Forum of Christian Leaders will be hosting Dr. Langberg for a 3 hour master class on March 20, 2021. The forum is entitled, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. For more information on how to register for this session, please check out this flyer.
Tag Archives: Abuse
On Saturday I participated in a 40 minute webinar hosted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) along with Dr. Diane Langberg. If you want to watch it on YouTube, here is the link. We defined various forms of power and how it can be abused. We talked about how organizations and systems may end up supporting abuse of power. And we considered some ways in which we can respond to victims. Throughout the year, GRACE will host more of these webinars and delve deeper into the impact of abuse and ways to heal.
At the American Bible Society, where I work, those of us involved in trauma healing often say that what gets us up in the morning is our mission to equip the church to be a safe place, a place of hope and healing, for traumatized individuals. I think most Christians want to believe that the church is a safe place for the most vulnerable among us.
But this has not been the case for far to many who report child or adult abuse and harassment.
Now, as a son of a pastor, I am well aware of the challenges pastors and church leaders have in leading their congregations. Frequently, the leaders need the wisdom of Solomon, especially in cases of life and death conflict. The work of pastoring through abuse allegations is never easy. Don’t let your love of the church stop you from reading the rest!
I imagine we all believe that the Church can do so much better. And we ought to be asking ourselves, why have we failed as much as we have? In theory, we are always against abuse and always for protecting the vulnerable. But it does not always play out this way.
Consider what responses might be given to these three “first meeting” vignettes:
- A woman comes to church leadership to seek pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-known to be antagonistic to church and to the Christian faith.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-respected in the community and has been a Sunday School teacher for the past decade. She is also known to be a wise and careful woman.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. The man is involved in the church and the woman has been known to be a bit of a church hopper.
Whether or not there is objective evidence supporting her allegations what response should these women receive? Will it be the same? Will the compassion and support offered be the same for each woman? Who will be treated with more compassion, who will be treated with more suspicion (or even just neutrality)? Will the amount of circumstantial evidence influence our response?
Minto, Hornsey, Gillespie, Healy, & Jetten (2016) have attempted to research (a) whether we are more likely to fail to support abuse victims when the abuser is one of our own and (b) whether circumstantial evidence will change our position. [You can download their full-text research essay here.] Their interest was exploring how social identity (what group you are a part of and have pride in) influences how we handle allegations of abuse by fell0w group members.
Study 1. 601 individuals read a vignette of an adult male alleging that a priest sexually abused him as a ten year old. The vignette included details of the alleged abuse and the rebuttal made by the defense attorney for the priest. Catholics, Prostestants, and non-believers all rated the assumed credibility of the victim and the perpetrator. Results indicate both Catholic and Protestant individuals with high church identity were significantly more likely to defend the accused and doubt the accuser. This was especially true if their faith was central to their core identity.
Study 2. 404 individuals also read the same vignette however the level of circumstantial evidence against the priest was manipulated. For some, the survey participants learned that church authorities were not defending the priest and that there had been a previous suspension for similar behavior (i.e., higher certainty of truth). The remaining participants learned that there had been no other cases and that this case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The results for this study indicate,
ingroup participants were more likely to defend the integrity of the accused (and to cast doubt on the accuser) than were other participants, an effect that was exclusively driven by high identifiers. Interestingly–and somewhat surprisingly–this effect was not moderated by the subjective level of certainty surrounding the guilt of the accused.
In other words, those who highly identify with the Catholic church are more likely to defend the accused even when there is considerable circumstantial evidence against that person.
While this research was carried out examining responses to Catholic priest allegations, it appears that the problem does not lie only within the Church. Consider the obstructing responses of Michigan State to allegations of Dr. Nasser’s abuse of young female athletes over the years. The authors conclude,
Our data confirm that such highly identified ingroup members are the least willing to believe that the accusations are based on fact. This helps to provide psychological explanations for qualitative and anecdotal accounts of senior group members failing to adequately follow up allegations of child sexual abuse within their institution.
