When The Church Becomes Complicit In Sin: Lessons On Preventing and Combatting Sexual Abuse

Originally posted: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/august/when-church-becomes-complicit-in-sin-lessons-on-preventing-.html?visit_source=twitter

Just a month ago Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and a voice for justice, died. His words remain: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In reading through the Professional Investigators International (Pii) report regarding sexual abuse in the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), it is clear that the Christian world needs to give heed to the words of Dr. Wiesel. Donn Ketchum, a missionary doctor in Bangladesh, allegedly abused those under his care.

When it was exposed, the system of ABWE used its power to ignore, silence, and cover-up that abuse. Although the investigation was invited by ABWE, it was significantly hindered early on by a lack of cooperation and ongoing lies. The Christian world would do great honor to the victims of this tragedy, and many others in the evangelical world, if we would heed the lessons inherent in this grievous situation.

Lesson One: Sexual Abuse Can Happen Anywhere

The first lesson is recognition that sexual abuse is not a problem out there; it is in here. It sits in our pews, it happens in our homes and schools. It occurs in churches, on mission fields, and within our organizations. We need to know how to speak about it, teach truth about it, and protect the vulnerable and care for those whose lives have been shattered by it.

Abuse means to misuse, force, deceive, or humiliate. It includes lying, coercing, and shaming humans by complicity with wrongdoing. Abuse is the misuse of the vulnerable by the powerful—powerful in position, size, age, verbal capacity, or knowledge. Scripture is clear that we are defiled by what comes out of us. Abuse is fruit borne by the abuser. It is never caused by the victim. All victims, child or adult, need understanding and protection, not blame. A grown man or woman can be abused. There are countless ways to coerce another human being into something they do not want.

Lesson Two: It Is Never Okay to Cover Up The Crime of Abuse

As Christians, we often fail to report the crime of abuse because we think we are protecting a family or some part of the Body of Christ. Family and church are God-ordained institutions worthy of our protection. However, there is nothing sacred about an institution full of hidden sin.

When the people of Israel were going to the temple full of sin, God sent their enemies to destroy that God-ordained holy place. Our God does not protect those institutions that He has designed when they are enterprises full of evil. God regards sin—not loss of reputation, or loss of institution—as the worst thing in the world. He wants those institutions that bear His name to be holy in the secret places. Only then are they truly His.

The ABWE report underscores the fact that Christian leaders are not trained to investigate sexual abuse or do forensic interviews. Leaders are not trained to manage the level of deception in offenders.

Lesson Three: We Must Humbly Admit Our Limitations

We need to have the humility to acknowledge these limitations so that when someone alleges that a serious crime has occurred—in their home, school or our own beloved Christian institution—we can immediately call the civil authorities who are trained to pursue the allegation and determine its truth. To fail to do this is arrogant and inevitably damages the victim and endangers others. Our choice to handle a crime ‘in house’ is never a choice on behalf of the victim. It is a choice made to protect the perpetrator and the institution.

Studies of deception have repeatedly shown that we cannot tell who is lying. Yet when we are told someone is abusing another person, we think, I know the character of that person; it cannot be true!

Scripture warns us that our hearts are utterly deceitful. We do not even know our own! Scripture says that Jesus trusted no person because he knew what was in us. We say, “I know him; I trust him!” Scripture tells us God does not judge by what His eyes see or His ears hear, but according to righteousness. Scripture says the tares grow right beside the wheat and they look exactly alike until the fruit is born.

When we trust the likeness and say the fruit cannot be so, we abandon victims and leave perpetrators in bondage to habituated sin. None of this looks like our God.

Lesson Four: Both Systems and Individuals Can Be Perpetrators

The Pii report demonstrates that systems, as well as individuals, can abuse. A system exists for a purpose (e.g., to teach, evangelize, disciple). An allegation of sexual abuse threatens the system. Unfortunately, that system often marshals its considerable power to silence, lie, and cover-up or protect the perpetrator so that the ‘godly’ works can continue.

When this occurs, godly words may be used to cover ungodly deeds; victims are crushed and we add ourselves to the list of their betrayers. An institution meant to serve others in the name of God clings to darkness rather than light and fails to defend the rights of the afflicted. In doing so, we ignore the potentially malignant lump, because to face it will disrupt the system we call “good.” Thus, the cancer spreads and ultimately destroys the victims, the perpetrator, and the system. In our denial, we become complicit with evil in the name of God.

What Have We Really Learned?

