and harsh?
Lack of sympathy and gentleness is a glaring warning sign. And when he fails in any of these areas, is he quick to repent? None of us is Jesus, and we’ll all falter in what we say and do, but a lack of sensitivity to Spirit-wrought conviction or godly rebuke is a telltale problematic sign.
One of the most grotesque aspects of the SBC abuse report is the way the powerful apparently protected one another—at the expense of the vulnerable—all while claiming they were protecting the work of the gospel. Pastors who see their tribe as the defenders of truth will resist necessary correctives from those outside their walls. Those who see statistics and financial reports as proof of success are in grave danger. They will be unwilling to admit failures or report abuse to outside agencies for fear of derailing the mission. But this just reveals how much they misunderstand the mission. Thankfulness for your tribe is reasonable—and finding refreshing fellowship in a likeminded group is understandable—but blindly protecting your tribe is reprehensible.
9. Unbalanced Gospel
A message of justification that doesn’t require sanctification is incomplete (Gal. 1:4; Heb. 12:14). If a pastor focuses only on evangelism or justification but has little to say about pursuing holiness, be concerned. Jesus summons us to hate sin (Rom. 12:9), flee from it (2 Tim. 2:22), and pursue God from a pure heart (Matt. 5:8). A pastor who avoids calling people to holy living—or who settles for mere external “holiness” (e.g., no beer, no dancing, no yoga pants)—is only preaching a partial gospel. In fact, he may be avoiding clear biblical commands because his conscience is afflicted by hidden sin.
Don’t Give Up on Pastors
Pastors who lack Christlike characteristics are dangerous men. They can bring severe physical, emotional, and spiritual damage. But godly pastors are one of God’s instruments to bring help, healing, and hope.
Again, part of the way Christ cares for his sheep is through faithful undershepherds who imperfectly radiate his character (1 Cor. 11:1). When faithful undershepherds love us, we experience a glimmer of God’s love for us. They exude gentleness, not violence, like Jesus (1 Pet. 5:3). They exhibit patience, not anger, like Jesus (Titus 1:7). They model humility, not pride, like Jesus (1 Pet. 5:5–6). They embody generosity, not greed, like Jesus (1 Tim. 3:3).
Finding faithful pastors is essential—and possible. But fostering trust isn’t blind faith. Trust is earned. Get to know the pastors before you join a church. Follow pastors who follow Jesus in ways that are apparent to all (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 2:10).
Finding faithful pastors is essential—and possible.
Of course, even if you trust Jesus, practice discernment, and do all the right things, you may still end up getting hurt by a pastor. If this is your story, know that a pastor abusing you is not your fault. Also know that God has not forsaken you. He can help you rebuild trust under faithful pastors.
How does this happen? By trusting in God who never lies, who never exploits, who never neglects, who never fails us, and who’s always faithful. We trust that the God who loves us—and who loves his church—hasn’t left himself without a great remnant of men who haven’t bowed their knee to their own lusts or to institutional idols (1 Kings 19:18). We trust them by trusting him. And we demonstrate our trust in him by trusting them.
The journey home will be hard, but the Lord is the Good Shepherd. He will care for us every step of the way.