Sorting Through the Church’s Silence
The choirs of outcries from Hollywood over the Harvey Weinstein scandal concerning crimes against women and those echoing globe-wide over the atrocities of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar against children drop a question of epic proportions into the lap of the church:
Why are we who preach and teach “the truth will set you free” largely bound by silence regarding sexual assault and abuse?
Rachael Denhollander’s cogent courtroom testimony, masterfully articulating both the grace and justice of Jesus Christ, made her identification as a Christian beautifully clear. We were immensely proud to be her sisters and brothers and to stand with her in the public square. Then came the irony of discovering that her advocacy for sexual assault victims had cost Rachael her church. What’s more, most of us suspect her congregation wouldn’t have been the only one.
Why the Silence?
What are we to do with this disparity? Why would followers of Jesus be among the least vocal and the slowest to respond when Christ, whom we are called to imitate, was a relentless defender of the powerless, misused, victimized and abused? In specific regard to children, why do we — activists in numerous other streams of concern — choose reserve about wrongs for which Jesus reserved a titanic threat?
“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matt. 18:6-7 NIV).
I wonder if much of our silence, our squirming and palpable discomfort, regarding the exposure of sexual abuses is wrapped up in our guilt, shame or brokenness over our own sexual sins.
A few of the most obvious reasons have been discussed and cussed in recent months. Protecting powerful people (which can include ourselves), institutions and systems from shame, accusation, desertion and defunding are a few major contributors. Throw alongside those a nobler rationalization: the preservation of the “greater good.” This, of course, is an absurdity, since hiding abuse will ultimately and absolutely be the institution’s (and the person’s) undoing.
God just really doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thing forever. He’s too faithful. Christ’s own theology of secrecy can be summed up in two simple words: secrets manifest. Thankfully, the assurance is true in regard to good secrets as well as bad. (Matt. 6; Mark 4) The faster we uncover the toxic ones before God (Ps. 32:5) and before proper authorities, the better.
Lastly, what we’ve proved willing to overlook for political gain has rendered us mute, lest our hypocrisy know no bounds; and although that matters to me, that’s not the fish I care to fry today. My purpose in this article is to throw another possible explanation on the table for consideration.
Guilt, Shame or Brokenness
I wonder if much of our silence, our squirming and palpable discomfort, regarding the exposure of sexual abuses is wrapped up in our guilt, shame or brokenness over our own sexual sins. After all, who among us hasn’t committed sexual sin, whether in imagination or action?
I will leave room for perhaps three of you out there somewhere, who are now officially excused from this discussion. Please go reward yourselves with a half gallon of Ben and Jerry’s, which we ask you to consume in one sitting just to make the rest of us feel some level of comfort over your gluttony; or go covet your coworker’s car; or at the very least, be visibly proud of your purity over all aforementioned transgressions, so we can be consoled by your sinful pride. Maybe the rest of us could sit around here for a second and give this theory some mild consideration. Even if our sexual sins belong to our pasts, and our lives bear fruit of true repentance, we may still have an enormous reluctance to bring sexual misconduct to light.
The First Stone?
And for good reason. Take John 8, for instance, and the woman caught in the act of adultery dragged into the temple courts and Christ’s response to whether or not she should be stoned. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Every accuser fell silent to the thuds of rocks dropping at their feet. Which of us has the right to throw a stone? None, of course. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s the way of grace.
The thought that it could be our own sins shamefully exposed is so horrifying, we’ve ripped off a piece of duct tape and slapped it across our mouths. Most of us have not only committed some form of sexual sin. We’ve also grappled at one point or another with some level of sexual dysfunction, however well we’ve hidden it or how quickly we’ve moved through it.
The statistics on pornography alone testify to our skewed sexuality. We understandably feel guilty about pointing out such weaknesses in others. Our sensitivity to hypocrisy is appropriate. We see the faces of the accused all over the media, and imagine our own mugs between their crimson ears, the sordid reports of our own sinfulness in print instead of theirs.
Do All Sexual Sins Call for the Same Response?
But here are a few questions I’d like to pose: do all sexual sins call for the same response? Are we meant by God to respond to the sexually abusive the same way we respond to the sexually immoral? To be sure, all stones of condemnation drop to the dirt in the presence and perfection of Jesus, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead so we can walk in newness of life. His grace extends to all. His forgiveness is earned by none.
All sexual sins have negative repercussions. But all sexual sins don’t cause the same level of repercussions. Likewise, all predators are immoral, but not all immorality is predatory. Do we walk away from an unrepentant rapist because we’ve all sinned sexually in one way or another? Or do we apprehend him? Do we ignore a church leader’s sexual harassment because we slept with people in college? Forgive me for being so direct, but these things need sorting out.
