It should be self-evident that sexual abuse is an unpleasant topic. This is one of the saddest, hardest things we have to deal with in this broken world. It can be difficult to approach this topic with honesty and openness. Yet we need to, now more than ever.
Sadly, whether we realize it or not, many of us have been touched by the consequences of sexual abuse. It not only happens out there in the world, but it also happens in our churches. If I may be personal for a moment, this is something that has deeply touched my life. I was not sexually abused, but someone I love dearly was. After immigrating to Canada from the Netherlands, my mother was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a family member. It left deep scars and pain in her life. I don’t think she ever came to terms with it. It affected her emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps even physically.
In the past, sexual abuse was typically ignored and covered up. People didn’t want to talk about such a horrible subject, let alone admit that it happens. It used to be that way in broader society as well. But over the last three decades or so, attitudes have changed dramatically. People in our broader society are willing to talk and do something about the problem of childhood sexual abuse.
But where does that leave us as a church community? If we love Christ and we love his church, we too ought to be honest about this serious problem, try to understand it, and aim to address it. We’ll try to prevent it. And we’ll try to help those who have survived it.
Defining the Problem
First, let’s get our definitions clear. In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person. It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour. In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical). Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.” These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston.
In the past some have tried to restrict sexual abuse to mean only intercourse, as if anything else is not really that sexual and won’t do any great damage. But this is foolish and short-sighted. Sexual abuse occurs whenever someone abuses his or her authority or power to gain sexual gratification at a weaker person’s expense. That’s necessarily going to go beyond intercourse. It includes all inappropriate touching, as well as exposure. It also includes inappropriate talk, forcing someone to view pornography, and sexual harassment.
Sexual abuse involves someone being forced into an unwanted sexual experience. Their feelings, desires, and emotions are completely ignored by the offender. While touching, fondling, exposure, and dirty talk may seem harmless to some, the fact is that such acts can and do have tremendous impacts on the lives of those on the receiving end. This is in addition to the fact that all these things violate the Seventh Commandment. All these things are sinful in the eyes of God, sins against him and our neighbour. It’s selfish and destructive.
It’s also important to remember that some sins are worse than others. One of the things that makes sexual abuse such a horrible sin is that it is attack on something essential to our humanity, namely our sexuality. We’re created male or female, and that has to do with biological realities such as our sexual organs and hormones. Human reproduction was designed around these biological realities. And when these core aspects of our humanity are assaulted, the pain really goes deep.
In what follows, I will sometimes refer to those who have experienced abuse as “victims,” and other times as “survivors.” Those who’ve experienced abuse are both. Besides, there has to be some short-hand form for referring to those who’ve gone through this. At the same time, I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that Christians who’ve experienced this horrible atrocity should find their identity in being either a victim or a survivor of abuse. We ought to find our identity in Jesus Christ – for it’s in him that there’s hope for healing. Additionally, in what follows I’ll use feminine pronouns for victims/survivors, simply because females are more typically in that position. However, it does not change the fact that many males have also experienced it.
What the Bible Says
It should be obvious enough that sexual abuse is wrong. The Bible speaks about it. In 2 Samuel 13 we find the sad story of the abuse of Tamar by her step-brother Amnon – it’s readily apparent in the story that Amnon traumatized his step-sister by raping her. This was a wicked act with terrible consequences. Moreover, there are numerous places in the Old and New Testament which tell us that any kind of sexual activity must only be between a husband and a wife. Any other sexual contact is a violation of the Seventh Commandment. Sexual sins, including abuse, are rebellion against God. They are also a form of idolatry – placing one’s sexual desires on the throne in the place of the true God. All forms of sexual abuse are selfish acts. The damage inflicted on the victims can be far-reaching, even leading to suicide. That also tells us something of the wickedness of this sin.
An Abuse of Power
How can this wickedness take place, even among those who profess to be Christians? Often it involves an abuse of power, someone older or bigger taking advantage of someone younger or smaller. Sexual abuse often happens without the threat of violence or the use of physical force. Victims are simply coerced into the act with threats or a lie about what is really going on. Offenders will often solely lead their prey into the abuse so that it seems quite innocent and harmless at first. Some offenders will make the abuse into a kind of game which makes it seem not quite so bad to a young child. He might then tell the child that it is their secret game that no one else can know about or they won’t be able to play together any more.
