The last ten years have shown it is possible to be a Christian preacher with global influence, to have authored widely read books, to head an internationally recognized ministry, to be a household name among evangelicals, to be a leader of leaders—and yet to be a sexual predator or a narcissistic bully. Or perhaps both. The offences have been diabolical, the falls precipitous, the harm incalculable.

It is possible to be a Christian preacher with global influence … and yet to be a sexual predator or a narcissistic bully.

Jesus warns us of false prophets garbed as sheep. Paul similarly warned the Ephesian elders that savage wolves would arise even among their own number (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:28). We ought not be completely surprised, as distressing as recent revelations have been. But the New Testament gives these warnings so that we will watch out and be on our guard, not so that we might shrug our shoulders and say, with Homer Simpson, “Eh, what are you gonna do?”. So let us instead ask, what weaknesses within evangelical ministry today have contributed to this problem, and can anything be done to mitigate them?

Without attempting an exhaustive analysis, I’d like to suggest two factors which have contributed to our present vulnerability to various forms of pastoral abuse. Each of these factors represents, in some way, our failure to heed the New Testament injunctions to watch out and be on our guard.

1. There has been, in the last three decades, a proliferation of independent churches and ministries with minimal accountability.

The problem here is not with the words “proliferation” or “independent”, but with the words “minimal accountability”. However, the two are not entirely unrelated.

The church planting movement has been most active among independent churches, and promoted by new denominations (or pseudo-denominations like Acts 29, FIEC, and The Crowded House). This is no coincidence. Independent churches can move quickly. They are not constrained by parish boundaries, denominational ordination requirements, or existing church properties. The needs of our time have called for a wave of flexible, adaptable, energetic ministry pioneers, and independent church planters have risen up to meet this challenge.

At the same time, the internet has provided a platform for the distribution of high quality resources around the globe—greatly enhancing the reach of interdenominational ministries such as The Gospel Coalition, the Bible Project, and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).

Frequently, however, these newly minted ministries have minimal accountability, internal or external. An established church will likely have elders, wardens, or parish councillors. There may be denominational oversight, with established grievance procedures. New organisations of any kind often lack these. Although independent church plants may have a “board of reference” or “board of review,” these are often ineffective. While preparing this article I visited the websites of several churches which I know have (or at least, once had) external boards of reference. Their websites provided neither names nor contact details for their boards—indeed, they didn’t even give any indication that the boards existed.

The existence of boards like this one is a sham, paying lip service to the notion of accountability.

I recently heard from an assistant minister who  spoke of being bullied within the staff team of an independent church. Most of the board didn’t even speak with the assistant about the issue; perhaps they lacked the time, as busy leaders of large churches of their own. Meanwhile, the two board members who did speak with him had little to offer beyond the suggestion that the assistant quietly resign. Subsequently, one of those two board members himself resigned from the board. After all, what good could he accomplish by remaining on it? On organisation charts, the board was positioned above the senior pastor, but in reality it had no power but to dispense advice, which the senior pastor could (and did) reject.

The existence of boards like this one is a sham, paying lip service to the notion of accountability. If, as a board member, you have no real knowledge of the state of the ministry under your charge, or of the spiritual condition of its leaders, pause to consider. Is it possible that your place on the board is a mere transaction, a two-way exchange in reputation, where your name is enhanced by its association with the ministry, and the ministry enhanced by its association with your name? You may be able to scurry for cover if something goes wrong. You may be able to preserve your name by sufficiently somber retractions and condemnations. But would it not be better that you performed your duty now, required transparency from the ministry leaders, and provided real accountability?

The recent explosion of independent evangelical ministries has born much fruit for the gospel; I am not suggesting it should cease. But I believe it has also amplified evangelicalism’s vulnerability to various forms of pastoral misconduct. Let’s acknowledge the risks, and take steps to mitigate them.

The second factor is somewhat related.

2. It is much too costly for victims[1] of pastoral abuse to report what they have suffered.

In 1999 I was a cadet at the NSW Police Academy—young, awkward, and naively optimistic. My career as a policeman would be brief and devoid of distinction. But I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate one lesson I learned at the Academy. I recall an instructor relieving us of a false belief inherited from American crime shows. “In Australia,” the instructor declared, “the victim of a crime doesn’t ‘press charges’. Police, not victims, decide who gets charged.”

