I sat in his office as a young 24-year-old man, eager to have an opportunity to start full-time ministry. Having worked part-time as a children’s director in this mega church (while still working full-time as a software developer), I was now being offered the chance to interview for a full-time position leading men’s ministry. I was excited that this opportunity had been set before me in the same church where I had come to faith and was now serving on staff. I had also recently been accepted into seminary, so I was sure that this was going to be my path toward ordained pastoral ministry.
The pastor looked me up and down, and then began to silently read over my resume. He stopped almost right away. “You’re going to Reformed Theological Seminary? So you’re telling me you’re a Calvinist?” I had tried to prepare myself in case the conversation went this way. But I’d only been a Christian at this point for 2 years, a Calvinist for not even a full year. I hardly knew what Reformed really meant. I also knew that this church did not view Calvinism and the doctrines of grace positively.
“Yes,” I nervously answered, “I do believe in the doctrines of grace.” What followed after my statement was a nightmare which took me several months to recover from. We never actually got to the interview – for two hours this pastor berated me and tried to engage me in debate over Calvinism. He made accusations against me simply because of his associations with Calvinism.
I had no clue how to respond. He outclassed me in every sense of the word. He had been a pastor for years; I had hardly been a Christian for very long. He was a sharp communicator; I had barely begun to hone my communication skills. He was older; I was younger. He had position; my part-time position was now at stake. He had formal theological training; I’d read maybe a dozen theology books on my own.
When the conversation ended this pastor looked at me and said, “You have no future at this church.” I was crushed. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to look at this experience and call it for what it was: spiritual and theological abuse.
One way to look at this abuse is how this pastor used his position to crush a member of his flock. It was not unlike the warning of the prophet Ezekiel,
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?… The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:2, 4)
But there is another way I’ve had to process this abuse, and that is how this pastor abused his theological knowledge to make me feel defeated, small, crushed in spirit, discouraged from pursuing the ministry at all. If knowledge is power, then theological knowledge certainly is as well. And like all forms of power, it can be used for great good – or terrible evil.
This was a form of abuse that Jesus regularly confronted when he engaged the Scribes and Pharisees. In Mark 7, Jesus confronts these religious leaders because they had convinced the people that their new traditions were as weighty as any biblical doctrine (Mark 7:7). Using their theological knowledge, they deceived the people into abandoning the commandments of God, such as caring for their father and mother, to hold to their man-made traditions (Mark 7:8). This is only one example, as Jesus says, “And many such things you do” (Mark 7:13).
Elsewhere, Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for being hypocrites who heap heavy burdens on their followers (Matthew 23:1-4). In another example, Jesus describes pharisees as those who use their theological knowledge to make themselves look better while condemning others (Luke 18:9-14). The religious leaders were like “vipers” who deceived others into thinking they were good when they were evil (Matthew 12:33). They frequently used their theological knowledge to try and trap Jesus (Matthew 19:3, Mark 12:15, Luke 10:25, John 8:6).
Power, as I have elsewhere explained, is the ability to influence or make something meaningful out of the world. There are several forms of power – physical power, verbal power, emotional power, psychological power, and the power of knowledge, intellect, or skill. These are all forms of power which are meant to be stewarded for good. But in the hands of a sinful person (which we all are), these various forms of power can be tools of great destruction. Dr. Diane Langberg explains how this happens, “Whenever power is used to exploit the vulnerable – to exploit trust – abuse has occurred.”
The power of knowledge, even theological knowledge, can easily be used by Christians as a weapon of abuse and harm. Explaining this further, Dr. Langberg explains:
If I am smarter or know more or have more skill, then I have more power in those arenas. Those with a theological decree have “theological power” over others. It is assumed that they know more and they are given the right to tell the rest of us what is true.
Of course, it is not just a theological degree which can bestow this kind of power. Elders or laypersons who are given opportunity to teach and lead because of their theological knowledge also have this kind of power. Anyone in a Christian community who is known as being theologically bright and good with words has this kind of power as well.
