Recent events have sparked vigorous debate regarding the proper handling of sexual abuse in the church. This essay is not an attempt to directly address a specific incident, but it will certainly intersect well-known incidents at points. While I was pastoring, I dealt with a multitude of sexual abuse cases that occurred both prior to and concurrent with my ministry. The list of tragedies included several rapes of teenagers, gang rape, incest, one entire family of five children molested by the father, and bestiality. While I am certainly not the most experienced person in this regard (not by a long shot), I think I have enough experience to contribute to the conversation.
I feel compelled to write this essay primarily for the younger generation of future pastors. Unless a clear message of what is biblical, right and courageous is sounded, I fear that many of them will enter ministry confused, fearful and uncertain of the proper manner of dealing with sexual abuse. I am afraid that many will swallow the weak excuses for leadership that are often given when pastors fail to properly deal with this terrible phenomenon in the church. Too often believers defend obvious failures of leadership, offer weak excuses, or attempt to bury offenses and hope everybody eventually forgets about them.
A Word for the Pastors
Before you think I am being overly critical of pastors, let me give a few caveats that I hope will communicate my sympathy for any pastor who has to deal with sexual abuse. First, sexual abuse is everywhere. Estimates of abused women range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. For men, abuse ranges from 1 in 7 to 1 in 5. Take the average church of 100 people, evenly split between males and females. In this accounting, 20-33 females and 14-20 males will have been or will eventually be sexually abused.1 This is a staggering number, and it screams for colleges and seminaries to give those preparing for ministry clear and sophisticated training on dealing with sexual abuse. In this essay I will primarily speak in terms of male predator and female victim, but the dynamic happens in every possible combination.
Second, any case of sexual abuse is messy, complex, emotional, and exhausting. Sexual abuse implies predation, and predators are notoriously deceitful, conniving, and evasive. A pastor can often feel like a detective, trying to track down and extract the truth from a situation clouded in lies, emotional devastation, fear, anger and cover-ups. In addition, a pastor cannot depend upon the police department or Department of Children and Families (or whatever it is called in your state) to be of much help in most cases. In the state of Connecticut where I pastored, DCF was rife with corruption, neglect and even abuse of children in their charge. My experience with DCF was with a few well-meaning case workers overwhelmed with caseloads often being managed poorly by bureaucrats. The police often had bigger concerns with which to deal, such as drug lords and gangs.
Finally, until the past 15-20 years, sexual abuse was never spoken of in many fundamental and evangelical circles. Only in the last decade have colleges and seminaries made concerted effort to provide quality training to future leaders. Most pastors who were trained more than 15 years ago literally have no formal training in dealing with sexual abuse. Today there are many good resources to help a pastor effectively deal with abuse, but these are recent developments. (On a personal level, I know of no more qualified experts than Chuck and Sue McLain at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale and Bruce Meyer at Maranatha. Readers would do well to take their classes.)
Understanding Sexual Abuse
Before we go any further, we need to define sexual abuse. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect defines child sexual assault as: “Contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim.”
There are several key components to this definition. First, sexual abuse is any contact or interaction…when the child is being used for the sexual stimulation of the predator. Contact or interaction includes actual physical contact, in addition to forcing a child to watch sexual acts or pornography, etc. I would add that lewd comments, gestures and looks also qualify as abuse.
Second, the legal definition of “child” is anyone under eighteen years old, even though the age of consent may be lower in certain states. Legally, and I think, wisely, children under eighteen are not considered to be responsible for sexual behavior with adults. This may seem like an arbitrary determination by some. As the father of seventeen- and fifteen-year-old daughters, I think this is just about right. This is not to deny the fact that some teenagers occasionally seduce adults, but the occurrences of children seducing adults are rare in comparison to the vast majority of cases where the minor is preyed upon. The reason responsibility is not placed upon the minor is simple: It is not normal behavior for a minor to initiate sexual contact with an adult. I know this point will raise howls of protest from men who have “fallen” to the charms of teenage girls, but it is simply not the case that very many teens are out there looking to initiate sexual relations with forty-year-old men. Besides, as Christians we hold adults to a higher standard. Let me say this very clearly. If a teenager should ever initiate sexual contact with an adult, it is the adult who is first and foremost responsible to resist temptation and refuse the contact.
