A Commentary on Sexual Abuse in the Evangelical Church
by Sarah Taras and Marci Preheim
Both Sarah and I (Marci) have found ourselves in the seat of advocacy for abuse victims. Neither of us sought these roles. They found us. We have discovered that exposing abuse can be a dangerous business as it directs abuse away from victims and onto whistle-blowers. But if giving a voice to abuse victims is a way to help carry their burdens (Gal 6:2), we are happy to do it. Having escaped abusive and controlling fundamentalist churches ourselves, we have found freedom in Jesus on the other side—enough freedom to speak out for others who are still stuck in their grip. We know the drill and we don’t care. We will not be silenced by bullies.
Recently, I (Sarah) have stood helplessly on the sidelines of the most unconscionable grief. I’ve held hands and cried with a single mother whose young teenage son was raped by a “friend” from church. I couldn’t take away her pain, though I wanted to so badly. I could only sit with her in it, listen, and point her to Jesus.
Herein lies the problem. She turned to the only place she knew to find Jesus—the church. There, instead of protection, care and assistance, she was further abused, silenced, falsely accused, financially impoverished, and kicked to the curb. Instead of protecting her and her son, the church protected, nurtured, and cared for the rapist. They did not inform other parents of the danger that comes with having a rapist in the congregation, nor did they limit the perpetrator’s access to other children. How has the Christian church become so backward and naïve when it comes to sexual abuse?
I remember when Catholics were in the hot seat for covering up sexual abuse in the priesthood. Evangelicals had a field day calling out those sick, cloaked bastards like they were Nicolae Carpathia and we were Kirk Cameron. “See!!! This is what happens when you make up rules for people to follow that aren’t in the Bible!” We waved around 1 Timothy 4:3 like a confederate flag at a lynching (as if marriage is the cure for pedophilia—but that is a blog post for another day).
But what about when it happens on Evangelical soil? Just like Catholics excuse abuse because “the church does so much good,” Evangelicals excuse it because “our teaching and doctrine are so solid.” Our self-righteousness has made us blind to our own inconsistencies. Somewhere along the way, politics have trumped love in Christianity. Our hypocrisy is hard to miss, except that we are willfully blind to it. Paul exhorted the Corinthians that there was “sexual immorality among them of a kind that does not occur even among pagans”(1 Cor 5:1). Pretty sure child abuse fits that category too. Just like the Corinthians (and the Catholics), Evangelicals handle it by covering it up.
Christians hold to certain convictions that we love to showcase via politics. We will fight to the death to outlaw abortion. We will picket until our arms fall off. We post photos of dead babies to prove just how evil abortion is, and drown our friends with facts about precisely when life begins. But then, in a twist of irony, we refuse to protect children after they are born.
Facebook is full of Christians ranting about things like integrity, character, justice, and mercy. We pride ourselves on Christian conservative values, while we point to “evil liberals who don’t care about human life, but only want to control us and turn our Nation into a socialist country!” We even call them “bleeding heart liberals.” But it seems like conservative Christian hearts don’t bleed at all. What’s wrong with this picture? (“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35)
Let me be clear that I have zero political affiliation. This isn’t even about politics. This is about our embarrassingly obvious inconsistencies. Evangelicals swear on their worn out Bibles that they value life and human rights with one hand, while they disregard and blatantly scorn those very things with the other.
We are no different from the Catholic priests who preach morality while acting immorally behind closed doors. Those who cover for pedophiles are protecting their paychecks and reputations rather than the littlest sheep in their congregations. Their sins were not exposed. The Bible says that “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” than to injure these little ones. Those priests were transferred to a different district in secrecy where they were free to abuse again. Evangelicals don’t even transfer their sex-offenders. They keep them around.
If abuse requires silence, deception, and wordsmithing to flourish, then the way to kill it is to bring it into the light (John 3:19-21). Rather than managing information, tell the truth clearly and let the consequences fall to the perpetrator (that he might run to Jesus under the weight of it), not the victim.
