How Should the Church Respond to Abusers?
There has been much discussion about what a church should do when confronted with an abuser in its midst. Such a question cannot begin to be adequately or wisely answered unless we first grasp the truth of what it means to be an abuser of the vulnerable. To see abuse as simply a wrong action that needs to be stopped (though it certainly does) is to minimize and externalize what is a cancer of the soul and does great damage to the abused. We often seem to think that when we understand the outside of things we are fully aware. We are not. Our God looks on the inward condition that gave birth to the outward actions. God does not classify evil by a catalogue of deeds done. He always goes to the internal root of the matter (Genesis 6:5). To abuse a vulnerable child (or adult) is to alter the course of their life. The shape of their life and their sense of self has significantly changed. Those heinous actions are spillage from the heart of the abuser and exposure of the cancer deep within. When the church shows “grace” in response to a few approved words and some tears, we have done added damage to the victim, risked the safety of other sheep and left the abuser with a disease that will rot his/her soul.
Sexual abuse is a cancer; a practiced sin with an underlying, often hidden infrastructure. The abuse is the fruit of that substructure. Roots go down deep into practiced deception which becomes metastasized sin. Abuse is the external exposure of that internal, life strangling system. A response of mere words and emotions is hardly sufficient. Evidence of change. Such an infrastructure requires a surgical operation over a long time. The church has failed victims horrifically. She has hidden abuse and been complicit in its soul damaging outcomes. She has actually allowed sin God said is worthy of a millstone to continue unchecked in her midst! She has also failed the one who is cancer ridden and walks in darkness.
When churches have asked what I recommend when dealing with someone whose has sexually abused children my response is – do not allow him/her to attend church. There is always pushback. The word grace is tossed about. But you see, someone with such an infrastructure of deceit, feeding off the vulnerable and looking for ways to do it again has been committing spiritual suicide, and because of that deadness, they cannot be trusted. It is foolish to think otherwise. God says we do not even know our own deceitful hearts! Do we really think that if we permit an abuser of children into the sanctuary that we can guarantee the safety of the vulnerable? And do we not understand that even if nothing overt occurs, that deceptive heart and mind is feeding off the little ones sitting in the pews, strengthening his/her own sin patterns while looking good? The images, fantasies and the feeding only continue even while Scripture is read and songs are sung. This is someone with no understanding of the practice required for a godly custody of his/her eyes and thoughts. We have not only failed the vulnerable. We have also failed victims of abuse by another who now feel vigilant and fearful in God’s sanctuary. And we have failed the abuser, for we have left him/her in their prison, practicing that which is strangling their soul. There is no grace in leaving another in the prison of practiced sin, justified by deceptions. We become complicit in their spiritual suicide.
So Diane, what are we to do? Do we leave the abuser in their sin and keep them away from the church? No, to the first question. Yes, to the second. Bring the church to the abuser. I have worked with churches who have done this. A group of committed and mature adults meet once a week with the abuser and listen to the sermon, discuss it, check in, not only about actions and choices but also about thoughts and impulses. They sing and they pray. There are to be no children in the house – ever. The group is to have permission to stay in regular touch with both a therapist for updates and with the parole officer dealing with the case. They read Anna Salter’s book Predators and watch her documentary on sex offenders. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFhKns6iHFzbu5-WRGg0L__H5i4I0wG9A
Know also that this group will need care, respite, encouragement and shepherding as they enter into the sewer of abuse. The work is hard, slow, discouraging and contagious. The church must not abandon them.
This is incarnational work. It is a following of Christ who entered into our lives and our garbage so that we might be one with him in his beauty. Many refused his invitation. They loved their darkness more than his light. So it will be here. For you see, it is only when someone begins to abstain from practiced sin – not just behaviorally, but in thoughts and impulses, that they will come to recognize the strength of the habitual sin, its soul deadening nature and the lure of deception used to ease the pain. Few will do such work, but the gift of an invitation to the Light Himself will have been given.
Some years ago a church made this choice and a small group faithfully met with the abuser for almost two years. They were weary and wondered about stopping. Surely, he would not abuse again. One day he did not show up for the weekly meeting. He had never missed. Maybe he was sick. They called, they went to his place and could not find him. Neither could his PO. Weeks later they learned he had somehow managed to get out of the country and gone to Thailand where he was pursuing little girls. They were heartbroken. They were angry. They felt like they had failed. But no, they had not. First, the vulnerable in their sanctuary found a true refuge because they were protected. Second, they had, like their Lord, called this man out of darkness and into Light. As many did to Jesus, he rejected their invitation. Now they understood, in a small way, a bit of the grief of our God when any one of us refuses his invitation into truth and light (Genesis 6:6 – God was grieved in his heart). It was a taste of the fellowship of his sufferings and a call to look to themselves lest they also refuse the light.
Our failure to see and do these things is in part an exposure of our very limited grasp of the nature of sin and its tentacles in our own lives. We would not be complicit with abuse wherever we find it if this were not so. Repentance is hard. It means a complete change of our thought processes, our impulses and choices, little by little – over and over yet again. It is not simply stopping a behavior. It is not words and tears. It is a slow undoing of deceptions – deceptions that allow us to feel okay about ourselves. It is however the path that follows Christ, whose central focus and motive was to always please the Father – no matter the cost. He invites us to come.