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What the Reformation Teaches About How to Address Ecclesial Abuses

August 7th, 2023 | 22 min read

By Mark McDowell

Lauren Winner’s recent book, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin points out something that shouldn’t surprise us: the Fall has touched everything. She goes on to argue that the damage inflicted by the Fall is felt even in the good practices of the church. One of the chief aims in the book is to encourage Christians ‘to be on the lookout for the ways Christian practices may, and inevitably sometimes will, do the very opposite of what those practices were made, in their goodness, to do.’ When Christian practices tilt towards curvature, they become deformations of their original intention and end up having ‘the propensity for being exploited for the perpetuation of damage rather than received for its redress.’ Winner’s argument contains a real point of incision, suggesting that the practices themselves provoke unique and intrinsic problems connected with the particular practice. Through her work, Winner explores three essential Christian practices: Eucharist, prayer and baptism. She examines how Christian practice, marred by sin, ends up deforming each of them in specific ways. While not dealt with directly by Winner, her insights might be borrowed and applied to the practice of pastoring. The principal good that surrounds the work of the pastor, we might say in very broad terms, is to serve as an under-shepherd to the people of God. One of the characteristic deformations of pastoral practice is the absence of shepherds among God’s people caused by the pursuit of other activities that, while appearing noble and important, inevitably undermine pastoral work. A characteristic good of pastoral practice is very much bound up with presence while its distortion is seen in pastoral absence and neglect.

To bear this point out, I want to explore an overlooked aspect of the historical context of the Reformation, namely, the pastoral and clerical abuses that motivated many to call for reform. Steven Ozment has said that in addition to doctrinal reform, ‘the road to the Reformation was paved both by unprecedented abuse and a long unsatisfied popular religious yearning.’[1] As many reflect on the history of this period, interpretation is characterized by an almost exclusive focus on the doctrinal achievements of the Reformers, while many who bear the name of ‘Reformed’, end up neglecting the ecclesiological criticisms that went hand-in-hand with the theological protest of the Reformers in the sixteenth century. In a strange twist of irony, this strict attention to doctrine has narrowed the field of vision to prevent many heirs of the Reformation from taking stock of some of the pitfalls that plague the role of Christian leader. In other instances, this oversight has led some to commit modern-day versions of the very abuses that their theological forebears sought to eradicate from the church. While the primary thrust of Martin Luther’s (and later John Calvin’s) criticism concerned the reform of right belief, they could not have conceived of a successful renewal without the reform of right practice. In other words, theirs was a reformation that aimed at orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy. After looking briefly at the reform movements initiated in the sixteenth century to address the ecclesiastical abuses that pervaded many quarters of church leadership, I want to look at the church context today and particular nature and character of ecclesiastical abuses of a Protestant variety. It is my contention that a more finely grained reading of the factors that led to the Reformation will supply us with the instruction needed to identify poor pastoral practice that amounts to its deformation in certain settings. Finally, I want to reflect on a vision that involves some leadership practices that attempt to reform the problem.

Church Abuse in the Sixteenth Century

While the need for church reform had been simmering for some time, many have pinpointed the beginning of reform in earnest with the appointment of Adrian of Utrecht as Pope in 1522. Marked by a strong moral character and strict personal piety, Adrian introduced sweeping reform movements with the grand intention of setting the church in order from the top down. One clear example of this renewal movement involved his head-on attack of the financial abuse of Indulgences. Elected in 1522, Adrian died in 1523 having made a number of political fumbles both internally with the Curia and externally with the threat of Martin Luther’s protests. Nevertheless, Adrian established a platform for a purified leadership of the church that resonated with a band of like-minded clergy and laity who formed the ‘Oratory of Divine Love’ to accomplish the mission that Adrian had envisioned. This group of men prayed and worked fervently for the reform of the Church, and included important and well-known figures like Giovanni Pietro Caraffa (later to become Pope Paul IV) and Jacopo Sadoleto.

