In recent weeks we’ve seen numerous media reports about decades of sexual abuse in the church. The Houston Chronicle led these efforts with a huge investigation, revealing at least 700 victims over 20 years. I cringed as I learned about the horrors that took place within the walls of the church—a place where all people should be safe from such sin, not subjected to it.
J.D. Greear (president of the Southern Baptist Convention) and Russell Moore (president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) responded in admirable and godly ways. I’m thankful God has placed such servants of the Lord Jesus in those positions of leadership. I’m also hopeful that new precedents will be put in place so abusers can no longer prey on the innocent.
But when a person cuts through the delicate and controversial nature of this appalling pattern of rampant and widespread sin, they might wonder how—even why—coming back to the church would be an option. Especially if they have been a victim of sexual abuse in the church.
How can the victim of such a crime trust the church ever again, knowing there might be predators and cover-up artists in the highest levels of leadership at any local church?
Why go back after sexual abuse in the church?
It’s an important question. And one I resonate with personally. I was sexually abused as a 5-year-old. It happened once, and it did not take place in a church context.
Even now, 37 years later, I still struggle with the idea of leaving my two daughters in any kind of child care environment. I never want them to experience what I went through. It’s difficult for me to trust people with my innocent little girls, because I’m very much aware of the evil human hearts are capable of committing.
Still many Christians wrestle with the biblical call to involvement with a local church. Perhaps because we’ve been a victim of sexual abuse in the church or some other prior offense. All the more reason, I think it’s crucial that we explore a few things about what specifics to be aware of in church and ministry leadership.
How can we go back to any church? Why should we even try? These are good questions. Here are a few of my thoughts…
1. The church family is your family.
Family has been and always will be the original community in which you belong. You were born into it or adopted into it, and it’s yours. If we can dare to ascribe the family mentality to our view of church, that familial sense of belonging can draw us back.
Then it’s not “those people.” It’s my family. It can be a comforting atmosphere where we are free to mourn, grieve, and hurt over sexual abuse in the church because it’s our family.
Every time the word “church” is used in the Bible, it implies a group of people and never a building. And when you plug in and commit to the Christian body, you’re not committing to a place. You’re committing to a group of believers who are there for you as your family.
Just because someone in the Christian environment terribly misused their power or influence to selfishly hurt instead of protect doesn’t mean they should poison your perspective on the rest of your Christian family too. We shouldn’t allow the abusers to steal our families away, especially because God wants to use the church to help heal our hurts. Run to your family, not away from them, in this harrowing time.
2. The church has resources like nowhere else.
I’ve been seeing a Christian counselor for about two years now. The godly perspective he gives me related to my life’s issues is priceless. Why? Because he puts Jesus first, not his counseling degree.
In light of that, he has been able to help me see my issues through the lens of the gospel. He can truthfully remind me that despite my suffering, God is close. I wouldn’t get that kind of perspective with a secular counselor. Frankly, I need a continual reminder to look toward the goodness of God when my feelings tell me another story.
Additionally, Christian fellowship is a balm like no other because the people of God reflect God himself, and his Word. There is no secular substitute for a biblical mindset when it comes to friendship and community. As a victim of sexual abuse, only true healing can be found in the Son of God who died for my sins. Christian fellowship will regularly remind my forgetful heart of that truth.
3. The church is really the only place to make sense of such evil.
In an environment that preaches and lives the gospel, we are able to make sense of the evil of sexual abuse.
How? Because gospel communities help us see that God went to infinite lengths to be with us and destroy sin. Remember that Jesus had been living in unimaginable glory and bliss for all eternity past with the Father and the Spirit. His entire life on this planet was, for Him, abuse and suffering.
For all of Christ’s life on Earth, He was under stress. Often He was attacked by people trying to kill him. He was constantly misunderstood and rejected. And on the cross as He died, Jesus truly entered our suffering. He was condemned unjustly to a painful death. He went through it all in complete solitude as the anger of God’s wrath burned Him to the core. Jesus Christ plunged Himself into the fire for us when He went to the cross.
What does this tell us? Well, it can’t be that God doesn’t care about our sexual abuse and suffering. He knows what it’s like to live through the miseries of this world. He understands this world’s evils better than anyone.
This means we have a God who is close. A God who can relate to us and begin to help us make sense of our trials and sufferings.
Realizing this won’t happen all at once. But as we lean on the Christian community in the midst of our pain, they are able to gently point us in the direction of God’s love for us in his Son. To neglect that kind of environment is to open ourselves up for more suffering.
Healthy churches are out there
If you’re ready to consider finding a church, here’s a checklist to consider.
1. A healthy church puts the gospel front and center, and not only from the pulpit on Sunday morning. It will be centered in all other aspects of the church, from childcare and Sunday school, to the small groups and outreach programs. Gospel-centered is God-centered, and therefore healthy.
2. In a healthy church the pastoral staff or church leadership is not beyond reach. As leaders for Christ, they have one primary goal—service to the church. If the church leaders are never seen other than up front on a Sunday morning, this is a red flag. And if they don’t ever meet with anyone for personal/biblical accountability, that isn’t good either. Everyone should be humbling themselves and opening up to vulnerability and tough questions. Nobody is above accountability.
3. In a healthy church, everyone who works with kids at the church should be required to have a background check. Additionally, a child should never be in a situation where they are alone without the presence of at least two pre-screened adults. This means more work for the church, of course, but it’s of paramount importance for the safety of all kids at the church.
Coming back after sexual abuse in the church
Charles Spurgeon said, “Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in. Since union is strength, he does his best to promote separation.”
Our lives are meant to be lived in the context of other believers. For the victim of sexual abuse in the church, this can be extremely difficult. However, our best resource for healing is a healthy, gospel-centered church full of believers dedicated to being part of the solution for caring for the injured.
Copyright © 2019 Shelby Abbott. All rights reserved.
Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States and author the books Jacked, I Am A Tool (To Help With Your Dating Life), and Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress (New Growth Press). He and his wife Rachael have two daughters and reside in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Instagram/Twitter: @shelbyabbott, Web: shelbyabbott.com