Abuse, Suffering

From Victimhood to Victory: Biblically Helping Abused Women Heal

Ever since the Me Too movement exploded on social media a couple of years ago, we’ve been hearing more and more heartbreaking stories of women who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. If anyone can help and should be helping victims of abuse, it ought to be the church. But, unfortunately, it seems that the people in the evangelical spotlight who are stepping up to advocate for victims are often popular false teachers.

In 2019, we saw Beth Moore take the lead at the Caring Well conference, which centered around helping abuse victims. Christine Caine is the founder and leader of A 21, an anti-human trafficking ministry. In 2018, Lisa Harper was the keynote speaker at the Pastors’ Wives Conference at the annual Southern Baptist Convention where she addressed the issue of abuse. And in addition to stepping out into the spotlight as champions for abuse victims, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, and Lisa Harper, as well as Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Lysa TerKeurst, Jackie Hill Perry – and many more, I’m sure – share their own personal stories of abuse at their conferences, in their books, and so on.

These are the people being showcased to the average Jane in the pew as those who care about abuse victims. These are the people who are actually (supposedly) doing something about abuse. By and large, we’re not seeing doctrinally sound men and women being put forth on the stage of the visible church as caring about abuse victims or doing anything about abuse.

And so, when an Evangelical woman is coming to terms with her abuse, these are the women she’s seeing, so these are the women and their resources that she reaches out for. And by the same token, because these false teachers are in the spotlight and have name recognition and resources available, and there aren’t very many well known doctrinally sound resources available, churches who want to help abuse victims are also reaching out and grabbing hold of false teaching to try to help the women in their churches.

So what we’re finding is that women who are victims of abuse are especially vulnerable to false teaching because they see these teachers as someone who has gone through the same thing they’ve gone through: “This teacher knows how I feel. She has experienced the same thing.” And that’s the primary reason victims seek out these false teachers, rather than seeking out someone who – regardless of whether or not he or she has experienced abuse – can help them to heal with rightly handled Scripture.

This is one reason I am purposely not disclosing in this article whether or not I have ever been abused. Because biblical healing from abuse isn’t about me or my personal experiences. It’s about what the Bible says. My experiences don’t change what God’s Word says. The Bible remains the same whether I’ve been abused or not. Scripture is our standard, not our personal experiences.

But, unfortunately in the church, and particularly in the realm of women’s Bible study, we have indoctrinated women with the idea that personal experience reigns, not Scripture. So what abused women get when they seek out these false teachers for help dealing with their abuse is exactly what I’ve said before is the problem with women’s Bible study in general: narcissism.

These victims of abuse don’t get taught how to biblically come to terms with what happened to them and how to biblically heal from it. They get a cheap, shallow compassion that teaches them to focus on their own pain and feelings, and to harbor bitterness against their abuser and everyone and everything else they can assign blame to for the abuse (some of those things supposedly being biblical complementarianism, sexism in the church, misogyny in the church, not enough women in positions of leadership in the church, as Beth Moore said at the Caring Well conference, etc.)

These women are being victimized twice.

And so these women are being victimized twice – once by the abuser, and once by false teachers who are not only not helping them to heal biblically, but are actually eroding biblical teaching and sound doctrine – for that woman personally and in the church in general – by saying that biblical precepts, such as leadership of the church being restricted to men, are at fault for their abuse. It’s really insidious, because what’s implied by this whole paradigm is that this mixture of focusing on your feelings and believing unbiblical teaching is the quick fix that will make them feel better right away. This is what will finally bring them healing and wholeness. They’re being sold a lie.

Praise be to God, there are lots of doctrinally sound Christians out there who are quietly, out of the spotlight, helping victims of abuse in a biblical way, one on one, in their own local churches. So, how are they doing it, and how should we be doing it? What are some biblical ways we can help abuse victims?

Genuine Compassion

Abuse is a horrible, despicable thing that no one should ever have to suffer. The pain that it causes doesn’t just magically disappear because it happened years ago. It is not something about which any woman should ever be told, “You just need to get over it and forget about it.”

And certainly no woman should ever be made to feel that it was her fault, or that if she had just done something differently it wouldn’t have happened. The sin of abuse lies with the abuser, not the victim.

The sin of abuse lies with the abuser, not the victim.

So when we disciple a woman who is just beginning the journey of healing from her abuse, it should be handled with biblical compassion every step of the way. It’s important, especially in the beginning, to do what Romans 12:15 says, and “weep with those who weep”.

Let her pour out her feelings of pain and anger, and sit there in that with her.

