Abuse. There’s no other word in evangelicalism these days that evokes as much passion – and compassion. And rightly so. Abuse – sexual or physical – is one of the most egregious sins a person can commit. It ravages the victim’s body and soul and leaves scars that never completely vanish. It is evil, and abominable, and horrifying, and something I wish no one on the planet ever had to experience.
For Christians thinking with the mind of Christ, our perspective on abuse ought to be reflexive:
•love and sympathy for the victim
•a desire to help the victim come to biblical healing and wholeness (and salvation if she is lost)
•hatred for the sin of abuse and the pain it caused
•a desire to see the perpetrator brought to justice
•a desire to see the perpetrator repent of his sin and be redeemed by Christ
I don’t know of a single genuinely regenerated, Bible-believing Christian who wouldn’t take this visceral approach to abuse. It’s when we start acting on various aspects of this perspective that things can go awry – in many different directions.
Victim advocates have helpfully explained one direction in which we can react inappropriately to cases of abuse. Victims have been told the abuse was their fault, or that they just need to forget about it and get over it. Abusers have had their sins and crimes overlooked or covered up. Grace-extending Christians have believed abusers’ fake repentance and unwittingly allowed them access to more victims.
It is good that these things have been exposed and that we now have a more heightened awareness of them in the church so we can respond to cases of abuse more carefully, wisely, and biblically. We owe a debt to courageous victims for telling us their stories, and to victim advocates for making sure we hear them, because their experiences help us to take helpful, rather than harmful, action. We cannot prevent or respond appropriately to that which is invisible to us.
And because of that, it’s important that we make visible and be aware of another way in which our approach to the abuse issue can take, and unfortunately, in many cases has taken, a wrong turn. As Christian victim advocates have helped me and so many others see inappropriate ways to respond to abuse, I hope advocates who desire to advocate for and serve victims biblically will find this article helpful in bringing to their attention other inappropriate ways to respond to the abuse issue. This is what we do as Christians. When we see a brother or sister getting off track, we lovingly come alongside him or her, point back to where the track is, and walk back to it together.
Here are four ways I’ve seen Christian victim advocacy getting off the biblical track lately…
The abuse issue is giving false teachers
a new avenue into the church.
I’ve said many times that the two primary ways I’ve seen false doctrine and false teachers creep into relatively solid churches is via the worship music (Bethel, Jesus Culture, Hillsong, Elevation, etc.) and via women’s “Bible” study (Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Lysa TerKeurst, IF: Gathering, etc.). The abuse issue seems to have opened a new, third door for unbiblical teachers and teaching to be welcomed in.
I discussed this issue at length in my articles From Victimhood to Victory: Biblically Helping Abused Women Heal and Band-Aids vs. Chemotherapy: Why Suffering Women are Drawn to False Doctrine and 7 Things We Can do to Help. In a nutshell, multiple high profile false teachers are in the spotlight of the abuse issue. Many have been telling their personal stories of abuse for years, and are now speaking at conferences on abuse, instructing pastors and churches on how to minister to victims, etc. Because these women are in the spotlight, they are the “experts” pastors, women’s ministry leaders, and others turn to for resources on ministering to victims. And when these false teachers walk through the victim advocacy door of your church, they bring their false doctrine on everything else with them.
Getting Back on Track:
Churches must exercise discernment and vet the experts they listen to on this and all other issues, remembering that just because someone claims to be a Christian, is an evangelical celebrity, has written lots of books and is on the conference circuit, is sold at major Christian retailers, is endorsed by other evangelical celebrities, and really cares about victims of abuse does not guarantee that person is teaching and behaving in accordance with sound doctrine.
Victim advocates must also carefully vet the evangelical celebrities they point victims to, whose materials they use, or whom they choose to share a stage with, recalling that Scripture forbids Christians from yoking in ministry with false teachers, and that to point victims to false teachers is to victimize them a second time.
Scripture is being abused by the
Ruth was an abuse victim. Rahab was an abuse victim. Mary Magdalene, and the woman at the well, and the Syrophoenician woman, and Bathsheba, and Gomer, and Hagar were abuse victims. Every biblical passage that talks about male headship, or says that wives are to submit to their husbands, or that women are not to serve or function as pastors and elders is only and always a “potential for abuse” passage.
