Spiritual Abuse, Fallen Leaders and the Misuse of Matthew 18

As I discussed in a recent review article, the problem of spiritual abuse is significant, and it is one that we must confront, in both our individual churches and more broadly within our Christian cultures. Yet, so often when accusations of spiritual or pastoral abuse are raised, a common scriptural refutation is made. The accuser is themselves accused of failing to bring their concerns to the abusive leader directly, in line with Jesus’ teachings of Matthew 18:15-17. Pastors, elders and other church leaders might push back against a report of allegations – ‘why did you not take this issue directly to the pastor, rather than reporting it to us as you have?’ Matthew 18 is commonly cited in such situations, more often than not with the implicit or explicit accusation that the victim of pastoral abuse has made a sinful misstep in failing to follow the teachings of Jesus here.

The reality, however, is that such a stonewalling defence relies on a misinterpretation of the text. At best we can hope that this represents a simple misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching on behalf of the church leadership – at worst it betrays a deliberate mistreatment and contortion of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew 18 becomes a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the abuser – if the accuser failed to follow the leadership’s interpretation of the verses, then the accusations are themselves discredited, and cannot be brought forward. Michael Kruger likens this use of Matthew 18 to the ‘Miranda’ rights, as some pastors argue that if it has not been observed then prosecution can be escaped.

This post will examine this passage, and discuss its application to this issue of pastoral abuse. Though, for the sake of clarity, I will use both male pronouns as well as the term ‘pastoral abuse’ in discussing this issue, I do not want to mask the fact that Christian leadership abuses can take place both in male and female leadership, and in a myriad of non-pastoral roles. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will proceed with this simple language.

Matthew 18 as a ‘defence’ in cases of pastoral abuse

This short three verse section is often employed by abusive pastors and their defenders. Below I offer the text in full.

‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’

Matt 18:15-17.

Particular emphasis is placed on verse 15: ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.’ In defence of the accused pastor, either the accused himself or his fellow leaders will declaim ‘how is he to follow such biblical process if never approached in the first place?’ The bringing of allegations of pastoral abuse to the church leaders, or another body, they argue, does not align with Jesus’ teaching here. Rather, the pastor involved ought first to be approached, and due process can then unfold. If he is not first opposed, then the process cannot be in accord with Christ’s teachings. Setting aside the fact that it is an abhorrent evil to twist the words of our beloved saviour to support and protect an active abuser, this is a weak argument. It essentially relies on the pastor refuting the allegations because they have not been shared in the correct initial forum, and so, the argument goes, the allegations themselves are discredited. If they were legitimate, the abusive pastor argues, then I would have been won over when I was approached. As I was never approached, I must sadly recognise this as not constructive, loving feedback, but an attack on the good ministry I am undertaking.

Rightly, our natural tendency is to believe our pastor, and to affirm the Gospel-goodness of their ministry. (If this were not the case, I would suggest you reassess whether you can submit to them as church leader at all!) And so, if due process (as it is here presented) is not followed, the idea that these allegations are a simple attack on a good man is appealing. It makes sense, and accords with what we are being told by someone we are rightly predisposed to trust.

This is what makes pastoral abuse so shockingly evil – it preys on the godly submission of the sheep to the under-shepherd, it twists Scripture to legitimise actions that do not, in fact, reflect the Saviour they claim to preach. Diane Langberg sums up the vile nature of such behaviour:

‘“Spiritual abuse” should be an oxymoron. The word spiritual refers to something affecting a human spirit or soul. Abuse means to mistreat another, to deceive or do harm. When we use the word spiritual to describe abuse, we are talking about using that which is sacred—including God’s Word—to control, misuse, deceive, or damage a person created in his image. I think we can safely say the pairing of those two words is diabolical.’ (Langberg, 2020)

This use of Matthew 18 is an example of the use of God’s Word to control, misuse, deceive or damage a person made in God’s own image. And it can have hugely damaging outcomes. Serious allegations are swept under the carpet. Abusive individuals remain unchallenged. Victims remain wounded, bleeding, and spiritually bewildered. Indeed, the whole experience only harms them further, revealing an individual or a group calling themselves Christian leaders yet actively hurting the sheep entrusted to their care.