Yes, that was awful.

No, you didn’t do anything to cause it. It wasn’t your fault.

That man was evil and took advantage of you. It was his sin, not yours.

We need to have that same heart for her that God has in Psalm 147:3: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

A Biblical Perspective of Suffering

It’s imperative that we have a biblical perspective of suffering so we can teach it to abuse victims. Because one of the things you’ll notice about the way false teachers approach the issue of abuse is that this component is completely missing. Why? Because walking through suffering in a biblical way can be hard and scary and painful and messy. It’s much easier to just smile and exude sympathy and say, “Just listen to me and I’ll tell you how to feel better right now.”

And if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Our flesh doesn’t want to suffer, we just want to feel better now. And that’s what makes this a hard sell that false teachers don’t want to deal with. It doesn’t fit in with their ear-tickling paradigm. But if we want to offer victims true help and true healing in Christ, we have to address the issue of suffering, and address it biblically and correctly.

A biblical theology of suffering applied to the issue of abuse understands that…

Everyone suffers. You’re not the first person to suffer, and you won’t be the last. 1 Peter 4:12 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” When it comes to suffering, you’re not special, and neither am I. We don’t all suffer in the same way, but everybody suffers. It’s just the human condition resulting from the Fall.

Even Jesus suffered. Isaiah 53 tells us: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”

Abuse is not a special class of suffering that exempts you from dealing with it in obedience to Scripture. We’re kind of seeing this line of thinking with homosexuality- that it’s a special class of sin that people don’t have to repent of. That homosexuals can hold onto their sin, cherish it in their hearts, and maybe even live it out, and still supposedly be biblical Christians.

And that’s the same sort of mindset a lot of the false teachers espouse: Abuse is a special class of suffering that you don’t have to walk through in a biblical way. You get to wallow in your victimhood for the rest of your life and think and act and feel and express yourself however you want to because you’ve been hurt so deeply. That’s not right. Perpetual victimhood is not biblical, it doesn’t help you heal, and it doesn’t bring your abuser to justice. It makes God look impotent and uncaring. If He can’t or won’t transform someone from victimhood to victory, how could He have the power to raise Christ from the dead? If He doesn’t care about a victim of abuse, why would He care about anybody else’s problems?

I would never minimize the pain and suffering of abuse victims, but all Believers are required by Scripture to act in a godly way regardless of their particular kind of suffering. Believers who have terminal diseases have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers who have lost a child have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers whose spouses have cheated on them have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers who are being tortured and persecuted just for being Christians have to deal with that in a godly way. We all have to bear up and respond to suffering in a godly way, regardless of what kind of suffering we’re dealing with.

1 Peter 4:19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

Jesus understands your pain and serves as your perfect example for responding to suffering. Go back and read Isaiah 53. Go back and read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials, flogging, and crucifixion. He knows what it feels like to be abused. And look at the way he handled it. He didn’t give up. He didn’t feel sorry for himself or lash out at his abusers or become bitter. He didn’t blame God or the church or anyone else or His circumstances.

Jesus knows what it feels like to be abused.

Jesus kept his eyes on the Father. He continued to walk out God’s plan for Him and didn’t let the abusers distract him from that plan. He continued to behave in a godly way. He forgave his abusers, even though it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Remember what He said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

You don’t have to suffer alone. If you are a Believer, the Holy Spirit dwells within you. He will enable you and empower you to suffer well. You are never alone.

“Pray without ceasing,” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” God says in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Ask God to carry you through the difficult times. Ask God to heal you, to help you forgive, to give you strength. Whatever you need, ask Him for it.

God has a purpose for your pain. The abuse you suffered was horrific, but in God’s economy, it wasn’t random and senseless. God can take what that abuser meant for evil and turn it around and use it for your good– to grow you and strengthen you. There are so many passages of Scripture that talk about this. One of my favorites is Romans 5:3-5:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Jesus didn’t save you for you to live in self-pity, bitterness, unforgiveness, and victimhood. That is not the abundant life He promised you in John 10:10. It’s no life at all. Christians are not weak, helpless victims. Jesus makes us victors. Yes, what happened to you was unspeakably evil and hurtful. But in Christ, that’s not where your story ends!

Jesus makes us victors.

As you walk with Christ – trusting Him, obeying Him, loving Him – day by day, He will bring you that peace that passes understanding. He will reveal Himself to you as hope of the hopeless. He will heal your broken heart and bind up your wounds. If you refuse to handle your pain biblically, you’re missing out on all of the good things God wants to use that pain for – the godly character He wants to build in you, the healing He wants to give you. If you refuse to handle your pain biblically, you’re choosing to give that abuser the power to continue to stand in the way of all those good gifts God wants to give you.

