Breaking news: “spiritual abuser” allegations rock early church!

[Note: this is a longer read about a big subject, that’s only going to get bigger in the years ahead]

In shocking news, our reporter at the Jerusalem Post can reveal that Alexander the Coppersmith has accused the apostle Paul of spiritual abuse.

Dear presbytery of Jerusalem, 

I’m afraid I’m writing with some difficult news. I need to report Paul for spiritual abuse. I’ve been reading some of the latest thinking on the subject and only now am I beginning to process my experiences with Paul properly. For a long time, I wondered whether my fall-out with Paul was my fault. But as I’ve read the experience of other victims, what they’ve said has chimed exactly with what happened to me. I can now clearly see that I’m a victim of abuse at the hands of Paul.  

In this letter, I’m using the definition of “spiritual abuse” provided by Christian experts in the field to demonstrate the controlling and coercive use of power that Paul has exercised in his church circles: 

unhealthy culture

– Firstly, Paul has set up a system of highly manipulative social control. He uses this system to exclude anybody who won’t conform to his particular theological and moral outlook. His devotees call it “church discipline”, but it is more accurate to see it as spiritual abuse. Just ask yourself: what’s the goal of “church discipline”? It’s clearly to coerce and control congregational behaviour with the threat of social exclusion. Paul uses a colourful metaphor: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6), but underneath this apparently harmless picture lies a sinister intolerance. Paul depicts anyone who disagrees with him as an infection that needs to be flushed out of the church! His system of church discipline publicly shames and isolates church members who won’t conform to his outlook (1 Cor 5:11,13). Research shows that isolating people as a means of punishment is a textbook tactic of the spiritual abuser. This process can be so humiliating that Paul, himself, admitted one victim was in danger of being “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor 2:7). That particular individual is still seeing a counsellor today! 

I’ve only recently come to appreciate that this pattern of abuse is not a bug, but a feature of Paul’s ministry. It is systemic, a pattern that he deliberately develops in his churches. First, he appoints “elders” (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), men carefully selected to be loyal to him and his particular version of the truth (2 Tim 2:2). He then gets them to “silence” alternative voices (Titus 1:11). He instructs elders, not only to challenge, but to “rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). In other words, he places elders in a quasi-‘divine’ position, in order for them to pressurise congregations to conform to particular beliefs and behaviours. That threat of social exclusion quickly silences any potentially uncooperative members (Titus 3:10-11; 2 Thess 3:14-15).

Most fundamentally, Paul has learned to weaponise the text of Scripture. He’s a very skilful interpreter and communicator. But, sadly, he doesn’t just teach; he uses the divine text as a tool of control and coercion. He expects you to actually obey his reading of the text; if you disagree, you’re looked down on as second-class. He does not leave you any wiggle-room. Many times I have felt highly pressurised listening to his preaching, as he equates what he says with what God says (1 Thess 2:13)! After all, who can argue with God?! His talks are often inflammatory, and have incited violence in numerous cities around the Mediterranean (Acts 15:45, 50; 16:5, 19; 17:5). Rather than using Scripture to welcome all with God’s love, he consistently weaponises Scripture to create out-groups and in-groups.

unhealthy personality

– But it isn’t just Paul’s system of church discipline that is abusive. He’s personally abusive. For example, Paul doesn’t hesitate to publicly name and shame people who disagree with him. Hymenaeus and Alexander still can’t show their faces in Ephesus, a decade after Paul took a disliking to them (1 Tim 1:20). I, too, have been on the receiving end of Paul’s vicious personal attacks (2 Tim 4:14), and I’m still dealing with the psychological scars, and working through my trauma. I still regularly have flashbacks.

Paul frequently uses derogatory language of his theological opponents. He calls them “the dogs” (Phil 3:2) and “wolves” (Acts 20:29). He suggests they “emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:12), and that they are satanic (2 Cor 11:13-14). He’s tarred all Cretans with broad, unflattering brushstrokes (Titus 1:12). He has a way of blowing up small disagreements (like circumcision) into massive controversies (Acts 15:2; Gal 5:3-4). He uses sarcasm to embarrass and belittle those who think differently to him (e.g. 1 Cor 4:8-13). 

