Abuse of Power

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If we apply the same amount of energy that goes into our hypervigilance over certain sexual sins to preventing abuse of power in our circles, we would make huge strides.

America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, was recently rocked by reports of over 700 cases of sexual abuse by nearly 400 church leaders spanning 20 years. Worse, some denominational leaders knew of the problems but didn’t stop the perpetrators. Indeed, many were repeat offenders who would leave one congregation only to prey on another. This is a horrific, sinful, and gross betrayal of God and God’s people. And we, the Christian Reformed Church, are not immune to such evils.

When Synod 2018 debated Overture 2 last year, nearly every delegate raised a hand to indicate that they knew of someone who had experienced abuse. How many in our churches have suffered physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse? How many have suffered in silence and have still not reported? How many have left churches that failed to deal adequately with abuse?

Our denomination has an opportunity to better protect the vulnerable among us. As follow-up to Overture 2, a report on addressing the abuse of power in the CRCNA is coming to Synod 2019. It lists 10 recommendations, including requiring mandatory abuse prevention training for anyone entering the ministry, a code of conduct for all ministry staff, and better recordkeeping of cases. These steps are long overdue. If we wish to avoid the Southern Baptists’ fate, we must implement these recommendations.

We have no good excuses not to do so. Pastors should welcome such training and a code of conduct. Pastors are to care for Christ’s flock, and extra accountability measures will help to protect the flock. If our hearts and hands are clean, we have nothing to fear from increased oversight and transparency.

We are talking not only about sexual abuse or physical abuse but also emotional abuse. Can we talk about spiritual bullying? Has bullying occurred in our churches? In our church council rooms? From the pulpit? In our online comment sections? And it’s not just pastors who might abuse; they themselves can be bullied by elders or church members. Anyone can be abusive.

The synodical report also observes cultural factors that can foster abuse of power, such as too much deference to authority, too much loyalty to leaders, or an oversized concern for reputation. So one of its recommendations is to create a culture that prevents the abuse of power. This is an important recommendation, albeit difficult to achieve.

Difficult as it is, we still must try out of faithfulness to Christ’s call to love one another as he has loved us. If ideas have consequences, then we need to trace abusive fruits to their cultural roots and weed  them out. In their place, we need to promote ideas and practices that bear good fruits.

Yes, this requires a lot of work. But if we apply the same amount of energy that goes into our hypervigilance over certain sexual sins to preventing abuse of power in our circles, we would make huge strides. Otherwise, our spiritual hypocrisy will be exposed.

I pray that synod and our churches will do the right thing and implement steps to protect people who are vulnerable. Too much pain and suffering has already occurred. But I also trust in God’s resurrection power to bring life and good out of pain and suffering.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (5)


      Thank you, Shiao, for your concern in regard to “the abuse of power issue” or the “Me Too” movement as it affects the church. Certainly there is reason for concern whether in our culture or in our churches.  In our churches it has been the consistory (elders of the church) that has been responsible for supervising the life and doctrine of the minister and those in positions of leadership.  Within the consistory the minister is considered an equal among the elders.  There is no sense in which the minister wields more power above that of the elders.  I don’t doubt that this power structure has been forgotten at times and that’s when abuse can set in.  Certainly it behooves the government of our churches to take their supervision seriously and to be on close watch for abuses, even enacting some of the measures suggested by the upcoming synodical report.  Our form of church government is by far better than most for guarding against abuse.  I question the necessity of supplemental safe church committees.
      But a word of caution!  I think there is reason to be careful in becoming over zealous in singling out those in leadership positions in our churches (most often men, but changing).  If we are not careful we will be creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear in our churches (if that is not already happening).  I believe for many it has become a matter of whether a pastor or leader can hug anyone of the opposite sex, as a greeting, an expression of appreciation, or an emotional connection.  A church member is better to ask if a hug can be given.  Better to be safe than sorry.  But if one asks whether a hug or kiss on the cheek can be given it becomes disingenuous.  We’ve all seen the news media coverage of Joe Biden’s kiss on the back of the head of a woman, which was taken as offensive and reported to the public five years after the fact as an offensive act.  A touch on the forearm or shoulder for two seconds or more can be taken as a “come on.”  As Biden, himself commented, “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.” After hearing reports like the Biden account, I think the Me Too movement is becoming similar to the feminism movement and can overstep reasonable limits.
      An atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust is already underfoot in our churches.  A look, comment, or touch can be taken as offensive when that was never the intention (as with Joe Biden).  A hug is normally seen as a way of making an emotional connection.  Soon it may be a requirement in our culture and churches to submit to a lie detector test to prove one’s good intentions or to demonstrate a person’s guilt.  Or better yet, why not disallow any touching between the sexes.  It will be expected of leaders to be eunuchs around anyone other than one’s spouse.  And yet both men and women are sexual beings.  That’s a creation norm.  Do I see the trust and love that the church is built on deteriorating?  The church can hardly grow in an atmosphere of suspicion.
      Bottom line: Take steps to prevent the abuse of power in our churches.  Strengthen our church councils in that regard. But also take steps to minimize the suspicion and distrust among our members.  Who really wants to belong to such a church where suspicion is a core reality?