There are very good reasons for this. From a legal standpoint, criminal offences are not just against a victim, they are against the state. The state determines the law and pursues justice under its own authority; it is not beholden to the whim of individual citizens. But beyond that, there is a recognition that the burden of investigating and prosecuting a crime should not be borne by its victims. Clearly, victims may lack the required objectivity, not to mention the resources or expertise to conduct an adequate investigation. But there is also another concern, which has to do with the wellbeing of victims. This is especially pressing in cases of domestic violence or other forms of abuse.

A victim needs space, distance from their abuser … All of this would be completely undermined if, for example, a woman was herself required to arrest her abuser, to question him, to gather evidence.

In a situation of domestic violence, where the evidence is apparent, police will take action—perhaps including an arrest, an application for an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order, and charging the suspect with assault. Whether or not the victim wants to “press charges” is moot, and even the discretion of individual police is constrained by legislation and procedures designed to protect the victim. For example, in certain circumstances police are legally obliged to apply for an AVO, and the victim’s reluctance is insufficient reason not to do so. The intent here isn’t to trample over victims’ preferences and rob them of their agency, but to protect those who have been intimidated or manipulated into silence. A victim needs space, distance from their abuser, time to heal in body and mind, and the opportunity to build a new life free from threats and violence. All of this would be completely undermined if, for example, a woman was herself required to arrest her abuser, to question him, to interview neighbours, to gather evidence, to provoke him further still by laying charges, to cross-examine him in a court of law. Victims have suffered already; to carry the burden of investigation and prosecution would expose them to further suffering—potentially physical, certainly emotional.

There’s something to be learned from this when it comes to pastoral abuse in its various forms. Rarely will pastoral abuse be of concern to law enforcement officers. A minister who has seduced a congregation member, or bullied a colleague, will unlikely be guilty of a criminal offence—but they are nonetheless guilty of an egregious abuse of power. What avenues are available to a victim in these circumstances? All will appear fraught with risk:

  • An abusive or narcissistic individual who heads a ministry will hand pick their deputies, including congregation members, and school them over years in loyalty to the team (in other words, to the leader).
  • A board of reference, if it exists, will likely consist of old friends of the ministry leader, or be so distant from the ministry as to be of no use.
  • A denominational grievance processing unit is better, but a distressed victim may be reluctant to entrust themselves to the denomination’s bureaucracy (for despite my earlier point about independent ministries, there have also been grave failures in mainstream denominations).

In any of these instances, “brand preservation” may exert an undue influence on the process. Already, the abuser will, in subtle ways, have begun to isolate the victim and to cast doubt on their credibility. These various forms of internal reporting will reinforce the victim’s dependence on systems which have been established by, or are linked to, the ministry leader, and within which he or she wields all the power.

Christian organisations often treat reported instances of bullying instead as “conflicts of personality”— their first response being a proposal to bring the parties together to work through their differences (perhaps using a conflict resolution model along the lines of PeaceWise). The victim seeks an investigation; they are instead ushered into a mediation. They are brought face to face with their abuser—again in a situation where the balance of power weighs in his or her favour. After all, it suits the abuser’s interests to portray the situation as a conflict of personality.

Beyond that, a manipulative abuser will already have been gaslighting their victim. The abuser will use their spiritual authority to demand loyalty and compliance. As soon as the victim begins to question the abuser’s behaviour, a range of strategies are available to sow doubt in the victim’s mind. “We ought to think the best of each other; don’t impute motives to me … It’s important to be a team player … We must be careful not to gossip … We need to protect each other’s reputations, for the sake of the gospel.” By the time the victim is contemplating a report, they will often be wracked with self-doubt, questioning their own perception of events, and fearful of their own impure thoughts and motives (bitterness, revenge). “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (2 Cor 13:1) But it must not be left to the victim to search for others who can confirm a pattern of abuse.

What I am suggesting, then, is nothing but what my old Police Academy instructor taught. The burden of investigating and adjudicating instances of abuse ought not to fall to the victims. But frequently there are no avenues for reporting which guarantee victims a fair hearing, protection from further exposure to their abuser, and a competent response (perhaps including an investigation) proportionate to the gravity of their report.

Far too late, only when multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Ravi Zacharias had been widely publicised, did RZIM appoint law firm Miller & Martin PLLC to conduct an independent investigation. M&M uncovered multiple massage therapists who gave corroborating reports of Ravi’s sexual misconduct. New evidence came to light, but only because victims felt safe enough to disclose their abuse. In the words of their report: “The overwhelming majority of those we interviewed requested confidentiality and asked to have their identities kept anonymous.”[2] The guarantee of anonymity included the assurance that RZIM “would not have access to witness identities.” Safe in the knowledge that their privacy would be respected—and that RZIM could not retaliate or humiliate them the way it had done to Lori Anne Thompson—women spoke.

