Recent revelations compiled by the Houston Chronicle have demonstrated the suffering of sexual abuse victims in the church to be immense. It was hard for me to comprehend the magnitude of the havoc that has been caused. My mind was turned to women I know, personally, who have endured such heartache and confusion. Hearing their stories, knowing how alone they felt, and often still feel, as a result of the abuse in their past. The only consolation is the hope that I have witnessed as Christ has begun to restore all that the enemy tried to steal from their lives. The suffering of sexual abuse victims in the church must not be wasted.
While the devastating effects of sexual abuse are difficult to grasp for any victim, it is even more difficult to imagine the betrayal and pain of someone who has been sexually victimized within the walls of the church. When someone is sexually abused in a place that should be a haven of trust and safety, categories of right and wrong—good and evil—are radically shaken from their foundations. This personal upheaval is compounded when the church and its leaders do not seek to protect the vulnerable. There are no excuses to hide behind; rather, we must take on the responsibility of our inaction and the shameful reproach that has resulted.
Because of the present evil world, we may never be able to completely eradicate the perverseness of sexual abuse from among us, but what we can do is eradicate our neglect to do what is right when we are made aware of such evil. If we want to promote the character of Christ, we must “rescue the weak and the needy to deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:4).
We grieve, but grief alone at a moment like this is not enough. Godly sorrow must lead to repentance (2 Cor 7:10). We must desire to change and make right the damage that has been done, as far as it depends on us. The caution here is not to become merely problem-focused, even during a moment like this, for we will become reactionary rather than truth-driven in our care for the abused. If we become reactionary to a problem like abuse, we may circumvent God’s grace and character in our desire to eradicate the problem. Ultimately, being problem-focused brings power and prestige to the ones championing the cause, while offering little lasting hope and true care for the victims. To avoid this pitfall, we must be Christ-focused. Our goal must be that God is lifted up as the hero of restoration and redemption, that Christ is recognized as the lamb slain and Prince of Peace for those left destitute by abuse.
Why do we have this problem?
It seems to me that a multifaceted stream of issues has contributed to the situation we now face. We do not want to offer superficial remedies for such a devastating problem as sexual abuse. Therefore, it is important we first ask what patterns of thought or actions have created our unhealthy environment. This list is not exhaustive, but serves to spur on the conversation surrounding the devastation that is sexual abuse.
First, we have attempted to mix Christian and Freudian ethics for our explanations of sexual immorality. Excusing what the Bible terms sexual immorality as some sort of neurotic or psychotic disposition veils personal responsibility. Our acceptance of this Freudian underpinning has made us susceptible to excusing what God calls sin. Rather than call someone to repentance and force them to be responsible for their actions, we have deferred to ideologies that rationalize the sexually immoral behavior of perpetrators and even stoops to victim-blaming on various levels. Lord forgive us for excusing the sin of Amnon and turning away from the ashes on the head of Tamar (2 Samuel 13).
Second, we have believed the lie that by covering sin, Jesus’ name would be protected. In fact, quite the opposite is true. This is evident from Paul’s reason for writing 1 Corinthians, but we also know experientially that church discipline, not church dishonesty, is necessary to uphold the character of the Lord Jesus among his bride. Dr. Gregory Wills has written a helpful history in his book, Democratic Religion, that demonstrates the neglect of church discipline among Baptists in the South. His work shows at least one precursor to the environment we have inherited and the guiding, but faulty principles that allow sin to flourish in the church.
In 1 Corinthians, when prestige and power preside over godliness and discipleship, Paul does not hesitate for one moment to confront the sinfulness in the church. He does not passively spectate or pass off the duty to call others to holiness, and so we also should not be passive in confronting evil. Before we point fingers at others, we must examine our own susceptibility to temptation. There is not a one of us who is above wicked wants, and so we must proceed with caution and much prayer (Galatians 6:1-2). We have made holiness a legalistic pursuit, or “ultra-Christianity,” rather than normal life following hard after Christ Jesus. Holiness is not optional or negative. The Scriptures, and our current dilemma, demonstrate that holiness is actually a means of proclaiming Christ and protecting the vulnerable. Recovering church discipline doesn’t eradicate every sin, but ensures we engage sinful behavior in a manner that pleases God and moves toward healing and restoration.