But why? The authors ask, wouldn’t the ingroup members be more motivated to purify their ranks by rejecting those who are accused of bad behavior? What is gained (or lost) by standing by accusers when the there is circumstantial evidence of abuse and no evidence of circumstantial evidence of lying on the side of the accuser? This is the challenge for those of use who listen to stories of abuse that happen in our own cherished communities.
Until we solve this problem, we will stand with the young women who accused Dr. Nasser of sexual abuse because he was not one of us but refuse to do the same when the accused is one of our own.
For further reading on reasons why we fail to act well in light of abuse allegations or reports of failures to act:
This weekend, Foundations Christian Counseling is hosting a 2 day conference, Counsel From the Cross at Spruce Lake Retreat. I will be speaking Friday night (8 pm) on “The Cross, the Church, and Trauma: Making the Church a Safe Place for Victims of Trauma.” Use the 2nd link above to register for the day or the weekend.
There is a serious problem within protestant evangelical Christianity. We love right preaching and teaching more than we love right living. We love power and authority more than sacrifice and submission. We love honor over humility. We love being led by popular leaders who make us feel good more than following the despised and rejected One—who has no “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isa 53)
We want King Saul over young David.
Of course I do not accuse all protestant Christians nor all leaders with this charge. And yet, we must all own this problem together. It is not merely the Catholic Church that has covered up abuse or used power to protect itself. While the system of the Catholic Church enables a wider and deeper cover-up, we have all of the same issues on a (slightly) smaller scale.
A picture of a true leader of God’s church…and the opposite
Leaders of the church are to be representatives of Jesus, individuals set apart to be under-shepherds. They are to care for the flock. And what do we need? We need teaching, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke in their proper times and measures. But most of all we need our leaders to be images/examples of our true Shepherd.
Quite simply, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11) and who feeds, carries, and gently leads (Isa 40:11). Of course this is a picture of a powerful leader. Only one with power who knows right and wrong can choose to sacrifice rights and become smaller for the purpose of care of the most vulnerable.
But we have a pattern of enabling self-promoting leaders of the flock. These want to be listened to, respected and followed for their own sake. Sure, they may speak of the Gospel of grace, but how do they live it? How do they treat the ones who have the least power? How do they handle criticism? Do they even have a Paul (wise older leader with a track record of being willing to encourage and also say hard things) to speak to them as he did to Timothy? Or would they tolerate one who spoke to them as Paul did to Peter when he acted out of accord with the Gospel (Gal 2:11f)?
It seems that when we do see brokenness in our leaders we tend to excuse it, especially when their gifts are attractive and the ones revealing these flaws are expendable.
Consider this warning
What makes Jesus angry? The New Testament records a few instances of expressed anger: Money changers, self-righteous religious leaders, hindering children, and the pain of death (Lazarus). We see it most clearly in his language toward the religious leaders when he calls them “brood of vipers…white washed tombs…hypocrites.”
What are these leaders doing that evoke Jesus’ just anger? Matthew 23 provides some answers.
- Everything they do is for show to receive the praise and honor of followers
- They seek power and control. They (try to) decide who can be in the kingdom; they seek converts who will work for their interests
- They develop special rules that support their apparent position of authority
- They makes a show of sacrifice yet forget the most important values: justice, mercy, and faith/submission to God
- Their public and private selves do not match—the outside looks great but inside is abominable
It does not matter if they deliver well-crafted and biblically sound sermons. It does not matter if many flock to their ministries. If their motive, efforts, and tactics (public and private) do not match God’s character of a good shepherd, their good human gifts of are no value. Even worse, they deserve rebuke (Ezekiel 34; Jeremiah 23) and even removal from speaking for God anymore (Ezekiel 44).
The true problem?
There have always been false shepherds. There always will be false shepherds. But, what enables them to stay in positions of power is that we allow it. G. Campbell Morgan minces no words when he highlights the problem of false shepherds.