I watched horrified, as congregants with a desire to protect church leaders, joined in the bully match against the mother of the rape victim. She was called a gossip, a messenger of Satan, a tool in Satan’s hand to infiltrate the church, an attention seeker, out of control, bitter, unforgiving, angry, disobedient to leadership, inappropriate, a liar, a troublemaker, in sin, harassing, an unbeliever, deceptive, and an accuser.
She was instructed that neither she, nor her son may speak about the incident to anyone. To do so in light of the rapist’s “repentance” would be sinful gossip. She was coerced to drop the lawsuit to cover her son’s medical bills from the incident, because they said it is shameful to sue a brother in Christ. Then they took away her employment, leaving her destitute and unable to pay the mounting medical bills.
Instead of hugging her child and standing with him in his pain, he was labeled a “homosexual” leaving him to feel defined by his abuse. He was told that “because he is a sinner, he deserves worse than what he experienced” and that “God will use whatever means necessary to call him to repentance.” I guess if you can justify why the victim of abuse somehow deserved it, then you are off the hook to help. This boy and his mother were condemned and kicked out of fellowship. The rapist received comfort and full access to church life.
When a church refuses to listen to the voice of the afflicted, not only do they perpetuate abuse, causing deeper wounds, they enable the abuser to abuse again. Why do shepherds not protect the flock from wolves? Why do pastors and elders allow our children to be feasted upon and go to such lengths to pretend as though it never happened?
Whether Catholic or Protestant, it is the same story every time. Is there a script that these church leaders follow? Is there a manual for how to ruin someone’s life—someone who has already suffered enough anguish to last a lifetime? Why do we bully the broken? Why was this child expected to pull himself together and attend church service with his abuser? Why was the pastor in such a hurry to “reconcile” the abused child with his abuser and assume equal blame between the two? Why is it more important for the institution to save face than it is to love the broken?
When you silence a victim of sex abuse, you are not asking them to cover a minor offense against a fellow believer. You are asking them to cover a crime! When scandal erupts in your church, ask yourself if a crime is being covered and a victim blamed. In the case of this woman and her son, there are police reports, medical examinations, confessions and convictions backed by a district attorney, and assessments from professional counselors — all pointing to factual evidence that abuse occurred. Even with documented facts, it is difficult to get Evangelicals to think for themselves and clearly see cover-up efforts. Would you be like the priest or Levite who turned away, or the Samaritan, who stooped to help?
Might I also point out that our own government has deemed it necessary to post lists of sex offenders, their specific violations, and their addresses for public view. The government does this for the protection of the people — shall we go ahead and accuse the government of gossip too? Sound ridiculous? That’s because it IS!
God ordains legal authorities to intervene when the situation warrants it. Romans 13:1-5 tells us that government officials are servants for our good, and Christians should not be slow to call upon them when needed. A pastor cannot act as a pastor, policeman, psychologist, prosecutor, defender, judge and jury. Only one of those roles is his—to point people to the Savior.
Love does cover a multitude of sins. But an abuser needs Jesus to cover his sins, not people. I get it. If my (Marci) adult son was convicted of a sex crime, I would want to cover it for him. Because I love him so much, I would want to save him from the consequences. He would not feel the burden of his own sin because his mom stepped in as Jesus to carry it for him. The problem is, I am not Jesus. I cannot carry or forgive or justify anyone in the sight of God. As long as people step in to cover and carry the consequences of sin for sexual abusers, they will not seek Jesus for relief from the burden.
Does Christ’s shed blood cover and forgive a sexual offender? Yes. But that person’s victim cannot carry their shame and guilt for them—nor should they be required to do so. It is not the fault of the abused that they suffered at the hands of their abuser. Anytime someone shuns or silences the abused, the outcast, the mourner, they are anti-gospel. In that moment they are the furthest from looking like Jesus. Jesus defended the defenseless.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.” Isaiah 42:3