Sometimes sexual abuse takes place between adolescents and young children – typically teenage boys and pre-teen girls. We’re not talking about a simple case of sexual curiosity. This is the manipulation of peer pressure. Younger children are seeking acceptance into an older group. The older group recognizes that and they take advantage of it to sexually abuse the younger ones. That kind of abuse may happen just once or it may continue over several years.
In most cases the perpetrator is known to the victim. It’s typically a family member, and more often than not male. Females are known to abuse as well, but you don’t find the same numbers as with males. If it’s not a family member, then it’s oftentimes someone else well-known by the family. This could include doctors, teachers, or office bearers.
Any one of these people is in a position where they could potentially abuse a child or teenager. They’re all in positions of authority and trust. They have some honour associated with their position. In the past, an allegation of abuse against a teacher or minister was typically not taken seriously. There was always a greater chance it would be covered up. Victims of abuse by such people usually felt that there was no point in bringing it up, because they wouldn’t be believed anyway. If an offender was a respected teacher or office bearer, he often had something of a protective barrier against claims that would destroy his reputation.
Many abusers have a double-personality. They may look like a good Christian on the outside. They might be able to debate all kinds of theological or church issues with you. But to the victim, such a person can be Satan personified. He will have a face, an odour, and a peculiar voice which will never be forgotten by the survivor. Oftentimes survivors face terrifying flashbacks when faced with people who are similar or when they are in situations that remind them of the abuse. Some survivors find it difficult to return to places where the abuse happened. That may include the surroundings of the family home.
Usually families where sexual abuse happens are legalistic when it comes to certain things. Legalism can be a way that abuse is covered up so it can continue. One survivor told how “…in my family it was not acceptable to sew on Sundays but it was acceptable to abuse children.” Deep, dark secrets are kept within the family, protected by an outward veneer of super-serious piety. The family may look very committed sitting together in church twice every Sunday, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.
A Christian counsellor related to me how sexual abuse often occurs in isolated, conservative, large families in Reformed churches. Isolation leads to secrets. Conservative (not meaning orthodox) includes having bizarre ideas about not talking about sexuality, leading to curiosity and an inability to have self-control when the opportunity presents itself. And in large families, the parents are often unable to parent on their own. They rely on the older children or other outside family members for child care, thus increasing the opportunities for abuse to occur. Of course, there are large families where abuse doesn’t happen, but the risk level does go up.
The hypocrisy of the family environment can have devastating effects on a survivor of sexual abuse. She may have bitter feelings towards the church and may even end up leaving. She may feel that a church which allows such hypocrisy is a church in which there is no real faith or love. However, this is only one of the consequences sexual abuse survivors often have to deal with.
Consequences: Guilt and Faith
Now before I go a bit further with those consequences, I should say that not every person who’s been sexually abused is equally traumatized by it. There are numerous factors. Some people by nature are more resilient than others. The person who was abused once will likely be traumatized less than someone abused repeatedly – but even this isn’t true all the time. Incest is typically more traumatic than abuse by a non-family member. And there are other variables as well. So I’m describing a range of consequences that those who’ve been through sexual abuse MAY experience.
Understandably, victims of sexual abuse will often be scarred with deep wounds of guilt and betrayal. They may feel betrayed by someone who was supposed to love and protect them. They may feel guilty because, in their mind, they “allowed” the abuse to happen and continue. But realistically the victim could never have stopped it. The abuser was too clever and manipulative – he knew how to get what he wanted. Still, survivors will struggle to find an explanation for what happened.
In the process, they may question why God would let his happen. This is part of the betrayal. The survivor feels betrayed, not only by the offender (especially if it’s a family member), but also by her God. Why God allows abuse to continue is not easy to grasp and there’s no simple answer. When you’ve been abused, it feels like God has let you down in a cruel and ruthless way. Then it’s difficult to trust God, even when Scripture says that God works all things for our good.
