Is Your Pastor a Shepherd or a Hired Hand?

by | Sep 28, 2022 | Abuse | 10 comments

How can you tell if your church is safe? Here are some ways to check if your church is safe for people in abusive marriages or if it may simply prolong their suffering.
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Some pastors are not simply unsafe; they are downright dangerous.

And some church elder’s boards, church’s women’s ministries, and denominations in general are downright dangerous.

We had a horrible example of that earlier this month when John Piper posted a terrible article on what to do about your spouse’s ongoing sin. 

John Piper Abusive Husband

Basically, the answer was: if your spouse doesn’t want to change, you’re out of luck.

Church, do we see how dangerous this is? How evil?

And I don’t use the word “evil” lightly. To tell someone who is being mistreated and harmed that they must continue to be mistreated and harmed is to do evil to them. And yet that is what John Piper does, because of his theology that says both:

  • Men are the leaders of women, so women must submit to a husband’s will, even when the husband is in the wrong; and
  • Marriage is lifelong, and you cannot end it even for abuse. 

This leaves women married to unrepentant porn users; abusers; men who won’t get a job; men who are unrepentant gamblers, etc. in an impossible position where their lives will only become more wretched. This is the ultimate in marriage misdiagnosis, because it misses the very heart of God. 

Jesus told us that Some pastors and churches would be unsafe. 

Jesus talked frequently about how some leaders do not care for people–for the sheep. 

Look at what he says about those who are “in charge” of the sheep, but do not care for them, and contrast that with His instructions to Peter:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”


“Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

John 10:11-15; John 21:16

Good leaders are shepherds who care for the sheep; they are not hired hands who continue the misery of the sheep.

I was sent this story last week of what a woman went through as she repeatedly sought help for her abusive marriage. Ironically, she’s following exactly the advice of John Piper–if he is willing, see a biblical counselor. Look at the reaction of the “hired hands” in her story, compared with the genuine shepherds:

Me: ”he is sexually abusive, coercing and throwing anger tantrums and insults when I’m sick and unable (not unwilling but unable)”

Pastor:”well men are needy like that and you need to speak to a doctor and get all your health issues sorted out”

Me six months later:”he still screams at me, calling me ungodly and unsubmissive.”

Pastor:”you really need to pray more, submit more, give more sex.”

Me two years later:”he still screams at me and now even treats me with contempt when I’m on my period. He was screaming through the bathroom door how I’m faking sickness and he has no sympathy, while I’m lying on the bathroom floor in my own vomit caused by severe migraine, to this day I get those kinds of migraines.”

Pastor:” Well he is the head of the home and even if he’s wrong you still need to submit, it will please the Lord.”

Me six months later:”I am struggling, please help.”

Pastor: ”just be joyful, submissive and trust in God.”

Me 14 years into this:”I’ve had enough. He will not touch my body again unless there is true repentance and treating me honorably and respectfully.”

Biblical counselor:”I understand your frustration but this is not biblical on your part. You cannot withhold from him.”

Me:”I am withholding anyway, I don’t feel rebellious in this but protecting my faith, my sanity my self worth.”

Biblical counselor to my husband:”she is in sin.”

Abuse intensifies greatly. Then crocodile tears and a fake repentance (admitting he wasn’t saved before but “now” he “is”).

Me:”thank you for the apology, I forgive you, but I need time to rebuilt trust.”

Husband:”that’s not how forgiveness works. You have to have sex immediately otherwise your not forgiving.”

Me:”I’m going to be true to myself, I need time, but in the meantime, I will be available to you intimately in other ways.”

Husband:”not good enough, I want a divorce, I want to move on with my life, you’re holding me back.”

Me:”I will leave but I’m taking my children.”

Husband:”you will not take my children.”

Me to Biblical counselor:”he asked me to leave.”

Biblical counselor:”well did he actually say the words “I want you to leave.”

Me:”no not so directly but definitely what he implied.”

Counselor asks husband:”did you say she should leave?”

Husband: ”no I would never say such a thing. I love her. I want a godly marriage. She just can’t seem to forgive me.”

Counselor to me: ”you need to repent.”

Husband seeks legal counsel and is advised to let me be the one to leave to avoid certain financial obligations.

Husband: threatens in all manner of ways, screams at me multiple times a day, takes frustration out on children, orders takeouts for himself and kids but ignores me, lies about me to counselor, traumatizes kids etc etc etc…… (two years of this level of intensity)

Me to husband:”I’m willing to separate” makes mutually beneficial suggestion.