Your pain and suffering won’t last forever. Once Christ begins healing you, your pain will fade over time, and eventually He will wipe it out all together in Heaven. Consider these two wonderfully comforting and hope-giving passages:

2 Corinthians 4:17-18: For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Revelation 21:1,3-4: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Your suffering has a time limit.

Your suffering has a time limit, and one day God is going to take it away forever. Rest in that hope.

 

How can we biblically help abuse victims move from victimhood to victory? We continually take them back to the truth of God’s Word and remind them of His goodness and grace, and the hope and healing He wants to bring them through Christ.


Additional Resources:

This article is excerpted from the A Word Fitly Spoken Podcast episode It’s Time for Sound Leaders to Talk About Abuse

Band-Aids vs. Chemotherapy: Why Suffering Women are Drawn to False Doctrine and 7 Things We Can do to Help 

Weeping with Those Who Weep 

Christ- the Suffering Servant 

Six Reasons to Rejoice that Christ is Enough in Our Suffering 

True or False: Is Your Theology of Suffering Biblical? 

God’s Good Purposes in Suffering

Church, Sin, Southern Baptist/SBC

Preventative Measures: 6 Steps SBC Churches Can Take to Prevent Sexual Abuse

I’m taking a short summer break this week. I hope you’ll enjoy this article from the archives. The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is also taking place this week. Will you please pray that God will bring conviction of sin, repentance, and obedience to God’s Word?


Originally published February 22, 2019

The state I live in is heavily Catholic and Southern Baptist. For many years, journalists and others have been delving into the gobsmacking number – thousands – of pedophile and sexually abusive Catholic clergy across the globe, and, in recent months, my own local paper has been tackling the issue as it pertains to priests and other Catholic leaders in our area who have been revealed as abusers. So I was kind of prepared for the Southern Baptist Convention to be the next entity to be investigated. My guess is that either Presbyterians or Mormons will be next.

It’s absolutely appropriate that the news media conducted this kind of investigation into the SBC. What’s not appropriate is that SBC leadership appeared not to be ready for it because – at least from my perspective as the average person in the pew – it’s not something the Convention has a history of policing itself on in any appreciable way. SBC leadership should have been ready and eager to fling the doors wide open and transparently welcome any sort of investigation by the media, demonstrating whatever progress has been made in dealing with perverts in our pulpits. Instead, they seemed to be caught virtually unprepared despite the fact that the signs of the times should have indicated to them that this was coming.

In my opinion, the Houston Chronicle did an excellent job of exposing the problems with abuse in the SBC in its three-part series of articles, even taking the time to explain the crucial point of church autonomy, which sets SBC churches apart from the governing structure of Catholicism and other organizations, and which has, in many cases enabled abusers to move from church to church undetected. SBC leaders who have explained that they have no authority to force churches to participate in any sort of registry of abusers and the credibly accused are correct (but couldn’t it be voluntary?). SBC leadership, unfortunately, has no such authority over individual churches. Each church has to set its own standards and methods for preventing abuse. So what can individual, autonomous churches do to prevent abuse?

1.
Preach the Gospel

That might sound pretty basic, but it’s one of the basics we desperately need to get back to. We need to be churches who hammer on the gospel – the wretchedness of sin, the supreme holiness of God, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness – week in and week out. Not only is that…well…it’s just what any biblical church is supposed to do, but my guess is that the vast majority of the perpetrators in these abuse cases are not actually Christians – despite what they may claim or what office they might hold – they are false converts because a lot of churches they’ve been part of have neglected their duty to preach the gospel.

Too many SBC churches teach an easy – “Just repeat this quick little prayer, and boom, you’re in!” – believism that unrepentant sinners hang their eternal hats on as a “Get out of Hell, Free!” card. They’ve never found themselves filthy and undone before an unfathomably holy God because they’ve never been confronted by that God or that characterization of their sin in the preaching and teaching of their churches. Could some of these perpetrators be genuinely regenerated Christians? It’s possible, but not likely. By and large, true Christians are not out there abusing others – it’s the false converts.

2.
Meaningful Membership

Some churches have done away with formal membership altogether. Everybody’s welcome, come and go whenever you want, if you want, no requirements, no accountability. That’s not biblical, nor is it how the church has handled membership over the course of church history.

