Abuse, of any kind, is an egregious sin by those who commit it and an immensely difficult and heavy burden to bear by those who are victims of it. As with any sin, abuse is, worst of all, an offense against a holy God. Those who perpetuate abuse must be confronted in their sin, called to faith and repentance, and offered the one true hope that can be found in Christ alone. Those who are sinned against must be comforted in their suffering, helped to put away misplaced shame, and offered the one true hope that can be found in Christ alone.
So far, I trust that every Christian is in agreement with these affirmations.
But beyond these foundational truths, the current discussion about abuse—as it is being played out online, in articles, in books, and in churches—gets quickly twisted and tied up in knots. To some degree, this is simply what happens when emotionally charged issues get talked about online (especially on Twitter). Social media has not been known to foster a spirit of charity or cultivate an intellectual atmosphere interested in careful distinctions and patient deliberation. The other difficulty is that depending on a whole host of factors—one’s personality, position, experience, or context—we tend to see the present dangers leading in different directions. For some, the most pressing concern is obviously that abuse is perpetrated, minimized, and covered up in the church. For others, there is another concern, that abuse is becoming a totalizing category and that even the accusation of abuse takes down everyone and everything in its path.
I admit I am concerned that correcting the church’s failures when it comes to abuse has given way in some places to an unhealthy overcorrection. Of course, in one sense, you cannot correct an error too much. And yet, you can correct one error in a way that produces new errors. That’s what I see at times in the current discussion about abuse.
I realize there are important points that need to be made on both sides. I have several points below warning against the overcorrection, but I don’t want to minimize the need there has been (and continues to be in many places) for the initial correction. So let me do my best to sincerely voice the correction and warn against the overcorrection.
What Needs to Be Said
Here are five things we need to say about abuse.
One, abuse is in the church. As much as we strive to be different from the world, there is still worldliness in the church. Children have been abused by adults. Wives have been abused by husbands (and sometimes the other way around). Congregants have been abused by leaders. Subordinate staff members have been abused by senior staff members. We in the church have not always done a good job protecting the vulnerable or holding the powerful to account. Predators, narcissists, and sinners of various stripes have too easily found the church a place to hide, and sometimes a place to flourish, in their deeds of darkness.
Two, the church has not always handled abuse well. Even when church leaders have not been guilty themselves of abusive behavior, and have not sought to cover up abusive patterns, they have sometimes failed to handle abuse situations with biblical fidelity, pastoral sensitivity, and Christian grace. These failures may include: failing to put proper safety measures in place, failing to act in a timely manner, failing to warn others and share information with pertinent parties or assemblies, failing to include women (when appropriate) in matters of domestic abuse, applying Matthew 18 in a wooden fashion, treating abuse situations as straightforward matters of personal reconciliation, being slow to listen, and being ignorant of proper reporting procedures.
Three, there are many devastating ways we can sin against one another. We should all know by now that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a lie. We can be deeply hurt by words as well as actions, by emotional pain as well as physical harm, by subtly manipulative leaders as well as by obviously tyrannical ones.
Four, victims need our help. Victims often deal with misplaced shame and need to be reassured of their innocence and of God’s grace. The cries of victims have sometimes gone unheard; they need people in positions of influence to listen to them and to speak for and with them. Often they need people in power to step in and protect them from harm.
Five, the first instinct of Christian leaders should be to help genuine victims. There can be a sinful tendency in those who are in positions of authority to view abuse victims as threats to be neutralized rather than sufferers to be helped and comforted. Of course, institutional boards and presidents and pastors cannot cease to be wise, responsible leaders. But being a good steward of the organization is no excuse for treating situations of abuse as strictly legal matters or as public relations disasters to be mitigated. We must think about victims before we think about our own institutional liabilities.
What We Need to Be Careful About
All of the points above are important. They cannot be assumed. They should not be minimized. I lead with these five points because they need to be said.
At the same time, there are other things that need to be said, lest in our zeal to care for victims we end up making new victims. Let me, then, make five additional points.
One, there is almost no room to say anything besides the first five points without some people accusing you of not really caring about the first five points. At times, the topic of abuse gets put into a category by itself where—unlike other pastoral or theological topics—any efforts at nuance or dispassionate analysis are completely off limits. As a result, people are often pushed to opposite sides: You either get it and are 100% on the right side, or you are an oppressor and part of the problem.
Along with this all-or-nothing mindset comes an unrealistic expectation that every discussion of abuse must proceed as if one was in an intimate counseling setting. That is, no matter the platform (book, blog, tweet) and no matter the genre (scholarly article, theological inquiry, cultural analysis, exegetical exploration), the writer or speaker must communicate with a commitment, seemingly above all else, that the most aggrieved person or eager critic could not possibly misunderstand or misappropriate what is being said. Too often there is an unrealistic expectation that every internet article or podcast comment or pulpit sermon must speak as you would in a one-on-one counseling situation. We do not produce balanced thinking by making the internet a counseling office, nor will victims be helped in the long run by giving them the expectation that the care they need can be found from strangers online.
