What Christians Get Wrong About Sexual Abuse

A recent string of scandals serves as a reminder that we still have much to learn.

Two weeks ago, the Leadership Journal ran an article written by a convicted sex offender that described his sexual abuse of a minor as a consensual affair.

Last week, former students of Bob Jones University came forward with claims that university administrators told students things like “We have to find the sin in your life that caused your rape.”

A few months ago, when Bob Jones temporarily suspended a third-party investigation of their policies and actions concerning sexual violence, the decision garnered national attention—attention that led to articles exposing other Christian colleges with similar problems.

The Department of Education is investigating Cedarville University for possible Title IX violations.

Victims of sexual violence at Patrick Henry College were dismissed by the administration—one was allegedly threatened with expulsion if she reported her attack to the police.

At Pensacola Christian College, more than one sexual assault victim has been expelled for “sexual immorality.”

Why does this happen?

Why does it seem as though conservative Christian colleges might have a pattern of siding with sexual predators over victims?

While most are aware of the bleak realities of physical abuse, the damage caused by emotional, verbal, spiritual, and marital sexual abuse go largely unrecognized.

What the past few weeks have revealed is that many of us don’t understand the nature of abuse—or abusers. While most are aware of the bleak realities of physical abuse, the damage caused by emotional, verbal, spiritual, and marital sexual abuse go largely unrecognized. It is not unusual for pastors in counseling situations to see these other forms of abuse as “marital issues” and treat them as minor—if he isn’t hitting you, they might say, then it’s not “real” abuse.

In fact, some fairly common teachings can even exacerbate this lack of awareness and understanding.

For example, even though many pastors recognize that physical abuse exists, a doctrine known as the “permanence view of marriage” does not allow victims to legally separate from their physically abusive spouse. In fact, one very well known pastor caused an uproar when he recently implied that domestic violence victims should endure abuse “for a season.”

The idea that “submitting” will cause an abuser to have a “change of heart” about his abuse plays right into what abusers want their victims to believe—that if only they could satisfy their abuser, everything would be alright. The unfortunate reality is that abusers make it impossible for their victim to ever “submit” enough.

Abusers, who are frequently charming, charismatic, and extremely effective communicators, are also capable of exploiting the greatest hope and promise of our faith: redemption. They can claim a change of heart and put on a show of repentance, and when their victims resist this display as disingenuous, they are pressured with accusations of “bitterness” and “unforgiving spirits.” Maureen Garcia, in her article “I Married a Sex Offender,” said this:

“I was expected to never be angry, bitter, or wrestle with forgiveness. I needed to heal quickly and quietly. And, of course, I couldn’t ever question his “recovery.” His was a wondrous redemption story, and to question his trustworthiness was to question God’s work in his life.”

The promise of redemption is a powerful thing, and rejoicing when we see this promise fulfilled is beautiful, and wonderful, but sometimes we rejoice too soon. Two years ago, a convicted sex offender was invited to speak from the pulpit of a Florida church, even though he had a long-established history of sexual abuse—he had lost five previous pastorates because of it. That they were required to ban children from the auditorium didn’t stop this church from embracing his redemption narrative.

Other teachings emphasize the common fate of fallen humanity, much like the sexual predator did in his article for the Leadership Journal, when he posited that any youth pastor could “easily” do what he did, even though the predatory grooming and sexual assault of a minor is not an action the vast majority of youth pastors would ever contemplate.

The belief that every person is culpable has prompted the administrations at colleges like Bob Jones to assign at least part of the blame for rape and sexual assault onto the victims of these attacks.

The belief that every person is culpable has prompted the administrations at colleges like Bob Jones to assign at least part of the blame for rape and sexual assault onto the victims of these attacks.

At many conservative Christian colleges, identifying what the victim is responsible for becomes a central part of how administrations interact with them. Counseling processes and disciplinary actions all have a common bent: What do you, the victim, need to repent of? Where are you at fault? While this line of questioning is probably well-intentioned, it is based in a lie that abusers would love for us to continue believing: that victims are complicit in their own abuse.

