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Sexual Abuse and the Church

secret-1597-x-15001One of the most disturbing things I have read recently is this lengthy article by Kathryn Joyce: The Next Christian Sex Abuse Scandal: By Grace Alone. Joyce writes about the work of Boz Tchividjian and the group he leads called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) in exposing and rooting out sexual abuse in the church — particularly in the evangelical world. Boz Tchividjian himself is the grandson of the famous evangelist Billy Graham and teaches law at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The article (as I said) is long, but it is well worth reading.

The fact of the matter is that sexual abuse is a problem in the church and has been for many years. I was shocked by the revelations in the article about the mission field and mission agencies — but I can’t say that I am totally surprised.

I am old enough to remember the days when clergy sexual abuse was covered up in the United Methodist Church — when in cases where pastors engaged in inappropriate sex with parishioners, the situation was covered up and the pastor was moved elsewhere — not uncommonly, to another Conference. During the time I was in the ministry, it was Bishop Judith Craig who cracked down on this. (She was also quite a bit ahead of her time in trying to make the processes of the Church more open and transparent — a move from which subsequent bishops — in my opinion — retreated.) I remember hearing Bishop Donald Ott say that there was not a day that went by when there was not at least one case of clergy sexual misconduct on his desk — but at least United Methodists in Michigan have sought to address the problem. I also was a camp counselor for many years and saw and heard about some inappropriate sexual behavior — I mean, between campers (high-schoolers, in the camps I was in) and counselors. In addition to that, my wife was, for a while, on the (Sexual) Abuse Prevention Team for the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, over the years, I’ve gone from being quite naive about this to being very suspicious and cautious.

There are several things about the culture of the church that put it in particular danger with regard to sexual abuse. Some of these are features of the Church culture one would find anywhere — and some are especially dangerous, and should be avoided.

candle-tip1. A Culture of Trust. We are in the habit of thinking that the pastor can be trusted, that the Sunday School teacher, etc. can be trusted. We want the Church to be a place where people can be trusted. And, because they are people committed to the highest values of morality, integrity, and honesty we want to assume that they can be trusted. It is often a shock — sometimes undermining faith itself — when people discover otherwise. People in the church often give others the benefit of the doubt. I know of a case where the pastor was engaged in an affair with a church member and the close friends of that pastor and of that young woman refused to see the evidence of the affair that was right under their noses — saying to themselves: “No, it can’t be that.” Christians can be very blind to what is going on around them.

From the article:

Congregations need to understand that churches are targets and havens for abusers. One study has found that 93 percent of admitted sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Offenders who report strong church ties abuse more often, with younger victims. That’s not because Christians are inherently more abusive, he said, but because they’re more vulnerable to those who are.

I really wouldn’t want to change the culture of trust entirely. I just think this needs to be changed to a culture where safety comes first. There need to be policies in place in any church that will prevent sexual abuse — then there will be some basis for trust. We know that people are not taking advantage of our trust — that sex offenders are not working with children and youth, and so forth. Insurance companies can help churches deal with this problem.

bible-cross2. A Culture that Values Forgiveness. Along with #1, I don’t see this as something that should be eliminated. It is at the heart and core of what the Christian Church is all about. Forgiveness is central to the Christian message — and the teaching of Jesus. We are taught that God forgives. We are taught that we must forgive one another — especially those who have mistreated us. We are reminded that we are beings who are prone to sin — and we are in recovery. We want to see people changed and given new hope and new direction for their life.

But, this can’t be allowed to mean letting people continue in a pattern of inappropriate or abusive behavior. This story from the article seems quite typical to me:

In a Pentecostal church in Wisconsin, a convicted sex offender who’d been allowed to volunteer in Sunday school had allegedly abused two sisters, ages 8 and 12. When the girls told their parents, their father went to the pastor, who advised a sit-down with the volunteer. During this meeting, Tchividjian says, “the perp did what perps usually do: cry and ask for forgiveness, so happy he was caught.” The pastor said it sounded like repentance to him and that the accused could prove it by staying active in church life. Would that be enough to allow the father to forgive him, the pastor asked, and to forgo reporting the accused to “man’s authority”? The father said OK, if that’s what God wanted them to do. By the time the journalist called Tchividjian, six years later, the victims’ family had been asked to leave the church and the Sunday school volunteer was about to go on trial.