Following the sack of Rome in 1527, the ‘Oratory of Divine Love’ took on a different shape and soon attracted to their midst people like Reginald Pole and Gasparo Contarini. When Alessandro Farnese was inaugurated as Pope Paul III in 1534, he picked up Adrian’s call for reform, and was able to mobilize many of these men to implement structural correction of ecclesiastical abuses. Led by the appointment of Contarini as a Cardinal, the drastically poor spiritual health of the church was clearly articulated in the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia (1537). This ‘Plan for Reforming the Church’ was presented to Pope Paul III by Contarini who read it to him and supplied explanations. The description of clerical corruption outlined in the report ranged from financial to sexual abuses, and included the widespread abuse of power by church leaders. More specifically, the commission found that concubinage and the ‘foul abuse’ of sexual relations with ‘harlots’ was undertaken by clerics and members of the cardinals’ households. Additionally, church leadership positions that came with benefices (an endowed income), were regularly given to family members (nepotism) or were sold for profit (simony). It was also discovered that many church leaders had acquired and held onto a number of church offices and collected the revenue attached to them (pluralism). These pastoral sins of commission were matched by pastoral sins of omission. Clergy absenteeism was commonplace and many parishes were left without a shepherd. When taken together, the picture that emerges is one of church leaders who not only engaged in sexual sin, but who also enriched themselves while evading the responsibilities of pastoral care.

While Pope Paul III would waver in his resolve to enact the commission’s recommendations immediately, enough momentum had been mustered by the Consilium â€“ and was propelled further forward by the growing chorus of protest from the Reformers – to lead Pope Paul III to convoke the Council of Trent (1545-63). The Council set about its task of addressing doctrinal and practical concerns, and as it moved from one phase to the next, strict procedures were established to curb abuses. As Carlos Eire puts it, the Council’s ‘guidelines for reforming the clergy were not only clear, but also very thorough.’[2] It would be an ambitious endeavor to try to assess how successful the enforcement of these guidelines was in the wake of Trent – and well beyond the bounds of this article. My purpose here is to point out that while Trent attempted to address the twin concerns of consolidating Rome’s theological commitments and encouraging faithful behavior in her clergy, Protestantism tends to remember only part of her story and to her detriment. When we tell the narrative of the sixteenth century, we talk about how two doctrinal paths strike out and tragically diverge in different directions. What tends to go missing from this reading is an account of the need to renew pastoral practice. To be as thoroughly Reformed as we need and aspire to be, we have to rehearse the history of the Reformation in a way that upholds its integrity by keeping both aspects – theological and ministerial – clearly in view, otherwise we might content ourselves with the idea that theological precision is sufficient for the life of the believer as well as an adequate metric we use to gauge successful leaders. When the very real, tragic, and all too frequent, situation arises in which another leader falls, we find ourselves surprised to learn how easy it is for Christian leaders to hide bad habits behind good theology.

By looking more closely at these abuses, we see that they are of a sexual and financial nature, but looked at more closely, we see that they also include the sin of ministerial negligence. The pastoral sins of commission are those that certainly make the headlines and grab the public’s attention, but what often goes under-reported are those less salacious leadership sins that still subvert the message of the Gospel and harass the church in more subtle ways. Where the sins of sexual and financial abuse see the shepherd feeding off the sheep, the sin of pastoral dereliction sees the shepherd abandoning the sheep and leaving them helpless, hungry, and hurt.

The pastoral sin of omission, namely, absenteeism, was a common enough abuse in the sixteenth century that it led the framers of the Consilium to put pen to paper, writing, ‘the abuse that first and before all others must be reformed is that bishops above all and then parish priests must not be absent from their churches and parishes except for some grave reason….’[3] One of the chief architects of the Consilium, Gasparo Contarini, had already described the bleak state of this sinful practice in 1516: ‘At this point I cannot fail to deplore with all my heart the calamity of our age, when you will find very few guardians of the Christian people who spend the time in the cities entrusted to their care.’ [4] The same sentiment would be expressed in the Consilium: ‘the bishop’s duty… is to tend his own flock, which he cannot do well and as he should unless he lives with his sheep as a shepherd with his flock.’[5] I believe the pastoral sin of absenteeism is alive in the church today, has a distinct expression in modern-day Protestantism, and while not as publicly dramatic as other more obvious abuses can be just as destructive.

Protestantism does not have cardinals, nor are bishoprics conferred and ecclesiastical benefices bestowed, but there are enough activities given and acquired in the evangelical culture that amount to the same pathology. The abuse of absenteeism is aggravated by the presence of alternative revenue streams as they result in drawing the shepherd away from the primary care of the local flock. We could say that a form of evangelical absenteeism goes hand in hand with a form of evangelical pluralism. Evangelical church culture can occupy the time and energy of local shepherds through involvement in podcasts, conference speaking, publishing, teaching at other churches and schools, and even in over-investment in social media. On the surface these and other platforms and opportunities appear to be, and in many cases are, helpful and fairly innocuous, but when gathered together as an aggregate of activities, they can display a worrying trend that may not rise to the attention of most evangelicals – or trigger the safety mechanisms of church polity – but still, nevertheless, has a diminishing and deforming effect of the local shepherd’s presence among the sheep.

Modern Context of Abuses

There are voices in our own tradition as well as those beyond who have diagnosed the dangers of absentee church leaders. Henri Nouwen has pointed out how many leaders in Christianity have succumbed to the temptation of ‘power’ that has drawn them from the life of the sheep. He begins his explanation by saying, ‘The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led…’ As Nouwen sees part of the issue, the urge to a dislocated existence is motivated out of a sense of spiritual slothfulness. He opines, ‘Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life’. Extending his analysis further, he states, ‘The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.’[6] If Nouwen is right, many of our Christian leaders seek to escape the local pastoral vocation out of a twin sense of wanting to avoid the difficult task of loving the sheep well in addition to feeding their own appetite for greater power. One of the reasons why this evangelical error is tolerated is, in part, because the same leaders are publicly proclaiming orthodox teaching. This action seems to be enough to satisfy the low-lying expectations of evangelicals who have in large part been weaned on a disembodied and depersonalized ethos of discipleship in which the local relationship between shepherd and sheep is a detached one. In other words, dereliction is permitted where doctrine is promoted.

Another voice that speaks into this situation is Eugene Peterson. In his The Pastor: A Memoir, Peterson addresses the expressions that the temptation of power takes on in the lives of church leaders and how it has rendered the pastoral vocation a ‘shabby state’ in America today.[7] In a letter responding to a friend who had announced he was leaving his church for a larger congregation, Peterson assessed his friend’s ‘concept of pastor’ and found it to be shaped more by American than biblical values. As he listened to his friend’s explanation, Peterson felt the reasoning his friend gave for leaving was characterized by the ‘competitive, impersonal, functional,’[8] and that what was behind his decision to move to the new church was the pursuit of a wider prominence and the platform for a broader influence.

Not only does Peterson identify the temptation of power lurking in the background of his friend’s thinking, but he also stretches the scope of vision to prove the evergreen character of this enticement. It is perennial in nature and goes all the way back to the devil’s temptation to Christ to throw himself from the top of the temple. What Peterson gives us is a closer inspection of the subtle dangers attached to the pastor who is lured to the crowds and the influence garnered by them. What we discover is that most church leaders will typically warn against the abuses of drugs and sex, but ‘they almost never warn against the crowds,’ and by doing so overlook the dangers of ‘a crowd [that] destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex.’[9] The false transcendence that is held out by crowds might take us out of ourselves, but it doesn’t take us any closer to God, and it definitely moves us further away from those to whom we are called to minister in a local context. The draw of the crowds, in whatever forum that takes place, decontextualizes the pastor’s ministry, while simultaneously thinning the thread of the bond between the pastor and the people.

More recently, Diane Langberg has pointed out that the pathway to becoming an absentee leader who might potentially damage the sheep begins when these individuals forget that before they are shepherds, they are sheep. She notes, ‘Your value as a shepherd depends on your life as a lamb, a weak, foolish lamb utterly dependent on the Shepherd.’[10] When the dual identity of being both a sheep and an under-shepherd drops from view, leaders discard the biblical reality that all sheep, including leaders, are under the broader pastoral care of the Good Shepherd. It is not within our charge or our capacity to make the flock lie down in green pastures, nor lead them beside still waters or guide them in paths of righteousness. That and that alone is the work of Christ. Langberg warns: ‘A shepherd who is not first a lamb is a dangerous shepherd and has ceased to follow the Good Shepherd.’[11] A kind of ministerial mutiny opens up within the heart of the leader as they gradually fall out of step with the Good Shepherd, or refuse to submit to his loving leadership. Instead of rallying fellow sheep to the One who alone can track down lost sheep, bind up their wounds, and restore them to health, bad leaders will either call the sheep to themselves, steering them in paths of their own aspirations and agendas, or these leaders will simply abandon the sheep altogether in pursuit of their own goals. Along the way, many sheep end up being bruised, battered and discarded.

All three of these voices share a common complaint, and while they express their sentiments in slightly different ways, they present a collective portrait of the evangelical abuse of absenteeism, as well as unearthing some root causes that sit beneath its surface. The ministry is not unlike other vocations in the sense that it draws people who are filled with greed, riddled with insecurities, troubled by unresolved pasts, overcome by the lust for power (or what St. Augustine calls the libido dominandi), and brimming over with narcissism. The ability to lead in healthy and humble ways is powerfully hindered when sins are not exposed to the sanctifying flame of Christ’s holiness, nor the pains inflicted at the hands of others are bottled up and left untreated. Those leaders who have not committed themselves to the disciplines of holiness, nor committed themselves to the accountability of community, nor gained healing from their Saviour are likely more prone to perpetrating some form of pastoral misconduct. This abiding problem needs to be addressed, and the church must give itself to the task of responding to victims of abuse, enacting the procedures of church polity (where it exists), but it must also hold its leaders accountable so that real efforts are made to prevent pastoral dereliction committed by those in authority.

Providing A Theological Solution to A Pastoral Problem

The reader might be surprised to learn that my suggested solution to absenteeism is not to proceed by being less theological, but instead I want to suggest that we really ought to be more theological. We should not draw the faulty conclusion that theology per se is problematic simply because some leaders have driven a wedge between orthodox teaching and orthopractic behavior. The real problem, it seems to me, occurs when theology is alienated from the life of the individual, such that theological claims leave no trace of moral impact. Good doctrine cannot be a decoy for deficient character. As the late John Webster has claimed, ‘Good theology demands good theologians,’[12] and if we are to seek some repair in distorted pastoral practice, we have to insist that words cohere with actions, that our morality coincides with our theology.

For the church leader, fidelity is not solved by mere residency, absenteeism cured by simply being present. While the Consilium and Trent sought a more fixed episcopal residential status, the deeper issue at stake as it relates to the question of residency is that of renunciation. The under-shepherd to the Good Shepherd must hear the call to take up one’s cross daily and follow Christ. Calvin says that this is ‘the first step’ that all people must take who claim to follow him. This seems to be a necessary place to begin the conversation of exploring the broader and complicated matter of renewal in delinquent leadership. Calvin continues,

If we are not our own but the Lord’s, it’s clear what errors we must flee, and what we must direct our whole lives toward. We are nor our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should dominate our plans and actions. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make the gratification of our flesh our end. We are not our own; therefore, as much as possible, let us forget ourselves and our own interests. Rather, we are God’s. Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let His wisdom and His will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us – in every way in all our lives – run to Him as our only proper end. How far has he progressed who’s been taught that he is not his own – who’s taken rule and dominion away from his own reason and entrusted them to God. For the plague of submitting to our own rule leads us straight to ruin, but the surest way to safety is neither to know nor to want anything on our own, but simply to follow the leading of the Lord.[13]

Calvin not only taught about renunciation but he practiced it. For him, this ‘first step’ of self-denial gives clear direction to other subsequent and necessary ‘steps’, some of which relate specifically to the church leader. One way Calvin sought to implement self-denial as a practice to fuel deeper pastoral fidelity was through his strategic attempts to encourage a shared form of pastoral accountability and collegiality as seen in the organization of the Company of Pastors in Geneva. This group met weekly for the purpose of mutual edification, encouragement and study, addressing moral shortcomings and airing pastoral concerns of members of the Company. This form of pastoral arrangement requires a genuine sense of dying to self and renders one vulnerable to receiving the kind of pastoral correction that counsels against instincts to evade the very real struggles and hardships of the pastoral task.

The best theology is the kind that bridges faith and practice. It is not enough for us to rest on doctrinal claims while ignoring historical realities. When those who claim to be truly Reformed recover both aspects – doctrinal and historical – and express their orthodoxy in their orthopraxy, we will see less of the individual decontextualized ‘guru’ culture and more of the splendor of our Great Shepherd reflected in the lives of our own shepherds. The hope of the high calling of our shepherds is that their practice bears faithful testimony to Christ who ‘tends his flock like a shepherd and gathers the lambs in his arms, carrying them in his bosom, and gently leading those that are with young’ (Isa. 40:11).


[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 211.

[2] Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 383

[3] Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, 1537 in John C. Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes To The Council of Trent 1495-1563 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990), 72.

[4] Gasparo Contarini, De officio episcopi, 1516 in John Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), 94.

[5] Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, in Olin, Catholic Reform, 72.

[6] Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 77, 79

[7] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York, HarperCollins, 2011), 156.

[8] Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, 156.

[9] Peterson, The Pastor, 157.

[10] Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020), 150.

[11] Langberg, Redeeming Power, 150.

[12] John Webster, The Culture of Theology, eds., Ivor J. Davidson and Alden C. McCray (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 133.

[13] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), III.vii.1, 690.

Mark McDowell

Mark McDowell is executive director of Reformed Theological Seminary Dallas and Houston as well Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS.