Book Review: Bully Pulpit by Michael Kruger (Zondervan, 2022)

Bully Pulpit confronts the reader with a difficult but necessary exploration of spiritual abuse within Christian circles. Difficult, because this matter of abuse is so grievous. Necessary, because the problem is seemingly so prevalent. Kruger approaches the subject after several years of personal and public reflection on the issue of abuse within Christian contexts, and with a background in church ministry as well as in the academic training of others for pastoral leadership.

Through seven probing chapters, Kruger confronts this issue directly: identifying the problem of bully pastors, defining the nature of spiritual abuse (itself a divisive question) and addressing the need for a clear and Christlike response from the church. As someone who has witnessed the incredible capacity for a bully pastor to manipulate and harm the sheep in his care, I greatly appreciated the biblical clarity with which Kruger speaks throughout this book.

Given the subtitle to Bully Pulpit reads ‘confronting the problem of spiritual abuse in the church’, it is perhaps surprising that Kruger does not open with a chapter explaining his definition of the phrase, but instead chooses to focus first of all on the ‘bully pastors’ to whom he speaks. The book is primarily addressed to church leaders, and is clear on that. Perhaps this decision reflects that audience. Nonetheless, a definition is offered in chapter two, before the rest of the book walks through the implications of such abusive leadership for churches, victims and the subsequent possible fallout.

Addressed to the Leaders

In his introduction, Kruger sees the distinct value of his book as being that ‘I am writing as a leader in the church to other leaders in the church.’ (xvi.) This is emphasised throughout the book, and readers would do well to recognise this fact. Pastors, you would benefit greatly from picking up this book and reflecting on Kruger’s wisdom. Lay leaders, you too would find an immense challenge to image Christ in the way you lead, and in the manner in which you seek greater influence and power within your role. And those who aspire to Christian leadership, however that might look; this book offers a profound corrective to some of the intensely damaging ways in which Christian leaders can veer dangerously off course. To shepherd God’s people is a wonderful thing. To abuse His sheep is a deeply evil thing.

As such, Kruger is stark on the depravity of such abuse. Time and again he speaks plainly of the evil that abusing God’s people displays; this is indeed a grievous matter. And there are many reasons why this issue is so widespread, many of which Kruger explores in his opening chapter ‘The First Shall Be Last’, unpacking the issue of the bully pastor, and how we ended up with such an epidemic of abusive leaders. Particularly striking was Kruger’s astute observation (11) that Paul’s list of godly characteristics to be sought after in a Christian leader includes only one relating to teaching. (See 1 Tim 3:2-4; 6-7.) Whilst the pastor must be ‘able to teach’, Paul is far less concerned with gifting than with character. He must also be ‘above reproach… sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, honest, hospitable… not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.’ Too often we seek celebrity pastors who deliver entertaining sermons and raise the reputation of our church or community. Kruger urges us to look for leaders that reflect instead this biblical pattern. Christian leadership ought not to image worldly leadership, but the wonderful humility of Christ.

Defining His Terms

Having identified and discussed this painful issue at length in chapter one, Kruger turns to the question of definitions in chapter two, and seeks to offer clarity on what he means by his use of the contentious term ‘spiritual abuse.’ As someone who has done a lot of thinking on this subject over the past few years, I greatly appreciated this chapter. Though I was initially confused as to why Kruger didn’t open with it, I nonetheless appreciated his careful discussion of the phrase, and he is quick to state his exact meaning in his use of ‘spiritual abuse.’

As Kruger notes in opening his chapter (22): ‘this term can be helpful, but it also has its limitations. Some prefer it. Others may not. We will work through the complexities in upcoming sections. But we mustn’t let disagreement over terminology keep us from addressing the problem.’ This is certainly my experience – and I have personally been hesitant in using the term in previous public and private communications – primarily because of the complexities that Kruger goes on to address. Nonetheless, this book is not speaking into a trivial issue; there is clearly a huge issue of spiritual abuse in Christian contexts, both in the US and the UK, and Kruger’s examples illustrate this time and again. We must not let disagreements over terminology keep us from addressing the problem, and sadly this has all too often been used as an excuse to avoid confronting the issue.

