According to Complementarian Michael Kruger, Listening to Women is Essential if We Hope to Successfully Confront Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Christianity Today ran a nice review of Michael J. Kruger’s new book Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church. I wholeheartedly agree that Kruger’s book is small yet mighty and will prove invaluable in addressing the issue of spiritual leaders who, as Kruger states, use their position to manipulate, domineer, bully, and intimidate those under them in order to maintain their power and control (24). 

However, the complementarian reviewer failed to mention the place Kruger grants women in identifying and confronting abuse by religious leaders. In his extensive research, Kruger spoke with people in different denominations and with varying theological viewpoints from across the country. These included pastors, leaders, congregants, and victims themselves.

What Kruger learned was this: women’s voices are essential, yet too often dismissed.

Though not the dominant focus of the book, Kruger points out a couple of things: 1) women often suffer more from a bullying leader; and 2) drawing them into the solution is absolutely essential. Honestly, though I would go farther than Kruger, placing women in all decision-making processes, I can’t say enough good about this book. 

Kruger is on the money in his description of the tactics and motives of bullying leaders and why these individuals – who go into ministry because they love Jesus – end up abusing their flocks. His explanation of the reasons churches don’t stop abusive leaders, description of how victims suffer, and suggestions for avoiding the problem are also on point. More could be said, of course, but what Kruger does say is significant. His book will be an important resource for years to come. 

Today, though, I want to look at some of Kruger’s thoughts on how spiritual abuse can target women and why women are a necessary part of the solution.

In his second chapter, Kruger talks about layers of authority that can add to the depth of abuse. For example, if a pastor domineers a member of his staff, he does so from two positions of authority: that of pastor, and that of boss. But if the staff member is a woman, the pastor:

…may wrongly exploit an additional male-female dynamic as yet another level of perceived authority. (26)

Kruger is a New Testament scholar, pastor, and complementarian, so I doubtless would disagree with his theology of gender. Yet I do concur with Kruger on this: women are not called to submit to men just because they’re men (26). I also appreciate the fact that Kruger recognizes the prevalence of the belief in a generalized male-female hierarchy and the many problems it engenders. Through his research he uncovered serious issues in the treatment of women in what he terms “patriarchal” churches. 

In churches that embrace a patriarchal theology, the weight of this authority [of men over women] is felt even more acutely. Although patriarchal theology should be distinguished from biblical complementarianism, some groups claim to be complementarian but effectively operate with a patriarchal paradigm…These churches often have a severe top-down male authority structure that is not to be questioned or challenged, especially by women. These church cultures create an ideal environment for spiritual abuse. (26)

Kruger goes on to recount the story of a pastor who tried to use I Corinthians 14:34-35, which talks about women being “silent” in church, to muzzle a woman who had come forward with concerns. Kruger observes that this was “an appalling and irresponsible application of that passage.” Though I’m not entirely convinced it’s possible to extract patriarchal theology from complementarian practice, I appreciate Kruger’s acknowledgement of the dangers of this mindset.

Later Kruger talks about other ways churches dismiss claims brought forward by victims. One has to do with the idea that victims’ experiences cloud their judgment, making them “overly emotional and therefore unreliable” (92). In describing this mentality Kruger writes:

This tactic is often used if the victim coming forward is a woman. It’s all too easy for an abusive pastor to convince a room of his fellow, all-male elders that a woman cannot be trusted because she, like all women, is too sensitive and therefore unreliable (unlike him, of course). (92)

Kruger has no patience for this type of response, as it discounts women’s testimony out-of-hand, and bluntly asserts that it lacks charity and compassion and, in particular, demeans women.

In his chapter on creating an environment that is less susceptible to abuse, Kruger highlights the importance of not placing bullying individuals into leadership positions in the first place. One way to avoid this is to talk to people who worked under the applicant in prior positions. Kruger then notes:

Make sure to reach out to women at the candidate’s prior church, either a volunteer leader or female staff. In my experience, search committees almost never talk to women but only men. …Women often have a radically different perspective on their church than men do. (115)

No kidding. Especially women who serve directly under the senior pastor. 

One pastor I knew, after losing one woman staff member after another due to his demanding and domineering leadership style, realized that deep-down, under his many magnanimous overtures toward women, he was a misogynist. Unfortunately, in spite of this momentary self-revelation, I’m not sure he ever succeeded in overcoming his deep-seated beliefs in the inferiority of women.

Kruger goes on to suggest that instead of giving the senior pastor authority to hire and fire church employees at will, an independent hiring and firing committee made up of elders and non-elders, including both men and women, should be established (118). When it comes to the pastor’s annual performance review, Kruger says it needs to include not only fellow elders, but also those who work under him and a few church members. Once again this team needs to incorproate both men and women (119). 

Kruger is also up-front about the fact that abusive leaders are often not held accountable because those tasked with the job are too often yes-men or close friends. To avoid this, Kruger writes:

One way to add independent, outside voices to the leadership structure is to invite women to participate. As already noted, women typically have very different perspectives on the church than the men, and their voices aren’t always heard. (120-21)

Kruger goes on to state that even complementarian churches can implement this idea by including women on official committees or as nonvoting advisors to the elders. I once served as an elder in an officially complementarian church, which might seem like a contradiction in terms. However, our bylaws were written such that women composed only one-third of the eldership, maintaining a male majority.

I don’t know that Kruger would go for women elders. Nonetheless, he insists on women’s inclusion in leadership bodies:

Whichever way it is done, women’s voices can prevent the church leadership from becoming overly insular and ingrown. (121)

One team where the inclusion of women is vitally important, according to Kruger, is an accountability committee whose task it is to:

…handle issues related to the senior pastor’s job performance, as well as fielding any and all complaints related to the senior pastor’s behavior. …This team would be the hub of the wheel when it comes to dealing with claims of spiritual abuse. (124)

It is impossible to overstate how important including women on such a team would be. One of the reasons for having women elders at our complementarian church was their usefulness in resolving a dispute involving a woman. The idea was that a woman’s perspective would be invaluable in such a case, without which a fair resolution might be impossible to attain. 

Too bad it never worked out that way in practice.

That may be why I appreciate the way Kruger demonstrates the necessity of including women on such a team.

Imagine a scenario where a woman claims the senior pastor is harsh and heavy-handed. After she makes these claims, she soon finds herself in a room alone with a group of men who all happen to be close friends of the senior pastor. Suddenly they’re peppering her with questions, essentially cross-examining her. It’s not hard to imagine how she might feel like she’s the one under investigation. And the scenario only gets worse when that senior pastor talks to these men offline, weaving a narrative about the woman, claiming she’s difficult or hard to manage or insubordinate. (125)

Instead, Kruger writes, what should happen is this:

Imagine a female church staff member is the director of a church’s mercy ministry and works with and reports to the senior pastor. After years of domineering, heavy-handed treatment from the senior pastor, the woman finally decides to report the behavior. She goes to the accountability committee to share her story. That committee is composed of men and women who are trained (at least broadly) in how to spot abusive behavior and who exhibit a posture of sympathy and openness to such claims. (129)

The committee listens carefully and then proceeds to take appropriate steps. Whatever conclusion is reached or action is taken, the process protects the victim and makes it much more difficult for the abuse to continue unchecked.

Which is the point of Kruger’s book. 

We have a situation in the church where spiritual abuse abounds and too often continues unchecked. Kruger’s volume will be a helpful antidote to this tragic state of affairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: