These words from influential pastor John Piper were posted on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website on the 23rd of March 2015.
Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David’s zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job’s devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea’s devotion? . . . I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry I am jealous to raise a warning against it. Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, ‘If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.’ . . . His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. . . I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.
This quotation is taken from comments John made back in 2008 in reference to the fact that A.W. Tozer’s wife said she enjoyed marriage to her second husband more than her marriage to Tozer. Part of the quotation was also used in another blog post on TGC website here. It seems the people at TGC really like these words as some of them have been used in TGC blogs by Justin Taylor, Ray Ortlund, and now Jared Wilson. (Ray Ortlund even included them in a book.)
But I find a few things disturbing in John Piper’s words.
First, John uses the examples of three women in the Bible who, for various reasons, had a problem with the godly zeal and devotion of their husbands. These three women—Michal, Job’s wife, and Gomer—are presented in a negative light in the Bible, and John compares their negative attitudes, words, and actions with the feelings of a woman who he admits he doesn’t know, Tozer’s widow.
The statement I have the biggest problem with, however, is this reference to Tozer’s widow: “… the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.”
This is unfair. Why not believe her when she says she felt loved by her second husband, with the implication that she didn’t feel loved, or as loved, by Tozer. Why cast it as an “assumption”? And why attach her feelings to the issue of emotional blackmail? Thankfully, Tozer’s widow, who died in 1987, doesn’t have to deal personally with John Piper’s insinuation.
It is disrespectful for John Piper to have used Tozer’s widow to explain “emotional blackmail.” But there is more to this quotation.
He suddenly makes it personal and talks passionately about the emotional blackmail he claims he has often seen in his ministry. (I have omitted some of his more inflammatory statements from the comments quoted above.)
John believes that some church members have wrongly assumed that he and other ministers have hurt them, when in fact they have loved them. He asserts that some hurting church members failed to feel the love of their pastors and then resorted to emotional blackmail.
I know of people who have been hurt by pastors. This usually occurs when people have unrealistic expectations of their ministers. Yet these expectations are usually reinforced from the pulpit or by church culture, or both. When pastors allow the perception that they are powerful people with a better or deeper spiritual understanding, maturity, or capacity than other church members, or when pastors accept accolades to that effect, then some church members will expect more than what pastors can actually give. Some members may even expect to be loved in such a way that they will feel loved.
To some extent I agree with John that “a person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt,” but what concerns me the most about his words is that John never admits that there were times when he failed to love well. He puts all the blame and guilt on those who have felt hurt.
Being a pastor can be a very difficult role, and there are times when pastors need protection. But John seems intent on protecting himself and his fellow shepherds at the expense of his fellow sheep. To protect A.W. Tozer’s reputation, he maligns his widow. To protect his fellow shepherds who have been emotionally blackmailed, he puts all the blame on the sheep. Surely there must be a way of supporting and caring for the shepherds without resorting to unhelpful and uncaring insinuations against fellow Christians.
I am sorry for the Christians who have unwisely expected too much from their pastors and have been disappointed and hurt. I hope that they will not take John’s unsympathetic words to heart, words that don’t seem far removed from emotional blackmail.
Authority in the Church
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Extra Honour for Underdogs
A shepherd who only feeds the male sheep in his flock?
Articles on Bible women who were more spiritually astute than their husbands: Samson’s mother, Abigail, and others.