7 Reasons Evangelicals Struggle to Respond Properly to Allegations of Abuse and Rape

Editor’s Note: contains references to rape, sexual harassment, and abuse.

In light of the Paige Patterson situation (read Rod Dreher’s description of and comments on it here), I’ve been reflecting on why time and time again evangelicals fail to respond properly to allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, or rape.

It looks like pastors telling abuse victims to return home and submit. Urging rape victims not to report crimes to the police. Sharing objectifying comments about young girls met with laughter rather than rebuke. Assuming alleged victims are lying or exaggerating. Handling allegations internally rather than reporting to the authorities and bringing in experts. Being unwilling to examine the evidence. Dismissing those who do as gossips or slanderers.

On the one hand, it blows my mind that people can be so ignorant and/or evil. And on the other hand, I recall that it’s only been in the last few years that I myself have learned about such things. But now that I do know, I see it everywhere—including in the church!

But why is this? Why do people, and particularly conservative Christians, repeatedly fail in these ways? Why the aversion to truth? Why so slow in the ways of justice? Why the failure to love neighbor? Why the disbelief that such evil could be in our midst?

One reason Christians fail is because people fail, and Christians are people. Other reasons relate to beliefs and fears that are specific to evangelical culture. In this second category, I’ve come up with seven reasons why Christians may tend to fail to respond properly to allegations of abuse or rape (or why they cannot tolerate the idea of those they respect having responded poorly). At the end of this article, I’ve included some suggestions for how Christians can respond better—in a manner befitting our commitment to love for one’s neighbor and love for God—and some resources for further study.

  1. A distorted view of authority. God is the ultimate authority and has created earthly authorities. He has given authority to governments, church elders, parents, and others. Christians are right to believe in and properly submit to such authority. The problem comes, however, when an earthly authority is made ultimate and unaccountable, above all critique or criticism. (Behind this is perhaps of fear of anarchy, of the dissolution of rightful authority, as well as a fear of losing control of those under authority.)
  2. Viewing specific churches, denominations, or organizations as ultimate and necessary. Sometimes Christians place too high an importance on specific churches or organizations which can lead to obsession about reputation and appearance over truth and justice. One might call this an idolization of power. This relates to a conflation of the success of a church or denomination with the success of the church or the gospel. People worry that if their organization falls because of “scandal,” the gospel itself will fall.
  3. Ignorance about harassment, abuse, and rape. Some Christians don’t understand abuse dynamics, reasons for delayed reporting, or even the basic definitions of harassment, rape, and abuse. Thus they fail to respond appropriately. Part of this may be because many Christians cannot fathom what it would be like to perpetrate abuse or rape, and they impose their “goodness” on those around them, failing to take into account the depth of evil possible even by professing Christians.
  4. Failure to understand the seriousness of sex crimes. Sometimes Christians engage in “sin leveling” when it comes to sexual sins, failing to recognize that sexual assault is much more grievous than lustful thoughts; in such cases, the result tends to being minimizing of sex crimes. Similarly, some fail to understand that some things are “merely” sinful while other things are both sinful and criminal.
  5. Misplaced opposition to liberalism. In American culture at present, liberals–whether political, cultural, or theological–tend to talk more about rape, harassment, and abuse than conservatives (who talk more about chastity, pornography, and adultery). This has led some conservatives to wrongly conflate opposition to sex crimes with liberalism. Perhaps it is difficult to accept truth when it comes from “the other side.” In my opinion, liberals have much they could learn about sexuality from conservatives; however, a proper understanding of and response to abuse and rape are some of the issues in which conservatives could learn from liberals.
  6. Fear of heroes falling. Humans like to have people to look up to. We love our heroes. The mere suggestion that those whom we respect could be guilty of grossly mishandling allegations of sex crimes (or of the sex crimes themselves!) can be extremely disconcerting. We wonder what will happen to us, and what it says about us, if our heroes are deeply flawed. And so it is easier not to entertain such thoughts, rejecting such accusations as being from “the haters.”
  7. Faulty theology of repentance and reconciliation. At the heart of Christianity are repentance and reconciliation. God, through Christ, reconciles sinful humanity to himself when they repent and believe. This reconciliation is echoed in relationships between people. Reconciliation, however, can be misapplied when victims of abuse are urged to “forgive and forget” at the expense of truth, justice, or healing. Or when the perpetrator feeling bad for being caught is mistaken for genuine repentance. Or when even genuine repentance is seen as necessitating the alleviation of consequences.