Traditionally there have been three main ways to join a SBC church: a newly saved person makes a public profession of his faith to the church body and is baptized into membership, or membership can be transferred from one church to another. You can transfer your membership by promise of letter (your previous church sends a letter to your current church recommending or not recommending that you be accepted for membership) or by statement (when obtaining a letter from a previous church isn’t possible, this is an “honor system” personal testimony that you are a baptized Believer).

Promise of letter in particular is a decent and biblical system that needs to be upheld, adhered to, and taken gravely seriously rather than just waving every Tom, Dick, and Harry through the wide open doors of the church. And in the case of new church members and new staff members (new staff members have to transfer their membership, too), it could help curb abuse if both the sending and receiving churches would look upon it as far more than a mere formality.

One of the very valid problems the Chronicle articles cite is that sending churches (the churches the abusers came from) did not inform subsequent churches of the problems with the abuser. They silently foisted people they knew were dangerous onto unsuspecting congregations. If sending churches would respond honestly to inquiries from receiving churches (the churches the abusers are going to) about their former staff and members, and if receiving churches would ask probing, personal questions rather than sending out perfunctory form letters, that would be a good start to making more headway on preventing abuse.

Furthermore, meaningful membership makes it harder for people to anonymously breeze in to the church, abuse, and slip out before anybody realizes what’s going on. There are sexual abusers out there who find and attend churches with loosey-goosey membership policies for the express purpose of cultivating a pool of victims. They know these churches are blindly and ignorantly trusting, so they show up for a couple of weeks, talk a good game, and promptly volunteer to work in the nursery or with the youth. If your church has a firm membership policy, required membership class, requires members to sign a church covenant, only allows church members (not just anybody who wants to or seems talented) to serve in any office, task, role, or capacity – and only after they have been members for a specified amount of time (ex: must have been a faithful member for at least six months to teach, serve on a committee, etc.), that sort of abuser isn’t going to waste his time or chance being caught by attending your church.

3.
Church Discipline

One of the failings of far too many SBC (and other) churches is sweeping sin under the rug and refusing to biblically exercise church discipline before it’s too late and calamity strikes. Church discipline isn’t just for the “big” sins like a pastor who commits adultery. Church discipline is for all observable, unrepentant, biblically defined sin. If we have verifiable knowledge that a brother or sister in our church is sinning, we have the obligation not to please ourselves by turning a blind eye and avoiding a confrontation, but to lovingly go to that person and plead with her, for her own restoration and reconciliation to Christ, to repent and walk blamelessly. Often (hopefully), that first step in the church discipline process precludes the need for the remaining two.

Churches that consistently, lovingly, and biblically practice church discipline help prevent abuse in four ways:

First of all, nobody wakes up one morning and decides to start sexually abusing others. There are always “smaller” sins leading up to abuse – obscene comments, dirty jokes, leering, pornography, inappropriate touching in public. If we would address those “smaller” sins when we see them happening, we might just prevent the potential abuser from continually hardening his heart by getting away with sin, bring the gospel to bear on his life, and keep him from becoming an abuser in the first place. He might actually get saved, which is one of the goals of church discipline.

Second, if a church cultivates an atmosphere of practicing church discipline, unrepentant abusers aren’t going to hang around long. They don’t want to be caught.

Third, if a church ends up having to go through all the steps of church discipline with an unrepentant potential abuser, the last step – bringing this person before the church to remove him from membership – is public. Church members are made aware of the problems with this person so they can avoid being victimized by him and the procedure of removing the potential abuser from church membership goes into the church records. When he then goes to a new church, that receiving church should inquire of the sending church about him (see “Meaningful Membership” above). The sending church can then provide the record of his removal so the receiving church will be aware of the problems with this person.

Fourth, if we practice church discipline on the “smaller” sins with an unrepentant abuser, he is likely to be removed from membership in the church before he gets to the point of abusing someone.

Another aspect of church discipline is tightening up the rolls and removing members who are dead (no, I’m not kidding), have moved away, have stopped attending, or are no longer members in good standing for other reasons. This may not prevent someone from abusing, but at least if he does abuse, the media won’t be able to report that he’s (still) a member of your church, thus tarnishing your church’s, and possibly God’s, good name.

4.
Take Biblical Requirements for Leadership Seriously

It’s not like the Bible doesn’t tell us what kind of man should be a pastor, elder, or deacon. It’s right there, in black and white, twice, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And yet there are churches who barely give those requirements a glance in favor of “more important” qualities they want in a pastor: Does he have at least a master’s degree from seminary? Is he a certain age? Does he rub elbows with Christian celebrities? Does he have a track record of successful building programs, fundraising, and attracting lots of new members? Is he charismatic and a dynamic speaker? None of those things are inherently bad unless they take precedence over the biblical qualifications.