It is absolutely vital that Christians do the hard work of earnestly evaluating how our beliefs about sin and redemption can create opportunities for abusers. Creation, Fall, Redemption—that is the glorious story of our faith. But Jesus also called for us to be as “wise as serpents,” and the New Testament is filled with pleas from the Apostles not to be deceived by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Top Comments

Bobbo

1

Bobbo commented…

That's a good thought provoking article. However, I think there are some other important issues that are partly responsible for this problem: One is that too many churches ignore God's counsel as found in 2 Ti 3 concerning qualifications for leadership... How a guy could become a pastor five times and be removed for sexual abuse each time is mind-boggling! Especially since the Word states, a leader must be "above reproach... respectable... not a recent convert... (and) be well thought of by outsiders" among other things. This is clearly disqualifying this guy for leadership. Also, Deut 22:25-27 makes it clear that in cases of rape only the rapist is to be punished. This principle is quite clear. On the other hand, it may be possible that perhaps some of the victims who were expelled may have been expelled for other instances of immorality, totally unrelated to the rape (the article is fuzzy about this), which were uncovered while investigating the rape. But, certainly, no rape victims should ever be expelled for getting raped only. That is both outrageous and unbiblical! And of course, if a women is being physically abused by her husband, she should be able to separate and let the authorities punish her spouse (Ro 13:4). That's what the governing authorities are there to do. On the other hand, for her own sake, even as she assists the authorities in punishing him, by her testimony, she really should forgive him for the sake of her own heart. (Lk 6:27-36). Bitterness is a really tough burden to carry. She can leave the vengeance and pay back to God who is extremely just and (Ro 12:17-21) who promises to take vengeance for our sake when we are wronged. Sometimes, and certainly in this case, God may partly use the governing authorities. Sadly, I don't think it's so much that believing in redemption and forgiveness is the problem here. The problem is that either through ignorance or outright disobedience, we as Christians sometimes fail to consult God and follow the full counsel of His word. When we do that, the fruit is often bad and problems exacerbated. God really is wise; unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for us.

Samantha Field

6

Samantha Field replied to David Stiefel's comment

As someone who is both a rape survivor and someone who was slandered by a false rape accusation, in my experience: rape is worse. Much, much, MUCH worse.

32 Comments

PEG

21

PEG commented…

The Church's willing participation in the objectification of women (under the smoke screen of "roles") is a factor. Side note: make sure ANY counselor you see is licensed!

lynda t

159

lynda t commented…

I'm having a problem more with this article in the terms of absolutes. It is written as if colleges and churches have made this decision in all circumstances, as opposed to individuals within the organizations making the determination, wrongly, that a victim is partially to blame. I see the same thing in secular businesses and universities, probably to a greater degree due to financial and legal reasons, and because I believe there are more assaults in the secular environment than a TRULY christian one. By truly, I am not including the religions who do not adhere to the bible, etc.
As far as the context of the article, I think the problem goes to what is being taught. Whether it's the confusion of 'grace', where it seems any sinner can come to forgiven regardless of repentance (unscriptural), to God is in control and if something happens God wanted it to (again, unscriptural), to if something bad happens to you it's because you did something to allow the devil in (again, unscriptural). All of these are true, to a point. Grace allows for redemption, with repentance and submission to God, God is in control, other than the control He gave us as a loving Father (our free will), and if you do open the door to the devil through sin, he will take that door and smash you over the head with it.
I see more forgiveness for a perpetrator than I see compassion for a victim. I see people refer to grace and mercy, but not justice. They talk about the reformed offender (often having been in jail), but not the crime or the victim. We hear the name Gacy, Dahmer and Bundy, but most cannot list a single victim of any of them. But, that's the world without Jesus. It's where movies and plays romanticize serial killing, torture and war, satirize and make a mockery of religion, get offended by anyone who disagrees with them, as they are making a mockery of Christ. So, where does that leave us as Christians? After all, if a Christian university can tell a rape victim not to say anything, or where is her/his sin, my first would be, where is their walk with Christ. Cause if you really love Christ, if you have made Him King of your life, master of your thoughts and actions, then you may occasionally get it wrong, you may rarely speak or act in ways without love, compassion and justice. But, if it is something you can do, without seeing the hurt, the pain, then I would suggest you reexamine your relationship with Christ.
God, is not a coin with two sides, grace and mercy on one, and justice on the other. He is a living entity that encompasses more than we can imagine. By His own words, He is judge, lover of our souls, JEALOUS, full of grace and mercy, angry, compassionate, but, He is never mean or cruel. He never lacks understanding and His ways are just.
So, my question on the article is, what as Christians should we be doing? What is being taught in the churches that allows people who claim to be Christians to treat others like this? And, what are we doing to adhere to the Word of God? Because the Word is life and truth.

