When the scandal surrounding influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke, the societal response was largely one of shock. How could this have gone on for so long? Why did so many victims stay silent? As more details emerge, it’s become clear that victims of sexual abuse are often trapped in a cycle of shame, confusion, and fear that keeps them silent.
Sadly, this same pattern of abuse and victim-silencing can happen in the church as well, and just like with the Weinstein scandal, it can go unnoticed for years. In 2007, the three largest insurers of churches and Christian non-profits reported 260 cases of sexual abuse. In the past five years, multiple influential evangelical institutions—from Bill Gothard, to Sovereign Grace Ministries, to Bob Jones University—have come under fire for either directly sexually abusing women or shaming the victims of abuse into silence.
These stories are horrifying to pastors and leaders in evangelical churches, precisely because they seem so unthinkable. They lead to a vitally important question: How can we create churches that don’t allow sexual abuse or victim-shaming to happen? The good news is, there are ways to help prevent abuse and respond effectively and it starts with hearing and learning from the stories of abuse victims.
“I THINK YOU’RE JUST TOO SINFUL TO BE FRIENDS WITH”
When Melissa* met the man who would rape her, he seemed like a gift from God. She was a 14-year-old girl, new to the faith, and James* was an 18-year-old intern at the youth group who gave her the attention her dad never did. James was everything Melissa’s father wasn’t: Attentive, a role model others looked up to, a young man of God being mentored by the pastor of the church. The two of them would hang out alone frequently, and although James said their relationship was a secret, he told Melissa they were dating and that he loved her. Sometimes James would be overly angry or combative, which frightened Melissa, but mostly she was just a 14-year-old who was in love.
* Names have been changed for privacy
“One night we got in a fight,” Melissa said. “Later, James called me to make up and said he wanted to meet me somewhere private. We went to this abandoned building, he shoved me against the wall and started touching me in ways I didn’t want to be touched. I told him I wasn’t comfortable but he wouldn’t stop.”
Melissa pauses as she remembers, eyes closed, visualizing what happened.
“He put his arm up against my throat, choking me. He hit my head against a brick wall, got on top of me and raped me. Afterward he threw my clothes at me and told me to get up. I couldn’t move. Eventually he kicked me and walked away.”
Melissa wasn’t sure what had just happened. She knew this man was a leader in the church and that she loved him. “Can you be raped by someone you’re dating? That you’re in love with?” she wondered.
In her confusion Melissa turned to the only people in her life she’d ever trusted. First she told one of her friends in the church that had helped lead her to Christ.
“She told me, ‘I think you’re just too sinful to be friends with.’”
Melissa would be told something similar by a small group leader, and ultimately a church elder who called her a “used tissue” that no one would ever want. Melissa was confused, because she had never chosen this, but she absorbed and believed the message her church family told her: This is all your fault.
“I WAS LEFT TO WRESTLE WITH AN INVISIBLE ENEMY”
In many cases, victims like Melissa are actively commanded to keep quiet, but some victims quiet themselves simply because they don’t have the language, understanding, or tools to deal with the severe trauma they’re experiencing. In other cases, well-meaning leaders in the church lack these tools as well.
Brad*, a long-time pastor currently on staff at a megachurch, has one of these stories. Brad was sexually abused at 8 years old but, with the exception of brief flashes of vague memories, he forgot about it. Years later his abuser confessed to the community Brad grew up in, but was told not to confess it to Brad, as he “didn’t need to relive that pain.” After another 10 years, the abuser decided to reach out to Brad anyway, who was now in his mid-30s with a wife and children.
*the name and church have been withheld for privacy
“It was so incredibly hard when I found out, because I had to not only learn to forgive my abuser, but try to understand why I was left in the dark by those who already knew,” Brad says. “For 10 years I was left to wrestle with an invisible enemy.”
This invisible enemy was, among other things, a struggle with pornography he could not shake, despite doing all the “right things” Christian men do to kick that addiction. Brad describes feeling confused, alone, like an anomaly who had something wrong with him.
“My abuse caused me to internally hide parts of me. I distanced myself from people who could wound me, or hurt me emotionally. If I was around a strong, vocal leader, someone who seemed to know more than me, I would be threatened because they weren’t emotionally safe.
I was extremely sensitive to constructive criticism or input from my wife, which was really hard. I had a really hard time connecting emotionally like I was in some sort of emotional coma, and it made it hard for her to feel like she knew me. It was like a part of me shut down and I was relationally living on the surface and didn’t even know why that was. Now I realize there was a huge amount of pain I had buried, but for the longest time I didn’t realize that.”
“WE WANT THE CHURCH TO BE THE SAFEST PLACE FOR THE VULNERABLE”
Stories like Brad’s and Melissa’s are what led Boz Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and former assistant state attorney in Florida, to launch the organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). Tired of seeing abuse victims in evangelical communities further wounded by the church’s response, Tchividjian began asking the question “how can we help the church do better?”
Tchividjian says there are three key ways churches can form cultures that both prevent and respond to sexual abuse in healthy ways.
Key #1: Seek Professional Help
“First off, pastors should reach out for help when confronted,” Tchividjian says. “Don’t try to be experts. If I have a heart attack, I want to go to the expert, and it doesn’t matter whether that expert is a Christian, Muslim, or atheist. I just know I need help from someone who knows what they’re doing. But the good news is there are experts who are Christians. Reach out and learn.”
Tchividjian says if churches want advice on how to either handle a current sexual abuse crisis or set up a response protocol ahead of time, they can check out their website and contact GRACE directly.
Key #2: Child Protection Policy
“Second, I would encourage anyone attending a church to ask their pastor to see a copy of their child protection policy,” Tchividjian says. “Their response will be telling. If they’re irritated that you asked or don’t have one, that’s unacceptable. I don’t mean you leave the church over it, but that you say ‘okay, well this is something is super important for our church to have. Can I help us create one?’”
Key #3: Assess your treatment of women and children
Tchividjian’s last suggestion is that churches take a sober assessment of how their church practically values children and women in their communities. How do they demonstrate that value? His point, which might feel controversial in some evangelical circles, is that because many church cultures are primarily dominated by men, blind spots develop in how those who aren’t men are protected. Tchividjian believes churches with predominantly male leadership need to make sure they aren’t blind to their own biases.
The reality of evangelical sexual abuse is both heart-wrenching and hopeful. On one hand, churches have to face the reality that sexual abuse, and a hurtful response, could potentially happen anywhere. On the other hand, through prayer, prevention, and education, the evangelical church can become a safe place for the powerless. Tchividjian says that protecting the powerless is one of the key roles of the church, and believes any failure to do that is a direct spiritual attack.
“Satan is out to destroy God and his followers and he targets the easiest victims first” Tchividjian says. “He then distorts this issue so that we get responses like ‘let’s not make a big deal about it.’ But that has nothing to do with Jesus.”
To learn more about sexual abuse, preventative policies, and other resources offered by GRACE, click here.