Now the false in religion stands revealed in Christ’s contemplation of these men [described in Matthew 23], not only in the case of the men themselves, but in the case of the people who are under the influence of such men. The false in religion in the case of the people is due to failure to discriminate between the human and the divine; and consists of submission to unauthorized authority.
Morgan, Gospel According to Matthew, p. 273†
Why do we fail to discriminate between human and divine? We overlook “foibles” because we know our own hidden sins. We fear being ostracized and losing our position in the inner-ring of power. We ignore the words of victims in order to maintain the appearance of health in the system. We love the image of redemption (the happily ever after restoration) more than the long slog of obedience. In short, false shepherds cannot maintain or increase power unless we protect and enable them.
The beginning of a solution
Let us repent of these our sins. Let us study anew what we and our leaders are to be like. Let us listen to the ones we call expendable when they speak about abuse of power. In the words of my former pastor, let us pray to God for better leaders than we deserve and to be the kinds of undershepherds we are called to be in God’s wide kingdom.
Consider these previous posts on related topics:
† My thanks to Dr. Diane Langberg for pointing me to this quote in Morgan’s commentary.
In breakout format, Darby Strickland presented on this topic today at #CCEF16. She defined emotional abuse using the word oppression instead. She defined it as a pattern of coercive controlling and punishing behaviors whereby one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other. Oppressors enslave others, but tend to self-justify behaviors. The oppressor tends to be entitled (people are there to please them; people should sacrifice for their well-being). They tend to dominate others and threaten as a means of control. Oppressors are willing to wound to keep control (which Darby reminds us is the opposite of how Jesus wields power–he was willing to be wounded for others). On the other hand, oppressors tend to be self-deceived, lack remorse and blameshift when accused.
Sometimes abuse is misunderstood as an anger problem. But the reality is that the root is self-worship and control. The only thing that matters are their words, their rules, their emotions, and their physical and sexual needs that must be obeyed. It is “enforced worship.”
Darby then explored emotional abuse in particular. Symptoms include a chronic pattern of rejecting, neglecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, belittling, deceiving, blaming, ignoring, shaming, and threatening. She also talked about “gas lighting” which is the attempt to make someone think that something that did happen never happened. Within emotional abuse is also spiritual abuse. The use of Scripture, doctrinc, or position of leadership to abuse. It can be subtle but it lording power over others, demanding submission, and use Scripture to shame.
Darby pulls no punches when she describes behaviors by oppressive and abusive men (yes, women can do this as well, but this talk is focused on the experience of oppressed women). It is destructive to souls and does not reflect any part of Jesus Christ. She was equally clear on the destructive impact on victims. Eccl 4: the dead are happier than the oppressed.
What does God say about oppression?
- Not your fault. Evil comes out of the heart of the one doing it: Mark 7. You might be a stressor by just being a person.
- You do not deserve this. (Victims and leaders look for reasons, like Job’s friends). Heb 10:17. Your sins and lawless deeds I will not remember anymore. God is your rescuer, not your punisher
- It is not a marriage problem. Luke 6:45 shows us that evil comes out of the evil person’s heart. It is not merely some interaction problem. Do not ask the oppressed to serve the oppressor more. It emboldens oppressors.
- Oppression violates God’s design for marriage. It is not to be submitted to but rather brought into the light. He tells the head to reject control for self sacrifice.
- God sees your suffering. Jesus sees and knows oppression too.
- God cares about your safety. Do you think that God cares more about you keeping your vows than he does about your safety?
- God’s desire is to rescue you. I will rescue my flock and they show no longer be a prey (Ex 34:22)
Draw near to God through laments; he does not ask you to forget your suffering. Learning to lament is a process. It may not be “sanctified speech” when you first start to speak. That is okay, just begin to speak. Listen for the content, less focus on the tone. Then, you can ask God to help shape your expression. To counter the shaming words, remember who God says about you. “Remember who Jesus is because he is everything your oppressor isn’t.” He woos you, he does not demand subjection.
