The summer before my 6th grade year I was sexually abused by a Christian camp counselor. The counselor began grooming me while my family attended a conference at Lifeway’s Ridgecrest Conference Center, sent several letters to my home over the ensuing weeks, and eventually came and visited both me and a friend whose family had also attended.
One night, while I was sleeping over at this friend’s house, this counselor came out of the guest room where he was staying, laid on the couch where I was sleeping, and began touching me inappropriately. Embarrassed, scared and confused, I let this go on for a long time, before eventually telling him I was tired and wanted to sleep, at which point he left. For the next 20 years, I told myself “I’m so glad that wasn’t worse,” not realizing that the abuse I’d experienced had deeply twisted my soul in ways I wouldn’t understand until I was in my 30s.
When, in the last few years, I began telling people this story I noticed something odd: Many of them felt the need to dismiss it, minimize it, to tell me what I had always told myself, “You’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” One well-meaning person told me I should have said something 20 years ago so the abuser could have been punished, which is pretty high on the list of “things you don’t tell an abuse victim.”
Immanuel Baptist Church and Our Problem With Victim Shaming
This bizarre, repeated response led me to ask a question: Why are Christians so quick to minimize sexual abuse? I had heard enough stories to know I wasn’t alone in my experience, and so I began to research, and interview survivors of abuse far more horrific than mine, and eventually I wrote an article attempting to see sexual abuse in the evangelical church from 35,000 feet that was published in The Washington Post this past week. I hope you read the article itself, but the summary of it is this: From small rural churches to urban megachurches, from Reformed churches, to Baptist churches, to non-denominational churches, sexual abuse is rampant, and the way it is dealt with often horrifying.
The article centers on Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who made national news in her outspoken quest for justice against Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar. It discusses how Denhollander became one of the leading voices in calling Sovereign Grace Churches to account for allegations of ignoring or minimizing abuse claims within their own walls for years. When Denhollander’s church—Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.—began publicly defending SGC founder C.J. Mahaney, inviting him to speak regularly from their pulpit, encouraging people to pray against the “attacks” against him, Denhollander told the church leadership she believed their actions were inappropriate given that there were still dozens of allegations against Mahaney. She was told 1) that she was projecting her own abuse on to Mahaney and 2) that if she couldn’t submit to the church’s decision maybe she should find a new church.
This is, far too often, the church’s response to those who speak out about their own abuse, or the abuse of others: They are minimized, unheard and in severe cases like that of former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, treated as though their sin in some way contributed to the abuse and thus need to be “broken down.” After six months of research, what I have found is that the horror stories emerging about Patterson’s behavior are far from an isolated incident, but rather a template of what happens when leadership fails to hear the voice of victims. It’s easy to look at the scandals of other evangelical churches and institutions and wonder how they could behave so poorly, but the answer often isn’t complicated or particularly insidious. So many times victims of abuse are silenced by arrogant church leaders who believe they 1) know how to handle sexual abuse even though they’ve never had any training on the subject, 2) don’t need to involve outside authorities but can keep it “in-house,” and 3) fail to invite a plurality of voices into their decision making (all too often the response to a woman’s sexual abuse is decided by a group of men sitting in a closed room).
The Hope I See in the Example of Immanuel Baptist Church
It doesn’t have to be this way. When churches are able to show humility in the middle of crisis, God’s mercy toward victims flows. When Denhollander spoke at the sentencing of Nassar, the pastors of Immanuel Baptist were watching, and when she recounted how one of the prices she paid for speaking against Nassar was losing her church community, they knew Denhollander was talking about them. In private pastoral meetings they began to question whether they had made a mistake and over time began pursuing reconciliation with Denhollander. They also reconsidered their relationship with SGC and Mahaney.
In a public statement IBC released in light of my impending article, the pastors confessed they had sinned, needed Denhollander’s forgiveness (which she gave) and are discontinuing their relationship with SGC for the time being. The statement recounts how one pastor, early in the process, said that the church had been given “a gift” in hearing Denhollander’s story, in that they were being allowed to see a blind spot in their church that needed immediate fixing.
This is the pathway forward for evangelical churches who want to be on the side of the powerless and against the abusers. It’s why I shared my own story of abuse at the beginning of this article: We need to hear stories of abuse, both within our own ranks and within the Christian community at large. We also need to realize—with humility—that this moment is not an attack against us coming from a secular world, or an unbiblical disunifying of the church, but rather a gift of correction.
I still believe the evangelical church can be better than we’ve collectively been, but it’s going to take humility to get there.