Metareview: Bully Pulpit by Michael Kruger

Recently, Nathan Eshelman reviewed Michael Kruger’s book Bully Pulpit for Gentle Reformation. He begins by establishing his desire to protect the church from abuse and by appreciating the qualities that Kruger recognises as abusive. However, Eshelman’s primary concern is that people who read this book will see spiritual abuse where it isn’t. I think that Eshelman misreads Kruger and misconstrues Kruger’s arguments in his review. In the interest of seeing the church identify and respond to abuse well, I’ve written a response to Eshelman’s criticisms. 

The underlying concern of Eshelman’s review is that Kruger’s definition of abuse isn’t rigorous enough and that as a result people in the pews will think they have enough knowledge to accuse their leaders, when in reality they are ill-equipped to accurately identify spiritual abuse. He warns that “Ministries, pastorates, pastoral families, and congregations may be destroyed by a novice wielding this sword. We will see it happen.” This claim is made despite Kruger’s caution to his readers about reading every negative quality as abuse, and despite his following his definition of abuse with a detailed description of the characteristics that abusive leaders demonstrate as well as a list of characteristics that may be problematic but aren’t abuse. Kruger cautions: 

“…just having a definition doesn’t solve all our problems. Applying the definition is the tricky part. Not everything is abuse, so we have to make sure we don’t confuse it with other problems or practices in the church. It would be equally tragic for churches or church members to turn every conflict into a case of spiritual abuse, throwing accusations around lightly and frivolously.”

However, Eshelman doesn’t think this is sufficient. 

Eshelman’s language is telling. He describes Kruger’s definitions and descriptions as ‘an unloaded gun’ and ‘weapons.’ This language does several things: it increases the sense of danger that he is warning about, and it construes the situation between congregant and leader as one of a conflict as a baseline. It suggests that the definitions and description that Kruger has given will “arm” (my own word to continue the metaphor) “novices” (this is his word) in the congregation with information that is just enough to be destructive without being beneficial. 

Eshelman gives a personal example of the danger of confidence paired with too little knowledge—a young man who quizzed Eshelman on his knowledge of Old Testament critical scholarship. However, the problem is not the young man’s status as a novice. Instead, it is, as Eshelman characterises him, his “smug” approach to Eshelman. The young man was prideful, judging Eshelman on what he thought were outdated beliefs. He didn’t consider that there may be more that he doesn’t know, or that there are gracious and ungracious ways of having conversations about the Scriptures. 

In any given area of knowledge, there is always more that we could know—and always more wisdom to be had in rightly handling that knowledge. The solution, then, is not rejecting Kruger’s book as dangerous, but cultivating church cultures of humility. 

And when the whole of Kruger’s book is taken into account, rather than judging that four pages is insufficient for clarifying what is not abuse, it’s clear that Kruger is not in danger of inciting people to accusations. His book is in no way incendiary or hyperbolic about the realities of abuse. He is not provoking a witch hunt. In short, I think Eshelman’s criticism is unfounded and is communicated in a way that minimises the seriousness of abuse and the importance of calling it out. Given that worry over a pastor/church/organisation’s reputation is exactly the fear that keeps so many communities silent, we simply cannot be content with this criticism of Kruger. 

In a strange swipe at Kruger’s character, Eshelman throws a red flag at Kruger’s egalitarian theology. Eshelman wonders “If a man compromises on women in the leadership offices, where else does he compromise on areas of God’s Word?” This question demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of orthodox egalitarian arguments. Yes, there are those who ordain women as elders/pastors who also do not take the Scriptures seriously as our “rule for faith and life.” But that is not Kruger. And that is not the vast majority of the egalitarian friends with whom I have personally engaged. To question one’s view of Scripture because of egalitarian theology raises the bogeyman (woman?) of liberalism. Significantly, and what is most troubling about this criticism, is that he raises this flag not because of any theology in Bully Pulpit, nor because of any Biblical text in Bully Pulpit that he thinks Kruger has mishandled (and Kruger heavily relies on Scripture for his arguments and examples). Instead, Eshelman insinuates that something is wrong with Bully Pulpit without offering evidence. 

Furthermore, Eshelman takes issue with Kruger’s examples of pastoral abuse, which, Eshelman claims, come from mega-church celebrity pastors. Eshelman wants to see “Rev. Average Joe examples,” and wonders if their lack means that the issue of abuse is more of a bogeyman—an inflated problem—rather than pervasively present in churches. This red flag is sincerely puzzling to me, because while Kruger frequently references the high-profile abuse cases that have been in the news the past five years, he also refers to example after example of “a pastor in the Midwest” or “one case I studied from a church in the Southwest.” Are these not exactly the examples that Eshelman wants—everyday enough not to warrant the naming of a specific church or pastor, because it would be unrecognisable to most of Kruger’s readers? 

