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

It’s All About Jesus, Part 1: The Christ Hymn

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” – [Colossians 1:15-20 NIV]

This section of Scripture found in Colossians is often referred to, by many Scholars, as ‘The Christ Hymn’ because many scholars believe that it was sung during worship in the early church. The origin of this hymn is not known but some think that it came from various sources ranging from the Stoic persuasion to the Hellenistic-Jewish persuasion. Regardless of it’s origin, it declares the preeminence and supremacy in Christ in all things. What we have here is one of the finest descriptions of who Jesus is that we can find in the Bible. In one of his sermons, Louie Giglio calls this the hymn of all creation.

       1. The Preeminence of Christ in Creation (1:15-17)

Verse 15 starts off by telling of His heavenly origin. We find in Romans 8:29, Paul calls Jesus the first born among many brethren and now in Colossians Paul goes deeper and says that Jesus is the first born among all of creation. According to Adam Clarke, “The phraseology is Jewish; and as they apply it to the Supreme Being merely to denote his eternal pre-existence, and to point him out as the cause of all things; it is most evident that St. Paul uses it in the same way.”

Laminin

In verse 16, we see that the writer of this hymn emphasizes the work of creation in powers and authorities and makes it known that all of these things, whether upon the earth or dwelling heavenly realms, were created for the glory and supremacy of Christ. Everything that God does will bring glory to Him in some way, shape, or form. In Isaiah when God says that no word will go forth void (Isaiah 55:10-11) he means that everything he speaks is for a specific time and purpose and, it will accomplish that purpose in it’s appointed time. Going back to verse 16, everything was created for a specific time and purpose.

In verse 17, Paul says that Christ is before all things. This phrase reaffirms verse 15 where it speaks about Christ being the firstborn among all of creation. In the latter part of this verse shows us that in Christ all things hold together. We find here the Greek word synesteken, meaning that connotes preservation or coherence. In the RSV reading of this verse it says, “in Him all things consist.” This verse is truer than what we might think. In our bodies there is a cell membrane called, Laminin. I’ve posted about this topic before. According to Wikipedia, “The laminins are a family of glycoproteins that are an integral part of the structural scaffolding in almost every tissue of an organism. They are secreted and incorporated into cell-associated extracellular matrices. Laminin is vital for the maintenance and survival of tissues.” Without these laminins, our limbs would literally fall apart. What’s even more amazing is that these laminins are in the shape of a cross. The writer was scarily accurate in saying that in Christ, all things hold together!

     2. The Preeminence of Christ in the Church

Paul starts off in verse 18 by discussing Christ’s function as head of the church. Dr. Augustus Neander says, “The Church is His body by virtue of His entering into communion corporeally with human nature.” This proves the idea that Paul wants his readers to know that Christ exercises his authority in the universe through the church. In verse 18, Paul notes that he is the firstborn from among dead meaning that he is the only to rise from dead and die no more (as opposed to Lazarus who died a second after being raised form the dead in John 11) so that, once again Christ might have supremacy and preeminence in all things thus proving that Christ is sovereign over the living as well as the dead.

In verse 19, Paul explains that it pleased God for his fullness to dwell in his son, Jesus. When you read this verse you must read it in correlation to John 3:34-35 and Matthew 28:18:

“For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” – [John 3:34-35 ESV]

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” – [Matthew 28:18 ESV]

The father has given all things, including the church, into Christ’s hand and he has all power and all authority.

Verse 20 is the culmination of all this, “..that he might reconcile all things …by making peace through his blood.” Everything that Christ does through the church it is so that all things might be reconciled unto Himself through the shedding of His blood. I found the Apologetics Study Bible enlightening on this verse.

“This passage does not teach universalism (all will be saved) but instead points forward to Messiah’s quelling all rebellion, bringing lasting peace to the universe. The “reconciliation” here entails a pacification of evil powers (as 2:15 makes clear).” – The Apologetics Study Bible

In the commentary for Colossians 2:15 the Apologetics Study Bible says:

No contradiction exists here between Paul’s statement that the principalities and powers have been defeated and his assumption elsewhere that the powers are still virulently active and that believers need to fight against them (e.g., Eph 6:12). The cross of Christ is the point of decisive victory over the powers of evil; believers can now be victorious over them through their union with Christ. They will be vanquished once and for all at the end of the age. – The Apologetics Study Bible

There are two realms in which this reconciliation operates: the present and in the future. The present blessing of reconciliation is that you’ve been adopted into the family of God and you are made a co-heir with Christ according to Romans 8:17. The future blessing of reconciliation is that evil work and every power and principality will be obliterated and we (the Church) will enjoy the presence of Christ and be eternally consummated to Him. If you’re wondering about the past blessing of reconciliation it’s this: there is none because the blood of Jesus Christ has washed away your sinful past. The only thing that matters is your present and your future.