But when churches are hiring men as pastors, youth directors, etc., whom they know have been in prison for abuse, as the Chronicle articles cited, we have to think some other factor is more important to those churches than the biblical requirements. Because someone who has been accused, tried, convicted, and imprisoned by worldly courts for sexual abuse is no longer “above reproach” – the very first requirement in both passages (and Titus mentions it twice for emphasis) – he is not “respectable”, and he is not “well thought of by outsiders”. The very existence of the Chronicle’s articles proves that. It boggles the mind that something like this has to be said to professing Christians who are supposedly spiritually mature and biblically knowledgeable enough to be on the pastor search committees for their churches, but people who have criminal records as sex abusers are permanently disqualified from professional ministry because they no longer meet these biblical requirements. (And just as an aside, if your church has a “no hire” policy for men who have ever been divorced for any reason but yet you’ll hire a convicted sexual abuser…well…I’m just at a loss for words at that level of hypocrisy. OK, maybe one word: repent.)

But, “forgiveness for repentant sinners!” I can hear compassionate Christians cry out. Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a loved one who was radically and genuinely saved while he was in prison for child molestation. God can and does save sexual abusers, and those forgiven Christians need a church home just like everybody else does. We lovingly welcome into membership repentant sinners who are transparent with the church about their previous sin and who volunteer to be kept accountable. But we do not put them back into the position of pastor, elder, deacon, etc., first because they are biblically disqualified, and second, because it is not loving to that person nor to the rest of the church to allow him access to facets of church life that would tempt him back into sin. And it is putting God to the test to intentionally put such a person into a tempting situation as some sort of way of “proving” that God has really saved this person. We would not make a convicted embezzler the church treasurer and we should not be putting sexual abusers in positions that would tempt or allow them to abuse again – even volunteer positions. That doesn’t mean we doubt their salvation or the work God has done in their hearts, that means we recognize that Satan is cruel and crafty and we humbly admit that we still succumb to temptations to sin. It’s not holding a grudge or unforgiveness, it’s exercising biblical wisdom.

5.
Stop Being Afraid

When we allow the fear of man to determine our actions instead of the fear of God, we are in grave spiritual error. Peter and the apostles stood up to the authorities who threatened and imprisoned them, insisted on obeying God’s Word, boldly declared, “We must obey God rather than men,” took their licks like men, went away rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name, and kept right on trucking in obedience to God. How far have we fallen when we won’t even address a brother’s sin with him because we’re afraid of confrontation? When we cover up a predator’s behavior and unleash him on others because we’re afraid of a defamation lawsuit? When we must obey men rather than God because we’re more afraid of the earthly consequences than spiritual consequences – because we don’t trust God to take care of us or His church?

Brothers and sisters, this must not be.

Should we act wisely? Of course. Make sure we’re obeying the law and not hurting anyone as far as we’re able? Certainly. Get some legal advice? Absolutely. But when the rubber meets the road of choosing what’s right in God’s eyes versus what’s safe or comfortable in our own eyes, we choose what’s right in God’s eyes every time and we trust Him with the outcome. The God who parts seas, cools furnaces, and raises the dead is powerful enough to handle court cases and the ire of sinful men. Let us say with the Psalms and the Proverbs:

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
Proverbs 29:25

…in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?
Psalm 56:11

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
Psalm 118:6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
Proverbs 3:5-7

6.
Practical Wisdom

Do the practical stuff. God has given us brains, experience, resources, and promises us wisdom. We would be failing to honor Him if we did not make use of all of those blessings in order to protect our churches from predators.

Perform criminal background checks on all staff members and on anyone who works with children, the disabled, or vulnerable adults regardless of how well you know them or how trustworthy you think they are.

Check references on every employee from the pastor to the janitor. Do it thoroughly and diligently, not flippantly.

Put accountability measures in place such as requiring at least two adults be present in children’s and youth activities and classes at all times. No teen or adult – including the pastor, youth pastor or any other staff member – should ever be alone with a child on church property or at church functions.

Hold training sessions for the whole church on your church’s security measures, and how to report suspicious behavior and suspected abuse. Specifically address parents on the issue of trusting other adults in the church. Time after time, we hear that children are victimized because parents have left their child alone with a pastor or other Christian adult assuming that person was trustworthy. Teach them instead to assume that any adult – regardless of his title or position – who seeks to be alone with a child is untrustworthy.