She closed with Proverbs 12:18: The words of the reckless pierce like swords. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
You might find it interesting that Darby chose to not take questions at the end. Her reason is that knowing that 25% of the christian world has experienced domestic abuse. Thus, she expected a number of victims in the room. She felt that taking questions might subject some, inadvertently, to further pain. (She was willing to take questions afterwards in private).
I very much appreciated her strong words to identify the pattern and indicate the primary concern for care for the victim. I know she has written and spoken on the topic of working with oppressors. This was not that talk.
Seeking justice for self and others is a good thing. No, it is a “God thing.” This world was created to be just and one day it will be made right again. However, now we live in a world where justice is sorely lacking around the world. Even in the United States where the rule of law is paramount, justice is difficult to come by for certain segments of society and for those especially who are abused in secret.
We’re doing a bit better. Rape and other sex crimes are taken more seriously. Laws are changed to allow old crimes to be brought to trail. Notice that the movie Spotlight is in the theaters, highlighting the massive cover-up of church sex abuse crimes. Churches are now much more serious about protecting the most vulnerable in their midst–in part due to increased child protection measures required by law. Organizations like GRACE tirelessly provide prevention education.
You might think then that victims will find it easier to report their crimes and to pursue criminal justice. And I suspect the data would show that more do report their crimes now than twenty years ago. However, easier does not mean easy. Though this essay is nearly 13 years old, I recommend those serving victims (public and private mental health providers, ministry leaders, criminal justice providers) read Judith Herman’s review of some of the challenges of reporting physical and sexual assault crimes. Some of those challenges include
- The humiliation of telling your story in a public and adversarial setting such as a trial (and telling it repeatedly with those who must question you)
- The possibility that the perpetrator will use the system to intimidate and to terrorize
- Being told that your case isn’t going to be taken up; being disbelieved when it is true
- Being coerced by family not to report due to the perpetrator being a family member
What can we do to help?
Most readers probably do not work in the criminal justice system. Yet, there are many things we can do to help those who need justice.
- Get educated. Check out resources provided by NOVA; know what abuse crimes are happening in your community; consider having law enforcement or a member of the District Attorney’s office come to a meeting with community and church leaders
- Find out what laws need to be changed and communicate regularly with your political leaders
- Become a victim advocate officially, or volunteer to go with a victim to his or her next court date
- When injustice happens between members in a close community, consider how restorative justice practices might be beneficial for victim and offender
- Mental Health providers can help prepare victims and their families for the challenges of going through the system
- Teach on the matter of justice seeking in churches; show that the pursuit of it is central to the Gospel (James 1:27)
Today I will be presenting a break out at the AACC World Conference on spiritual abuse. If you are interested in seeing slides of my talk, click: Spiritual Abuse.
The book of Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I have often thought it would make dramatic theatre to have it read with modern-day images flashing behind the reader connecting today’s crises with the cries from the destruction of Israel.
What if we read it as a lament about the problem of child sexual abuse in Christian communities and the resulting discipline of the Church for covering up and denying the problem for so many years?
Sadly, this small book of poetry (written in acrostic format) of five chapters, languishes in most churches. I cannot recall a single sermon preached from this book. It could stand to use someone extolling the virtues and values of this book.
Enter Chris Wright’s new commentary “The Message of Lamentations” (IVP, 2015). I received my copy today in the mail. It is entirely readable. He provides a good overview of the structure of the book, illustrates the heart of the poetic style yet never loses touch with the practical value of the cries as he proceeds to exposit the book.
Having read his introduction, here is why Chris says this book is for today’s suffering:
- It is a memorial. Even though the exile ended and Israel was restored, that “does not erase the suffering of those who went through the horrors of 587 BC.” Later he tells us, “It compels readers forever afterwards to look and listen, to remember and reflect. ‘The biblical book of Lamentations refuses denial, practices truth-telling and reverses amnesia.’ (p 35, quoting Kathleen O’Connor). No cover-up, no quick reminder of heaven to erase the pain of today.
- It is a voice. “…the poetry of Lamentations gives voice to those who were rendered voiceless in the vortex of violence.” The book lets the voiceless speak.
