I sometimes have trouble explaining to folks my career path. I studied at Dallas Seminary for four years and pastored Baptist and Alliance churches full-time for twelve. Then a few years ago, I worked for a women’s rights organization, and now I’m with a California public university serving in the field of sexual and relationship violence prevention.
Even I recognize that it has been a major shifting of gears. In fact, for the longest time, sexual harassment and assault were, in my mind, “women’s issues.” Don’t get me wrong, I felt bad that such things happened, especially for my friends who were women, and even more so when women I knew experienced them. But I was hardly motivated to do more about sexual and relationship violence; I just saw those things as a very unfortunate part of life in a sinful, fallen world.
Then, eleven-and-a-half years ago, my first daughter was born, and that event rocked my world. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously reflect on the particular challenges girls and women face in our world, the one in which my daughter would grow up. And I realized that it wouldn’t be enough for me to simply be the best dad I could for her (and, later, for her younger sister as well). It became one of my life’s core missions to do my utmost to make the world better for my girls than it has been for the women and girls of my generation.
It shouldn’t have taken becoming a dad to daughters for me to care about sexual and relationship violence. After all, women make up more than half of the human race, so it’s hardly just a “women’s issue;” it’s a human issue. Yet fatherhood is what it took for God to jolt me out of my apathy, and I’m thankful that he did.
When you think about it, the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual misconduct against women are men (research indicates that it’s at least 92%), so it must really become a “men’s issue.” We men need to own the problem and lead the effort to solve it.
It must also become the church’s issue. Sexual and relationship violence, harming millions of women and girls and men and boys, are among the most prevalent and damaging problems in society, and the church is no exception. A quick review of the massive number of #MeToo and #ChurchToo tweets gives us, in our social media age, quickly accessible evidence of this.
The Crisis that Doesn’t Feel Like One
While the hashtags may be new, the reality is not: abuse and assault are pervasive in both society and the church. My friend Boz Tchividjian, who leads the organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), says that while the Catholic sexual abuse scandal revealed widespread problems among Catholic congregations, Protestants may have an even larger problem. The decentralized nature of many Protestant denominations makes sexual misconduct harder to track.
When it comes to sexual misconduct, sadly, the problem is not “out there”—that is, outside the walls of the church—but “in here,” something the church must reckon with as much as anyone in our world.
Just a few of the tragic, heartbreaking statistics:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five American women will experience rape in her lifetime. To put it another way, there are 23 million American women alive today who have been or will be raped.
- Also according to the CDC, 45% of American women will experience some other form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. That is, 53 million American women either have already, or will in the future, experience a non-rape form of sexual violence. (Some women experience both rape and some other form of sexual attack.)
- These statistics merely represent averages. Black women encounter sexual violence at higher rates than whites, while Native American women are victimized at a rate higher still. LGBT-identifying persons experience some forms of sexual assault at higher percentages than the non-LGBT population.
- Of course, sexual violence doesn’t just affect girls and women. One of every six boys is sexually abused, and according to the Department of Justice, nine percent of rape victims are men.
- If all this weren’t enough, we also need to consider that, while estimates vary, approximately two of every three acts of sexual assault are never reported to authorities.
If other kinds of crimes were happening to girls, boys, women, and men in our churches at these rates, would we be doing anything differently? Of course we would! We would see it as a crisis of the highest order. Unfortunately, it’s a crisis that’s been happening for so long that it doesn’t feel like a crisis anymore.
But the #MeToo moment presents a huge opportunity. We are witnessing, I believe, a seismic shift. For seemingly the first time in American history, there is a public expectation that powerful people who have committed sexual violations against others will be held to account.
So what then? What do we as the church of Jesus need to do in response?
Speaking God’s Truth
For one thing, ministry leaders can embrace #MeToo as an opportunity to address the issue. Preachers and teachers can address sexual assault from a biblical perspective, including lessons on the accounts of rape and sexual assault in the Bible (like David and Bathsheba, Amnon and Tamar, and the attack on the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19).
Leaders can also show from the Scriptures what a Christlike masculinity looks like—one that expresses the full range of human emotions and doesn’t suppress any of them in the interests of appearing strong. Here, I often think of “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The Bible encourages us to embrace that ourselves. After all, no one in the Lazarus narrative rebukes Jesus to say, “Be a man!” or, more coarsely, “Grow a pair!”
Preparing to Support Survivors and the Entire Church
When preachers and teachers address these matters, they’ll need to have counselors and resources available, including phone numbers for relationship violence crisis centers, in case assault survivors respond by coming forward to tell their stories, perhaps for the first time. In fact, these occasions may also be the first time that some of them hear that God cares about what happened to them, that it’s not their fault, and that God wants to heal their deep hurts.
Church leaders also need to prepare for such conversations by putting in place a crisis management team, along with a plan for what to do when survivors tell their stories. If a victim is a minor, abuse must be reported to the authorities by mandated reporters, and even if it’s not required by law, it is a church management best practice to do so. If a victim is eighteen years of age or older, leaders need to give him or her the prerogative of choosing whether to file a complaint with law enforcement officials or not. But that’s only one piece of what the shepherds of God’s flock need to consider.
Often, sadly, the perpetrators of such crimes are longtime, respected members of their churches. Should accusations become public, other church members usually take sides, adding another dimension to the already tragic and horribly painful things the church is going through. A crisis management team consisting of both staff and lay leaders can help to support victims and their families, answer questions and correct inaccurate information circulating among the congregation, and serve as a liaison with law enforcement and attorneys.
Avoiding Common Missteps
Beyond these corporate-focused actions, clergy and lay leaders owe it to their churches to get educated about the dynamics of abuse and assault. One particular mistake leaders often make is to try to treat both accuser and accused with equal amounts of validity. While false reports do happen on occasion, I believe it’s vital to begin by giving accusers the benefit of the doubt. Research consistently indicates that 92–98% of all sexual assault accusations are true; similar to other major categories of crime. Much, much more often than not, those who report assault are telling the truth.
One reason leaders sometimes doubt accusers is that they don’t understand the variety of victim responses to abuse and assault. As a result, they often ask victims, “Why didn’t you run or fight?” Assault victims sometimes do attempt to flee or fight their attackers. But very often, they freeze, so paralyzed by fear that they either can’t move or they simply do what their attackers tell them to do, hoping that it will help to “get it over with” and protect them from further harm.
Perhaps the most fundamental mistake in this area is for children’s and youth ministry leaders to fail to run criminal background checks on every volunteer. Doing so doesn’t guarantee that abuse incidents will never happen on their watches, but it is a simple step that can weed out some dangerous people.
Leaders can learn these and other crucial lessons before bad things happen in their own congregations by getting trained by organizations like GRACE or by educating themselves with solid resources. Pastors and other church leaders can do a world of good for their faith communities, and especially for survivors, by doing so, even as they break the silence and open up the Scriptures to proclaim God’s compassion for victims.
Being All the Church Can Be
Pastor and author John Ortberg recently wrote, “Anyone who may have been victimized by people in power needs to know that the church of Jesus is their refuge and champion.”
My own journey from seminary and the pastorate to a vocation in violence prevention has convinced me that we Christians fail God’s calling when we aren’t a safe, healing community that advocates for victims. I would even say that there is no issue more important for the church to address than sexual and relationship violence. There may be issues that are just as important, but none greater.