In stumbling after Jesus, the church has sometimes faltered. Sometimes, we’ve been the ones holding women’s bruised and bleeding hearts in our fists. And sometimes, for all our good gospel intentions, we've salted the wounds we should be binding.
Sarah Bessey launched a conversation this past April about the abusive #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear which morphed into the more hopeful #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear, initiated by egalitarian advocate Bronwen Speedie. This is the church many of us both love and lament—flawed and holy, mistaken and striving, haplessly human and somehow still sacred.
The church is washed clean in Calvary blood, but it is still the stuff of flawed people. I hold the church in the tension of holy imperfection. But I don’t think we swallow our pain to protect the church from the damage it does. I don’t think we bite back our prophetic, godly criticism when the church breaks, harms, and scars. I don’t think we muffle women’s heartbreak with empty promises and halfhearted apologies.
So how do we, the beautiful and busted-up people of God, answer women’s pain? What do we do when we fall miles short of the Jesus mark? We do better.
This is the perfect time to do better. The April Twitter conversation featured many examples of the church’s apathetic, accusatory, and sexist response to sexual assault survivors.
Women are sexually abused in the church and are often not believed, protected, or supported by the church. Many Christian women are still walking wounded in the wake of this sexual trauma. And tragically, it is often the very church that could offer healing that further scars their battered hearts.
We can respond to women’s hard truths in two ways. We can take the defensive route, which often involves:
- Accusing women of being overly critical
- Accusing women of undermining the church
- Accusing women of lying
Or, we can take a learning, others-oriented posture. We need to do better in aiding, supporting, protecting, and empowering survivors of sexual assault in the church. Here’s three ways we can love survivors.
1. Refer to Law Enforcement and Experienced Professionals
Pastors: you are not equipped to address sexual crimes. The most faithful and responsible step spiritual leaders can take is to refer victims of sexual assault to the appropriate authorities. In doing so, you ensure that victims are safe from further violence and that justice is served.
If you do not have professional training in responding to sexual violence, you should keep a list of professionals for referral. Do not assume that you understand the psychological and physical trauma that sexual assault survivors experience. It’s important to know where spiritual guidance can be helpful and where professional expertise is deeply needed.
2. Believe, Protect, and Empower Survivors
Believe victims of sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence face immense stigma in our society. They are often shamed, blamed, undermined, and even threatened.
The pressure to keep quiet can be pulverizing, and the church reinforces that by undermining the authority of women’s testimony, particularly when accusations fall at the feet of powerful men. It is not the church's job to play devil’s advocate for perpetrators or seek to remain neutral when sexual violence occurs. It's the church's job to love survivors well.
Our first priority should be survivor safety. Churches should ensure that perpetrators have zero access to their victims. A victim and a perpetrator do not need to “talk it out” or reconcile (read with extra firmness). Our actions should exactly align with survivors’ health and safety needs.
However, we must avoid reducing survivors to victims only. They are victims of heinous violations of their sacred personhood. And yet, survivors have agency and dignity; and we the church are allies, not saviors. We are there to aid, protect, and empower. We should deliberately affirm women’s agency over their lives and bodies.
In my opinion, we should not point victims of sexual assault toward Jesus if they are not ready to hear our words or they ask us to stop. If we violate their consent with our witness, we could aggravate their trauma and send them running from God.
3. Operate with Transparency, Accountability, and A Good Theology of Gender
Abuse should be hard to perpetrate in the church. It should be even harder to get away with.
Churches should make transparency a top priority, because abuse is often born in shadows. While the church should never over-sexualize male-female relationships, it should discourage secrecy and unsafe or inappropriate interactions. The church should also acknowledge the power differential between leaders and congregants. We must protect vulnerable people from exploitation—without stigmatizing them. There should also be a clear system in place so that victims know where to get help.
Some churches have a tendency to defend their favored sons at the expense of survivors. Some even continue to give abusive men platforms, resources, and approval after they’ve been accused of sexual assault. This says that powerful Christian men are not accountable to women.
When the church privileges and protects abusers, it undercuts the potency of the gospel. We should not reward abusers with platforms, resources, and approval. The church must hold men accountable or survivors will see that it can't be trusted.
And finally, we must check our theology. A good theology of gender makes women safer. A toxic theology of gender puts women at risk. A church that treats women like fully functional partners in every category of the gospel-project is already a safer place for survivors of sexual assault.
May we, the beautiful and busted-up people of God, do much, much better.