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

Late Night Theology Podcast, Episode 8: General Ranting… and Sergeant Sarcasm

LNTPodcastOpener (3)

This episode was recorded on March 5th, 2017.

In this episode, Logan and Tom are joined by Philip Willis as we cover a variety of topics that include preaching, worship, racism, the SBC, and legalism. You don’t want to miss it.

Links

The SBC’s Decision to Investigate Dr. Russell Moore

Why the South Would’ve Killed Spurgeon

Albert Mohler – Expository Preaching—The Antidote to Anemic Worship 

Ben Wirthington – Sexuality and Scripture 

Mark Ongly – The Church and Homosexuality 

Ashley Easter – Why the Church Loves to Talk About Sex Trafficking, But Not Domestic Abuse 

Late Night Theology Audio Archive 

T. Austin-Sparks

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Exegesis and the Small Church Mentality

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“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” – 2 Timothy 4:2, NIV

“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.” – 2 Timothy 4:2, KJV

It was exactly 4:30 PM on a Thursday night, laying on my bed, listening to Radio Free Geneva where he was talking about how politics not impacts exegesis, but determines exegesis in Southern Baptist congregations and when I heard these words come from Dr. James White’s mouth, and I instantly gave him an audible “Amen.” Actually, it was more like an “A-f***ing-men.”

White said that you shouldn’t underestimate the power that politics plays in determining exegesis of Scripture in the Southern Baptist Convention. I resonated so well with his comments because I saw this first hand, but not in the SBC. Let me stop here and explain. I spent 3 years in a reformed (lower case ‘r’) Southern Baptist Church where the politics wasn’t necessarily an issue, but they definitely had some horror stories to tell from the SBC church that they came from before planting their church. Where I mostly saw politics play a role in exegesis was these small, non-denominational, Pentecostal, and Free Will Baptist churches. So, that told me that this wasn’t a problem that was limited to any denomination or any particular theological movement. This is something that’s going on in smaller churches, and not all smaller churches either, but I’m willing to bet about 90% of all churches with an active membership of 50 people or less.

Most of the time (not always, but most of the time), if you see a small church there’s a reason why it’s small – hardly anybody wants to go to a church where the sermon is about “the evils of socialism” every freaking week. We, as Christians, believe (or should believe) in a fundamental separation of church and state. Now, to what extent you believe in that separation is up for debate. Personally, I believe in an absolute separation of church and state because I don’t think God needs the assistance of Christians in the government to rule and reign over the earth that He’s created, but that’s just me. I guess if you don’t think God is doing a good enough on His own, you can keep voting Republican. “Hey God, I saw that the world was to hell in a handbasket so I thought I would give you some help by voting for Trump. No need to thank me, I’m just doing my civic duty.”

Going back to the subject of exegesis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer hit the nail on the head when he said, “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” Now, if this were true in Bonhoeffer’s day how much more true is it now? Now, like I said, it’s not just small churches that do this. Cornerstone Church in San Antonio is the worst. John Hagee preaches week after week that the government is going to start lobbing our heads off any minute now so we need to start keeping an eye on our dispensational timeline charts to see what chapter of the book of Revelation we’re in this week. Now, I haven’t heard a single Hagee sermon since the election, but I’m willing to bet that since Trump is the President Elect, Hagee is ready to convert to Post-Millennialism even as week speak. There seems to be a trend among dispensationalist to read into the text of Scripture what isn’t there. They do this by comparing Israel to America. They tend to take Old Testament passages of Scripture concerning Israel and saying that those passages apply to America when, in fact, they do not.

This is a common habit among pastors in smaller churches. They tend preach that the physical nation of Israel is still “God’s chosen people” so we should pray for Israel and honor Israel. Then they start preaching about how “evil” it is to not show political support for Israel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting Israel, but it is solely for political reasons. My reasons for supporting Israel have nothing to do with my faith or my interpretation of Scripture. But, these small church pastors are, for the most part, uneducated. They get their learning from watching guys like John Hagee and Perry Stone instead of actually cracking open a reasonable Bible commentary over the book of Revelation. (As far as commentaries go, I would rather a pastor use Wilhelm Brakel’s commentary over Revelation than for them to go by what John Hagee or Perry Stone is teaching, and that’s saying something because Brakel is Postmillennial and I hate Postmillennialism with a fiery burning passion. The only way Postmillennialism makes sense is you’re either a Universalist or if you’re in favor of a Christian version of Sharia Law.)

But I digress, the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “exegesis” as “The act of interpreting or explaining the meaning of verses or passages of Scripture.” So, if this is the true meaning of exegesis, then can we say that a lot of our smaller churches are really exegeting Scripture? I say with a resounding voice, “NO.” When you tell your congregation that America (and the Church) is Israel then you are completely ignoring Romans 9 and you are ignoring the promises of God to His elect people in Ephesians 1 and 2, and there’s no telling how many other passages you’re ignoring.

That’s not even the tip of the iceberg. You’ve got so many other exegetical problems in these smaller churches that it’s unreal. In a lot of churches that aren’t Southern Baptist, you’ve got pastors telling their congregation that they can lose their salvation at the drop of hat. They offer little to no comfort to those of us who struggle with assurance, and they completely ignore every promise of assurance that God gives to His people and say that it only applies to people who “live right.” They make no distinction between law and gospel in their preaching. RJ Grunewald says, “Christians, including preachers, routinely confuse the Law and Gospel, misapplying both. Confusion results: Some needlessly suffer under a burdened conscience as they live under the crushing weight of the Law, while others dismiss the Law (unrepentant sinners) and ignorantly bask in grace they find outside of Christ’s work on their behalf.”

When you step into the pulpit you carry a very weighty task of explaining a text in the context of the whole Bible, and distinguishing between law and grace.

“Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.” – CFW Walther

If you’ve been able to sit through this angry rant, let me know what you think and let’s talk about it.

Blessings, Logan.