The Church as Rescuer of the Abused and the Restorer of the Abuser
Are Current Church Guidelines Enough? How Can We Restore the Abuser and Also Get at the Roots?
Pictured are messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention voting on sex abuse guidelines
As a licensed professional counselor, the treatment of abused individuals is an ongoing concern for me. Sexual abuse in the church has been in the national news for decades and it hasn’t stopped. For years the Roman Catholic Church has been in focus related to how it handles clerical child molesters as well as clerical sex abuse against women. Very recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has been facing allegations of sex abuse by clergy and has subsequently established guidelines for churches to use at the local level. Their “Ministering Well” booklet calls for wise practices, such as a “Two adult rule” for ministers interacting in their offices, recommendations that people be members of a church for at least six months before being considered for work with minors, stipulations regarding references from prior churches and criminal background screenings, as well as other recommendations regarding leadership standards.
These guidelines are certainly quite important, but do they go far enough in preventing abuse? These guidelines have been set up to keep those who might be abused by clergy safe and are to be highly commended, but what about victims of domestic violence? Spousal and child abuse are also problems in churches, but it’s not being addressed adequately. Another question revolves around restoration of the guilty party. Can the guilty be restored to full participation in the church? Furthermore, can we catch the seeds of temptation early on before they grow into harmful monsters which cause almost irreparable harm? When Christians do things secretly “in the dark,” they know what they are doing is wrong or it wouldn’t be done secretly. We need to reach the guilty in the early stages of his or her sin to help disciple that person into living a responsible life that demonstrates growth in relationship to God and fellow believers.
Back to the original issue, to protect those who are abused there are several basic foundational character expectations of believers that need to be fully set forward by church leadership and by seminaries. Clergy need to be taught extensively on the dangers of power, whether in their own power as clergy over the church or the power of men in many marriages. We need more emphasis on basic humility as a necessary qualification for all leadership in the church and in the home, including elders and deacons. Women, children, and even men need to be respected and protected from abuse in the home. All reports of violence should be taken seriously and victims protected quickly.
Abused individuals, usually women and children, often end up suffering more after reporting abuse, if they are left in the same situation with no protection. Clergy need to understand that abuse in a marriage is seldom solved by a few weeks of marriage counseling, in which the victim is treated as being partly responsible for the abuse. Very often, separation of the abuser from the victim or victims is necessary, even if the abuser appears to be repentant. It is very common for abusers to immediately express sorrow, with promises to change, only to soon repeat the abuse. Therefore, abusers usually need separation and extensive counseling before real change is achieved.
How the church views sin is an important aspect of a healthy church. Society today does not like to talk about sin, and pastors sometimes contribute to that bias. Sin and temptation are real. No one is exempt from the danger of temptation, not even mature Christians. Pastors and church leaders need to preach and teach about abuse and sexual sins much more than is currently being done in most churches. We see a lot of emphasis on positive matters of love, theology and spiritual/personal growth, all good, but the needed balance of including preaching on sin and temptation is quite lacking in most churches, even many conservative evangelical ones.
To get at the origins of abuse or addiction, sin needs to be separated from shame. Our society has inadvertently caused certain offenses to be considered more shameful than others. But this is not Biblical. In Romans 8:1, the Apostle Paul taught that believers are not under condemnation, a word suggesting shame. New Testament writer, James, in his book instructs us, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16).” However, when shame of sin is strong, people who are struggling with what are perceived as very shameful sins are not very motivated to come forward and ask for prayer for their sin.
Christian author, Stephen Arturburn, who created the discipleship program “Every Man’s Battle,” with a book by that name, reports that when a sin is considered to be highly shameful, people often pray and pray for deliverance from that sin in secret, but never gain the victory. It is usually when they bring their sin into the light and confess to fellow believers that they start the process of victory. However, fellow believers must come along side of defeated Christians to disciple them into victory over their sin, while at the same time protecting any victims of abuse. To change the culture, pastors must make intentional efforts to teach their members that no sin is too shameful to be forgiven, but must be taken seriously.
The bottom line is that a balance of strong discipline for sin along with forgiveness and restoration of the offender must be emphasized and taught thoroughly: victims must, must, must be fully protected, but reinstating repentant, disciplined abusers should be part of the healing process. To get there, churches will need an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, so that it is normal for members to make private confessions to responsible fellow Christians and victims are free to come forward, confident that they will be helped, not ignored. Even though we like to think of spiritual fellowship and growth in the church as being among the highest priorities, we must understand that the church is also meant to be a spiritual hospital where both victims and abusers find healing and health.