Abusive leadership. This is a staple of many Christian organizations, and it is unfortunate. The cliche phrase “power corrupts” comes to mind. I have witnessed over my years many kind, generous, well-intentioned people fall subject to this. And while, in many ways, they remain kind and generous, in others, they become the abusers themselves.
There are often warning signs. In smaller circles, those warning signs present in many ways. They present as someone or a small group giving themselves the title of a “ministry” when they are really just a few passionate people sharing their thoughts and views.
From there, they tend to slip towards the rest. In organizations with more power, this often comes in the form of demanding those involved with them adhere to a very strict code of conduct. (ie no drinking, no swearing, no sexual contact with partners, no movies above PG13, not attending “unChristian” places, avoiding close friendships with members of the opposite sex, etc, etc).
That code of conduct eventually grows to include ideas. You cannot publicly be pro-LGBT, or pro-Choice, or vary on any theology. Certain viewpoints within theology are unwelcome, like differing views of hell (ie Universalism and Annihilationism), or penal-substitutionary atonement, or anything else, regardless of whether you can back it Biblically. At one particular organization I worked for, the mere discussion of differing views of the impact of the Holy Spirit/Spiritual gifts was forbidden.
Then comes the “leadership” teams.
A hierarchy is established, even in something that isn’t actively a ministry. Members who do not have a place in the top tier are then told they are no longer allowed to talk to one another about anything involving the “ministry”. Any issues must be taken solely to the leadership team, and any discussion at all with anyone else is considered gossip. Including seeking advice from an unbiased third party on how to proceed with something.
To some, that may not sound like a bad thing. After all, in a company, if you have issues, you are to go to management, not your coworkers right? Except we’re not just talking about running a business here. We’re talking about situations in which toxic beliefs are often forced upon others and when they are not allowed to talk about it. Where people are abused by those in the leadership, and then told any attempt to talk through it with anyone else is gossip.
It’s about setting up a structure where the only people allowed to hear about the abuses are the abusers themselves, who of course, never admit to it. Instead, they gaslight and try to cause further division between the people affected.
Then, they drop the hammer. Personal beliefs are now 100% a threat to the “ministry” and a hard line is drawn. But, when the person decides to stick to their convictions and step away, they are demonized and ostracized. Stepping away, in and of itself, is seen as a direct attack.
And so then, the slander campaigns must start.
Sometimes it’s the leadership as a whole. Other times, it’s members of the “ministry” who take it upon themselves to take up the mantel and destroy those who departed. Even if the resignation is amicable, even if the announcement is respectful, the mere fact that the dissenters would dare to be honest about the incompatibilities (even in a loving manner) is seen as an attempt to slander and destroy.
So, those that leave are labelled the hands of the enemy. Vindictive. Slimy. They’re destructive. Set out on a path to demolish all that is good. They have now made the leaders victims. The leaders are fighting for their reputations, and their ministries are nearly destroyed.
Except that they’re not. In the majority of cases, those that have been harmed by the “ministry” walk away quietly. They make their statement (if at all), and disappear. Then, they move on. They try to heal and forget.
But, the “ministry” can’t forget, because they have to come out on top.
They have to look like they were wronged so they aren’t forced to deal with the fact that they were wrong.
And what’s heartbreaking is, imagine how different modern Christianity would be if leaders actually held themselves accountable. If they accepted when they screwed up and used it to learn and be better, instead of using it to make themselves feel like they were the ones that were wronged. If, instead of gaslighting, they promised to do better and be better.
When you see the people who have actually been wronged, who have been gaslit, speaking out, it is not because they want to destroy the “ministry”. It’s not because they want to see the people who hurt them get hurt. It’s because they want accountability. And it’s because they want them to stop and think and learn before doing the same thing again and again to others.
It’s about a challenge to own up and stop the abuse instead of continuing to perpetuate it.
Power corrupts. It pulls good people away from their purpose and enables bad people to thrive. In the case of Evangelical Christianity, it means that these leaders continue to pull people further and further away from Jesus, because it becomes about their own means and their own platform, rather than pursuit of anything resembling Jesus.
That’s why we speak up. That’s why, after months or years of silence, being gas-lit, and demonized, people find their voices and say something. Because silence will never influence change.