In summary, Christians may respond poorly to allegations of abuse due to ignorance, idolatry, fear, or flawed theology. The call, then, is: to embrace truth even when it’s difficult; to trust that Christ will build his church (even if our local churches or denominations fail); and to believe that doing justly on behalf of victims of abuse or rape is right and is actually a better testimony to the watching world than excusing or covering it up.

What Should Christians and Churches Do?

  • Learn about power dynamics and abuse dynamics.
  • Learn to recognize tactics abusers use to cover up their crimes and the likely responses to exposure.
  • Evaluate doctrines of authority, repentance, the church, and reconciliation to see if they are in line with truth.
  • Listen to and support (emotionally and practically) people leaving abusive relationships.
  • Speak up when you witness harassment and objectification.
  • Teach respect, chastity, and consent in your families and communities.
  • Support legislation based on best practices for dealing with harassment, abuse, and rape.
  • Advocate for good policies in churches, organizations, and denominations.
  • Be humble–willing to learn.
  • Admit when you’ve acted or believed wrongly, and seek to make it right.

Sample Resources

This concludes my current ponderings on the way Christians deal with abuse. Thank you for reading—especially as this is a serious and grieving topic. But friends, it is so important!

What about you? How have you seen Christians respond to abuse? What are some other factors that could contribute to poor responses? And what resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn more?

Until next time,

~Hannah 🌸

Check out some of my previous articles:

Believing Jane: Reflections on a Rape and it’s Cover-Up at The Master’s College & Seminary

When Traditional Values Create Toxic Churches

Why Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel are Different Manifestations of the Same Thing

When you hear the phrase “Prosperity Gospel,” you might imagine the luxurious mansions and perfect health supposedly promised to any person with faith enough to claim it. The term “Fundamentalism,” on the other hand, may conjure images of stern people in conservative clothing threatening others into good behavior. What could these possibly have in common? Quite a lot, actually.

Both Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel see good things as a reward for good people who make good choices. For the Prosperity Gospel, faith and positivity unlock wealth and health. For Fundamentalism, holiness and submission lead to happiness and success. In essence, the Prosperity Gospel says, “If you have enough faith, then you will be happy and successful,” while Fundamentalism says, “If you make good choices, then you will be happy and successful.” But God doesn’t work that way, and nowhere does he promise health in exchange for faith or happiness in exchange for holiness.

There are some unsettling and heartbreaking implications to this way of thinking. For one, trials in life are seen as the result of personal failure, whether failure of faith or of holiness. Success, on the other hand, is a reward for those who do enough or believe enough. If a person struggles, it is because they are inadequate. And if a person is happy and life is going great, it is because they are great. Those who experience difficulty, therefore, can be judged and should be fixed. And those who are successful can be honored and should be followed.

Let’s look at some examples. In the case of sickness, the Prosperity Gospel urges people to “just have faith” that a reversal of fortunes is just around the corner. A person who believes such nonsense will tell the sufferer to believe better so they can get better, rather than compassionately sitting with the sufferer in the midst of the mess. In fact, when people with this view encounter suffering, they must either believe that the sufferer lacks sufficient faith or reexamine their entire worldview!

In another example, Rachel Joy Welcher recently spoke on Twitter (@racheljwelcher) about Fundamentalism’s view that abstinence guarantees a happy and problem-free marriage. The idea is that abstaining from sexual activity before marriage earns you the reward of blissful marital intimacy and lack of relational conflict. In other words, do good to earn happiness. One problem with this is that when these rewards do not manifest, people feel confused and guilty. Here’s what Rachel says:

Common in Christian dating and purity books from my teen years was the promise that waiting until marriage for sex guaranteed a good marriage. Included in this promise was the idea that the greatest trial your relationship would endure was this waiting. The expectations this creates. The turmoil and fear and false-guilt when marriage is difficult – more difficult than abstinence. One book I read last night promised that “if you wait…you’ll make babies with great celebration” and that sex will be “a blast.” What happens when starting a family is full of loss and pain? When your sex-life is not “a blast”? When those who did all the “right things” and wrote the “lists” are getting divorced?

There are other commonalities between the Prosperity Gospel and Fundamentalism besides false if-then promises. These include the idealization of leaders and a theology that is too enmeshed with a specific cultural context. However, these are topics for another time. For now, let’s look at what the Bible actually teaches and how it challenges these faulty beliefs. 

First of all, the Bible teaches that all people, including good Christians, will experience difficult times (take a look at the book of Job!) and the full range of emotions (see the book of Psalms or Jesus in the Gospels). It does not promise that we will see happy resolutions to our suffering in this lifetime or that we will be successful if we work hard enough. To teach otherwise is inconsistent with what is true.

Second, life’s challenges–ill health, marital strife, or other difficulties–are sometimes the result of our own sin or foolishness. But other times they are because of the brokenness of this world, another person’s sin, a corrupt society, or the Devil. Most often, difficulties occur because of some combination of these reasons. To assume the cause of suffering is always just one of these is not fair to the teaching of Scripture.

Third, the Bible urges us to have faith, to trust in God’s character and God’s promises. However, it is not our faith that unlocks God’s character or allows him to keep his promises. He is who he is regardless of our belief or unbelief; our faith does not create reality. The very fact that God’s character and promises are not dependant on us is the one of the reasons he is worthy of our trust!

Fourth, God does call us to holiness in all areas of life, both as individuals and as communities (see Romans 12-16, Ephesians 4-6). The Book of Proverbs even enumerates the ways that living according to goodness and wisdom may lead to blessings! But our right choices do not guarantee blessings and may even lead to more difficulties (again, see Job).

And finally, regarding motivations for holiness, the Bible provides several motivations beyond the potential happy outcomes. There is the hope of reward in heaven, the call to live according to our new life in Christ (Romans 12:2-2), and the desire to bring God glory. Again, Rachel Joy Welcher has some excellent thoughts on this specifically as relates to sexual purity.

Lovers of God, do we need more motivation (great marriage, lots of babies, great sex, easy-sailing after the alter, etc.) to obey our Savior, than His glory? These books. So full of promises. Dangled carrots. Cultural references. There are lots of reasons people practice abstinence before marriage. Christians should not pursue purity to ensure a trial-free future (this is never a promise in Scripture) or their own personal fulfillment. Christians pursue purity for the glory of God. Because He is our King. And we fail & fumble at this. Some endure theft & rape. Purity isn’t virginity, fitting into a white dress or having the same story, history or future as everyone else. It’s about loving God so much that obeying Him is worship, failing Him is repentance & accepting grace is daily.

Rather than promising escape from earthly trials either through faith or through holy living, the Bible promises that God is with his people in the midst of difficult times. Christians may or may not see success and happiness on this Earth, and we do a disservice when we promise otherwise. Instead we can walk in faith and obedience, coming alongside those who are hurting in order to be a tangible reminder of God’s presence with them in their troubles.

So let us not fall prey to the lies of if-then religiosity in any of its forms. Instead may we embrace the whole counsel of Scripture, walking in holiness and putting our faith in God, not because we believe we are guaranteed happy results, but in order to live as those who are in Christ and whose destination is heaven, where all things will be made whole. ❤️

~Hannah

Check out Rachel Joy Welcher (@racheljwelcher): https://twitter.com/racheljwelcher?s=09 A big thank you to her for her insights and inspiration! 

Homily: Ghosts in Church

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“And to the angel at the church in Sardis write: These are the words of Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a theif, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before His angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” – Revelation 3:1-6, NRSV

Flannery O’Connor once said that while the south is hardly Christ-centered, it is most assuredly Christ-haunted. I thought that that was such a profound statement especially considering what part of the south I’m from. I live close to Russellville, Arkansas where there are roughly 120 churches. There is practically a church on every corner, and yet our town doesn’t seem very Christ-centered.

Of course, it’s easy for us to look outside the four walls of our church and see how morally bankrupt the rest of the world is, but what would we see if we looked in our own hearts? Will we find that are hearts are Christ-centered or Christ-haunted? Are we actively living our faith or are we simply ghosts, remnants of what used to be?