Explore the services of organizations like Ministry Safe and others who can help you make your church a safer place. Pick the brains of sister churches who have put precautions in place for helpful suggestions and resources.

 

In the aftermath of bombshell news of abuse, the most common line of reasoning is, “How can we fix this? What can we do?”. Thoughts turn to practical solutions. That’s not wrong. In fact, it’s very, very right. We should make every effort to put pragmatic safeguards in place. But we can’t focus on the practical and tangible and leave out the spiritual. Because abuse is a spiritual issue way before it’s a safety issue. And if we get the spiritual part of it right from the get go, we drastically reduce the chances that we’ll have to fall back on practical safety measures. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a church striving to uphold the highest Scriptural standards of holiness will find itself fortified with tons of both.

Church, Sin, Southern Baptist/SBC

Preventative Measures: 6 Steps SBC Churches Can Take to Prevent Sexual Abuse

The state I live in is heavily Catholic and Southern Baptist. For many years, journalists and others have been delving into the gobsmacking number – thousands – of pedophile and sexually abusive Catholic clergy across the globe, and, in recent months, my own local paper has been tackling the issue as it pertains to priests and other Catholic leaders in our area who have been revealed as abusers. So I was kind of prepared for the Southern Baptist Convention to be the next entity to be investigated. My guess is that either Presbyterians or Mormons will be next.

It’s absolutely appropriate that the news media conducted this kind of investigation into the SBC. What’s not appropriate is that SBC leadership appeared not to be ready for it because – at least from my perspective as the average person in the pew – it’s not something the Convention has a history of policing itself on in any appreciable way. SBC leadership should have been ready and eager to fling the doors wide open and transparently welcome any sort of investigation by the media, demonstrating whatever progress has been made in dealing with perverts in our pulpits. Instead, they seemed to be caught virtually unprepared despite the fact that the signs of the times should have indicated to them that this was coming.

In my opinion, the Houston Chronicle did an excellent job of exposing the problems with abuse in the SBC in its three-part series of articles, even taking the time to explain the crucial point of church autonomy, which sets SBC churches apart from the governing structure of Catholicism and other organizations, and which has, in many cases enabled abusers to move from church to church undetected. SBC leaders who have explained that they have no authority to force churches to participate in any sort of registry of abusers and the credibly accused are correct (but couldn’t it be voluntary?). SBC leadership, unfortunately, has no such authority over individual churches. Each church has to set its own standards and methods for preventing abuse. So what can individual, autonomous churches do to prevent abuse?

1.
Preach the Gospel

That might sound pretty basic, but it’s one of the basics we desperately need to get back to. We need to be churches who hammer on the gospel – the wretchedness of sin, the supreme holiness of God, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness – week in and week out. Not only is that…well…it’s just what any biblical church is supposed to do, but my guess is that the vast majority of the perpetrators in these abuse cases are not actually Christians – despite what they may claim or what office they might hold – they are false converts because a lot of churches they’ve been part of have neglected their duty to preach the gospel.

Too many SBC churches teach an easy – “Just repeat this quick little prayer, and boom, you’re in!” – believism that unrepentant sinners hang their eternal hats on as a “Get out of Hell, Free!” card. They’ve never found themselves filthy and undone before an unfathomably holy God because they’ve never been confronted by that God or that characterization of their sin in the preaching and teaching of their churches. Could some of these perpetrators be genuinely regenerated Christians? It’s possible, but not likely. By and large, true Christians are not out there abusing others – it’s the false converts.

2.
Meaningful Membership

Some churches have done away with formal membership altogether. Everybody’s welcome, come and go whenever you want, if you want, no requirements, no accountability. That’s not biblical, nor is it how the church has handled membership over the course of church history.

Traditionally there have been three main ways to join a SBC church: a newly saved person makes a public profession of his faith to the church body and is baptized into membership, or membership can be transferred from one church to another. You can transfer your membership by promise of letter (your previous church sends a letter to your current church recommending or not recommending that you be accepted for membership) or by statement (when obtaining a letter from a previous church isn’t possible, this is an “honor system” personal testimony that you are a baptized Believer).

Promise of letter in particular is a decent and biblical system that needs to be upheld, adhered to, and taken gravely seriously rather than just waving every Tom, Dick, and Harry through the wide open doors of the church. And in the case of new church members and new staff members (new staff members have to transfer their membership, too), it could help curb abuse if both the sending and receiving churches would look upon it as far more than a mere formality.