What’s most hurtful of all is how Paul threatens those who disagree with him with the extreme idea that they’re going to hell. I’ve personally interviewed members of Paul’s congregation in Corinth, Ephesus, and Colossae whom Paul told that if they didn’t make some changes to their private lives, they would go to hell (1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5; Col 3:6). Years later, my interviewees are still psychologically damaged by those threats. This kind of hurtful, extreme comment is another classic example of “spiritual abuse”. 

Of course, Paul doesn’t appear to be a spiritual abuser. He can be very charming when it’s in his own interests. I’m sure Paul will be able to produce glowing character references from his supporters, but the moment you cross him, that charm evaporates I experienced a honeymoon period with Paul, where he love-bombed me, encouraged me, and praised me. But when I disagreed with him on an area of my private life (“repentance”, he called it), he decided to turn the screws. On the one hand he is able to write very eloquently about love (see 1 Cor 13 for a fine example), but, when it suits him, he will not hesitate to unleash damaging verbal attacks. Many of his letters contain “emotional hand-brake turns”, moving from strong statements of appreciation (1 Cor 1:4) to threats of physical violence (1 Cor 4:21). Paul is clearly prepared to intimidate and bully people when necessary, all under the guise of spiritual fatherhood (1 Cor 4:15). 

I assure you that these are real abusive patterns I’m identifying and not just isolated examples. Quite simply, Paul has used and is using his religious position to damage people emotionally and psychologically. I urge you to speak to the many survivors. I’ve spoken to a lot of the Christians in Asia and no one there has a good word to say about him (2 Tim 1:15)! That amount of emotional negativity is impossible to square with healthy Christian leadership. His churches are not safe spaces, but toxic environments, where individuals are not free to be themselves. You need to get rid of this man and stop his writings being read in your churches! Anything other than your swift denunciation and support of the victims is unthinkable. 

Yours sincerely, 

Alexander, the Coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14) 

[The Jerusalem presbytery were contacted for comment, but didn’t reply. Instead, they provided this letter]

Dear Alexander, 

We acknowledge receipt of your letter. 

Process for handling accusations

The apostle Paul is an officer in the church of Jesus Christ. We take accusations against church officers very seriously, and invite people to bring charges against any elder, if they bring sufficient evidence (1 Tim 5:19). If a church officer is found guilty of a scandalous offence, we are committed to rebuking him publicly and removing him from office, rather than covering it all up (1 Tim 5:20). Cover-ups do not honour the church of Christ, though there can be times where the publicising of sin requires discretion (for example, for the sake of those who were sinned against). We believe light is the best disinfectant. As church officers, we want to be very clear: we do not consider ourselves six-feet above contradiction and “untouchable” (see Gal 2:11). We regularly remind ourselves that teachers in the church will receive a stricter judgment (James 3:1). Jesus taught us to expect scandalous sin in the church and reserved some of his severest warnings to those who carry it out (Matt 18:7); we do not expect to prevent it altogether, but we do resolve to deal with scandals when they are brought to light. Unfortunately, some scandalous sin will only be discovered in hindsight (1 Tim 5:24). 

The Lordship of Christ

But we are alarmed at a deeply unchristian note in your letter. The heart of our confession is that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). He is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:16). The good news is that he has come to rule us, by delivering us from the tyranny of our sins and the devil (Col 1:13-14). The freedom for which Christ has set us free is not the freedom to do whatever we want – that’s the definition of sin! – but the freedom to love and obey God. Furthermore, we want to state unreservedly that Jesus Christ is setting up his church as a kingdom, not a democracy. He has entrusted his church with the exercise of his kingly power (“the keys of the kingdom” Matt 16:19; 18:18). So, your suggestion that a Christian minister calling you to “repentance” is abusive is to call white black and black white. It is to confuse the love of God with our own sinful lusts. That “pressure” from the pulpit that you described may well be the voice of the Lord Jesus calling you to listen to his word. Jesus isn’t calling us to choose our own spiritual adventure story. He’s calling us to listen to his divine text, and the church officers he’s sent to instruct the church in it (John 20:21-23; Eph 4:11). 