Husband:”I’ll discuss it with the counselor and get back to you”

Me: ”texting counselor my biblical convictions and sharing my deepest hurt.”

Counselor: shows husband my texts and says:”look at what she believes. She is not interpreting scripture correctly, she’s deceived.”

Counselor to me: ”there is only one biblical grounds for divorce and that’s adultery.”

Husband to me:”you’re a heretic and now the counselor agrees with me.”

Husband to me: ”Re separation, counselor said if you leave, I don’t have to support that financially as it’s unbiblical.”

Me: hopeless, in despair pleading with God to help.

God: sends two pastors and one other counselor who immediately supported me, helped me and my kids escape.

After the fact, found out my husband was still doing porn, had purchased the tinder app, and slept with various women.

This revelation, brought to the Christians who so badly counseled me, one responded with silence and treating me like nothing happened, albeit distant. The other got defensive in saying: ”my counsel at the time with the information I had at the time was right and I stick by it. I was true to my convictions.” Proceeds to ghost me.

I approached 5 different pastors and several fellow Christian’s for help, most counsel and advice was devastatingly harmful. My husband is a wolf who got hold of the book “every man’s battle”. That was his abuse manual for 16years. He also abused the church and the harmful doctrines within the church to justify himself.

Currently, I’m in a battle to get my husband to pay enough to support the kids.

In an ongoing email conversation, this woman also let me know that when they married, they were both unbelievers. She was saved nine years into their marriage. There was NO abuse for those first nine years. At 14 years in, the husband read Every Man’s Battle, and disclosed the porn addiction he had had since he was a teenager. The abuse began the next day and never stopped.

Seriously–our books are hired hands, too, as we were showing in The Great Sex Rescue. They enable abuse, and this needs to change. 

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Great Sex Rescue

 Your church may be safe for you. But is it a “hired hand” to those who are vulnerable?

Lots of us go to churches that we love, that we get a lot out of–and we are in good marriages. The church appears safe to us.

What about your sister? Or your friend? Or your neighbour? If an abused woman, or a woman married to a man compulsively using porn, or a woman married to a man who was spending all of their money and making them homeless–if she went to your pastor or your church leadership, what would she be told?

If your church believes like John Piper, your church may very well be acting as a hired hand to those most vulnerable. And if you support your church, then you may be doing that inadvertently, too. 

How to Tell if Your Church is Acting as a Hired Hand or a Shepherd

  1. Ask for your denomination’s statement on divorce, or search the internet for it. Does your denomination condone divorce for abuse? If so, is it just physical abuse, or all elements of coercive control?
  2. Talk to your pastor. Does he condone divorce for abuse? How does he (or she) define abuse?
  3. Ask the church for an example of a time they helped a woman leave a destructive marriage and supported her afterwards. (If they don’t have an example, that’s a red flag.)
  4. Does your church have a policy that if a woman leaves an abusive husband or a husband having affairs/an unrepentant porn user, that the ex-husband will be asked to find another place to worship so the wife continues to feel safe, or does the church pressure the wife to leave by continuing to support the husband? 
  5. Does your church have an abuse recovery support group, and actively teach people to recognize abuse? 

You may be able to think of more questions. But it’s important that we start asking, and that we start making in clear to those in leadership that we will not follow hired hands. We will only support shepherds. 

Things will only change in the evangelical church when we speak up. 

What that women went through must NEVER, EVER happen again. And it’s up to us. What will we do? 

How can you tell if your church is safe? Here are some ways to check if your church is safe for people in abusive marriages or if it may simply prolong their suffering.

Have you ever spoken to your church leadership about their stance on divorce? Do you think your church is safe? Or unsafe? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Laura

    I’m so glad that woman finally got out of that marriage.

    Years ago, I attended a church that was patriarchy-oriented meaning the pastor strongly believed that husbands were in charge and wives were to obey their husbands. His wife taught an annual class on biblical womanhood which I refused to take because I knew what those teachings were. In the women’s Bible study I attended there, his wife was the leader and gave unhealthy advice to the women. Such advice was this: A woman with chronic health issues was informed by her husband to stop seeing the doctor, so the pastor’s wife told her to be obedient to her husband and just pray for physical healing. “When you are obedient to your husband, you are being obedient to God.” In another case, a woman was not allowed to drive or go anywhere without her husband’s permission even to attend church or Bible study. For a while, I gave this woman rides so she could attend Bible study. Her husband was abusing alcohol and in no condition to drive, yet he would not let her drive. The pastor’s wife told her to obey her husband and that God would reward her. Not long after this, I found another church where there was a woman pastor on staff.