The failures of ABWE and other Christian institutions are a call to the people of God, reminding us that He says we are to live so as to make Him real to others. He came to bind up the broken-hearted and set captives free. Too often, we abandon the victims and support perpetrators in entrenched deception and its resulting evil.

God says He is our Refuge, and yet we frequently fail to be a safe harbor for those victimized by evil that is damaging to body, mind, and soul. Victims of abuse have, too often, found no refuge with us.

God is our Father and nourishes His children. He does not feed us lies, complicity, isolation, and darkness. Yet, often, we prefer to preserve our systems and reputations rather than follow Him.

He is the avenger for the vulnerable against the workers of iniquity who say God will not see (Ps. 94). Too frequently, we are avengers for our own names, positions, and places of power, telling ourselves we do it for Him while looking nothing like Him.

The psalmist says, “Holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore” (93:5). As His body, we are to be a dwelling befitting our God as we care for the abused. May it be so.

5 mistakes to avoid when counseling the sexually abused

When individuals tell you, Pastor, that they were sexually abused or raped, often those victims are terrified, full of shame, and sure that you are going to think less of them. However, they have also given you great honor and privilege because they have decided that you may be a safe person in their most unsafe place.

But ministering to men and women who are victims of sexual abuse can be tricky; there are several common mistakes that pastors make. By being aware of these pitfalls, you can be better prepared the next time an incident arises within your church.

Mistake #1: Failing to understand the weight of what they are telling you

First and foremost, we need to recognize the experience of victims of sexual abuse and recognize their courage in sharing about their experiences. To do so, we should be gathering information. What do they mean by “sexual abuse”? Was it one time or ongoing? For adults who share that they were sexually abused as a child, it may be that over the course of a decade or more, they were victims of that abuse. Or, it may have been a one-time occurrence. In gathering information, we are understanding the weight of what they have been through and can be better prepared to minister to them. The information gathered could also be immensely valuable especially if you are trying to help them navigate through the legal procedures involved in seeking justice. There are many law firms that offer personal injury and compensation services, but to see an example of a highly-recommended law specialist in this area click here.

Mistake #2: Assuming they are safe

Many times we make the assumption that because sexual abuse happened when someone was a child, it no longer happens to that person as an adult, or we assume that it will never happen again. But these are wrong assumptions. Just because people are “adults,” that doesn’t mean they are safe where they are.

Pastors should be asking questions about their current safety, such as, “Are you safe where you are now, and if not, can I help you find a safe place?” You should ask these questions regardless of their age.

As an example, a twenty-year-old may share that an uncle used to abuse her, and now he is coming to visit for the weekend. That should be a red flag for us; it may be that this young woman does not have the strength to keep the abuse from happening again. Because of this, we may need to find a place for her to stay, or we may need to call the police to help keep her safe. We cannot assume that abuse has ended or that she is strong enough to keep it from happening again.

Mistake #3: Underreacting

A third mistake that pastors may make is underreacting to hearing about sexual abuse. This presents itself primarily in two ways. First, a pastor or church may fail to report the abuse. By law, in all fifty states, we are required to report the abuse of a minor. It is a felony to fail to report any instance of child abuse that we hear about. Sometimes, this is passed off as wanting to gather more information. However, we are not forensic investigators. Even with forty years of experience in counseling the sexually abused, I am still not the expert in that area. Our duty is to report and to let the forensic investigators take it from there.

The other way that pastors and churches frequently underreact is that they try to cover up the abuse. Perhaps the accused abuser is a church member or a friend. I have seen churches try to cover up for those accused, either to protect their reputation or out of pure disbelief. However, covering up abuse is a felony as well.

Mistake #4: Failing to be the church

A fourth common mistake pastors and churches make when ministering to victims of sexual abuse is simply failing to be the church to them. The role of the church is to care for the brokenhearted, to listen well, bear witness, and walk alongside them. But sometimes I see churches fail in these things. It is also the role of the church to demonstrate healthy relationships, which may mean engaging mentors or people who can demonstrate what it means to love one another properly.

As an example, when I work with a woman who has experienced a severe trauma like sexual abuse, it may be that she’s never known what a safe or healthy relationship looks like. With her permission, I have oftentimes had women close to her come meet with me. I give them resources to read, and I talk about what it might look like to be helpful to the victim on a practical, day-to-day level. This may mean having dinner in their homes and seeing how family members are supposed to treat one another. Or it may be demonstrating how to show respect to one’s spouse. There are all sorts of things that a victim of sexual abuse, especially ongoing abuse, may have never been exposed to that church members close to them can help with.