My story that I shared above is a clear example of what theological knowledge looks like when it is abused. But what if theological knowledge can also be abused in more common, subtle ways? What might this look like?
Regularly dominating group conversations. Theological knowledge does not give anyone the right to dominate a group conversation. Any group within the church has as part of its purpose the mutual edification of its members (Romans 14:19, 15:2; 1 Corinthians 14:12). Dominating a conversation comes from a mentality of entitlement. When someone regularly uses theological knowledge to puff themselves up and overshadow others, we can be certain theological abuse is taking place.
Intentionally making others question their beliefs to advance an agenda. This kind of theological abuse can take several forms. I often see it among “progressive” evangelicals who regularly seek to undermine the “conservative” beliefs of other church members by making such beliefs look less intelligent or antiquated. In the Reformed community, it is not uncommon to find harsh advocates who want to use their theological knowledge to make others look brainless. If you have been entrusted with theological power, the only agenda you ought to have is to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Deceiving others. This is the most extreme form of the kind of theological abuse explained in the paragraph above. There are those who would, in order to feed their own appetites, intentionally deceive the hearts of others (Romans 16:18). Jesus frequently refers to such people as wolves (Matthew 7:15, John 10:12). Those who teach ought to take great care that they do not deceive, for they will receive stricter judgement (James 3:1).
Stirring up division in the body. The age of social media has made this form of theological abuse especially prevalent. Some church leaders and “ministries” have built an entire platform out of causing division and debate online. Such behavior reflects the spirit of false teachers who “promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:4). Division in the church, far from being something to seek after, should be lamented by Christians everywhere. The Puritan John Flavel said,
Brethren, if you would study how to grieve the heart of your Lord Jesus Christ (to whom you profess love and obedience) you cannot take a readier way to do it, than by breaking the bonds of unity among yourselves.
Withholding power and authority from others. There is a kind of selfish use of power which leads his wielder to believe they are the only qualified person to lead or perform ministry within a Christian context. But our God freely gave his power to his image bearers (Genes 1:28). Jesus multiplied his power when he gave it to his followers (Matthew 28:18-20). When leaders use their theological knowledge to convince others that they are the only ones qualified to teach and lead, theological abuse is taking place. When leaders use their theological knowledge to create a system where the ideas and ministries of others cannot flourish, theological abuse is taking place.
Using Scripture as a weapon. This might be easier to spot, but let’s call it for what it is. Using Scripture to insult or demean others is theological abuse. Whenever this form of abuse is taking place, the abuser is using Scripture to control others. In the home, someone might twist Scripture to make their spouse or children feel inadequate or unworthy of love. Church members abuse their leaders when they use Scriptural language to insult their leaders simply because they may not like a decision their leaders made.
Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a tactic used by an abuser to make their victim question reality. Sadly, Scripture can easily be used to make someone question what is really true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). One minute someone might use Scripture to make you feel valued and respected, the next they will use Scripture as ammunition to cut you down. The abuser will project their own sinful failures on their victim, making them think they’re even worse. They will use their theological knowledge to convince others why their victim is the real problem. The worst part is – the victim starts to believe it.
These seven forms of theological abuse are not exhaustive, but merely some of the more common ways theological abuse can show itself. At their root, what each of these forms of abuse have in common is how they twist power for harm, rather than for good. Theological abuse makes others feel small, powerless, discouraged, and shamed. But this is not how it should be. True power, godly power, leads to the flourishing of those who experience it. Cultural theologian Andy Crouch says,
Power at its best is resurrection to full life, to full humanity. Whenever human beings become what they were meant to be, when even death cannot finally hold its prisoners, then we can truly speak of power.
So, what can those who have been entrusted with theological power do to prevent abusing the gifts they have been given? We can begin by entrusting ourselves to our Savior, who used his power not to dominate, but instead came in meekness (2 Corinthians 10:1, Philippians 2:7-8). Rather than using his power to demand servitude, he used his power to serve others (Mark 10:45). As the power of our Savior’s gospel pierces our hearts, we will become like him, and use his gifts as he would.