Last week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and affiliated institutions, across forty US states and Canada. According to the Texas-based paper, these churches covered up widespread abuse, muting victims and permitting abusers to serve as leaders and live among congregations.
Sarah Smith, author of the Star-Telegram exposé, has made it her mission to uncover these systemic injustices. Because of courageous advocates and truth-tellers like her, we’re finally aware of the abusers and predators lurking in our midst. Yes, we’re finally beginning to hear a crackling, thunderous sound as injustice crumbles brick by brick.
Many are shocked by this exposé. But we who have listened to and lamented countless stories—for decades—aren’t surprised. Allegations of sexual harassment and predatory and abusive behavior have filled headlines over the last two years and the church is not exempt. It’s become increasingly clear that systemic abuse is the inevitable conclusion of authoritarian theology, absolute trust in pastors, and the singular control granted spiritual leaders. The article explains:
To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.
“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there.
This idea—that pastors and spiritual leaders can safely exercise this kind of unchecked control over congregations—has persisted for far too long in the church. According to the article, pastors in some churches even dictate who congregants can date, when they can buy houses, and what jobs they can take. This theology of leadership/pastoring isn’t the only problem either. There’s also how we understand the character of God and what we’re teaching about forgiveness.
The women interviewed reported that they were convinced that “if they disobeyed the pastor or left the church, God would kill them or their loved ones.” Spiritual leaders have a lot of influence over how their congregants view God. If they teach about a wrathful, authoritarian God, it’s very difficult for believers to question an abusive, authoritarian representative.
For decades and even centuries, the church has preached a form of “forgiveness” that excludes justice for survivors and breeds a lack of accountability for offenders. Male church leaders have indoctrinated congregations with this warped theology of forgiveness, fostering a culture of silence and deceit.
Survivors were told to forgive and forget. Others were told it was their fault—that they asked for it—which is exactly what many predators tell their victims. Still others were told that God would punish them for defying abusive spiritual leaders by telling the truth.
The internalized cultural norms in these churches also silence survivors. Many survivors’ church communities will plead with them to keep quiet. Women and children are frightened into submission.
Sometimes, they’re made to question their own memories or whether they invited the abuse. Sometimes, survivors are trained to believe God will be displeased with them for coming forward. Other times, the shame and stigma in Christian communities is just too intense to bear. And still other times, they fear for their lives and wellbeing, and it’s just easier to keep quiet.
These churches have re-victimized survivors, deepening the wounding of those they are most obligated to protect and empower. Some survivors were so deeply hurt that their minds have locked away those memories. But trauma is never forgotten. The mind and body remember. Many victims recoil at human touch or interaction decades later because what they see or feel triggers repressed trauma. Abuse follows survivors for the rest of their lives.
I’ve served as a chaplain for two years at a women’s shelter, which also housed children. I’ve personally witnessed the effects of trauma on these survivors of violence. The emotional wounds run deep. Seeing any kind of abuse is heartbreaking, but witnessing the trauma caused by those who call and view themselves as men of God is perhaps even more painful.
The church has allowed liars and predators into the flock, men who use the Holy Scriptures to justify the abuse of women and children. This is the church’s darkest secret. We must fervently lament this systemic injustice and the warped theology that made it possible. But we can also take some practical steps to offer hope to those who have been betrayed by church leaders. We can make our sanctuaries safe places once again.
1. Change what we teach on authority, forgiveness, and the nature of God.
The problems we’re seeing in our churches are cultural problems, and cultural problems flow out of theological and ideological brokenness. We need to start teaching about what pastoral authority is and isn’t—about the agency and autonomy of congregants, the limitations of any human authority, and the right of congregants to challenge and hold spiritual leaders accountable.
We also need to teach about a God who upholds justice for the unheard and unseen, a God who isn’t concerned with the preservation of the powerful but with the elevation of the least of these. We need to teach about a merciful, gentle God who nurtures and protects. And, we need to rethink our theology of forgiveness because grace isn’t cheap. It doesn’t mean reconciling, staying quiet, or allowing perpetrators to stay out of jail or in the pulpit.
2. Contact law enforcement.
Sexual abuse and domestic violence are crimes, whether committed by clergy or a layperson. Anyone who has been assaulted should notify the police (when they feel safe doing so).
And pastors, if a person comes to you and reports to you that they are being abused or have been abused—even years or decades in the past—it’s your responsibility to report and (with the victim’s permission) to hold leaders accountable for their past and present actions. There may be a statute of limitations on criminal justice, but there’s no statute of limitations on trauma or on the obligation of the church to right wrongs.
We must let the police handle these matters and advocate for the victims. Church leaders have repeatedly mishandled abuse in the house of God. The silent consent of church leaders, board members, and congregations will no longer be tolerated. Criminals should never be allowed to hide behind the walls of any church.
3. Contact reputable lawyers.
If you or anyone you know has been the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, it’s imperative to hire an attorney. Survivors need to be legally advised by someone outside the church. Where a pastor or church’s instinct (and internal investigators and representation) will be to protect the church, a lawyer will strongly advocate for the rights and wellbeing of the survivor.
There are many agencies that can give advice and support to survivors, but an attorney can be their greatest asset. They’re legally bound to keep all information confidential. They can also serve as legal representatives if the survivor chooses to file a civil suit against any or all parties involved. We’d be wise to get familiar with attorneys in our areas that handle abuse cases in churches.
4. Use trauma counselors.
Getting professional help is an absolute necessity. Pastors are ill-equipped to handle severe trauma. We can be supportive and stand by survivors, but we must know our own limitations. Many survivors have been re-victimized by well-meaning clergy who over-spiritualized their trauma. Or they've pressured victims to forgive the offender rather than holding offenders accountable.
Additionally, a pastor may focus on helping a traumatized person retain their faith over getting them the psychological help they need. Recovery sometimes requires space from the culture in which you were hurt. Some perpetrators use Scripture and God to justify their abuse, creating a trauma link between abuse and God. It’s imperative to allow survivors to dictate the terms of how they engage or re-engage with God, without pressing them toward our own conclusions. A trauma counselor has no agenda beyond the victim’s care and healing.
Many clergy are also unfamiliar with survivors’ trigger points, so we aren’t able to speak, preach, counsel, and care from a trauma-informed place. By educating ourselves on what harms rather than helps survivors, we will make churches safe for traumatized people.
The depth and longevity of trauma can’t be underestimated. What happened to the women and children who were abused in independent fundamental Baptist churches matters no less now than it did decades ago. But now that we know the truth, what are we prepared to do about it?