Two, sometimes there is an unwillingness to distinguish between the abuser and anyone else in “the system.” It’s true, the system—and those in it—can fail victims and cover tracks for the abuser. And yet, we should be cautious about charging “the culture” with producing iniquity—a charge that is usually impossible to prove or disprove. We must not impute guilt to anyone and everyone who is somehow connected to “the system.”
Likewise, we must be careful to distinguish between high handed sin, unintentional sin, honest mistakes, and simply being connected to a sinful person or a tragic situation. It is far too easy—whether from a sincere zeal to ameliorate injustice or from a desire to seem virtuous—to malign others without evidence or due process. A commitment to helping victims should not necessitate second-degree (let alone third- or fourth-degree) separation from anyone deemed “controversial” or from those who have been accused of abuse without due process. “Guilty until proven innocent” is not a Christian way to pursue justice, nor is it loving our neighbors as we would want to be loved.
Three, abuse has become an ever-expanding term. Because “abuse” is such an explosive term, bringing shame to the accused and bringing power to the offended, we must not throw around the word haphazardly. Not too long ago, if you said “abuse” everyone would have assumed you meant physical harm or the sexual exploitation of a minor. As I said earlier, it is important to realize that there are ways we can be powerfully sinned against that don’t involve anyone laying a finger on our bodies. The problem is not in recognizing the many ways we can sin and be sinned against. The problem is in forestalling further questions and conversations by simply mentioning the word “abuse.” The danger of verbal inflation is real. The language of violence and trauma are now used for everyday interactions. When hurt feelings, gruff personalities, ill-conceived jokes, run-of-the-mill staff disagreements, and the ordinary misunderstandings of life get labeled as “abuse,” we not only run the risk of slandering the accused, we also make it more difficult for the genuinely abused to get the help and attention they need.
Four, when it comes to allegations of abuse, it is sometimes communicated (implicitly or explicitly) that the only acceptable stance is immediate and unquestioned advocacy. Again, let me try to make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that advocacy is wrong. There are certainly many times where the most helpful, most courageous, and most Christian thing to do is to make sure the victim knows, “I am on your side, and I will fight for you.” What I am saying is that we should not expect that immediate and unquestioned advocacy is the only appropriate response—indeed, it may sometimes be the wrong response—when serious allegations are made. No matter how much we want to listen to and sympathize with people in their pain, there must be a place for fact-finding, for hearing from both sides, and for objective analysis—whether from journalists, boards, pastors, investigators, or whomever.
We are all capable of misinterpreting the facts—even the facts that form our story. None of us passively experience life. We actively interpret what happens to us, and sometimes we interpret our experiences incorrectly. Abusers can be blind to their abusive behavior, and those who consider themselves victims can misread what actually transpired. We must allow for the possibility that sheep can mislabel as “abuse” what is, in fact, necessary pastoral correction and oversight. After all, “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
Five, the abuse discussion can forget that all of us are both sufferers and sinners. There are real oppressors and real victims. People don’t all suffer the same amount. People don’t all sin in the same ways or to the same degree. And yet, we must remember that hurting people often hurt people. They may not mean to. They may be trying to deal with genuine pain as best as they can. We must be patient with those who have been egregiously sinned against. But the sinned against are still sinners. Suffering does not make us sovereign. Our pain does not make us infallible. Sometimes our sense of trauma is misplaced. Sometimes we are less fragile than we think.
And finally, and somewhat controversially I know, we must acknowledge that even when we were sinned against, we are still responsible for the sins we commit. The existence of a power disparity, for example, does not automatically eliminate personal agency. Clearly in some situations—when dealing with minors, for example, or when one is physically overpowered—there is complete exoneration of guilt. But in other situations, the one with lesser power can still bear moral responsibility, even if the one with greater power is guilty of a much more heinous transgression (see Westminster Larger Catechism 151). If Joseph had slept with Potipher’s powerful, conniving, and threatening wife, she would have had the greater sin, but Joseph’s actions would still have been a great wickedness and sin against God (Gen. 39:9).
We have heard a lot in the last couple years about the danger of authority, and understandably so. We have seen some utterly terrible abuses of power in the Christian world. Power dynamics are real. Narcissism is insidious. Siding with the gifted abuser and ignoring the oppressed victim happens. Authority is sadly, tragically, too often used for diabolical ends.
But the response to a fire in the kitchen must not be to burn the whole house down. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, so we must not be suspicious of all authority. The abuse of authority is a profound distortion of God’s own character, for He is the one who sovereignly rules over all things. In my experience over twenty years of ministry, I believe most pastors deserve the benefit of the doubt. Most are doing their imperfect best to lead and serve and teach in increasingly difficult days. To help people see God for who he is, we must correct abuse where it exists, without overstating the problem, without calling all authority into question, and without damaging the reputations of those who don’t deserve to be pilloried.