If we are going to move to a place of healthy community in the church where there is thriving instead of conniving, where the sheep are protected instead of the wolves, where the abused find shelter instead of the abusers, we’re going to have to sort out our convoluted thinking about sexual misconduct.
When It’s Not Just Immoral but Criminal
It is imperative that we learn to differentiate between sexual immorality and sexual criminality.
Both are sin.
Both call for repentance.
Both require grace.
Both can be forgiven, slates wiped clean, by our merciful God though the cross of Christ.
Where church and ministry leaders are concerned, both also call for proper action. But one calls for a different proper action. It calls for the police. While all sexual sin is immoral, not all sexual sin is criminal. There is sexual sin in general. And there is sexual assault in particular. There must be a distinction drawn between the two.
To Address It Head-On
Here’s the bottom line. The problem is enormous but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We’ve helped blow it up to its current size with our breathy silence. We won’t be able to eradicate sexual crimes — only the coming of Christ’s kingdom will accomplish that — but by His grace, power, wisdom and courage, we can lessen it in our own midsts by a landslide.
We have victims of sexual assault, molestation and abuse all over the church — 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males — just as we do in virtually any community. We also likely have some predators and abusers in our congregations. So, do we quit going to church? No, unless we want to quit going to work, too, and to malls and social gatherings and sports events and concerts. Anywhere you have a crowd of people, you are among those who have abused and been abused.
So, what can we do? We address it head-on. We start making it well known — wisely and without witch-hunting histrionics — that the church is henceforth an unsafe hiding place for predators. It’s a great place for them to go forward and repent and turn themselves in, casting themselves on the grace of God with the rest of us but it must cease to be a safe harbor where they can hide and perpetuate their crimes. We need pastors and teachers who are willing to address these realities often enough to alter the silence culture.
It’s God’s Will To Expose Certain Things
I think numerous Christians genuinely just need to know it’s God’s will to expose such things. After all, love covers a multitude of sins. And, thank God, it does but love does not perpetuate victimization by covering for a victimizer. Love that uncovers one in order to cover another is by no means loving. We’re smarter than this. We can discern better than this. We know in our gut that covering up grievous wrongdoing because the individual is a fellow believer can’t be what 1 Peter 4:8 means.
Ephesians 5:11 says “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them.”
Ephesians 5:13 follows it up with these words: “But when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.”
We don’t expose darkness darkly, with condemnation, hatred and vengeance. We expose darkness by the light of Jesus. Anything — absolutely anything — the light reveals, the light can also heal.
God alone knows the impact Rick and Kay Warren will have on churches all over the world because they were audacious enough last Sunday to address the topic of sexual abuse and assault from the platform in all their services. Kay courageously, shamelessly told her story, shared ramifications of the abuse and the road to healing. Rick preached on these themes from Scripture.
“Not a Safe Place for Wolves”
I will long remember Rick’s address to his congregation. After nearly weeping with compassion over the hurt that many had suffered, and saying the simple but fitting words, “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” he added this: “God has made me shepherd over this flock. I will do everything I can to make Saddleback Church a safe place for the sheep but it will not be a safe place for wolves. If you are a predator and you prey on my flock, I will hunt you down and I will turn you in.” He also invited abusers to the cross of Christ, to repentance and forgiveness, and prayed for them. It was not the abused that left church frightened that day. It was the unrepentant abusers and make no mistake. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Prov. 9:10)
We need more than a handful of people to activate. We need church and ministry transformation. We need brothers and sisters who are brave enough to sort through their own sexual messiness, to repent where it’s called for, to be infused by the Holy Spirit to discern wisely and to distinguish accurately, to love healthily, comfort and protect valiantly and to help create an atmosphere where people thrive and healing really can take place. We need us all. We need all of Jesus.
I’ll end with this. A few days ago my morning Scripture reading included the first two chapters of Ruth. I was halted by Naomi’s statement of affirmation regarding the field of Boaz as a safe place for Ruth to work, even with many men close by (see Ruth 2:21). In Ruth 2:22, Naomi used these words: “It is good . . . lest in another field you be assaulted.” What the chapter conveyed about both Naomi and Boaz as alert, aware and proactive protectors was profound.
Women, let’s be like Naomi: informed, smart, discerning: and like Ruth: willing to listen to sound counsel — not fear-mongering but sound counsel — about safe versus dangerous places.
Men, take up the mantle of Boaz and see to it valiantly, wisely and shrewdly, that in your field, whatever and wherever it may be, no one gets assaulted. And, should anyone be harmed despite your watchfulness, you know what to do.
Do what is right.