Another day, another sexual misconduct allegation against a prominent and influential church leader. This seems to be the way of things since #MeToo and #ChurchToo opened the public’s eyes to the epidemic of abuse in our world. When incidents are made known to church leadership, the pattern usually goes something like this: deny, minimize, circle the wagons, hold an investigation, dismiss. Only when the victims have spoken out publicly have the churches and the perpetrators acknowledged any wrongdoing and suffered consequences.
I wish I were surprised. I am both a pastor and a trained victim advocate. I also serve as a board member for a victim advocacy organization. As part of the local ministerial association, I am in frequent contact with most of the pastors in my community. In my personal experience in both capacities, it has become clear that churches are not equipped to respond well to reports of abuse.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that churches don’t want to do the right thing. They do. Churches vary a lot on their approaches to and responses to abuse. Still, no matter how well-meaning, and regardless of their views on gender, leadership, or theology, they are almost never prepared to meet a victim’s needs. This is why, as both a pastor and a trained victim advocate, I encourage churches not to go it alone when it comes to helping victims of abuse.
When someone in the church—the pastor, one of the leaders, or any church member—learns that someone in their midst is a victim of domestic violence, abuse, or sexual assault, the best thing they can do for the victim is to encourage them to connect with a legally recognized victim’s advocate. If they agree, provide what is needed to get them to the advocate. (If the case falls under mandated reporting laws, be sure to follow them. But it is also important to secure advocacy and support.)
Why can’t the church handle this through its own personnel and resources? (I should note that my experience is limited to the US state of Alaska. None of what follows is legal advice, but guiding principles that should be checked with a qualified legal expert in your locality.)
1. Divided interests
A pastor is always in a position of divided interests. The pastor must care for the entire congregation, and if the perpetrator is part of it, their care is also the pastor’s concern. The pastor’s interest is also tied to the organization and, if part of a denominational structure, to that also. No matter how well-intentioned the pastor may be toward a victim, there will always be conflicting pressures. For this reason alone, it is unwise and not in the best interest of the victim for the pastor to be handling abuse and assault claims.
An advocate, however, has only the victim’s interest, safety, and well-being in mind. The advocate always believes the victim’s claims. The advocate never tries to judge the victim’s claims. The advocate is there to be with the victim, listen to their story, and offer support, however long it takes. If the victim wants to take action against their perpetrator, the advocate is there to support the action. The entire mission and funding of the advocate and their organization is to support the victim.
2. Lack of expertise
A pastor is also likely not familiar with the intricate laws and processes in these cases. Does a pastor know about emergency protective orders, short term protective orders, and long-term ones and how each one is obtained? When should law enforcement become involved, and does the victim have a choice in whether or not law enforcement becomes involved? If a crime was committed, must the victim report it?
An advocate is trained to guide the victim through the legal processes. The advocate is there to offer options to the victim and to guide them to make their own choices in how to work through the crisis that they are in. The advocate knows that the victim needs to regain agency and self-determination and does not make choices for them. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of advocacy: not making decisions for the victim, even when they ask for it.
3. Temptation to focus on behaviors
What if an assault victim reveals that they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the assault took place? What if they told you that they are regularly use alcohol and drugs? What would be the response of a pastor or church members to these revelations? Would they be able to ignore these behaviors? Would they still be supportive of the victim? Unfortunately, I fear that the response is typically negative.
Advocates are trained to be supportive of whatever has kept victims alive up to this point, even if that includes negative behaviors. Advocates do not judge nor do they pressure victims toward behavior changes. Trauma often pushes victims into coping behaviors that they use to survive and maintain a sense of normalcy. Personal safety consumes so much mental and physical energy that addiction recovery becomes a lower priority for victims. Many people don’t realize that abusers often coerce their victims into substance abuse as a control mechanism. A change toward positive behavior is something that cannot be undertaken until the immediate crisis is resolved, extended safety is established, and the victim is able to choose change.
4. Misunderstanding Scripture
A lot of Bible verses get thrown around when abuse is discussed. People point to verses on conflict in the church, church leadership roles, and so on. Unfortunately, in the effort to find simple, concrete instructions in the Bible, churches sometimes misuse the Bible and miss its emphasis on protecting the vulnerable. Let me briefly address two passages that often come up.
Matthew 18:15–17 reads:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
It is critical to remember that abuse stems from a power imbalance. The context makes it clear that these principles are not intended for someone with a grievance against someone with more power. In fact, this passage is surrounded by texts that speak on the importance of protecting the vulnerable and powerless. First Jesus condemns causing children to stumble. He then he tells the story of the servant whose debt was forgiven, but who refuses to forgive his own debtor. Both are clear examples of abuse of power, and are roundly condemned.
First Corinthians 6:1–8 reads:
If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
This text, at first glance, seems to be more explicit in advising churches to not take their disputes to the secular legal system. But Gordon Fee, in his commentary, notes that Paul was likely against the church taking cases to Roman courts, precisely because the civil courts were influenced by power and privilege. If Paul saw some of the churches today and the power and privilege leaders wield, he might very well write the opposite of what he wrote to the Corinthian church.
Throughout Scripture, there is a clear mandate for those with power to imitate Jesus in giving up their power for the benefit of the oppressed and marginalized. Because churches are organizations with structures and hierarchies that often include the victim and abuser, the best way to obey the Bible’s mandate to protect the vulnerable is to enlist the aid of trained victim advocates.
This all makes it sound like churches shouldn’t be involved or can’t help, but that isn’t the case. Churches aren’t the best avenues for primary crisis intervention and for guiding the victims through safety planning and legal procedures. But there are many other ways in which churches can be part of the solution to addressing abuse and assault.
By proactively establishing that abuse and assaults are evil and by holding to account any (however influential, wealthy, and powerful) in the church who abuse and assault, churches can become places of safety and healing. Churches must not demand, require, or even encourage victims to forgive their perpetrators.
Churches must show that they are living the actions of Jesus, who always advocated for the powerless and the victimized, and who confronted the powerful even when it meant death on a cross. The Christian gospel can be good news for victims of abuse and assault, but only if churches are willing to give their lives in defense of them. Churches that seek to retain their power and influence by minimizing and protecting abusers compromise the gospel and communicate that victims are second-class citizens.
I pray for the day when all churches are safe places for the powerless.
This article appeared in the print version of Mutuality as “When Churches Aren’t Sanctuaries: Why Churches Shouldn’t Respond to Abuse Alone.”