Jesus’ Teaching in Matthew 18

This twisting of scripture is a common defence, but is, at best, a very narrow application of this passage. Certainly it reveals the leaders to be far from the one who invites his children to “come to me…for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29.) This arrogant and hostile employ of Matthew 18:15-17 runs contrary to both the heart, and the teaching, of Christ himself.

Firstly, the context of Matthew 18 does not allow for such a defensive reading. This is not a process designed to protect sinful individuals (particularly leaders) from genuine scrutiny. The wider chapter makes this clear. There is a requirement that all Christians act with humility and a total dependence upon the grace they have received (v1-4); there is a stark acknowledgement that causing Christ’s little ones to stumble is a great sin (v6-9, more on this below) and an exhortation not to despise these little ones (v10). Finally, directly before this passage, Christ urges his followers to go out of one’s way to do all that it takes to bring back those who have wandered for any reason (be it sin, or the injuries they have suffered from other sinful people, v12-14.) The response of the abusive leader described above does not account for the context that informs verses 15-17 – it instead flies in the face of this pastoral setting.

More than this, the above corruption of Jesus’ instructions plays itself with a basic grammatical misunderstanding of Jesus’s words. As Kruger comments, “Matthew 18 applies only to individuals who have been sinned against.” (2022, 82.) Kruger is picking up on the grammatical number of Jesus’ words. Whereas in verse 14 for example, where Jesus had described ‘the will of your Father [τοῦ Πατρὸς ὑμῶν]’ – here speaking in the second person plural (the sense of ‘you plural’). In v15-17, Jesus speaks in the second person singular. It is not ‘if someone sins against you all’ but ‘if someone sins against you [σὲ].’ There is a greater clarity in Greek than in English, Jesus is speaking of instances where two people are directly involved. (He goes on, in vs18-20, to speak in the plural once again.) If, for example, a group of members raise allegations of the pastor’s abusive behaviour to the elder board – they are not engaging in an activity applicable to Matthew 18:15-17. Indeed, as Kruger goes on to explore, they in fact align more closely with the urging of Paul in 1 Timothy 5:19 (that we ought ‘not [to] admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses’) which implies such charges can be brought directly to the wider church leadership. Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 addresses one believer sinning against another. As RT France has observed (1999, 274) ‘[these verses] are addressed to ‘you’ (singular), the individual disciple, and their concern is not with the punishment of an offence but with the attempt to rescue a ‘brother’ whose sin has put him in danger. The passage is thus a practical guide to how a disciple can imitate his Father’s concern for the wandering sheep.’ This final line illustrates the pastoral tone of these verses, Jesus intended them to be instructions for the care of the sheep, not for their crushing. As France writes elsewhere (2007, 692) ‘this verse [15] refer[s] to sin in general, not injury specifically to the person concerned, so that to speak of “grievance” or of “conflict resolution” here is inappropriate.’ It is simply not the case that Matthew 18 applies to all instances of the raising of concerns regarding a professing believer, and the caveats in Jesus’ teaching are important in this issue of pastoral abuse.

This is not a universal ‘catch-all’ that allows pastors or other church leaders to simply mark their own homework and move on. The model offered by Jesus is one which is applied when a grievance is raised with someone directly, as a result of their treatment to the affected party. If they can reach no conclusion, other disciples are involved, and if necessary the whole body of believers (the ekklesia of vs17). The latter stage ought not to be necessary – but the disciplinary activity of vs18-20 follows up on this, backing up the idea of an individual attempting to stop another individual going astray. It is a deliberate, clumsy and cruel contortion of scripture to make these verses a safeguard for the power of the abusive pastor.