    Several years ago, I attended a different women’s Bible study and while I formed bonds with these women, I felt that some of the advice was just not right. A young woman wanted my opinion about something, but I didn’t offer it to her because the Bible study leader spoke first. This young woman was a newlywed and wanted to get a part-time job that was within walking distance from her home. Her husband was a new dentist who had lots of student loans to pay off and there was only one vehicle. Yet, he insisted she not work, but she disagreed. The Bible study leader told her to submit to her husband’s ways. I so wanted to say something to that young woman and wished I had, but I would have told her in private because I knew the leader would chastise me for disagreeing and “going against God’s word.” I would have told that young woman to have another conversation with her husband by reminding him that she wants to help out financially, the job is part-time and within walking distance from home, and since they didn’t have children yet, she wanted to be doing something to contribute to their household.

    This here is why I no longer attend women’s Bible studies. I just cannot stomach sitting through listening to this kind of advice.

  2. Boone

    I just love to get hold of husbands like the one described above. I’ll hit them right in the pocketbook. I had one refuse to pay his ordered support because he felt that his ailing wife wasn’t entitled to it since she left him. I filed a motion for civil contempt. The judge agreed with me and ordered the husband to pay the whole amount, which by now was about $4K, by 4:00 pm or report to jail by 5:00 to sit there until he paid it in full. I comment that he could be Bubba’s girlfriend by midnight and I’ll be dogged if he didn’t pay it all by 2:00 pm. He turned right reasonable after that and we were able to settle.
    I later found out that I was denounced as a complete regenerate heathen form the pulpit of his fundy church the following Sunday. It’s not the first time probably won’t be the last.

    • Rev. Carlene Appel-M.Div.

      Keep up the good work of standing up for abused women. It’s actually fun to rile up the fundies, because they are so easily riled up.

  3. Deirdre

    This may be a tangent but I’ve been struggling a lot with questions about situations like this. Because I may soon be at a point where my husband divorces me due to his own mental illness problems and sexual addiction. I think all the time of Jesus saying, “If someone takes what is yours, do not ask for it back.” If my husband divorces me and refuses to pay court-ordered child support… I guess that’s the children’s money and not mine, and so allowing an attorney to file for them is not being unforgiving about a debt owed to me? But isn’t that teaching the kids to be unforgiving about a debt owed to them? I’m sure there will be people who think these are ridiculous questions, but I used to be a very indignant person who insisted on my rights (long before meeting my husband), and I feel like following Jesus and being forgiving of all debts has turned out so, so, so much better. I want better for my kids than the indignant way I was brought up in my family. Please take me seriously and give any answers with compassion, because there is so much pressure on me to do things that feel worldly to me, and it’s been easily as bad as my husband’s betrayals. It feels like a lot of people who claim they want to help abused wives, are just as quick to order them to go against their minds and intuition as the husbands ever were.

    • JoB

      Dear Dierdre, I am very sorry that you are in this situation. I have many of the same questions that you do, but here are some thoughts, fwiw,

      I think this is a complex situation and more than one principle from the Bible may apply. Even in the NT, we see examples of Paul exerting his rights as a Roman citizen, and several references to the rule of law/justice being set up by God. You can pursue legal justice without having an indignant or vengeful heart.

      In your case, my gut instinct is that by pursuing child support for your children, you are not teaching them to demand their own rights, but rather teaching them to advocate for the rights of the defenseless. You are demonstrating that they do have a defender who will advocate for them, which is so important in this moment when they have been abandoned and let down by their father. Your husband’s financial obligation to his minor children (who are incapable of supporting themselves right now), is different than a debt he may owe to another adult.

      I hope this is helpful. Although I don’t know you, I am certainly praying for you today.

    • Nessie

      I don’t think Jesus was speaking to people committed through marriage in the, “Do not ask for it back,” situation. We are also to reap what we sow, and if your husband’s actions are causing your family to split, he has a certain responsibility to help out the kids that he fathered (biblically, because he entered the covenant of marriage with you). I don’t think filing for court-ordered child support is an act of unforgiveness of itself. Certainly you could do so with an unforgiving heart, but you could also do so WITH forgiveness and the knowledge that they are also his kids and there is a level of responsibility to care for the family he helped create. Instead, this could be a great lesson to the kids that commitments and promises are serious and should be kept when possible, like God keeps His covenants to us.

      Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend might be a great resource to help navigate the line between being indignant and being a healthy non-doormat Christian. (I was raised to be co-dependent by a narcissistic mom so I kind of understand how hard it is to do something that feels like you might be going back to old habits.) It is a hard line to balance on. I often feel like I’m doing a jig over that line just trying to find and stay on it. Ultimately, you should do what you feel the Spirit is leading you to do.

      Saying a prayer now for your wisdom and discernment in this situation.

    • Rev. Carlene Appel


      I am an evangelical ordained Baptist woman, who was the first female Pastor in both congregations I served. I am a shepherd and the first church wanted a “hired hand” but I remained a shepherd which my second Church appreciated and loved. You are not being “worldly” by insisting the man you were married to pay child support. You are the protector and provider of your children now. God will indeed support you because you are not doing it out of insisting on your own rights, but for the necessary well being of your minor children. Harness some of those ways you used to practice for glorifying the Lord instead. I have found that God is resourceful. He never wastes anything. As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a time and a purpose for everything. Now you are going to use your boldness for the right and godly reasons.
      Learn to read the Bible in context. This means taking into account everything from the setting to the customs, form of the Scripture, ie Poetry, narrative, etc.. For instance 1Tim 2:12 is a situation specific command. Women were coming out of the temple of Artemis. Paul didn’t want them teaching yet and rightfully so because they would have brought in false teaching which is the point of the whole letter-right doctrine. Notice Paul says for them to “learn” Paul was directing them to be like rabbinical students learning in silence and subjection from their Rabbi. This was heresy in that culture. A father would burn his torah before he would teach a daughter the Scriptures and every morning one of the 3 things a man always thanked G_d for was that he “was not born a woman.” Did you know that the Greek word for submit in Eph. 5 is the middle imperative form- meaning it’s a VOLUNTARY action and the word “head” is the Greek word “source” (kephale). This hearkens us back to the Garden before the Fall when male and female were co-equals. If Paul meant for a husband to be a master he would have used arche for head Think Arch or over. That would have contradicted how Jesus treated women. Right before Ch.5 it says “submit to one another out of love for Christ.” That trumps all. Thus, a marriage where there is not mutual submission being practiced is NOT a biblical marriage.
      Finally look for a Church where women are free to pursue gifts for leadership if called by the Holy Spirit. A clue is the semantics used. If women leading a ministry are called “director” and men “pastor” don’t go. Red Flag! And check out evangelical churches with a female pastor. We do exist.

  4. Angharad

    I think your points to look out for are great, but I would edit point 3 – in smaller congregations, it is quite possible that a leadership team has never had this experience, so not being able to share how they did it is not necessarily a red flag. Also, in many rural situations, it would be very difficult to share a story like that without breaking confidence – I would expect a church leader to talk about ‘if we were faced with a situation like this, we would…’ rather than sharing what they actually did do, which might compromise the privacy of the abused person.

    • Escaped abuse

      It might be slightly possible in a very small, very new church. However, the statistics are staggering of how many people are dealing with abuse. It is so unlikely that the leadership has never dealt with the question before. If they never talk about or acknowledge abuse or trauma publicly, that would also be a ref flag for me.

  5. Recovering from Betrayal Trauma

    “There was NO abuse for those first nine years. At 14 years in, the husband…disclosed the porn addiction he had had since he was a teenager.”

    She was absolutely being abused but couldn’t see it. Porn use itself is sexual betrayal, adultery, and emotional and psychological abuse and traumatically affects victims even before they know about the porn use. Sarah McDugal and Andrew Bauman have posted about this on their pages, as well as Natalie Hoffman on her Flying Free page. See deceptive sexuality and trauma, Minwala model that has recently been posted by Sarah McDugal and Andrew Bauman.

    “If he watches porn… it’s adultery.
    It’s sexual abuse.
    He’s already nullified your marriage vows.” @SarahMcdugal

    It’s so important to acknowledge that porn use is abuse and a breaking of the marriage vows. It’s sexual betrayal. It’s never “he’s a good husband but also uses porn.” No. If he uses porn, it’s abuse.

    If he doesn’t fully disclose his porn use, he is coercing her to have sex with him without giving her the information she needs to give informed consent. (Loosely paraphrasing Sarah McDugal)


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