lynda t

159

lynda t replied to startswith endswith's comment

Samantha, that is a good perspective. Pastors are a lot of the times the first ones who are called in situations. That was a great point, that they need the information to send the person to the right, christian based, help for them. When my dad had an affair, the church told my mom to divorce him, but God told her, is she would listen to Him (God), and she was willing, He could restore like Job. She chose to take God at His word, and my parents have the best marriage, other than mine, ever. There was a time when courts usually only gave custody to mothers, when women were the only ones who got alimony. There are abuses on both sides. The sad part is that Christians don't realize who they are in Christ. When we stop focusing on the problem and focus on the solution, that we are to love God first, and then love each other, among true Christians those problems would go away. But, like you said, there are so many abuses, and we live in a fallen world. When my brother was in a coma, on life support, and the church told her to pray he dies quickly. It was better for him to die than suffer. Instead, she realized what about all Christ did? His promises, His healings, so she got into the Word, she confessed healing scriptures. He woke up a week later, is married with 2 children. All because my mother, in both instances chose to believe God, His Word and His promises. She didn't listen to well meaning people, who got it wrong. My mom will be the first to say, that divorce is sometimes necessary. She learned who she was in Christ. I see so many Christians just surviving, not reading His Word, not submitting to Him, and then wonder why, or how to cope, what to do. His word says He is our defender, that the battle is His, that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers, principalities in dark places. We think we have to do it, when He says vengeance is His, we think we have to fight. But the battle isn't against the abuser, for sin inhabits everyone, and, like the poor, we will have these people with us always. You are doing a good work, you have a heart and desire for better change. I am glad You are doing this.

Joshua Ian Jackson

1

Joshua Ian Jackson commented…

The part about redemption stories was really interesting to me as it is something I've examined at different times in relation to Paul.

The idea of "the worse the sinner, better the Christian" comes from the life story of Paul. But you know what? The other Christians didn't accept him immediately, even when God said Paul was safe and wasn't going to kill them all, it took Paul actively putting his life in danger doing what he had before preached against for them to accept him.

In other words, he had to prove through his actions, consistently and without fail, that he was no longer the man who had come there to murder them. Granted they also had the testimony of Christ that Paul was no longer who he was before, but we don't always have that(maybe because we don't ask, or aren't truly earnest in seeking the answer?)

David Stiefel

6

David Stiefel commented…

Everyone's culpable for what they *intentionally* do. That part about intention is important, and should not be ignored. Yet, it is the part many of these institutions forget about.

What Bob Jones needs to realize is that yes, a woman who exercises zero common sense has herself to blame for exercising zero common sense. But that in no way, shape, or form means that you excuse what a man does when he does not restrain himself.

Even if a woman is stupid, a rapist is still a rapist, and must be treated the same as if he broke into the home of a woman who did *not* ask for trouble and yet, gave it to her. Rape is serious, and should not be downplayed just because the victim might be an idiot. If the victim is, then the victim needs counseling on how not to be an idiot. But that doesn't mean the attacker gets a reduced sentence down to slap-on-the-wrist.

It is absurd that in this age, colleges still exist that think "she was an idiot, so he can get by with a slap on the wrist" is still an acceptable mentality.

But at the same time, we still need to understand that the criminal justice system, even for rape, is constitutionally established as innocent-until-proven-guilty.

