American evangelicals have often looked to UK leaders such as John Stott for inspiration. But while there have been many wonderful examples of faith in the British evangelical church, that same constituency is having to reckon with the chronic abuse perpetrated by a handful of leaders and enabled by a much broader network. In particular, this week saw the publication of a review of the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse committed by a prominent London-based pastor named Jonathan Fletcher. He was enabled to continue his behavior over decades, and he even continued in ministry after his right to minister had been formally removed. It is important that such reports are engaged with, lamented, and reflected on from a number of different perspectives.
But there seems to be a lot of confusion about how to understand these scandals from the most important perspective of all: the spiritual. If we don’t see what’s happening spiritually, then all the other perspectives are lacking, because the spiritual aspect pervades and profoundly influences all the others.
How should we understand the spiritual dynamics? Are the abuse scandals just “the Devil having a field day” (a phrase I’ve heard a number of times), or is something more going on? How should we understand abusers? Are they sinners whom we should pray for, longing for their repentance and forgiveness? Is it right to say things like “There but for the grace of God there go I”?
Abuse Is Not ‘Just Sin’
The apostle Paul says he is the “foremost” or “worst” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Does this therefore mean that anyone could become an abuser? As evangelicals, we can be good at not treating people as cartoons. We know the world does not divide cleanly into the good and bad, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Nevertheless, we need to avoid the contrasting danger of treating sin, particularly egregious sin like abuse, as normal. Abuse means to “misuse power,” as Dr. Diane Langberg points out in Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church: “Any study of power misused is also always a study of deception, first of the self and then of others.”
This self-deception requires a persistent hardening of the conscience. Well does Scripture warn of “the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:2). It requires a deep distortion of how someone perceives others, no longer as image-bearers but mere pawns in a game of satisfying the perpetrator’s lusts (for sex, for power, and so on).
To abuse someone—and then, even worse, to abuse repeatedly and cover it up—requires a long and concerted journey down a very dark road. So, yes, because sin is so evil, every human being has the capacity for such egregious sin, but no, there is nothing normal about abuse at all.
To abuse someone requires a long and concerted journey down a very dark road.
Similarly, this means we should be realistic and stark about the prospects of repentance. While Jesus urges us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44), he also pronounces woe on spiritual leaders who abuse their position (Matt. 23:13–39).
There is something fundamentally different between the spiritual state of a non-Christian who sins, even to the extent of persecuting Christ’s people (like Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9), and a church leader who has tasted the heavenly gift, and has shared in the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:4), but has chosen such a path of self-deceit.
God’s grace in Christ is so remarkable and shocking that it may be sufficient for such people’s forgiveness, but the layers of calluses on their heart and their seared conscience means Scripture normally sees them as having “taken the way of Cain . . . they have been destroyed by Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11).
Remember God’s Judgments
Of course we are in a spiritual battle, and while in no way diminishing personal responsibility or divine sovereignty, the Devil is behind the evil of abuse. We need to offer comfort to those wounded or shaken by such abuse that the Good Shepherd, who has laid down his life for his sheep, will not let them be snatched from his hand (John 10:11, 28).
Depending on how churches, ministries, or even the wider evangelical subculture responds, we also need to see that there may be more going on. When a Christian ministry is shaken or risks being shut down, we are quick to assign it to “the Devil getting his way.” But when such a church or ministry has responded in an ungodly way, Scripture more readily assigns it to the Lord’s chastening hand and judgment.
When a church has responded in an ungodly way, Scripture more readily assigns its troubles to the Lord’s chastening hand.
Think of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about how they were treating the Lord’s Supper, and their resultant illness and even deaths (1 Cor. 11:27–32). Think of the letters to the Ephesian church in Revelation, warning that if they didn’t remember their first love and repent, their lampstand would be removed (Rev. 2:4–5).
Where Are Today’s Isaiahs?
Ultimately God will cleanse and keep his church. Throughout history, when sections of the church have fallen into unrepentant sin, time and again God has cleaned house. We must consider that where there are abusive patterns of leadership, and failures to respond appropriately by churches and ministries on both sides of the Atlantic, God’s hand may be actively against us.
An authentic spiritual response of really seeing this spiritual perspective is that of Isaiah, as he throws himself on God’s mercy and intercedes: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ (Isa. 6:5). It’s important to ask, where are the Isaiahs who see this perspective and are leading us in such a response today?