To that end, Kruger goes on to define spiritual abuse as follows (24):

‘Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader – such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organisation – wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.’

I might quibble one or two words or phrases in this definition, but it is broadly helpful, and Kruger goes on to unpack what he means by each part of this definition in the rest of his chapter. It is a helpful base for addressing this issue. It recognises the spiritual dimension – both in authority and action – as well as the intention, whether well-meaning or deliberately destructive. I won’t push back on this definition in this review, as it serves its purposes well, and allows Kruger to develop his study into an examination of leaders, churches and responses to allegations of spiritual abuse.

Insightful Analysis

The next five chapters build off this definition, first addressing the disqualifying nature of such abuse, before moving to examine churches faced by such abuse. Kruger is blunt in questioning why it is that so many churches do not deal properly with such abuse. He explores the tactics taken by abusive leaders to protect themselves, insulating themselves from meaningful challenge, and cultivating unbiblical layers of loyalty embedded in the culture of the church. There is a great deal of insight in these chapters, and Kruger’s discussion of how abusive leaders ‘flip the script’ in chapter five in particular is incredibly accurate, and offers plenty of food for thought. Chapter six then explores the effects of spiritual abuse, with pastoral sensitivity and well evidenced discussion. Finally, chapter seven offers some practical ways to address spiritual abuse, and advice on how to tackle incidents when they arise, with both a fairness to the accused and a Christlike care for those who are hurting.

There is a lot of content in these chapters, and they bear reflection and possible rereading. Those in positions of pastoral leadership would do well to reflect on their own place in the scenarios and examples Kruger describes, even if not all of Kruger’s advice will be relevant to every church context. Those who are confronting, or who have confronted spiritual abuse within their own churches would do well to reflect on these chapters also. Much of Kruger’s concern with how churches led by abusers respond to criticism or allegations is recognisable in several current and past UK situations, and in itself presents a wise and striking challenge.

The book ends with an epilogue, ‘A final word to Christian leaders’. It comprises a closing appeal from the author to his target audience, that they might avoid the temptation of abusive leadership, whether or not they may have good or ill intentions. Kruger urges the pastor reading his book to resist valuing their ministry above all others, and to fear God, not man and the possibility of challenge and failure. It is a pertinent, though brief, appeal, and rounds off the study well.

Conclusion

I’ve read a few books on this subject in recent months, and I commend a few other titles below, but Kruger’s short volume is a helpful addition to this active conversation. Though an American author, writing from a starting point in US culture, Kruger’s book translates well to our UK context. In fact, he regularly uses examples from UK churches, and draws helpful reflections from them. Though not perfect (and any book on this subject is bound to divide opinion in some areas) this is a deeply revealing read. Kruger brings pastoral wisdom, biblical clarity and plain speech to a tricky issue, and such contributions are necessary.

We simply cannot continue to kick the can down the road on this issue and Kruger’s volume offers a chance for personal and corporate reflection among church leaders, elders, and members. I would commend it to you, and urge you to pick up a copy and ponder Kruger’s insights. It is a great shame that abuse within Christian contexts is so often tolerated, not just because it stops the church from genuinely reflecting Christ, but because of the damage it does to His people. As Kruger summarises (135): ‘we have tolerated this behaviour for far too long, and we have an enormous debris field of broken lives and shattered churches to prove it.’ May we heed the warnings contained in this book, hold our actions up against the wonderful truths of Scripture, and move as both individuals and as churches away from abusive practices and principles.


Bully Pulpit, Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church is available now from Zondervan.

I would also commend the following recent titles in this area:

Powerful Leaders? When Christian Leadership Goes Wrong by Marcus Honeysett (IVP, 2022).

When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat (IVP USA 2020).

For a deeper discussion on the evil and reality of this issue – consider this article from Diane Langberg.

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