Some incest survivors also struggle with relating to God as a Father. If your earthly father had been slipping into bed and abusing you for ten years, you would struggle in that human relationship. In the same way, incest survivors can really struggle with understanding how to relate to God as our Father. Sadly, this struggle can and does lead some away from the Christian faith.
As I’ve already hinted, sexual abuse involves trauma. By that I mean that it’s a deeply upsetting experience that often has long-term psychological and physical consequences. Most victims of sexual abuse experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Just as a soldier goes into battle and may see various atrocities and brutal acts of violence, so the sexual abuse victim is traumatized and has her childhood or teenage years murdered. Her soul has been ripped out of her for the gratification of the enemy. Unless it’s dealt with, that trauma can stay and haunt a victim for a long time. There can be terrifying memory flashbacks. But there can also be memory blocks – some can’t remember their childhood, or can’t remember any joy at all in childhood. Sometimes there will be denial or minimization of the abuse. With other survivors, there can be debilitating depression, anxiety, multiple personalities, and other serious mental health issues.
Another consequence is loss of trust. Many victims feel they can no longer trust anyone ever again. Wouldn’t you feel that way if a relative told you he was going to teach you how to drive, but part of his definition of driving included some kind of unwanted sexual activity? Victims are often abused by people they thought they could trust and when this trust is betrayed, it can take a long time before they ever trust anyone again.
This also has implications for the reporting of sexual abuse. Often the reactions of those being told can complicate the feelings of betrayal and mistrust, especially if the victim is not taken seriously. If a little girl tells her mother that she’s being sexually abused and her mother doesn’t believe her or do anything about it, that little girl is going to feel that her mother doesn’t really care about what’s happening to her. Of course, that scars the relationship between the mother and daughter, and increases the feelings of betrayal in the heart of the survivor.
Those feelings of betrayal can also lead to a twisted self-image. The survivor feels no one wants her (except perhaps for one thing), no one believes her, and she is really worth nothing. Her human dignity has been attacked and it has an impact. She may feel as if the whole world is against her and trying to destroy her. That can lead to other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, workaholism, perfectionism, sexual promiscuity, and eating disorders.
Eating disorders tend to be especially prevalent among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Eating disorders include bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating. Bulimia (bingeing and purging) and anorexia (self-starvation) are the most common. The effects can be far-reaching and deadly.
As a result of the damage done to the self-image of the survivor, eating disorders are often regarded as a way of coping. They can be seen as a method of control, the victim feeling that finally she has power over something in her life. Or they can be seen as a way to become unattractive, and thereby hopefully avoid any future sexual abuse. It could be a combination of those factors and others. Eating disorders are tragic and devastating – they are truly representative of how sexual abuse can lead someone to self-destruct.
A history of sexual abuse often also has a detrimental effect on marriage. If a spouse is ignorant of the history, there can be deep rifts in communication and disruption in normal marital intimacy. For example, one spouse may have a normal view of sex, but the spouse who has survived sexual abuse may feel that it’s a dirty, disgusting duty which only brings back horrible memories from a ruined childhood. Obviously such a marriage is going to struggle to be healthy and strong.
So what can be done to stop and heal the effects of this horrifying sin? First and foremost, let’s not neglect prayer. We ought to pray for the survivors of sexual abuse and those who may still be experiencing it. Pray for the men and women who have experienced this terrible trauma and for children and teenagers who are still being abused. Ask God to give them the strength and courage to come to terms with what’s happened.
We ought also to pray for the offenders. We can pray for their repentance. We can pray that they will confess their sins and at least attempt to make amends with their victims. We can pray for their restoration so that they too live for God’s honour and glory. However, we can also pray for God’s justice. If they will not repent and turn to do the right thing, we can entrust the whole matter to the just Judge. Vengeance belongs to him and he will repay.
Prayer is important. But we also believe that action goes with prayer. The first thing is to take abuse seriously, and to take reports of abuse seriously. Research has repeatedly shown that false reports of sexual abuse do happen, but they are few and far between. This is simply because, in most cases, the one making the report has so much to lose. There’s still often a stigma attached to having been abused, especially for younger women. The social cost and stress involved in reporting sexual abuse mean that we should always take reports seriously.