Third, around the turn of the twentieth century, our seminaries systematically abandoned a curriculum that upheld the pastoral duty and skill of counseling and caring from the sufficiency of God’s Word. Regrettably, theological education trained many of our pastors to be church administrators and not shepherds of God’s people. Perhaps this has contributed to a managing of sin in the church rather than healthy, biblical, and loving confrontation of our human wickedness. Thankfully, we are seeing a trend back toward biblical soul care in our theological institutions. This trend seeks to better educate pastors on how to think through and approach such atrocities among their flock in order to demonstrate God’s sufficient Word as the source for care, correction, and comfort. The church must once again reclaim its position as a haven for the broken and not a harbor for the wicked. This is, at least in part, why ACBC was born over four decades ago — to recover a biblical approach to personal ministry of the Word of God among our churches.
How can we help the sexually abused?
According to Scripture, we are mandated to care for the oppressed, the weak, and helpless (Psalm 82:-4, 1 Thessalonians 5:14). What steps can we take to purposefully engage in caring for the abused? In cases of abuse, this care must take at least four forms.
First, we must be willing to protect the flock by engaging the perpetrator. This may mean that law enforcement is called, but we must not stop with the involvement of legal authorities. The church also bears the responsibility to engage the guilty in order to restore his soul. In this we must remember that a soul can be restored without the removal of legitimate legal consequences. So, even when the perpetrator faces justice at the hands of the law, as he should in cases of abuse, we have a spiritual responsibility to speak the truth for redemption and restoration. Church discipline is the tool we have been granted by God to accomplish this task, and sadly, we have operated in the past as if this is a suggestion instead of a command. We must involve legal authorities and engage the sin committed. By appropriately engaging the perpetrator, we may begin to gain the trust of the victim to begin restorative action.
Second, we must engage the victim to restore what has been broken. Compassionate care for the victim is multifaceted. Victims of sexual abuse face numerous lies such as: “I am to blame. . . I should be ashamed. . .this is what I deserve. . .I can’t trust anyone. . .God doesn’t love me,” and others. Strive to remove guilt and shame with the confidence of Scripture and the work of Christ. Help, encourage, restore. We must be willing to give time and effort to listening and gently correcting the abundance of circumstantial lies victims believe about themselves and about God. If we do not intentionally engage the victim, we contribute to the narrative and further distance the hope of Christ and His church from the broken.
Third, we must engage in preventative care to protect the weak. Last year at our ACBC Annual Conference, “Light in the Darkness: Biblical Counseling and Abuse,” we attempted to engage remedial and preventative measures of care for the abused. In the final paragraph you may find free resources we are offering on this topic to help churches respond appropriately to the abused and the abuser. There is so much to say on this point, but we must simultaneously deal with the current brokenness while we pursue measures of preventative care. We must demand accountability from our leaders. We must prove that the Church is a place where all of us who are broken find care and help from Christ and His word. As pastors and leaders, we must take seriously our duty to watch over the souls of our flock and not settle for superficial or expedient remedies (Hebrews 13:17).
Fourth, we must promote the hope of Christ’s return. Ultimately, we can only strive for partial justice, for that is all that is within our human power to do. We cannot erase the act, we cannot erase the memory, we cannot erase the evil. We must cry out, with patience, to our God, the only One who can provide complete justice. This does not mean we do nothing. We must reflect the heart of God in seeking justice for the oppressed, the weak, and afflicted. However, while we seek justice this side of heaven, our priority must be to call on God for his return, when he will make all things new. Providing solid, Christ-centered hope to victims will include reminding them that a day is coming in which He will wipe away every tear and blot out all of our shame. He will return as warrior and judge, to execute perfect justice on those who have taken advantage of innocence.
No blame-shifting will expunge any guilt and shame we bear for failing to respond well to abuse within our churches. Only our broken and contrite spirit will be pleasing to the Father. Satan cannot destroy the gospel, but he attempts to neutralize it by discrediting its messengers. A broken and contrite spirit must be the ground to stir our affections toward repentance (Psalm 51:17). Genuine care for victims and courage to confront perpetrators will arise from a grievance that we have broken the heart of God (Jeremiah 6:14-16).
Resources for the Church
At ACBC, we are committed to equipping pastors and churches to counsel God’s sufficient and restorative Word. Last Fall, at our annual conference, “Light in the Darkness: Biblical Counseling and Abuse,” we attempted to address the dynamics of abuse, caring for victims of abuse, and how churches must deal with perpetrators of such abuse. We understand that we need to continue to add to our resources in order to address all aspects of abuse, but we believe many would find the resources presented at our conference last year to be an impetus to pursue change and hope for the future. We want to offer our plenary sessions from last year’s conference for free to any who are searching for help in dealing with the sin and suffering of abuse.