Mistake #5: Forgetting to lament

Finally, one of the other vital functions of the church, and one that I think we’ve forgotten, is the art of lamenting. People who have suffered severe trauma, such as sexual abuse, need to lament. Often, I will send them to the Psalms or to the Prophets, but I help them find words from Scripture to express their pain, their fear, their doubts, and sometimes even their anger at God. We see often in Scripture where the psalmist or the prophets call out to God, “Where are you?” or “Why don’t you hear me?”

As the church, we need to come alongside those victims and help them find those words. But we also need to be saying those words with them. We need to lament with them, to weep with those who weep. We need to be like the friends of Job in Job 2: “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place…. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (ESV). We need to be like these friends, weeping and crying out to the Lord on their behalf.

As pastors and churches seek to minister to victims of sexual abuse, they should recognize the gravity of what is being shared with them. In doing so, they can walk alongside them and lament with the victims. While that may also mean reporting cases of abuse, as required by law, supporting victims of sexual abuse demonstrates Christlike love toward them and ultimately leads to their healing.

Suffering and the Heart of God

Referenced from: http://byfaithonline.com/suffering-and-the-heart-of-god/

Diane Langberg has been a counselor for 40 years. She’s seen things most people can barely imagine: the aftermath of genocide, rape, sexual and emotional abuse, mental illness, and debilitating physical disease. These have pervasive affects not only on victims but on those around them and the wider society.

In her new book, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Langberg says the church’s greatest mission field in the 21st century is trauma. Trauma is extraordinary, she says, “not because it rarely happens, but because it swallows up and destroys normal human ways of living.” We have a choice. “We can flit from one cause to another or, like Jesus, we can leave our place of comfort and enter into the suffering.”

We, the church, Langberg says, must become representatives of God to suffering people. ByFaith asked Langberg to tell us more about this mission field and how we enter into it.

In Chapter 1 you say that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century. Could we start with a definition of trauma? And could you explain why it is such a fertile mission field?

Trauma occurs when suffering overwhelms normal human coping. Those who are victims of such things as rape, domestic violence, child abuse, trafficking, the violence of our inner cities, and war are often traumatized humans. They live with recurring memories of atrocities both witnessed and endured. The memories infect their sleep, destroy their relationships and capacity to work, torment their emotions, shatter their faith, and mutilate hope. The wounds of trauma are not visible; their effects are. If we look out unflinchingly on God’s world today we will see thousands upon thousands who live with violence in the home or on the streets. We will see humans trafficked like slaves for sex and for labor. We will witness soldiers and civilians terrified from the wars, others from natural disasters, and the major worldwide crisis of a throng of refugees fleeing trauma only to find it again in the journey and in the camps. The total number of those suffering from trauma is staggering.

People who are suffering long for help and comfort. It is an open door for the church to bend down, like her Lord bent down for us, and enter into the great traumas of this world with real help and companionship and comfort. As we do so, we will begin to see, like Israel of old, the trauma wilderness in which many dwell, the Valley of Trouble, becoming a door of hope (Hosea 2:14, 15). The church of Jesus Christ is called to bring light to dark places, love to damaged souls, and truth about who our God is — He who entered in so that we might know Him and be like Him. Trauma worldwide is a call to God’s people to become like our Savior, who was love stooping to the uttermost depth to deal with the poison of evil in this world and in men’s hearts. Such work often opens the hearts of people to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. It did for us.

You describe the way many Christians turn away from trauma and sometimes “flit from cause to cause.” By doing so, you say, we choose complicity; we refuse to enter in. How so?

Entering into the life of another under good circumstances (such as marriage) is a challenging cross-cultural experience in many ways. We cannot, if we want a good marriage, be the center of our own lives. There are now two, and learning that duet requires a good deal of listening, understanding, patience, and laying aside our preferences, our family-of-origin ways, our little “must haves” so that we learn to know the other so well that we can love them generously and meaningfully. It is, if done well, a thing of beauty and a great sanctifier! Entering into suffering and trauma is similar. Think of walking alongside a tormented vet or abuse survivor. They have pictures in their head we would not want to see on television, let alone live through. They are afraid, they do not trust, they cannot think clearly, and they will not be better next month or even likely by next year. Human beings cannot suffer things we were never meant for and bounce back. It requires a long, steady obedience to our God to walk with traumatized lives. Such work is not so we will feel good about ourselves or have compelling stories to tell. It is simply humble service to the victims for the sake of our Lord whose humble service was for those crushed by sin and death. When God’s people refuse to go into suffering, they align with the perpetrators who saw their victims as insignificant and unworthy. When God’s people refuse to go, they also abandon God, for that is the way He went.

