Ministry Leaders as Sexual and Spiritual Abusers: A Warning

by | Feb 24, 2021 | Ministerial Life | 1 comment

The sad story about which I wrote last week wasn’t simply a temporary lapse in judgement that resulted in a fall from grace. By all accounts, the behaviour was systematic, planned, veiled, long-term, malevolent evil, much of it done under the pretense of “spiritual” ministry. To tell someone that she was a “reward” for serving God is utterly vile. To knowingly obfuscate the truth by using private internet, multiple cell phones, keeping multiple apartments in the same building overseas, and using “ministry” money to pay for this depravity is beyond belief. Yet it is all apparently true.

I grieve for the family, who I hope were as in the dark about the behaviour, as apparently were ministry colleagues. The fall out is being felt around the world. The Christian Missionary Alliance defrocked him last week. Harper Collins pulled his books. RZIM is suspending fundraising. RZIM Canada is winding down operations over the scandal. No doubt, there are many good and godly people throughout the international organization whose world has been disrupted who believed in the mission, and who had little to no personal contact with the founder, assuming him to be who he presented himself to be. Sadly, he wasn’t, and they are devastated.

I feel worse for the women caught in the web of abusive behaviour. I grieve for those who tried to alert others to the wicked actions only to be isolated and rejected. This is not about women nor is it the fault of women. This is about one man’s evil heart who deceived everyone around him, it seems. This has to be a wake-up call for the Church. Judgment must begin at the house of God. “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Pet. 4:17–18).

Some have responded to those writing on this by chiding the critics for kicking a man when he is down, for accusing him when he cannot answer for himself. Let’s think about this for a moment. First, because he was a public figure, he is open to public scrutiny. Questionable behaviour patterns are subject to examination. As a Christian minister, he was to be above reproach. Was he? Second, many gave him the “benefit of the doubt” in 2017, a fact of which he well knew and apparently used to further shield his wicked deeds. Does he deserve such benefit today? Third, the report that has been used as the basis of this writing was commissioned by RZIM and published immediately after they received it in an unvarnished form. The information is available for public perusal and only the willfully blind will fail to see the truth. Fourth, the sad reality is that the executrix of his estate will not set aside the NDA (nondisclosure agreement) with regards to Lori Anne Thompson. There is a petition to urge the NDA’s cancelation. The only thing that dispels darkness is light. Lori’s testimony was not a part of the investigation. She recently released a victim impact statement. Let the light of truth shine in this case. Where is the transparency? Let the truth be known! It is sad that this will follow her the rest of her life. Lori, we are saddened and outraged!

What about the man. He is dead, but will we see him again? I have been to funerals where the most grievous of sinners are preached into heaven by some well-meaning minister trying to offer comfort to those left behind. Some believers hold a defective view of eternal security, suggesting that one “could swing over Hell on a rotten grape vine, and still be saved” as I heard a country preacher defending the doctrine repeatedly affirm more than forty years ago. Let it be known that Christians are eternally secure. No question about it. But eternal security must not be decoupled from the doctrine of perseverance. Believers have a duty to persevere in faithin the faith, and in good works. I am glad that I am not on the tribunal that will judge anyone as they stand before their Maker to give an account of the deeds done in the body. I have enough to give an account for of my own misdeeds. But given the very extensive, long-term, multifaceted nature of some individual’s alleged sins (multiple women, multiple countries, multiple kinds of sin, multiple occasions for sin), considerable doubt arises as to their eternal destiny (1 Cor. 6:9).

Why even speculate? Since we ultimately cannot know someone’s future state, why even consider the question? Certainly, we do not do this for the sake of any deceased individual. Once death occurs one’s eternity is sealed and what’s done, is done. But in the spirit of last week’s post—lessons to be learned—I say this to my ministry brothers—enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season is one thing, abiding in moral depravity without repentance is another. Both are wrong and to be shunned. But one who abides in gross, long-term depravity has little hope of eternal life. A person may in fact be saved, yet so as by fire, but the assurance of that life will allude them. About twenty-five years ago, I confronted an older former pastor, living with a younger girlfriend whom he had baptized as a child. He looked me straight in the face and assured me he knew he was a Christian, despite what I thought, even while he was living in adultery. I reminded him that the Bible offers no assurance to such a person. 1 John 2:3 offers a clear statement on how we know we are believers—if (if and only if) we keep his commandments. We know if we keep. We do not know if we do not keep. It’s as simple as that! Maybe God grants deathbed repentance, but don’t bet your eternal destiny on this. God forgives but there will be fruit of repentance. Of those who have died in apparent wickedness, we are not in a position to know, so we cannot say. But Christians be warned!

One thing more needs to be said about this sad story. It is a classic example of spiritual abuse. RZ used his position to wield power over others including the numerous women who had the misfortune of being abused by him. This is probably the worst thing for which he seems guilty. Had this been a David and Bathsheba type incident—a one-time moment of passion—it would still have been wrong and still abuse. But sadly, it was apparently long-term, serial abuse with victims cajoled into silence for questioning the appearance of impropriety. Serial abuse by a serial abuser. How could a purported “man of God” do such wickedness?

The internet is full of stories of abusive pastors and ministry leaders. Youth pastors who have sex with members of their youth groups. Dave Hyles, son of Jack Hyles, was back in the news recently over allegations of abuse more than thirty years ago. Sexual perversion is just the tip of the iceberg. Megachurch leaders are falling like dominoes for abusive behaviour—bullying congregants, lying to suit their purpose, powerplays to retain control, abuse of power in leadership. Carl Lentz is a recent example. As is Bill Hybels whose daughter Shauna Niequist recently spoke out. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ministry leaders need accountability. This can come through an elder or ministry board, but boards only work if they work, that is if they do what they are supposed to do, hold ministry leaders accountable. Pastors ought to have fellow elders who will hold them accountable and ministries should have board members who will do the same. Many times, boards who are charged with oversight, fail to do their due diligence out of loyalty to the one in charge. “Don’t rock the boat!” “The ministry is flourishing!” “He would never do that!” “What the leader is doing or has done is really not that bad.” Excuses are made while the abuse continues and gets worse. Opposition is slandered or silenced. Team members leave, sometimes by their choice and sometimes by another’s choice.

Let me say this to my brothers in ministry. Many may have read my essays and thought, “I could NEVER do this.” Brothers, yes you could, and so could I, but for the grace of God. An acquaintance posted on my blog the following comment last week.

I know from personal experience the damage that sin of this kind can exact. I lost my job, almost lost my marriage twice, and relationships with my children have been irreparably crushed. Shame, embarrassment, fear, years of trying to repair broken things and people follow. There are no sins that do not affect others. This is a good warning. All of the external safeguards are good, but as John MacArthur said, I can jump over any fence that you build. The point is, you must guard your heart, cultivate your personal, intimate, central relationship with Jesus Christ every single day. Or as Tozer said, Go hard after God.

May God give us grace to flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness (2 Tim 2:22). May we not lord over God’s flock (1 Pet 5:3). He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

1 Comment

  1. David A Pitman

    Painfully poignant. Thank you.

    Reply

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