Are there victims of abuse in Scripture? Undoubtedly. And we know this when the Bible clearly tells us someone was abused. Have abusers sinfully twisted headship and submission and pastoral leadership passages? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we should try to hide them in the closet and ignore the good and holy purposes for which God breathed them out.
And one of the good and holy purposes for which God breathed out the passages about the biblical roles for men and women in the home and in the church is to protect women and children from abuse. As many godly pastors, husbands, churches, and the women who love them could tell you, a proper teaching and understanding of these passages results in Christian men who value and treasure women for all that God created them to be. Men walking in obedience to the headship and pastoral leadership passages would never think of being abusive or sexist. They lay their lives down for the protection and flourishing of the women and children under their care.
Is it the fault of these godly men that sinful men twist and abuse these passages? Is it the fault of God or His Word that sinful men twist and abuse these passages? No. Just like it’s not the fault of the woman when a sinful man abuses her. To fault or punish God for putting those passages in the Bible, or complementarianism for upholding those passages, or godly pastors for teaching those passages, or godly husbands for living in obedience to those passages, or to place the guilt anywhere besides on the man sinfully twisting and abusing Scripture is victim-blaming. Because all of the godly are victims when sinful men – and women – abuse Scripture for their own purposes. Even for the purpose of victim advocacy.
Far too many Christian victim’s advocates see nearly every passage of Scripture through the lens of the abuse issue. This does violence to the text and a disservice not only to their own understanding of Scripture and their growth in the knowledge of Christ, it also teaches abuse victims to use this same hermeneutic and stunts their sanctification every bit as much as New Apostolic Reformation heresy, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, or any other false teaching. It’s a hermeneutic that warps the user’s view of God, Scripture, the church, the family, and the fellowship of the saints.
Getting Back on Track:
For the sake of their own spiritual lives as well as the spiritual lives of the victims they minister to, it’s important that victim advocates learn to submit to and carry out Scripture’s admonition to rightly handle the word of Truth, to stop reading abuse into Scripture (eisegesis) when it isn’t there, and to trust that our almighty God is powerful enough to work through a proper reading and teaching of what Scripture does say about abuse to convict the abuser and comfort and heal the victim.
Abuse is the only, or most important,
issue for pastors and churches.
If you just read that sentence and you think it says, “Abuse is not an important issue,” despite what it actually says and despite what I said earlier in this article, it might be because you believe abuse is the only, or most important, issue in the church. It isn’t. There isn’t just one important issue in the church, there are lots of them, including abuse, and they all need to be handled biblically as they arise. God did not intend for the church to center around, and focus all its energy and teaching on abuse, or abortion, or homosexuality, or discernment, or feeding the hungry, or the environment, or any of the other issues that may be especially meaningful to any one of us.
But I have seen some victim advocates who are so solely focused on the abuse issue that they practically expect every church and pastor to be focused on abuse to the exclusion of nearly everything else. And if they find a church or pastor who doesn’t focus on abuse to that extent, they proclaim that church to be an unsafe place for victims, or a place that doesn’t care about abuse, or even a place that harbors abusers. I recently saw this outrageous statement by a victim advocate on Twitter: “If a pastor asks a serious but sincere question about whether or not church meetings really violate CDC guidelines [regarding COVID-19], chances are that pastor cares only about not being able to preach AND likely also disputes the seriousness of sexual abuse and domestic violence in the church.”
That kind of thing is wrong, and it’s slanderous and verbally abusive toward pastors and churches who do care about handling the abuse issue – along with all the other issues they’re facing – biblically.
Additionally, regarding the abuse issue as the only or most important issue worthy of spotlighting minimizes the very real suffering of others in the church. Yes, abuse victims have suffered horribly. So have people who have lost a child or spouse, people who have a terminal disease, people whose spouses have been unfaithful, people who have lost everything in a natural disaster, and so on. Everyone suffers. The Bible says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” not that only one type of member suffers.
Getting Back on Track:
Have you ever heard someone say that even a good thing can become an idol? It can. I know from firsthand experience because I’ve been guilty of that sin. Advocating for victims of abuse is a good thing. It is a worthy and necessary thing. But if you’ve gotten to the point where the abuse issue is the only thing you can see and that perspective is causing you to sin, you need to get alone with God and His Word and ask Him honestly and objectively to reveal to you whether the abuse issue has become an idol in your life. Because maybe it has. And that’s not going to help you, or the victims you’re trying to minister to, or the churches you’re trying to advocate to. Repent and ask God to help you prioritize your passion His way. And remember, God tells us that the Body is made up of many parts – different people with different passions – and He’s the one who created it that way. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” Let’s strive to each do our part in the Body and cheer on other “body parts” as they do their job so the church can be balanced and healthy – addressing all issues in a biblical way.