Growing up, you learned a lot from your father’s long-term illness. One lesson was that “We are not to respond passively. We are not to sit back and let evil, sin, suffering, or the Evil One have its way. We are called to do battle.” How do we do that?

We have been clearly told in the Scriptures that suffering is part of life in this fallen world. Most of us work hard to push that truth back and live as if it is not so or will not be for us. When it comes it can take the breath away and certainly rock the foundations of a life and a family. It brings into question the assumptions to which we have clung, and it can disable faith. Doing battle means facing and speaking truth rather than the deceptions we might prefer. Yes, he is sick; yes, it is progressive; yes, he will die. So many seem to cling to pretense at such times. We are called to truth. We also must do battle with our previous assumptions, e.g., if I live well everything will be fine; if I honor God I will be safe. God does not want us deluded about the illness or tragedy or about the state of this world. We must seek Him in the mess and bring our hard questions before Him. Where are you? Are you still good? I am afraid.

We also do battle with the dehumanizing nature of illness and tragedy. We give respect and honor to one created in the image of God no matter how clouded that image becomes. Even when a body is so broken that it is entirely dependent on the care of others or a mind is basically gone, we are called to give dignity to what remains, for it still houses one created in the image of our God. The enemy would keep us deceived and pretending. He would have us fear taking our grief and doubt and suffering to our God. He would have us think that if we had loved God more we would not suffer. He would have us treat the suffering one with impatience, disgust, and humiliation or, at least, distance. There are many of God’s children who are bathing sick bodies, emptying bedpans, smiling at faces that no longer recognize them, and singing to them when they no longer know the words, entering into trauma stories and caring for someone else’s “throw-away” child. They are doing battle against the ravages of disease and tragedy, and our God is glorified.

You explain that, “We blaspheme the name of Christ if we pretend that the evils of genocide, the rape of little children, or the events of a massive earthquake are less than they truly are.” Can you explain?

As Christians we are called to righteousness. You cannot have righteousness without truth. All sin is a lie; a crooked thing. Righteousness declares the truth — not just about good things but also about evil, sin, and suffering. Sometimes the most righteous thing is the facts about evil; facts that need to be named and to which we are called to respond. To pretend that an affair or hatred of others is a little thing is to deceive ourselves and others. Deception is what the enemy does. To turn away or minimize the rape of a child or ignore genocide is a failure to live in truth. It is, therefore, unrighteous. Also, in reducing evil to little or nothing we fail to see the work of Christ on the cross in truth. There is no evil He has not borne. He carried incest, genocide, war, and trafficking — all of it. Our “little” bit of pornography or “slip” in an affair has wounded Him grievously. When we speak of God’s redemptive work, we are speaking about a sacrifice that covered unspeakable atrocities, such as incest or genocide. We are also speaking of a sacrifice for things we, at our peril, minimize.

If we are His righteous servants, we are to see and speak truth about the wonders of His grace and mercy. We are, as light in this dark world, to “expose the deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). The God who sees calls His righteous servants to also face the horror of sin from His perspective, whether it is on a massive scale or hidden in our hearts. Righteousness measures and declares the truth.

When we deal with suffering people, you tell us that we become the “representative of God. Our words, tone of voice, actions, body movements, responses to rage, fear, failure all become ways that the survivor learns about God.” That’s a heavy responsibility. How does such a mindset help us? And how, realistically, do we represent God?

One aspect of the answer here is an understanding of what suffering does to humans. If you live with someone full of cancer or battling chronic pain, you know that suffering reduces a person. It lessens all of their capacities, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. They become less themselves. That is just as true for unseen wounds as it is for physical diseases. It is true for a combat vet, a rape victim, an incest survivor, a domestic violence victim, or a survivor of war. They may look fine, but the mind and heart wounds run deep and affect them profoundly. If we attempt to enter into the life of someone who is reduced, limited, or altered by their suffering we must reduce ourselves as well. That is in fact why we are quiet in a hospital room. For those suffering trauma, fewer words, quiet voices, patience, and pausing so they are not overwhelmed is vital to our entering in so we do not bring further harm. In doing so, we are following our Savior who was made flesh, greatly reduced from His eternal glory so as to enter in and become like us. It is, in fact, Christlike to reduce ourselves in the face of another’s suffering. And then, when sufferers are slow to speak, slow to listen, or slow to change, our responses are to also be like our Incarnate Savior’s toward us. It is in part how those who are suffering begin to see, in the flesh, a bit of who our God truly is with His creatures when they are reduced, overwhelmed, helpless, or slow. We bring Him to them by who we are with them in their worst places.