Eshelman also misunderstands and misconstrues Kruger’s discussion of procedure. The example Eshelman gives of Jesus not condemning the woman caught in adultery because of lack of proper procedure is exactly the opposite of situations of abuse. Jesus takes the side of the woman over the men in power and authority over her and insists on proper procedure in order to protect her vulnerability. In situations of abuse, the opposite happens: the abuser insists on proper procedure in order to protect himself from investigation and discovery. Kruger does not “[tell] our people to look out for those that insist on proper procedure and use the courts of the church” as Eshelman claims. Instead, Kruger says that “we should be concerned if procedural issues become so central that the pastoral abuse itself is forgotten.” Specifically, Kruger deals with Matthew 18 and the way that passage on reconciliation is often used against victims in a way that causes further harm and abuse to occur. He does not suggest we throw out procedures all together or abandon them when abuse is the issue. 

I also think that it’s worth noting that Presbyterianism, or any church government and procedures, are only as good as the people enacting and following them. Given the abuse cases that I have seen coming out of Presbyterian, procedure-loving churches, I wouldn’t say that we deserve a pat on the back for our church government. I am continually astounded at how many Reformed Christians, so convinced of total depravity, don’t see that depravity can extend to the systems—even the church government/courts—that humans build. Yes, we may see the system of church government set up in Scripture, but that doesn’t mean that the way we have set it up in our own time—or in the 17th century—is infallible. 

Finally, Eshelman takes issue with Kruger’s advice that churches seek third-party investigations in abuse cases. He says that “The red flag for me is that it seems (and I could be wrong) that Kruger would have us put down our presbyterianism [sic] and to bring in the professionals and the outside accountability to do the work of the church courts. This is dangerous as it sets up an alternate court—in one sense—a higher court; a court of professionals.” He does acknowledge that he may have read Kruger wrong—and I believe he has. Kruger says nothing about relinquishing the authority of the church courts, but instead to seek outside eyes and counsel. Elders who do this, in my estimation, are not washing their hands of responsibility, but are seeking wisdom to exercise their authority well. While elders should be gifted and qualified for their office, their gifts and qualifications do not make them experts in all things. If church courts do not avail themselves of the godly and practical wisdom to be found outside its officers, then those whom the courts should be protecting and shepherding are more vulnerable because of it.

I understand Eshelman’s concern that people not play “armchair psychiatrists,” to borrow a term from another field. Misdiagnosing my neighbour is (usually) much less harmful than a false accusation of a public leader. Part of the worry about false accusations is the problem of perception and language: Eshelman says, “What one sees as hypercritical may be discernment on the part of the pastor. What one sees as threatening may be passionate zeal for truth. What one sees as defensive may be explaining the Word of God. What one seems as manipulative may be Word-centered application.” While I don’t want to minimize the complexity of perception and the ways in which we can misjudge, I do think Kruger provides a good basis, in terms of definitions and descriptions, to make a good judgment. He is very clear about characteristics of bullies, particularly about the importance of patterns, rather than isolated incidents.

It’s interesting to me to consider definitions of harm and kindness in light of our culture’s conversation about sexuality. In my state of Victoria, what I would call kindness in praying alongside a brother or sister who faces unwanted sexual desires (and has asked me to do so) is seen by the state to be coercion. Language is thus able to be manipulated, and definitions become subject to our own prejudices and ideologies. 

But this way of thinking does not have any place in the church. We know what kindness looks like, we know what confronting sin looks like, and we know what passionate zeal looks like because we have the example of Jesus. He is the standard as the Word of God, to which all of our language must conform. 

In sum, Kruger’s book does not warrant the criticism that Eshelman gives it, and I worry that his criticism will allow the leaders of the church to continue to believe that spiritual abuse isn’t something they need to be concerned about. If we value procedure in Presbyterianism, we need to have procedures in place that protect everyone—victims of abuse as well as victims of false accusations. We shouldn’t expect the system to work perfectly—we are not perfect people. But we can and should hold ourselves, especially as members of Christ’s body, to the standard of holiness and love to which he has called us. 

Can I close by asking—friends, talk to the women in your congregation. Talk to those on the margins of involvement, the ones who aren’t on fire for the Lord and don’t seem completely dedicated to the service of the church. Talk to the ones who have left. What are their stories?