Far too late, only when multiple bullying allegations against Steve Timmis had been widely publicised, did The Crowded House appoint thirtyone:eight to conduct an independent investigation. Again, confidentiality was guaranteed, with the assurance that “No victim/survivor identifiable details will be passed between The Crowded House and thirtyone:eight without prior consent from those individuals.”[3] Of the 83 individuals or couples who participated in the review, 39% indicated “significant concerns,” and 17% “strong allegations of harm/abuse.”[4]

Multiple parallels exist between the two cases. In both cases, an independent investigation was commissioned years after the first allegations came to light. In both cases, this occurred only once articles were publicised on the internet which made untenable the organisations’ former strategies of denial and evasion. And in both cases, the assurance of confidentiality and a fair hearing brought to light multiple additional witnesses and victims who provided consistent, credible evidence of a pattern of abuse.

Now, imagine what might have been if external accountability and safe reporting had been in place—and widely publicised in church circles—decades ago? Imagine, for example, that an independent body existed that could take reports, conduct investigations, and publish findings. Let’s call it Pastor Watch. Imagine if victims knew they could report to Pastor Watch, secure in the knowledge that they were not, in the act of reporting, placing their necks in the mouths of the very wolves who had abused them. Imagine if victims knew it would not be on their shoulders to find a second or third witness; if they knew their report would receive a fair hearing, despite whatever self-doubt and insecurity the victims might be experiencing as a result of their abuse. Imagine if Pastor Watch was sufficiently respected in the evangelical world that when it provided an evidence-based report, churches and ministries would take notice.

Doesn’t the New Testament call on believers to ‘judge those who are within the church?’

Dozens of victims might have been spared. Abusers too might have been given an opportunity for repentance at a much earlier stage in their ministries. The cause of Christ could have been spared much disgrace.

This may sound too idealistic—an attempt to pre-empt the perfect judgement that belongs only to the last day. But doesn’t the New Testament call on believers to “judge those who are within the church” (1 Cor 5:12)? At times, the grip of an abusive leader may be so strong that an internal process of reporting and investigation will be ineffective and the wider church must step into the breach. That is what has happened as courageous victims and whistle-blowers have made their voices heard via online articles. But it could have happened sooner if a body like Pastor Watch enabled victims of less robust determination to share their stories years earlier.

Actually, an organisation like the one I’m proposing does now exist, at least in America: GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). My hope in writing is that some faithful and competent individuals might take it on themselves to set up something similar in Australia, under whatever name they choose. Some gospel workers may worry that this would expose them to spurious accusations and malicious prosecution. But the same integrity and competence necessary for Pastor Watch to investigate actual abuse would equip it also to filter out and discredit unsubstantiated slander.

Pastor Watch would provide what at present we sorely lack: external accountability, a safe avenue for victims to report what they have suffered, and a mechanism for independent, external investigations. As a pastor, I would welcome the accountability. Let every pastor say, “Show me my sin! And show me with such clarity and force that no denial or deception will suffice to evade my responsibility for it.”

There is no advantage to pastors in being able to abuse their God-given positions of authority and trust, without having to face judgement until the last day. The judgement of the last day should be sufficient deterrent. But it is possible to be so blinded and warped by one’s own sins that only the threat of public exposure in the present will have any effect.[5] Much better to be in Steve Timmis’ shoes than those of Ravi Zacharias .

[1] I recognise that some who have been subject to abuse prefer to refer to themselves as ‘survivors’. I am not claiming to speak for them in using the term ‘victim’, but do so only to highlight the abuse they have experienced (or are still experiencing).

[2] Lynsey M. Barron, Esq. & William P. Eiselstein, Esq., ‘Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias’ (Miller & Martin PLLC, 9th February, 2021), 2. https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/rzimmedia.rzim.org/assets/downloads/Report-of-Investigation.pdf

[3] thirtyone:eight, ‘An Independent Learning Review for The Crowded House’ (28th October, 2020), 3. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/597b10f9ff7c509fce4c4729/t/5f9a7a535f044f0fdc82d3c8/1603959383931/Final+Report+-+The+Crowded+House+Learning+Review+-+October+2020.pdf

[4] thirtyone:eight, ‘Review’, 24.

[5] Although some abusers are so convinced of their own rightness that even exposure doesn’t concern them.