At the same time, a truth I did not see for some time became stunningly clear to me as the years went by. God is always working both sides. I am not just present to sufferers so that they can receive comfort or grow. I am there because God is exposing to me where I am unlike Him so that I can run to Him and have Him teach me where I am wrong and what He would do in me to make me more like Himself. It is a principle applicable to all of life. All God’s people are called to Christlikeness. Our failures in that area, which are many, teach lies about who He is and damage both us and those with whom we interact. Typically, humans react in painful situations with attempts to change the other person or the circumstances. So I attempt to get my spouse to change, or traffic to go faster, or a colleague to act differently. And certainly we do at times need to speak truth in (some) of those places. However, they are ever and always a place to get on our knees before God and bring Him what the situation reveals about us, asking Him for more of Himself so that we might represent Him more accurately to others.

Chapter 13 is a heartbreaking discussion about sexual abuse in the church. In your experience you’ve seen so many examples where sexual abuse is covered up to protect “God’s work” and where secrecy was employed “for the sake of the church or the mission.” What’s behind those rationalizations? And how should we react if we’re involved in these discussions?

I fear many of us have confused Christendom with Christ. We equate Christian institutions and organizations with the Son of God. They are not the same. Christendom is not even the same as the true body of Christ. Jesus Himself told us that. He said there are tares among the wheat, wolves among the sheep, and whitewashed humans posing as believers — sometimes in leadership. We long to be comfortable somewhere, to fit in, to feel at home, and so we let ourselves think Christendom is safe and fail to see and assess and discern. Instead we listen and follow, or we remain silent. Many poor sheep have unknowingly followed a blind guide and landed in a pit. Christendom, like all institutions or organizations, tries to protect itself. If you doubt that, just expose a case of child sexual abuse by a leader and watch what happens. Christendom has used Scripture to support or hide slavery, racism, domestic violence, and other cruelties our God hates. I fear Christendom today has become less interested in truth and more interested in power and protecting that power. Many have acquired fame, money, status, reputation, and kingdoms. At the same time we are steeped in pornography, marriages are failing in large numbers, the next generation is turning away, and we tolerate leaders in our organizations and pulpits who feed off the sheep. We have had a lot of recent headlines about Christian leaders and Christian systems that look nothing like our Lord. Christendom is not Christ.

Many years ago I learned about a youth pastor who had sexually abused two girls in the church. The leadership was sending him away to another church in a different state. In my conversations with them I was told, “Diane, he made a mistake. He is very gifted and we do not want that mistake to ruin his ministry.” They protected the youth pastor and the institution of the church. Like the abuser, they did not protect the sheep in their own congregation or in the church to which he was transferring. And sadly, they also did not care for the abuser, as they failed to deal with him in truth, thereby leaving him in his sin. His sin against God’s lambs became a mistake in judgment, and that is something we all make, so it only needs a new start; not truth, repentance, and care for the lambs. This dynamic often happens when child sexual abuse, pornography addictions, embezzling, clergy sexual abuse, or relentlessly arrogant and demeaning leadership are present in the church. The truth will “hurt” the church, and so it is excused, covered up, or given an innocuous name. Such actions protect the institution, not the name or true body of Christ.

Covering sin is never protective. It is the equivalent of ignoring a lump in your body. The disease receives no treatment and will spread. It is a failure to properly care for the one who has sinned, the wounded, and the larger body. Sadly, such things occur to “protect the church” or because “he is my friend, and I know him inside out” (though Scripture says we are so deceptive we do not even know ourselves) or “to preserve the gifts of the individual that are good for the church.” People go silent because no one wants to “hurt” the church. And indeed, truth will hurt, as does treatment for a lump in the body. But as G. Campbell Morgan said, “Sanctuary is a place having no complicity with the evil that makes sanctuary a necessity.” God’s people must not be seduced by the allure of Christendom and must learn not to heed the so-called Word of God when it is used to sanction something utterly unlike Him. I pray we will know Christ so well that we can discern what is unlike Him no matter the seductive or religious garb it wears.

Diane Langerg, Ph.D. is globally recognized for her work with trauma victims. She has trained caregivers the world over in responding to trauma and to the abuse of power.