Sexual abuse must be reported. Those who cross that line will find it too easy to cross it again. Remorse does not mean change. The same is the case with domestic abuse — as some pastors have discovered to their dismay. Remorse is actually part of the pattern. Feeling guilty is not the same thing as change — in fact, its not anything remotely like it. In an odd way, shame actually reinforces the behavior. Feeling shame about a personal habit will not change the behavior — in and of itself, it is likely to make matters worse.

The apostle Paul recognized that guilt could be destructive rather than helpful: “For godly grief (λύπη) produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief (λύπη) produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10 NRSV.) The Louw & Nida Lexicon gives the following meaning for the Greek word λύπη: “a state of unhappiness marked by regret as a result of what has been done.” This is precisely what we normally mean by “guilt” or “shame” or “remorse.” We need to stop considering such guilt or shame to be a positive or helpful — or an especially religious feeling. The apostle says it can “lead to death.” Yes, it can lead to repentance (μετάνοια) which leads to salvation. But, it often doesn’t. And, in those cases, it is spiritually deadly. Experience has shown that it will lead to a repetition of the very behavior that led to the shame in the first place. Guilt is not something in which a person is supposed to wallow! It is not repentance.

authoritarian-parenting3. An Authoritarian Culture. Too many churches have an authoritarian culture where unchecked power resides in the leader or leaders. This is one of the characteristics of many churches that is dangerous — and should be eliminated. If you find yourself in an authoritarian church I have one simple word of advice — get out! Churches which permit or encourage authoritarian leadership are asking for trouble. Leadership that thrives on power and secrecy is corrupt already — through their own love for power and influence. It is only a matter of time before these churches become abusive — morally, sexually, and spiritually. These quickly become toxic cultures. The downfall of Mark Driscoll’s church in Seattle is a recent case in point — even though sexual abuse is not rumored to be the reason. Authoritarian leadership will lead to corruption. It cannot be otherwise.

It is time to remember that Jesus both taught and modeled a different style of leadership. What Jesus taught and modeled is what we often call Servant Leadership. Concerning the desire for power and influence Jesus said: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV).

With authority comes responsibility. When that stops being the case, corruption will follow. You can count on it.

Authoritarian teachings and teachers need to be seen as suspicious. Again, notice these examples from the article:

In fall 2012, former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a “family” of about 80 conservative churches from various theological traditions, filed a class-action lawsuit against the ministry for failing to report allegations of sex abuse in the 1980s and 1990s—including abuse perpetrated by church leaders’ immediate family members—and discouraging victims and their families from going to law enforcement. (The lawsuit was dismissed last year because of expired statutes of limitations and jurisdictional questions, but an appeal and criminal investigations are under way.) … The empire of Bill Gothard, founder of the fundamentalist Institute in Basic Life Principles, crumbled earlier this year after bloggers revealed dozens of sexual-harassment and molestation claims against him.

legalist4. A Legalistic Culture. Like the previous item on this list, this one is especially dangerous. And, it is also counter-intuitive that this would be dangerous. Churches that major on rule keeping often become harsh, negative, and judgmental. They also become places where sexual abuse is likely to occur.

Here’s another quote from the article that talks about the deadly mix of features that lead to abusive churches and ministries:

Common threads run through the stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counseling techniques that emphasize victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and, in the eyes of many Christians including Tchividjian, a perversion of the Bible to justify all three. “When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish,” Tchividjian says. “But we’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”

And, again, a simple piece of advice: if you are in a church or ministry that fits the description above: get out! These are toxic churches and ministries.

And, it is worth noting that historically the holiness churches have been some of the worst in this regard. For some reason the emphasis on purity of heart — on full heart-felt devotion to Christ — devolves, over time, into legalism and rule keeping. Sadly, my own attempts to document the teachings of the Wesleyanism and holiness movement prove the point again and again. Heart devotion to Christ cannot be equated with rule keeping. Strictness is not necessarily spiritually valuable — it may be, but it is generally not. And, strictness as applied to followers but not to leaders is corrupt already.

Does the Church have a problem? Yes. But, it is not a problem that cannot be overcome. We could begin to address it by listening more carefully to the teachings that are a the heart of our life together.

The problem needs to come into the light. It needs to be exposed. There can be no more secrets. There needs to be healing and new direction.

Then we need to hear the teachings of the Bible anew.


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1 Response

  1. veritasvincit November 18, 2014 / 9:32 pm

    All of the darkness and brokenness we lament in our culture is present to at least the same extent among professing christians and their churches. We are equally prone to hide in defenses such as denial and rationalization. As a lawyer I never ceased to be surprised by the brokenness. I can’t imagine what pastors see every day.

    Thanks for posting this important article.

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