Thanks for this timely and important article. The critial recommendations about changing the culture, which provides the context for abuse, must not be ignored. Though, as pointed out, these may be more difficult to implement and measure, they are key to lasting change - Culture trumps strategy/policy every single time!

Abuse thrives in silence and secrecy. A culture that is more open and transparent in all areas of life will help prevent abuse. And it will also help all of us in our faith formation as we can be open with our own struggles and failures, and receive a response that is understanding and compassionate. When we hide our sin, we also miss seeing God's redeeming grace at work. A culture of more openness and transparency will not only prevent abuse but will help us become the Blessed Community, the One Body, the Sacred Temple where our Lord dwells in this world.

Safe Church seeks to work proactively to build this kind of culture though many different ways - Circle of Grace, Restorative Practices, etc. We'd love to hear your ideas; how is your church working to change a culture of silence and secrecy to a culture of openness, vulnerability, and grace? 

Hi Shiao, Great Blessings to you. while I agree with you 100%, Accountability should be mandatory for every leader. However, we must always be careful to jump into decision making out of fear. There is a huge difference between bullying and speaking the truth in love, and yet, modern run amock political correctness is slowly but surely gagging the gospel and strong discipleship

Thank you Shiao for your timely article and for raising critical awareness of this extremely important topic that has suffered neglect due to shame and fear.

100's of people in our churches will not come forward with their stories due to the shame they will endure from perpetrators and their supporters if they reveal their stories of victimhood and survival. Fear effectively paralyzes the soul to to suffer in silence. I have only been a part of the CRC for 11 years (having married in) yet during that time I have been involved extensively in pastoral victim and survivor care. Why do we tend to protect the powerful and shun or shame the victim? We are more interested in protecting the powerful from shame and demotion than healing and caring for the weak. Ending careers of elders/pastors or actually believing such office holders we trust, could be guilty of abuse of power goes beyond the comfort zone of the average parishioner. It is much easier to live in denial or shame the victim than call out or believe the victim's stories. The phenomenon of being too "politically correct" with a resultant rise of overall corporate suspicion is an invalid argument to not act on behalf of victims. If you're not an abuser of power, what do you have fear in your congregational interaction? There is no need to fear, your actions will reveal your character. 

The facts and statistics reveal the truth. For every 100 ordained pastors or elders, two percent perpetrate sexual abuse. Two of five women and one of six men in our churches will suffer some form of abuse of power during their lives in church ministry settings. The vast majority of cases are never reported due to fear and shame. I encourage the review of the excellent research done on this social phenomenon over the last thirty years by several universities. As a denomination, we believe in robust theological and doctrinal rigour. This same robust approach should be adopted as we determine the nature and gravity of abuse of power within the CRC. The CRC shares the same statistics as other denominations regarding the abuse of power manifesting itself in emotional, sexual, physical and spiritual abuse. Baylor University and their school of social work has conducted extensiive research in clergy/elder abuse of power and its effects on congregations across the United States. Baylor's research is cross-denominational covering both reformed and evenagelical traditions. We, as a denomination ignore such research at our peril. 

Both perpetrators of abuse and their survivors require pastoral care, however the prescription for that care takes a different form for each. It is time for Synod to act and to act decisively on this issue if we are to protect the vulnerable among us. A "head in the sand" approach will never address this ongoing problem.

Training is fine but give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's. Anyone who commits a felony should be reported to the police.