Why so many people don’t understand this is a mystery to me. In so many instances where Christian men (especially leaders) have preyed upon teenagers, it seems that the automatic assumption is that this “godly man” would never do such a thing willingly. He must have been seduced by a perverse teenage girl. She is to blame for ruining the man’s ministry or position or life. This kind of response needs to be identified as the twisted delusion that it is.
Third, sexual abuse happens when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim. This neglected point is often misunderstood or ignored in cases of sexual abuse. Having control over a victim is a powerful dynamic that can leave one absolutely in the grip of the perpetrator. Power is gained in many ways, and unfortunately religious or spiritual power is often the best tool of the abuser.
Predators use a variety of scare tactics: everything from threats of bodily harm against the victim or her family to threats of public exposure and shame and loss of family support and love. They may appeal to her sympathy and incite fear of church discipline or even damnation. Recently in our area, a “Christian” man was exposed as raping his now nineteen-year-old adopted daughter continuously from the very first night he brought her home at the age of twelve. All those years he threatened that if she told anyone, the family would reject her and have nothing to do with her. And he was right! When he was finally exposed, the negligently ignorant wife blamed all those years of abuse on the daughter and threw her out of the house. The power dynamic in sexual abuse cannot be underestimated.
If this description so far makes you sick to your stomach and afraid to ever have to deal with sexual abuse, it should. It is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. Without the training I received in seminary I would have completely failed the sheep that limped into my office, broken and bleeding from the wolf-attacks they had endured. So how should a pastor deal with sexual abuse in his congregation?
Shepherding the Victim
First, a distinction needs to be made between sexual immorality and sexual abuse. They are not the same. The issue of consent is not a minor issue; it is the issue. When two adults or two minors engage in consensual sexual immorality, they are both morally responsible for their actions. When one person forces another to engage in a sexual act, there is no responsibility on the part of the victim. And by definition, there can be no consensual sexual contact between minors and adults. Why? Because adults have inherent power over minors. Again, I am aware of the rare cases where a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old may appear to be consensually involved with an adult. But even at that age, there is a power dynamic in the relationship that makes it abuse.
What does this mean for pastoral care? In the case of sexual contact between a minor and an adult, the minor ought to be considered the innocent victim unless clear and compelling evidence says otherwise. And even in such rare cases, the responsibility of the act still rests squarely on the shoulders of the adult. I am amazed at the confusion on this issue. In an attempt to somehow explain how a “Christian” man who seemed to be godly, seemed to be a good family man, and seemed to love God could do such a thing, blame is quite often laid at the feet of the minor. It is especially appalling to me when women rush to blame a teenager for sexual contact with an adult. Perhaps many women who respond in this fashion were abused themselves, and have never stopped blaming themselves for the abuse they suffered.
The main role of the pastor with the victim at this point is that of the gentle shepherd, recognizing that he is dealing with a severely wounded lamb who needs care, comfort, counseling, support, courage and more. A pastor needs to demonstrate compassion toward the victim, reassuring her that the abuse was not her fault, and that the church will be there to help her through the trauma that will unfold in her life over the next years as she comes to grips with this most devastating violation of her person.
It is not uncommon for abuse victims to suffer depression, thoughts of suicide, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and a host of other symptoms in the years following an act of abuse. Pastors need to be prepared for the long haul to minister patiently to the victim. The victim will be wracked with guilt, fear, anger and other emotions. She will be tormented with questions such as, “Could I have fought harder? Did I do anything to encourage him? Why am I such a bad person?” In addition, the victim will most likely suffer the humiliation of ignorant people making hurtful comments. All this adds up to a monumental task for a pastor in the post-abuse care of an abuse victim.
The pastor needs to take the lead in finding women who will come alongside her in the process. He needs to help the family find a good counselor and perhaps a good lawyer. He needs to fulfill the commands of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Above all, the pastor needs to ensure that the victim is not exposed to shame in any way for the heinous act committed against her. The one place a violated person ought to be able to go to find relief from shame and condemnation is the church. How a pastor prepares his people for this eventuality will make all the difference in the world. This will be discussed later.
(See Part 2 on shepherding the perpetrator and shepherding the church.)
1 Editor’s note: Perhaps the congregation size would need to be 200 to produce the final numbers indicated here (since the statistics are calculated based on 100 females (1 in 5 = 20/100, 1 in 3 = 33/100) + 100 males (1 in 7 = 14/100, 1 in 5 = 20/100)? Or if the average church is 100 and not 200, the ranges of abused women/men should be adjusted in half (for a congregation of 50 women/50 men). Still a “staggering number.”
Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.