What Christians Get Wrong About Sexual Abuse

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

BY SAMANTHA FIELD CURRENT June 24, 2014

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?

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.

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.

Samantha Field

SAMANTHA FIELD

is a geek and activist. Currently pursuing a seminary degree, she writes about the intersections of faith and culture.

2 thoughts on “What Christians Get Wrong About Sexual Abuse

  1. Yes, Christians have a lot to learn about handling allegations of abuse. But even more important, the Church has so much to learn about the victims involved—those who suffer at the hands of an abuser.

    The fact is, many of us have been deeply hurt by the actions of others. And until we process our past, it will continue to hold sway over who we are in the present. Above all else, this is where the church needs to be present.

    Here’s an article I wrote about the difficult journey many of us are forced to travel because of an abuser’s actions.

    http://paulperkins.com/pain-of-your-past

  2. Hello Lynda,

    As far as your first question, I’ve written a whole post dedicated to answering it at Convergent Books:

    http://www.convergentbooks.com/how-three-christian-colleges-sided-with-sexual-assailants/

    I believe it is fair to criticize the institutions themselves instead of select individuals for a few reasons, the first being that they have institution-wide policies that, as an organization, they are committed to that I believe is one of the things directly responsible for the mistreatment of victims.

    The second reasons is that, in the case of Cedarville, Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian, these problems have been consistently present over the course of 30 or 40 years. My life over the last six months has been dedicated to speaking with victims of these colleges, and I have interviewed people who were students 30 years ago and students who were expelled this year. Because of that, I believe that this “corporate culture” problem, because it has been multiple people, multiple administrations, over the course of decades.

    In my research, it tends to be the exception for an administrator to demonstrate grace and compassion toward a victim rather than the rule.

    For your second question, what should we be doing– well, that should vary by church community, in my opinion, because there is no universal solution.

    There are some basic steps, however, that I think could help on a broad scale.

    Denominations should make it standard policy for seminaries to educate their students about abuse. This should not be something relegated to a single lecture in the middle of a “Pastoral Care” class. In my opinion, it should be an entire class because the problem is that large. I’ve done that math, and up to 40% of every single American congregation has experienced– or is experiencing– some form of horrible, traumatizing abuse. (http://defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/church-statistics-and-abuse/)

    I think that abuse in all its forms should be the focus of sermons. In my experience, if pastors do mention abuse, it as an aside, throw-away comment that demonstrates really nothing more than ignorance. What abuse is, what abuse looks like, and how to identify abusers needs to be a subject pastors are familiar with. When they look at their congregations, they need to know that 1 in 5 marriages are abusive– 1 in 7 husbands are raping their wives, and 1 in 10 are physically abusing them. I realize that is not something a pastor really wants to be thinking as he looks at his congregation, but it is absolutely necessary. Ignoring the problem and pretending that it does not exist means you are contributing to it and enabling it to continue.

    Those two changes, in my opinion, would be extremely helpful.

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