Church membership is sometimes viewed with skepticism, even by believers. The idea of committing to a church body and submitting to its leadership can seem outdated—or even oppressive and dangerous—particularly to those who have been hurt by a church. But Christ intends the local church to be a comfort and grace to all believers—even those who, like me, have been victims of church abuse.
ABUSED BY THE CHURCH
During my twenties, I was a member of a church with abusive leadership. This cult-like church taught that we alone—all 50 of us—understood the truths of Scripture. We were only allowed to read the pastor’s writings, and “spiritual maturity” was measured by faithful attendance at the five weekly services. Those who left the church were labeled “unbelievers” and became the subject of gossip. The pastor taught a distorted gospel, suggesting that once a person agreed that they needed a savior, they could continue to live however they pleased. Salvation was reduced to a mere change of mind, without any expectation that a true Christian would progress in holiness. As a result of this distorted gospel, many church members were either unsaved or constantly wayward, which afforded the pastor freedom to sin against them without censure. He was dictatorial, manipulative, and spiritually abusive.
These unbiblical teachings and practices took a personally devastating turn when the pastor of the church began to sexually harass and spiritually abuse me. My youth, ignorance of the Bible, and emotional instability caused by sin made me a prime target. Like the “weak women” in 2 Timothy 3:6, I was “burdened with sins and led astray by various passions.” Through abuse of power and perversion of the Scriptures, the pastor convinced me that God had given me to him, and that eventually I would have to consent to his sexual advances. As a result, I came to believe that if I ever left the church God would kill me or cause me to lose my mind. This harassment and abuse continued for the next 10 years.
Through a series of miraculous events, the Lord delivered me from this cult-like church and its abusive pastor and led me to a tiny Reformed Baptist church. It was in this local church that I heard the true gospel for the first time. There the Lord saved me, and there I was baptized and became a member. Over the past twenty-five years the Lord has continued to sustain me through local churches that have biblical structures and godly leadership; today I’m a member of just such a church, where I have even served on staff for the last 11 years.
THE LOCAL CHURCH, ABUSE, AND THE MERCY OF CHRIST
When I share my testimony, I’m often asked: “Why would you ever walk through the door of another church, much less become a member?” And: “As a victim of pastoral abuse, how can you submit yourself to male leadership within the church?” My recovery from church hurt and pastoral abuse is ongoing. Time and distance aren’t the cure for all wounds. Even writing this article is a difficult enterprise. But certain biblical truths have enabled me to embrace the beauty of God’s design for the church and to grow in submission to its imperfect yet humble leadership.
Christ is the Head of the Church
My ability to be a member of a church and to submit to godly leadership is ultimately rooted in this precious truth: Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22–23). I’m not called to submit to the sinful demands of an abusive pastor. Instead, I’m called to submit to Christ—who he is, what he has done for me, and how he has called me to live.
In contrast to the pastor who abused me, Christ is completely holy and completely good (1 John 1:5). Christ will never mistreat or harass me. Rather, he loves me so much that he laid down his life to save me (John 10:11). And as the head of the church, Christ has commanded me to live out my life in a church community, submitting to its godly leaders (Heb. 10:25, 13:17). Memories of my past abuse might make this command seem undoable—even cruel. But reflecting on the character of the Savior and knowing his great love for me enables me to entrust myself to him as I obey him.
The Church and Its Leaders Are Christ’s Gifts to Believers
Someone who has been hurt by their church may struggle to see it as good, which is certainly understandable. But Scripture teaches us that Christ intends for local churches and their leadership to be a gift to every believer (Eph. 4:8–16). The church is the primary place where believers go to receive the preached Word, take the Lord’s Supper, and be baptized. It’s where believers live out the “one another” commands in Scripture; it’s where we rejoice and weep together, where we bear each other’s burdens, and where we encourage and build one another up. The local church is where members repent to one another and forgive one another as they have been forgiven (Eph. 4:32). And, if necessary, the church is where members in unrepentant sin experience the grace of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:1–13).
Church leadership is also Christ’s gift to believers. He graciously protects the church’s leadership from unqualified and abusive men by demanding that leaders model godliness and wield authority well (Tit. 1:5–8, 1 Tim. 3:1–7, 1 Pet. 5:1–4). Christ is able to sanctify and uphold men in leadership so that they are able to fulfill these requirements. The staff pastors I serve with would tell you themselves that they are far from perfect! But they’re repenters, and I continue to watch them grow in humility and holiness.
These days, horrific abuse by church leadership is regularly being discovered. These abuses are shameful and must be dealt with severely by the church and the appropriate governmental authorities. What a comfort to know that Jesus himself holds church leaders to a higher standard (Jam. 3:1), and that he is the avenger whose wrath will one day come against all of the sin committed by abusive church leaders (Rom. 12:19).
The Church is Christ’s Gift to Me
While it’s true that I suffered terribly in that cult-like church and at the hand of its abusive pastor, it’s also true that I’ve thrived as a member of a healthy church and under the care of biblical leadership. I’ve experienced emotional and spiritual healing through the church’s faithful preaching, teaching, and counseling. Through friendships forged in the church, I’ve been built up, rebuked, challenged, edified, and transformed to look more like Jesus. The church is where I’ve been encouraged in my gifts of teaching and counseling, and where I’ve found opportunity to use them in service to others. And, as a childless woman, it’s in the church that Christ has given me more spiritual children than I could have ever had biologically. I would have missed out on all of these gifts if, in disobedience, I rejected every church because of my experience in an abusive one.
Christ is the head of the church, and he has given the church and its leadership as gifts to all believers, including me. Knowing these truths frees me to love my church, to submit joyfully to its leadership, and to flourish under its care. I must not allow my painful story to inform me about Christ or his church. Instead, my painful story has to be informed by Christ’s good character and by his purposes for his church. The things I suffered in that cult-like church were not good, but when seen in the light of these glorious truths, I can watch with eyes of faith as God works them all together for my good (Rom. 8:28).