Going further, our children have to be taught about physical boundaries. Because we all bear the image of God and therefore have human dignity, no one is allowed to touch us in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable. We ought to teach a healthy Christian view of consent when it comes to our sexuality. Our children and young people have to learn that females are not called to submit in general to all men, and certainly they’re not at the beck and call of every man’s sexual whim. We have to model biblical examples of male headship and leadership in the home and the church.
Let me say a few words about our duty to report sexual abuse. Different jurisdictions have different mandatory reporting requirements. There can be different legal obligations depending on where you live. But we have to distinguish between legal obligations and moral obligations. As Christians, I hope we would agree that, even in the absence of a legal obligation, there is still a moral obligation for all of us to report a disclosure of abuse or a reasonable suspicion of abuse. If a horrible criminal act is being carried out against a weak and vulnerable child, wouldn’t we want to do everything in our power to stop it? If you were to put yourself in that child’s shoes, wouldn’t you want someone else to put an end to your abuse and suffering?
But someone may ask, “What if the perpetrator is a member of the church?” The crucial thing to remember is that sexual abuse is not only a terrible sin, but also a criminal offence. If a member of our church murdered another member, we wouldn’t say, “Oh, let’s just let the elders sort that out.” We would recognize right away that murder is a criminal act and it needs to be addressed by the police and justice system. It’s a serious, criminal matter. Sexual abuse is no different. It has to be treated as a crime, because that’s what it is.
There is no immunity for church members from the execution of justice by God’s appointed ministers in the civil realm. Being a member of the church should not give you “a stay out of jail” card if you’re an abuser. That’s not to say that it won’t be dealt with as a church matter. After all, like we saw earlier, sexual abuse is a serious sin against the Seventh Commandment. Church discipline has a place in dealing with this sin. The church has to take it seriously and deal with it decisively – sadly, this has not always happened.
But when it is dealt with properly, the hope of the gospel can be held out to all involved. For abusers, they can repent and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of this horrible sin. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they can change. They’ll still have to live with the consequences of what they’ve done, but as far as eternity goes, they can find hope and comfort. And for those who’ve been abused, it’s often a long, difficult journey of healing. But healing is possible through the grace God offers in the gospel. By God’s grace, I have seen abuse victims who were once angry and embittered deal with all that in a Christian and God-honouring way. But it never happens quickly and those trying to encourage abuse survivors need to remember to be patient and give these things time.
There is far more to say about this topic. I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll just make a couple of remarks by way of conclusion.
What you’ve read above is a revised version of an article I wrote for Clarion in 1995. It was the first article I ever had published in Clarion. Afterwards, I heard a lot of positive feedback, especially from people who’d been abused and those who work with them. But I also heard some negative feedback. One instance was especially memorable. After a worship service, an older brother who’d served as an elder came up to me and told me my article was stupid. He said something like, “You think we should report that to the police? That’s ridiculous. If I stole a dime from you, would you go and report that to the police?” He compared sexual abuse to stealing pocket change. Unbelievable.
If you would have asked me back then if I thought that 24-25 years down the road would see an improvement in the prevalence and handling of these things, I would have been optimistic and hopeful. Young men often are. If you ask me now whether there has been an improvement, I wouldn’t be quite so positive. I’m still most familiar with the Canadian situation and from there I’m still hearing of these things happening and these things sometimes being mishandled by consistories. It deeply saddens me.
I think one thing that has made the problem far worse is accessibility to pornography through the Internet, and especially violent, abusive, degrading pornography. Child pornography is also easy to access. These things contribute to the ongoing sexual abuse of children, teenagers, and sometimes even spouses – also in our Reformed churches.
Dear reader, we need to take sexual abuse seriously. We need to talk about it openly – after all, sin is like fungus; it grows best in the dark. Let’s do everything we can to shine a light on this detestable evil. Let’s do everything in our power to prevent it and make our churches havens of healing for those who have experienced it.