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Abuse in Church

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Do I share my story? Do I share friend’s stories? Do I pick on a denomination? Do I pull a quote from the New York Times? Sadly, abuse of all forms hits the church. Abuse can be verbal, physical, spiritual, sexual and results in ongoing mistreatment of another. Church abuse is always compounded by the spiritual nature of the influence a pastor, leader or mentor has. I am not a professional counselor and most people reading this aren’t either. We can however learn from others to not repeat mistakes that church after church fall into once they hear of abuse in their midst. May our churches more and more be places of refuge and healing for abuse victims rather than an easy target for abusers.

What can be done?

Many people assume silence allows neutrality, but with issues of abuse silence empowers the abuser and actively harms victims. Silence is not neutral; it is deafening to survivors.

Yet, most people are paralyzed with what to do when confronted with the possibility of this happening in their church. There is a powerful human desire to deny something that bad could happen among people I love. That isn’t a bad gut reaction, society wouldn’t operate very well if we walked around assuming the worst in everyone! However, when something horrific does happen this same tendency increases the need of resolve on our part to stand with the most vulnerable in our midst.

Let us not forget that Jesus can handle sin; the gospel is powerful! Yet, in many “bible believing churches” it seems the application of Jesus words are for others. My desire is to see churches move towards Jesus in bringing healing. To do that we first have to acknowledge that a lot of church actions actually make things worse: Here is a list of six actions to avoid that churches repeatedly do when dealing with abuse in their midst:

1. Churches make it worse in the name of protecting the reputation of Christ. This is really just cowardice on the part of boards who are just protecting their own reputation, tithe dollars and small corner of power. The name of Christ doesn’t need a churches PR actions. The watching world needs to see the people of God deal with abusers in a way that brings full legal consequence to bear and protects the vulnerable who have been abused. Our neighbors will be drawn to that kind of community.

2. Churches make it worse when the advice of insurance companies and lawyers are the loudest voices in the room. What if the most Jesus thing to do is risk litigation to care for the vulnerable and oppressed? Even corporations don’t do everything a lawyer tells them, but somehow church boards end up using this as an excuse to ignore clear biblical teaching. Humble confession and genuine repentance will never be legal advice. Whose voice will the church follow? Be wise, consult counsel and then move with Jesus.

3. Churches make it worse focusing more on abusers than victims. Everyone loves a good redemption story and we certainly want to celebrate those. However, church leaders naively think a tearful apology by a serial abuser once they are caught is all that is needed. The abuser gets off relatively easy and the survivors whose lives have been devastated are brushed aside and seen as "taking too long" to get over it. Very often it is at this point churches quickly restore the abuser to celebrate a turnaround while the survivors have long ago been left to pick up their lives alone. Again, move with Jesus to walk for the years necessary to heal survivors, what a beautiful gospel ministry.

4. Churches make it worse by focusing to quickly on forgiveness rather than justice. Grace is powerful, but it is not a short cut. I wrote more about this here because it is an epidemic. Trust the Holy Spirit’s conviction in a believer’s life. Healing should be on the timeline of the abused rather than the convenience of the church. The church wants to move on, but that is not a luxury the victims have. When someone has been abused, they don’t need to be told, “forgive them”, they need to know the seriousness of what has taken place is understood and is no longer being minimized. Pushing forgiveness as contingent to a healing process early on is a form of spiritual abuse.

5. Churches make it worse by not reaching out to professionals for help. Police, professional counselors, and other agencies who deal with this daily are a resource. These partners also protect everyone involved from bias that is certain to come into play since in a church these are often people we know and love.

6. Churches make it worse assuming this would never happen in their church. Every church should have a sexual misconduct policy every employee signs. Ideally, it would cover broader abuse of power and be clear in what steps will be taken should lines be crossed. This can then be used as a template for volunteers and give leadership a starting point should abuse hit. There are many examples of these. Here is one such template.

The good news is that churches are better equipped than any other organization to deal with abuse.

The church is a family and has the Spirit of God active in each member. When elders, pastors and leaders in the church are transparent and seek outside help they model for a congregation how to care well. When abuse takes place in the church, real healthy leaders are those who take responsibility and step into the mess, step into hard conversations, step into places where Jesus is present and see the Spirit work.

Here is just the tip of the iceberg of my go to resources I would encourage anyone wanting to educate themselves to start with. If overwhelmed, buy Wade Mullen’s book, Something’s Not Right: Decoding The Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from its Power. Or, google Diane Langberg and watch a few YouTube videos to get started:

Gospel of Matthew – Look at how Jesus treats people and power.

Psalm 31 – Consider the emotion contained in the psalm as putting words to what many survivors feel, but are unable to articulate.

I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction

and knew the anguish of my soul. Psalm 31:7


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