For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a slow read through the book of Revelation and every once in a while it seems like the Holy Spirit will poke me on the shoulder and say, “Pay attention, I’m talking to you” and when He does I soak in the passage and I am drawn closer to Christ through an outcry for repentance. And that sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it’s not. It’s painful. I think sometimes I make it more painful than it has to be. I don’t know about you, but I find myself in a rush trying to be holy NOW, and then I end up messing up again. I want to hurry to do enough ‘holy’ things to make up for the sinful things I’ve done, but the reality of the situation is that my sin was already paid for by the blood of Jesus. So, what must I do? Listen.

Notice the last words of Jesus in this passage, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” So, what will I hear if I listen? His voice telling me to “remember what I’ve received and heard and to obey it.” So, did I receive and hear? The Gospel. The good news that Jesus came to save sinners like me. How do I obey it? By repentance and belief. I must repent of my sins and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead to declare victory over all sin.

If I listen closely to what the Spirit saying, I can also hear Him telling me to wake up. One of my favorite passages is found in the book of Ephesians, and it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Paul quotes from an old hymn of the first century Church that alludes to Isaiah 26:19 which is a promise of God to His people that their dead shall awake from their slumber, and one stanza of that particular verse says, “O dwellers of the dust, awake and sing for joy!” The Holy Spirit is telling us that the time for taking a spiritual dirt nap is over! We must come alive, see the glory of God, repent and be saved, be sanctified, and be filled with the Holy Spirit!

 

Present(s) In the World

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:13-16 (ESV)

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” – Ephesians 5:6-11 (ESV)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” – 1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)

“The principle by which we live is not “how can I avoid contact with the world so as to be separate from it?” Rather, it is “how can I live in the world yet be free from its influence and by my life actually expose its contagion?” …As the light of the world, we shine in its darkness; as the salt of the earth, we preserve only if we are present in it.” 
– Sinclair B. Ferguson, Guidelines For Separation (Article in Tabletalk, June 2014, pg. 17)

As I think about these passages of Scripture and the Sinclair Ferguson quote, I’m reminded of a Jewish sect called The Essenes. The Essenes weren’t talked about much in the New Testament because they chose to live monastic lives in the wilderness because they wanted to remain separate from the world and not be stained by the culture. The Essenes were reported to be some of the most honest, studious, morally upright, and God-fearing people the world had ever known, but they eventually died out because they refused to live within a culture of people outside themselves.

As Christians, I think we can be guilty of the same thing. Let’s think about small churches that have 10-15 active members all over the age of 70. More than likely, that church won’t be around for too much longer. More than likely, it’s because somewhere along the way, the church decided it was better to live outside the culture than to live in it.

Let me clarify some things. We just read in 1st John 2 that we shouldn’t love world or the things in the world, but Jesus tells us that we are lights in the world in Matthew 5. Are these contradictory statements? No. As a matter of fact these passages of Scripture present us with a powerful truth. We are in the world, but not of it. We cannot be lights in the culture of the world if we refuse to live outside of it. That’s why I have my weekly Bible study at Hastings. It’s a coffee shop and a bookstore. It’s the epicenter of culture in our town. All different kinds of people walk in there of different religions, ethnicities, and walks of life. I have my Bible study there because the gospel is for all people of any background.

As Christians we cannot deny that we are in the world. It does us no good to try to live outside of the world while we’re here. However, we are not present in the world, but we are also presents in the world. As Christians, we are gifts to world because we have something that they need, the gospel. As we live out the gospel, we show the light of Christ and the light of Christ exposes the works of darkness in the world as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 and shows the world that there is a better way.

Today, pray about how you can be a light in the world.

Sacred: Part 3: Growth and Maturity

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” – 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4 (ESV)

“All in favor of impeaching J. J. Parker as the senior pastor of Nickel Grove Free Will Baptist Church say Aye.”

A chorus of ‘ayes’ and it was done.  23-year-old J. J. Parker was no longer the pastor of the small church that had voted him in a little under a year ago. What was the reason? Was it financial infidelity? Was it sexual promiscuity? Did he preach heresy? Did he have a hidden problem with drugs or alcohol? No. Even worse. He voluntarily paid for the church to have new carpet. Not even a new carpet color, just new carpet. And when he moved the pews back, he forgot put Brother Taylor’s pew back in the third row. This wasn’t just any pew. This was a pew that Brother Taylor had placed there in memory of his father who had been a deacon at this church for 32 years. This careless act of forgetting to place that pew back in the third row had gotten him voted out just as quickly as he was voted in.

This story is based on true events that happen in churches all across the country all the time. Why does this happen? Why can’t a church keep a pastor for more than a year or two at a time? Immaturity. That’s all it boils down to. People are immature in their faith and they begin to identify themselves with a person or a movement other than Christ. It’s okay to be fans of some theologians or follow some movements to see what God is doing through them, but it’s never okay to place your faith in that person or movement because they can fail.

Churches often place their identity with a pastor that catered to their every whim and did things exactly the way they wanted them to be done and as a result they handicapped that church and left them to wallow in their immaturity when it came time for them to leave that pastoral position. This is a disadvantage not only to the congregation, but to the new incoming pastor that has to clean up the mess that the old pastor left behind.

What Paul addresses in this passage is maturity and growth. He is writing to them a second time (1st Corinthians is actually the second letter to the Corinthians because the first letter was never recovered, thus 2nd Corinthians is actually the third letter), and he’s not perfect people by any means, but he is expecting a people that have grown since the last time he wrote to them. He’s thoroughly disappointed.

Parents, imagine you’ve potty-trained your baby. They are now independently going to the bathroom on their own. Then one day you’re in the living room and your child is play with his/her toys and you see that familiar look on their face and that all too familiar odor creeps into the room. After once going to the bathroom on their own. They’ve pooped their pants. This is no accident. This is a regression back to days gone by when making the effort to go to the bathroom was even an issue and someone else could clean up the mess. This is exactly what Paul is feeling at this point when the Corinthians are exhibiting immaturity and lack of growth.

Ultimately, what is happening is that these people are attaching their faith to a person rather than putting their faith in Christ.

“For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?”
– 1 Corinthians 3:4 (ESV)

The Corinthians are forgetting that guys like Apollos and Paul had to be trained in godliness just like they are being trained in godliness (Acts 18:24-28). We idolize people instead of worshiping, loving, and receiving instruction from Jesus. In the end, when we truly submit to God’s Spirit we allow Him make us mature and grow us in the beauty of His holiness.

Confessions: Unforgiveness and Bitterness

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” – [Ephesians 4:29-32 NLT]

I know a lot of times I post about theology but there are other times, like now, that I just like I need to share with you from my heart. Recently, I’ve discovered that I’ve been holding unforgiveness and bitterness in my heart against some people that I didn’t even know that I had resentment against. I’ve just been talking a lot of things through lately with myself and someone else that I love dearly and I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t hold unforgiveness back in my heart anymore over something that happened two and a half years ago. Holding a grudge is only destructive to the person who is holding the grudge. There’s nothing that you gain from continually being angry over things that don’t affect you anymore.

In these verses in Ephesians we find Paul talking to the church at Ephesus instructing them not to use foul or abusive language. I like what the Good News Bible says in verse 29:

“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.” – [Ephesians 4:29 GNB]

After reading this and continuing to read in verse 30, you find that using harmful words is in conjunction with grieving the Holy Spirit. God gave us a tongue to use wholesome speech for His glory. We’re supposed to use positive words to help people and be blessing. Lately, I’ve been guilty of complaining too much when I’ve been blessed far beyond what I deserve.

What I find interesting is that these ‘harmful words’ are not only in conjunction with grieving the Holy Spirit but apparently they are also connected with bitterness and unforgiveness. The reason they are connected is because in Luke it says:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” – [Luke 6:45 ESV]

If we really speak what is out of our heart then if our speech is negative then we need to examine our heart. The word for ‘harmful’, in the Greek, literally means something that is putrid or rotten. When I think of something that is rotten I think of something that is dead. When we hold unforgiveness in our hearts it will come out in our speech and we will hold on to dead issues that cause our hearts and our speech to be rotten and it will cause the hearers of that speech to feel rotten as well about your situation. But when our speech is good it will do good to those that hear it. The word for ‘good’, in the Greek, is the word charis which is also used for the word, grace. This leads me to believe that when our speech is good and wholesome it communicates something to the hearers about the grace of God. As your thinking about this, let God begin to melt your heart and take out things that don’t need to have any place there. You are loved by the King of Kings! Be blessed!