Indeed, the combination of these two dimensions (both the pastoral context and the exact language of Jesus’ commands here) further illustrates the depravity of using Matthew 18 to block due process. These instructions come from a position of dependence on Christ. The ‘greatest’ in the kingdom of heaven is the lowly child who welcomes Christ above all (vs4-5). The believer thus lives in confidence that ‘your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.’ (vs14.) We do not come as proud sub-rulers, or as self-interested agents. Rather, we live and act with the confidence and peace of knowing that our Father cares for us, and it is Him that we glorify, not ourselves. To twist vs15-17 into a self-preserving pastoral power-grab flies in the face of the context and meaning of Christ’s teaching here.

Matthew 18 and Abusive Leaders

Sometimes Matthew 18:15-17 does not apply in incidents of abusive leadership. Some situations are simply not Matthew 18 matters. A blanket application of these verses falls short – as Kruger puts it: time after time ‘the problem is that Matthew 18 doesn’t apply in this case.’ (82.) If the allegations raised concern a scenario beyond the parameters of Matthew 18:15, we cannot label this a Matthew 18 situation, discredit the concerns, and move on.

Sometimes these verses do not apply because the events concerned are simply not applicable. Sometimes it is because of the character of those involved. If the injured party will not be listened to, or access will not even be granted for such a conversation, then there is no option but to take concerns elsewhere. If the abusive pastor is concerned with the violation of Matthew 18 fundamentally because they wish to control both the narrative of this incident and the response to it, then it is thoroughly inadequate to appeal to these verses for guidance. They betray a willingness to ignore Christ’s teaching in vs6-7 – what credibility can we give their claim that they will preserve the integrity of vs15 in their efforts to protect themselves?

Consider whether the pastor concerned speaks well of his accusers. This is in itself a clear indication of his heart towards the matter. Do they treat them with a gentle and humble compassion that recognises they are beloved children of the Father? Or is he quick to label them enemies of the mission, opponents and trouble-makers? If it is the latter, and those who raise concerns are branded as ‘weapons of the Evil One’, ‘trouble-makers’ or ‘longstanding opponents of our work’ then alarm bells ought to ring. For the leader to spiritually discredit his opponents is a powerful move, yet consider whether such a characterisation has been made off the basis of careful evaluation of the evidence, or as a knee-jerk response to opposition. Such a character betrays itself, and careful wisdom is required of other elders and leaders with regards to any appeal to Matthew 18, even if it were warranted in the particular circumstances.

Sometimes these verses do not apply because greater action is necessary. Matthew 18 itself builds in consequence. Go first yourself, then with witnesses, then with the whole church. But this is the criteria for one who has wandered – Scripture is also clear on the consequences for false teachers. It is a sad reality that many abusive pastors are false teachers – their desire is to promote themselves over and above the glory of God’s name and the good of His people. As such, they will cause the little ones to stumble (woe upon them! vs6-7). As Peter reminds his readers, such leaders profit off of their flock, exploiting them. But they are ultimately damned by their actions (2 Pet 2:1-3.) If an abusive pastor is the self-seeking Diotrephes of 3 John, or the immoral false teachers against which Jude appeals, then Matthew 18 does not apply.

In such cases a greater response is required. The model of 1 Corinthians 5 is more appropriate here (an example of which is presented here) – and in that case, appealing to the legitimate leadership of the church is a right and measured step. Sometimes, Matthew 18 is inappropriate precisely because legitimate teachers do not abuse the sheep. False teachers, (2 Pet 2:1) will come among us. When combined with abuse, the destruction they wreak can be horrific.

On top of this, it must be noted that in some circumstances it would be completely unacceptable to appeal to Matthew 18 – allegations of a criminal or sexual nature, for example, would require an escalation beyond this schema, and this would include law enforcement, as appropriate. Such instances are beyond the primary scope of this article, but it is worth making this clear.