And that, as is well-known, is a vital part of any hope for healing from deepest trauma…. And we may want to step in with our comfort or corrections, our advice and solutions. But Lamentations simply makes us listen to the voices of the sufferers–in the profusion and confusion of their pain, the bitterness of their protest, their shafts of self-condemnation, their brief flashes of hope and long night of despair, and their plaintive pleading with God just to look and see. And if in the midst of these voices there is accusation against God, Lamentations lets us hear that too…. This book forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, allowing the words that emerge to have their own integrity and authenticity, whether we approve or not. We are called not to judge, but to witness. Not to speak, but to listen….”This is what really happened,” they say, “this is what we went through, and this is what we felt.” (emphasis mine; ibid)
Chris goes on to talk about the confession of sin in the book and makes it very clear that lamentations is not meant to be a theology of suffering and sin applied to every situation where people suffer. Surely there are proper times of confession and the book of Lamentations records the confession of sin for Israel’s rebellion. Chris goes on to point out that even if all of the suffering can be attributed to sin, such sin cannot erase the suffering being experienced. To do so would erase the reality of experience. I find counselors all too interested in sorting victims and sinners. At one level, it doesn’t matter. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it.
- It is a protest. No matter the cause, the immensity of suffering as found on the pages of Lamentations and in sexual abuse produces cries of protest. Chris denies that protest is blaming God. Rather, our protests assume God’s capacity to right all wrongs and confusion as to why it has not yet happened. He calls such protest evidence of spiritual “vertigo.” And he notices that such statements of faith and protest are seen together in the final verses of the book. “You, Lord, reign forever…Why do you always forget us…?” (p. 40)
- It is our home and we share it with God. He quotes O’Connor again. Lamentations is “a house for sorrow and a school for compassion.” Lamentations is the home for our tears and a home where God too weeps for us.
We counselors bear witness to pain and suffering. Lamentations teaches us to listen. It teaches us to express spiritual vertigo with our clients and to wait for God’s answer (notice God does not answer in this book; thankfully we have other books that do give us a direct answer).
There but for the grace of God go I.
Humility requires that we do not think too highly of ourselves; that we do not think ourselves better than anyone else. We all struggle with the same weakness–the desire to love self more than neighbor and to be our own god. We are all easily deceived, born into sin.
And yet, the evidence of humility is not equalizing all sins. Sadly, treating all as human has led some Christians to believe that it is wrong to point out the sins of others, to seek justice after wrongdoing. The error in thinking goes something like this:
- We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all deserve judgment. No one can earn God’s love.
- God’s love is a free gift for all, not based on merit.
- Therefore, we must treat all sinners the same; that grace means the same treatment for all.
But ask victims who have heard this stated something like this and they hear, “since we’re all sinners then the way you were sinned against is no different than the way you sinned against God.” So, if there are no differences, then what happened to you (victimization) is no different than what happens to anyone.
Get over it. That is the message we send to victims when we level all sins.
So, consider this question: Does Jesus differentiate between sins? Do some sins result in more judgment and consequence? What about how he speaks of those who hinder the little children from coming to him? How does he speak to those who understand the depth of their sin vs. those who deflect or deny their sin?
Some years ago I was speaking to a large gathering of church leaders about the care for victims and sex offenders. I suggested that sex offenders did not have an automatic right to attend worship but that we could find meaningful ways to bring worship to sex offenders. One leader stood up and accused me of making multiple classes of sinners and ignoring the sin of victims (in his mind they would forever control the lives of the offenders thereby becoming abusive to the offenders). He claimed that I did not believe that God can restore and redeem the worst of sinners. This leader believed that all sin is forgiven (as do I) and thus all consequences should also be erased.
Leveling sins actually harms both victims and offenders. If consequences are erased, then offenders risk remaining unaware of unique temptations, unaware of how they may follow Zaccheus and pay back above and beyond what the Law requires. Victims continue to have little to no voice because what happened (and continues to happen) to them is just commonplace.