There are many colleges now that have a double-standard where if a woman sexually assaults another woman (or a man, even!), that the victim "must have wanted it," and therefore case dismissed. But if a man is accused, then he is automatically guilty, evidence to the contrary be damned.

A woman who intentionally misleads, frames, and destroys a man's reputation is just as bad - or worse than - a rapist. A woman's body can heal from the scars of rape. But when a man's name is tarnished by slander, it is very, very hard to ever come back from that.

Samantha Field

6

Samantha Field replied to David Stiefel's comment

As someone who is both a rape survivor and someone who was slandered by a false rape accusation, in my experience: rape is worse. Much, much, MUCH worse.

the smitten word

3

the smitten word replied to Samantha Field's comment

let's see...misogyny, victim-blaming, "false" allegations, recovery isn't *that* hard, men's ruined lives...you just won rape culture bingo!

startswith endswith

3

startswith endswith replied to the smitten word's comment

@smitten
You win the internet today! Why try to understand someone else's viewpoint when you can throw out a meaningless phrase, much like I just did. Congrats on perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the comment section. Real quick, what is rape culture bingo? Sounds like a sick game..... jk. I don't agree with everything the OP said, but shouting down one gender for the sake of the other hardly seems like equality.

lynda t

159

lynda t replied to startswith endswith's comment

makes me think of the comment, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. for the above comment regarding accusing someone is worse than the actual act, maybe you should remember that common phrase given to children for hundreds of years. But, wait, now we have finally realized that sticks and stones don't just break bones, they instill terror, humiliation, people looking and and talking behind the victims back, much like an innocent accused person, but with the scars to prove it. and, by the way, scars don't heal, wounds can, but scars are there forever. physically, they are a constant unavoidable reminder of a horrific assault.
a victim of rape, male or female, is left not just with the torture (yes, rape is torture) of physical pain, but with the devastating thoughts of their body being physically exposed and used by another person in an intimate and humiliating manner. The emotional pain is indescribable, and simple things, like intimate relations with your spouse, getting dressed or in the shower, going to the bathroom can bring about humiliating emotions and thoughts.
For an innocent accused, they have a hard time too. they have to deal with the unfairness, the humiliation of what others are thinking. but, they do have the certainty that the act NEVER happened. to compare the two is disturbing, to compare them that being accused is worse, is almost unforgiveable, unless it was done in ignorance.

Bobbo

1

Bobbo commented…

That's a good thought provoking article. However, I think there are some other important issues that are partly responsible for this problem: One is that too many churches ignore God's counsel as found in 2 Ti 3 concerning qualifications for leadership... How a guy could become a pastor five times and be removed for sexual abuse each time is mind-boggling! Especially since the Word states, a leader must be "above reproach... respectable... not a recent convert... (and) be well thought of by outsiders" among other things. This is clearly disqualifying this guy for leadership. Also, Deut 22:25-27 makes it clear that in cases of rape only the rapist is to be punished. This principle is quite clear. On the other hand, it may be possible that perhaps some of the victims who were expelled may have been expelled for other instances of immorality, totally unrelated to the rape (the article is fuzzy about this), which were uncovered while investigating the rape. But, certainly, no rape victims should ever be expelled for getting raped only. That is both outrageous and unbiblical! And of course, if a women is being physically abused by her husband, she should be able to separate and let the authorities punish her spouse (Ro 13:4). That's what the governing authorities are there to do. On the other hand, for her own sake, even as she assists the authorities in punishing him, by her testimony, she really should forgive him for the sake of her own heart. (Lk 6:27-36). Bitterness is a really tough burden to carry. She can leave the vengeance and pay back to God who is extremely just and (Ro 12:17-21) who promises to take vengeance for our sake when we are wronged. Sometimes, and certainly in this case, God may partly use the governing authorities. Sadly, I don't think it's so much that believing in redemption and forgiveness is the problem here. The problem is that either through ignorance or outright disobedience, we as Christians sometimes fail to consult God and follow the full counsel of His word. When we do that, the fruit is often bad and problems exacerbated. God really is wise; unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for us.

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