Grace and our Relationships

I noted above that one reason why Matthew 18 might not be appropriate is if the character of the alleged abuser is such that the process will not be able to function in line with Christ’s pastoral intentions. As such, before closing, a brief reflection on character and grace in Christian relationships is merited. This of course works both ways. It is helpful to accuse with grace – not surrendering to spite and anger but rightly seeking repentance, justice and healing. This is of course a nuanced point, and will look different in every circumstance, but if the accuser speaks with grace (unmerited though it may be) they bring Christ into even the hardest of circumstances. This does not mean tempering accusations with unsafe exposure or unmerited praise. I simply suggest we allow grace to shape our relationships, even those which are most broken or strained. The salvation of your abuser is not yours to ordain, nor is their well-being. But accusations, however hard, must not be joined with malicious escalation or unwarranted attacks. Let grace define your speech and actions.

As for the accused, this principle is even more fundamental to shaping a right response. A failure to follow Matthew 18 can be addressed if it ought to have been followed – but as Kruger makes clear “even if the accuser should have followed Matthew 18 but failed to do so, that does not mean the elder board or other governing body should overlook the sins of the abusive pastor.” (83.) If this overlooking of Matthew 18 is a genuine issue, it can be dealt with separately, with pastoral sensitivity – by leaders separate to the accused. But grace can be shown in letting this slight (real or imagined, often the latter) go. The accuser at the heart of this ought to show grace, acknowledging that whether or not they agree, that there is pain and hardship for all involved in this matter. There should certainly be no attempt to equate any error in failing to follow Matthew 18 to the alleged abusive sin of the pastor – as if these two could possibly be on a par. As the Sesame Street song goes, ‘one of these things is not like the other.’ Nor does it negate the other. Let grace define such serious matters.

Beyond this matter of the right application of Matthew 18 – the accused ought to recognise that there may well be good reasons why the accuser felt unable to follow the pattern of Scripture here. They may be so damaged, spiritually or otherwise, as to distrust both God’s word and their church leadership. This tragic circumstance ought to evoke concern, graceful compassion and support – not vengeful counter-attacks and the partisan weaponising of Scripture. Matthew 18 will work rightly if grace characterises such matters. Of course, in incidents of pastoral abuse, grace is often absent – and such a course is simply not an option.

Conclusion

Kruger sums up the application of this verse to such matters of pastoral abuse. (84) “While the lines aren’t always clear, and there are inevitable grey areas that can be debated, we should remember that Matthew 18 is not a catchall passage that applies to every conceivable scenario.” Context is key. Firstly, as discussed, Matthew 18 should never be employed as a defensive manoeuvre to protect abusive leaders. Pastors and elders who present this passage as such fly contrary to Christ’s meaning here – and betray hearts that are unconcerned with the well-being of Christ’s ‘little ones’ – and Matthew is clear (vs6), ‘it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea’ – their actions are dangerous. Christ never sides with abusers; his concern and care is always for his sheep, for whom he lays down his very life! (John 10:15.) This is Christian leadership, oh that all pastors would reflect it.

The above discussion ought to provide a serious warning for those who employ these verses to bury abuse. Your ministry, your church, your pastor – none of these are so essential to the Gospel work that they are worth trampling over the very sheep you are called to serve. If ever you fall into such a trap of thinking this may be the case, repent and humble yourselves afresh before your sin catches up with you.

Where Matthew 18 is appropriate (a rare occurrence in matters of pastoral abuse) – let grace define your response, even if sin might be rightly addressed. I cannot offer advice for every circumstance but I can tell you that in no circumstance do such verses equip an abusive pastor to evade allegations – nor do they allow the abuser to continue unchecked.

Matthew 18:15-17 (and the rest of the chapter in which it sits) ought not to be the tools of the defensive abuser. They are beautiful verses about our corporate support for one another in church life, challenging sin and spurring one another on until our race is run. May they never be taken to crush sheep and protect abusers – particularly the abhorrence of abuse in Christ’s name, itself surely something not of Christ, but of His enemy.


A few resources I have found useful in this area recently:

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

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

Bully Pulpit, Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Zondervan 2022).

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

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