What’s more, church discipline isn’t an abusive idea invented by the apostle Paul; rather, it’s part of Christ’s ongoing, loving, kingly rule of his church (Matt 18:17). He loves his church too much to leave us in our sins unchallenged. It is the Lord Jesus who commands elders to exclude the rebellious from his church. We recognise it can be a painful experience for both parties, but to characterise church discipline as inherently abusive is to challenge the lordship of Christ himself. Better to experience shame now than face the everlasting shame of that great Day (Matt 10:33). 

Reality of spiritual tyrants

Now, can church power be misused? Absolutely! We recognise and take seriously the sin of “domineering” (1 Peter 5:3), and “lording it over people’s faith” (2 Cor 1:24). There is such a thing as spiritual tyranny – the prophet Ezekiel described it powerfully in Ezekiel 34 and our Lord experienced it at the hand of the Pharisees. We are under no illusion that the visible church on earth is free from such tyranny. We are already aware of some congregations where that spiritual tyranny is at play (2 Peter 2:2; 3 John 9; Rev 2:20). It regularly creeps into churches and threatens the gospel (Gal 2:5). We are also aware of many congregations, where unqualified men have been appointed as elders (1 Tim 5:22). In the rush to use “gifted” men, their lack of “graces” has been ignored. A pragmatic spirit has led many churches to ignore the clear commands about church leadership in the New Testament. We believe healthy church government (particularly as defined by Paul in his pastoral epistles) is very important for building healthy churches. Furthermore, theologically untrained church officers are liable to issue arbitrary rules to bind the conscience of Christians, and to address sin in unbiblical ways – especially by ignoring it, or by majoring on minors, or minoring on majors. We encourage Christian ministers to get a thorough training (Matt 13:52). 

The effect of such tyranny on the flock makes us tremble. Victims of spiritual tyranny have our deep sympathy. We would encourage such sheep to swiftly leave those congregations and find churches that are pastored in a healthy manner, where there is order, where tough questions can be asked of church officers, and where there is a system by which bad elders can be held to account. Wherever we encounter it, we are determined to denounce it. 

Sin & Safety

But, Alexander, we are concerned that your definition of “harm” is deeply secular. You seem only to be thinking about harm in “this age”, rather than “the age to come”; you appear to be measuring harm by your injured feelings, rather than the holy standards of God. We are concerned that you automatically equate emotional pain with abuse. We note that the vision of the experts is ‘a world where every child and adult can feel, and be, safe’. We point out that that is not a Christian vision; the vision of our Lord is that we lead children and adults to a world where they can feel and be safe; it’s called the new heavens and the new earth. We are concerned that you would consider hell to be an unjust punishment on unbelievers, when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 2:7-8).

We want to be clear that a “healthy” church is not a pain-free church. A “healthy” church is not somewhere that everyone feels emotionally safe. A healthy church, where Jesus Christ is reigning, will be a place where there’s lots of tears, lots of repentance, lots of confession, together with lots of forgiveness, lots of joy, and lots of laughter. A healthy church, this side of glory, will be a church where false teaching still needs to be silenced, and people need to be cut off from the body, if they won’t repent. So, the health of a church cannot be measured by simply listening to the experience of “survivors”. A healthy church is not a church that shies away from pain, but is a place that consistently applies the gospel to our sins. A church’s health is measured by listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture. 

So, if you have evidence that Paul has exercised church discipline in unjust ways, we invite you to supply it, and we will consider it. But our records show that you have been removed from the church for refusing to repent. So, therefore, we continue to exhort you to repent, Alexander. Bow to Christ and his church now. The love of Christ is too strong to ignore your sins; and only in his gospel of repentance is there healing from your sins, and glory for your shame. 

Yours sincerely, 

Elder Simeon, 

Clerk of Jerusalem Presbytery.