One of the very valid problems the Chronicle articles cite is that sending churches (the churches the abusers came from) did not inform subsequent churches of the problems with the abuser. They silently foisted people they knew were dangerous onto unsuspecting congregations. If sending churches would respond honestly to inquiries from receiving churches (the churches the abusers are going to) about their former staff and members, and if receiving churches would ask probing, personal questions rather than sending out perfunctory form letters, that would be a good start to making more headway on preventing abuse.

Furthermore, meaningful membership makes it harder for people to anonymously breeze in to the church, abuse, and slip out before anybody realizes what’s going on. There are sexual abusers out there who find and attend churches with loosey-goosey membership policies for the express purpose of cultivating a pool of victims. They know these churches are blindly and ignorantly trusting, so they show up for a couple of weeks, talk a good game, and promptly volunteer to work in the nursery or with the youth. If your church has a firm membership policy, required membership class, requires members to sign a church covenant, only allows church members (not just anybody who wants to or seems talented) to serve in any office, task, role, or capacity – and only after they have been members for a specified amount of time (ex: must have been a faithful member for at least six months to teach, serve on a committee, etc.), that sort of abuser isn’t going to waste his time or chance being caught by attending your church.

3.
Church Discipline

One of the failings of far too many SBC (and other) churches is sweeping sin under the rug and refusing to biblically exercise church discipline before it’s too late and calamity strikes. Church discipline isn’t just for the “big” sins like a pastor who commits adultery. Church discipline is for all observable, unrepentant, biblically defined sin. If we have verifiable knowledge that a brother or sister in our church is sinning, we have the obligation not to please ourselves by turning a blind eye and avoiding a confrontation, but to lovingly go to that person and plead with her, for her own restoration and reconciliation to Christ, to repent and walk blamelessly. Often (hopefully), that first step in the church discipline process precludes the need for the remaining two.

Churches that consistently, lovingly, and biblically practice church discipline help prevent abuse in four ways:

First of all, nobody wakes up one morning and decides to start sexually abusing others. There are always “smaller” sins leading up to abuse – obscene comments, dirty jokes, leering, pornography, inappropriate touching in public. If we would address those “smaller” sins when we see them happening, we might just prevent the potential abuser from continually hardening his heart by getting away with sin, bring the gospel to bear on his life, and keep him from becoming an abuser in the first place. He might actually get saved, which is one of the goals of church discipline.

Second, if a church cultivates an atmosphere of practicing church discipline, unrepentant abusers aren’t going to hang around long. They don’t want to be caught.

Third, if a church ends up having to go through all the steps of church discipline with an unrepentant potential abuser, the last step – bringing this person before the church to remove him from membership – is public. Church members are made aware of the problems with this person so they can avoid being victimized by him and the procedure of removing the potential abuser from church membership goes into the church records. When he then goes to a new church, that receiving church should inquire of the sending church about him (see “Meaningful Membership” above). The sending church can then provide the record of his removal so the receiving church will be aware of the problems with this person.

Fourth, if we practice church discipline on the “smaller” sins with an unrepentant abuser, he is likely to be removed from membership in the church before he gets to the point of abusing someone.

Another aspect of church discipline is tightening up the rolls and removing members who are dead (no, I’m not kidding), have moved away, have stopped attending, or are no longer members in good standing for other reasons. This may not prevent someone from abusing, but at least if he does abuse, the media won’t be able to report that he’s (still) a member of your church, thus tarnishing your church’s, and possibly God’s, good name.

4.
Take Biblical Requirements for Leadership Seriously

It’s not like the Bible doesn’t tell us what kind of man should be a pastor, elder, or deacon. It’s right there, in black and white, twice, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And yet there are churches who barely give those requirements a glance in favor of “more important” qualities they want in a pastor: Does he have at least a master’s degree from seminary? Is he a certain age? Does he rub elbows with Christian celebrities? Does he have a track record of successful building programs, fundraising, and attracting lots of new members? Is he charismatic and a dynamic speaker? None of those things are inherently bad unless they take precedence over the biblical qualifications.

But when churches are hiring men as pastors, youth directors, etc., whom they know have been in prison for abuse, as the Chronicle articles cited, we have to think some other factor is more important to those churches than the biblical requirements. Because someone who has been accused, tried, convicted, and imprisoned by worldly courts for sexual abuse is no longer “above reproach” – the very first requirement in both passages (and Titus mentions it twice for emphasis) – he is not “respectable”, and he is not “well thought of by outsiders”. The very existence of the Chronicle’s articles proves that. It boggles the mind that something like this has to be said to professing Christians who are supposedly spiritually mature and biblically knowledgeable enough to be on the pastor search committees for their churches, but people who have criminal records as sex abusers are permanently disqualified from professional ministry because they no longer meet these biblical requirements. (And just as an aside, if your church has a “no hire” policy for men who have ever been divorced for any reason but yet you’ll hire a convicted sexual abuser…well…I’m just at a loss for words at that level of hypocrisy. OK, maybe one word: repent.)