Looking to secular abuse experts first can undermine the authority of Scripture and the church.
More and more I’m hearing Christian victim advocates tout the virtues of seeking out psychologists, victim help groups, legal agencies, and other secular professionals and organizations because pastors “aren’t properly trained” to help abuse victims. That may be the case (and it may not be – in one interview I heard with a Christian victim advocate, she made it sound as though any pastor who isn’t an expert in every aspect of abuse with years of training under his belt isn’t “properly trained”), but the solution to a problem in the church isn’t to give up and look outside the church, it’s to biblically fix the problem in the church.
In other words, if pastors need more training than the pastoral counseling training they’re already getting in seminary, let’s get them trained – biblically. Not in psychology (which, as someone who has a degree and a half in psychology and counseling, I can tell you is humanistic at its core), not by non-Christian abuse experts – by doctrinally sound, biblically knowledgeable, experts in biblical and pastoral counseling.
“But women who have been abused won’t go to a man for counseling!”. Then get some godly, spiritually mature women from your church trained so they can minister to women who are hurting.
And really, I am all for training because we should strive to do everything with excellence, but I want us to stop and think about something for a minute. Are we over-educationalizing this? Christians have been ministering to hurting people for 2000 years with Scripture, prayer, and godly counsel, and without benefit of specialized secular experts or even seminary training. And it has worked, because God has worked through those prescribed means to help and heal those people. Any Holy Spirit-indwelt, spiritually mature, biblically knowledgeable, humble, obedient to the Word Christian can come alongside an abuse victim (or anyone else who’s struggling) and listen, work through Scripture with her, pray with her, cry with her, and be there for her, because the help and healing that victim needs is not dependent on the person helping her, but on God working through the person helping her. God calls Christians to do those things, and those are the means spelled out in Scripture through which He works. You will not find a passage of Scripture that tells you that godly, mature pastors, elders, and older women can’t rightly help the hurting because they haven’t been “properly trained,” and especially not by non-Christian “experts”. Abuse is an issue of sin for the abuser. For the victim, it’s about finding healing, wholeness, and, eventually, the ability to forgive in Christ. That’s not something the best trained non-Christian expert in the world can help with.
Are there sometimes things we can learn from non-Christian experts that don’t conflict with Scripture? Yes (particularly the legal ins and outs of the abuse issue). But pointing victims and “untrained” pastors and church members outside the church to non-Christians as their primary, or “first line of defense” source of help is wrong-headed, unbiblical, and ultimately detrimental for all involved, because long before abuse is a legal or advocacy issue, it is a spiritual issue. And putting a spiritual issue in the hands of unbelievers is never the right answer. “Don’t look to the church for help, look to the world,” is not the message we want to send anyone.
Getting Back on Track:
I’ve said that “Holy Spirit indwelt, spiritually mature, biblically knowledgeable, humble, obedient to the Word Christians” are equipped to help abuse victims. Perhaps part of the reason Christian victim advocates suggest looking to the world for help and training is that the “churches” they’ve most often worked with don’t grow Christians like that. And that would not surprise me. Many churches have devolved into entertainment centers with unqualified “pastors,” no gospel, no serious training in the Word, and rampant false doctrine. Basically, they are the world.
Pastors must take seriously Scripture’s charge to preach the Word, and to train their people in Scripture, prayer, and growth in holiness. Biblical training for ministering to abuse victims is great, but that training isn’t going to stick or be effective if it’s not carried out by godly, genuinely regenerated people.
Ministering to and advocating for victims of abuse is a challenging task – even more so for Christians than for the world because we are obligated to seek to do so in a way that pleases God and is obedient to Scripture, not just in a pragmatic way. When we minister to others, we’re going to get things wrong sometimes (something else I know from firsthand experience), but when we turn back to the standard of God’s Word, see things from His perspective, and trust Him to do His good work through His prescribed means, we will find that He works through us to minister His heart to the hurting.