If you care about the health and witness of the church, you’re likely aware of the increased attention given recently to patterns of pastoral abuse of authority. Domineering behavior in the church is not new, of course. You can see it throughout church history. Sixteen hundred years ago, Jerome wrote about prideful bishops:

They govern the sheep harshly and infuriatingly, behaving haughtily as is expected of them. They adorn the dignity of their office with their works and take on pride instead of humility. They think that they have assumed honor rather than the burden of their work, and however they see coming forward in the church, preaching the word of God, they seek out to impress.

I echo the concerns of many today who believe we mustn’t minimize or wave away the bullying behaviors on display in some spiritual leaders. This moment calls for greater attention to spiritual abuse, not less.

As we seek a healthier church in the future, we must move deeper into the scriptural teaching that warns about shepherds who, for one reason or another, abuse their authority, lording their power and domineering the sheep. Jesus told us the pagan rulers lord their authority over others, using high positions to act as tyrants. “But it is not so among you,” he said. “On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all” (Mark 10:43–44).

Danger of Dilution

If, like me, you care about the people who’ve been hurt by pastors known for bullying behavior, manipulative words, and a haughty spirit, and if, like me, you want to see renewal in the area of leadership in the church today, then I appeal to you: watch out for a phenomenon taking place (largely online) that has the potential of derailing reforms in the church when it comes to matters of spiritual abuse, mistreatment, and harm.

I’m referring to the dilution of words like “toxic,” “abuse,” “hurt,” “trauma,” and “harm” in online discourse. Call it “concept creep” or “word dilution.” It’s the ever-expanding connotation of these words in ways that (ironically) diminish the stories and experiences of those who have truly been abused.

The result of concept creep is twofold: real experiences of evil are minimized and ordinary experiences of difficulty are magnified. In the end, this trend causes confusion that makes it much more difficult for real people in real churches to report real injustices.

Abuse and Ordinary Harm

To avoid this language dilution, we must distinguish between true spiritual abuse and what Myles Werntz calls “ordinary harm,” which is a “downstream effect of sin” that shows up in ongoing ways in both the church and world:

Ordinary harm is the pervasive effect of sinners inhabiting a church together, manifested in intentional and unintentional sins toward others. Abuse is sin manifested as an intentional (acute or long-term) attack. Trauma is the after-effects of abuse or harm.

I might quibble with that definition, as I’m not sure all abuse is consciously intentional, but the point is well taken. Spiritual abuse shows up in patterns of bullying and manipulative behavior, the undermining of accountability, an unwillingness to submit to formal structures of authority, and the hardening of anger toward correction. This is one reason why Mike Kruger’s Bully Pulpit is an important book (and Kruger is careful to anticipate the problems of this dilution in language I’m noticing online).

I’m afraid today’s online discourse is making it harder, not easier, for real people facing real harm in real communities to speak up. When we apply serious words like “trauma” or “abuse” to situations of ordinary harm, we diminish the seriousness of hurt in more significant cases. We flatten the distinctions. No one is served well by such flattening.

This concept creep works against the time necessary to test a situation, leading us to rush to judgment (or to social media), and it can have a chilling effect on those who might speak up about significant harms because they see what the accusations of “abuser” and “toxic” do when leveled too quickly online. When accusations become so common that they engender a shrug, people facing significant injustice begin to think, No one will believe me and No one will take this seriously.

Word Dilution and Church Relationships

If we really care about spiritual abuse, then we must push back against the dilution of the meaning of serious words. Otherwise, we create unhelpful expectations for life together in the church and the world. Even in the church, we should expect to be hurt from time to time. After all, we’re sinners on the road of sanctification—our past sins in the process of being uprooted and our present vices being countered.

The apostle Paul’s admonition to bear with one another implies there are hurts to be borne, for love covers a multitude of sins. The need for healing within the body of Christ implies the presence of wounds. Even as we should be utterly intolerant of any form of abuse, we should expect ordinary hurts and harms to be part of our life together. In Christ, we turn from sin, and, among his people, our hurts can heal.

But what often happens online (through a well-intentioned effort to bring more attention to sins that require repentance) is the transformation of ordinary harm into “abuse,” leadership foibles into “toxicity,” the presence of discomfort into “trauma,” and verbal slights into “violence.” This approach serves as a grave injustice to real victims of real abuses, while also creating an unhealthy fragility among those who experience ordinary harm, providing a perverse incentive to find one’s identity and power and significance in victimhood. Not all harm in ministry is spiritual abuse.

Something similar takes place in the fight against racial prejudice. When words like “racism” or “white supremacy” become diluted by applying them too broadly in online discourse, often in laughable ways, the result is not a reduction of racism in real life but more shoulder shrugging among those who think the whole conversation is simply overblown. When everything and everyone is racist, no one is really racist. Throw up your hands and be done.

If you care about renewal in the area of spiritual abuse, you’ve got to be on guard against slippage in language—both in yourself and in those who turn to these words too flippantly. We’re less likely to see reforms take place if the label of “toxic” and “abuse” gets applied too broadly, because those who would be most likely allied to our cause will begin to think these concerns must be overblown. We mustn’t conflate ordinary sins and relationship trouble with true trauma and abuse, precisely because we care about ending real abuse.

Word Dilution and Injustice

In What’s Our Problem: A Self-Help Book for Societies, Tim Urban notes how the expansion of meaning given to words like “harm,” “trauma,” “racism,” and “abuse” not only increases the pool of victims but drives a corresponding hunt for villains. He writes,

When concept creep gets out of control, it allows a far wider range of behaviors to qualify as bigotry, abuse, and trauma, which means a far wider range of people viewing themselves as victims of bigotry, abuse, and trauma. It also turns a far wider range of people into bigots, abusers, and traumatizers. Many more victims = many more villains.

He goes on: 

Social victimhood can’t happen on its own—it requires a victimizer. And as the supply of victimhood has been driven upward culturally, so has the demand for victimizers.

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. In his acclaimed work on the pervasiveness of sin, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. remarks how even humanity’s best intentions at reform are often muddled: “Reforms need constant reforming. Rescuers need rescue. Amendments need amendment. . . . Evil contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it.” Plantinga points out how reform movements that address one aspect of injustice can unwittingly become the purveyors of a different kind of injustice. I hope this won’t be the case when it comes to abuse reform.

If we want the church of the future to be healthier than the church of today, then we must be open to more conversations about the exercise of proper authority and what constitutes spiritual abuse. These distinctions matter. That’s why we must push back on concept creep and not take part in the dilution of serious words about serious sins.

If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.