But, “forgiveness for repentant sinners!” I can hear compassionate Christians cry out. Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a loved one who was radically and genuinely saved while he was in prison for child molestation. God can and does save sexual abusers, and those forgiven Christians need a church home just like everybody else does. We lovingly welcome into membership repentant sinners who are transparent with the church about their previous sin and who volunteer to be kept accountable. But we do not put them back into the position of pastor, elder, deacon, etc., first because they are biblically disqualified, and second, because it is not loving to that person nor to the rest of the church to allow him access to facets of church life that would tempt him back into sin. And it is putting God to the test to intentionally put such a person into a tempting situation as some sort of way of “proving” that God has really saved this person. We would not make a convicted embezzler the church treasurer and we should not be putting sexual abusers in positions that would tempt or allow them to abuse again – even volunteer positions. That doesn’t mean we doubt their salvation or the work God has done in their hearts, that means we recognize that Satan is cruel and crafty and we humbly admit that we still succumb to temptations to sin. It’s not holding a grudge or unforgiveness, it’s exercising biblical wisdom.

5.
Stop Being Afraid

When we allow the fear of man to determine our actions instead of the fear of God, we are in grave spiritual error. Peter and the apostles stood up to the authorities who threatened and imprisoned them, insisted on obeying God’s Word, boldly declared, “We must obey God rather than men,” took their licks like men, went away rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name, and kept right on trucking in obedience to God. How far have we fallen when we won’t even address a brother’s sin with him because we’re afraid of confrontation? When we cover up a predator’s behavior and unleash him on others because we’re afraid of a defamation lawsuit? When we must obey men rather than God because we’re more afraid of the earthly consequences than spiritual consequences – because we don’t trust God to take care of us or His church?

Brothers and sisters, this must not be.

Should we act wisely? Of course. Make sure we’re obeying the law and not hurting anyone as far as we’re able? Certainly. Get some legal advice? Absolutely. But when the rubber meets the road of choosing what’s right in God’s eyes versus what’s safe or comfortable in our own eyes, we choose what’s right in God’s eyes every time and we trust Him with the outcome. The God who parts seas, cools furnaces, and raises the dead is powerful enough to handle court cases and the ire of sinful men. Let us say with the Psalms and the Proverbs:

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
Proverbs 29:25

…in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?
Psalm 56:11

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
Psalm 118:6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
Proverbs 3:5-7

6.
Practical Wisdom

Do the practical stuff. God has given us brains, experience, resources, and promises us wisdom. We would be failing to honor Him if we did not make use of all of those blessings in order to protect our churches from predators.

Perform criminal background checks on all staff members and on anyone who works with children, the disabled, or vulnerable adults regardless of how well you know them or how trustworthy you think they are.

Check references on every employee from the pastor to the janitor. Do it thoroughly and diligently, not flippantly.

Put accountability measures in place such as requiring at least two adults be present in children’s and youth activities and classes at all times. No teen or adult – including the pastor, youth pastor or any other staff member – should ever be alone with a child on church property or at church functions.

Hold training sessions for the whole church on your church’s security measures, and how to report suspicious behavior and suspected abuse. Specifically address parents on the issue of trusting other adults in the church. Time after time, we hear that children are victimized because parents have left their child alone with a pastor or other Christian adult assuming that person was trustworthy. Teach them instead to assume that any adult – regardless of his title or position – who seeks to be alone with a child is untrustworthy.

Explore the services of organizations like Ministry Safe and others who can help you make your church a safer place. Pick the brains of sister churches who have put precautions in place for helpful suggestions and resources.

 

In the aftermath of bombshell news of abuse, the most common line of reasoning is, “How can we fix this? What can we do?”. Thoughts turn to practical solutions. That’s not wrong. In fact, it’s very, very right. We should make every effort to put pragmatic safeguards in place. But we can’t focus on the practical and tangible and leave out the spiritual. Because abuse is a spiritual issue way before it’s a safety issue. And if we get the spiritual part of it right from the get go, we drastically reduce the chances that we’ll have to fall back on practical safety measures. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a church striving to uphold the highest Scriptural standards of holiness will find itself fortified with tons of both.