Obstacles to Discussing Abuse in the Church
If there's silver lining to the all the talk of assault, harassment, and abuse in the news, it's that teachers and churches can take the opportunity to respond with wisdom. We need not react to every incident or crisis, but we should commit ourselves to building up a positive, God-focused philosophy of truth and love.
But as we’ve written about abuse in our Bible studies over the past years, we've seen teachers and youth workers struggling with how to broach the topic with their students. Few deny the need for such discussions, but many fail to present the topic helpfully and biblically.
For one thing, teachers face different obstacles to discussion. Here are just a few we've heard discussed openly:
- Developmental Concerns – Should we burden a student with this knowledge now?
- Cultural Resistance – Will this upset a comfortable status quo? Will parents become angry?
- The Lack of Resources and Understanding – Will we uncover a serious abuse problem we're not equipped to handle?
- Doctrinal Concerns – Will we introduce doubt about God's love and sovereignty? Will we hinder the gospel?
We couldn't fully address each of the above points in a single post, but we would suggest the following responses.
We can teach children of any age that hitting, slapping, or unnecessary forced restraint is wrong. Regarding sexual abuse, teachers can equip and educate in developmentally-appropriate ways:
- For very young students or children with intellectual disabilities, we can focus on simple prevention and rules of thumb, like the swimsuit rule.
- Older children can understand boundaries and personal ownership even better.
- And leading into puberty, when we frame sexual activity as an expression of loving intimacy, we can also explain that some individuals will try to abuse this capacity.
Cultural Resistance and the Lack of Resources
In our opinion, cultural resistance and training deficiencies go hand in hand. We should tackle both problems at the same time.
Within Western Christian circles today, parents see their rights and discretion undermined by a variety of social and political movements. And since a majority of child abuse occurs within the home, some parents will feel threatened any such discussion they do not initiate.
Outside the West, we find certain forms of physical abuse to be common—or even protected. An abused spouse may find no help from the police, and people may not blink twice at seeing welts on a child's back.
There's no easy solution to any of this. We live in a fallen world, and when concerned parents or teachers try to address abuse proactively, they’ll face resistance, even from well-meaning people.
But God hasn't left His kingdom unequipped. We the Church can create pockets of culture that deny abuse any foothold:
- Get buy-in from the whole assembly. Preach and teach God's love and justice. Abuse isn't merely a social or legal problem—it's blasphemy against God's image. Demonstrate your commitment to the discipleship of parents as well as children. We allow nothing that hinders little ones from approaching Christ (cf. Matt. 19:14).
- Acknowledge past deficiencies. Every church and ministry has them. Address problems openly so everyone can take responsibility to move forward.
- Train and re-train. Hold abuse recognition and prevention workshops for all teachers and youth workers. Allow veterans and novices to learn together so that no one feels singled out.
- Establish reporting expectations. Research and explain what your state/local government requires your teachers and workers to do when they suspect abuse. Review these expectations regularly.
- Maintain security. Assign responsibility. Codify your safety measures and procedures. Keep them—no exceptions—and review them regularly. Institute background checks for everyone that teaches or works with children.
- Provide safe exit assistance. In the event a spouse or child must leave their home, the assembly should work with relevant social services to provide housing and assistance. Maintain an institutional connection to local police and housing services, as well as qualified counsellors. Listen to their expertise. The assembly should also discipline offending members to keep the church environment safe. And just as importantly, let the assembly know that all these resources are available.
- Communicate with parents. Include parents in every policy and activity above. Solicit feedback and implement their suggestions wherever appropriate. To prevent abuse, we cannot simply issue top-down directives—we must create a culture where abuse cannot survive.
If you love the people within your ministry, then you're already on the right path. Please work out this love by giving it structure and form.
In case you aren't familiar with many resources for prevention and response, here's a few we've found helpful:
- Church-oriented background checks from Lifeway, MinistrySafe, ServantPC, and Shepherd's Watch
- Safety and Prevention Advice from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network)
- The U.S. Department for Health and Human Services' Manual for Preventing Child Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations
- The Ministry Safety Toolkit from GuideStone
- A book by Boz Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits, The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries, from New Growth Press
- A storybook by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, God Made All of Me, which helps parents talk about sexual abuse and prevention with younger children
Your local police or social services may also provide resources for training and reporting. Give them a call, set up a lunch meeting, and start a conversation.
Scripture does not gloss over abuse or its impact, and neither should we. To explain the infidelity of Abraham, the redemption of Rahab, the despair of Tamar, the fall of Solomon, and countless other lessons, we must condemn the misuse and objectification of God's image-bearers. We must address abuse also if we wish to explain why people like Jesus and Paul endured suffering in some cases and avoided it in others. When do we turn the other cheek, and when do we pursue justice?
So in developmentally-appropriate ways, we should explore the ramifications of the Fall, as well as the path God offers out of despair. Our problems don’t make God look small. In the face of all this evil, what else can teachers do but proclaim God’s majesty and work?
Here are a few ways we've found to touch on the topic of abuse while teaching biblical themes:
- Contrast abuse with godly love. This is everything, really. If we define love as the decision to reflect God's goodness to others, then it's easy to note what isn't love. Love is not a feeling or a god, nor is it lust or abuse. We should not abuse people for a hurtful purpose their Maker did not intend. We refuse to objectify others—rather, we elevate their good as image-bearers. Check out Lesson 5 in this file as an example.
- Describe God's love for good homes. The story of humanity is the story of our search for home. We believers can and should create small pockets of Heaven on Earth—places of care, security, hospitality, growth, and hope. Abuse has no place there. Check out Lesson 7 in this file as an example.
- Describe the nature of parental love. The way children view their parents is often the first way they view God. That's an incredible responsibility. We must reflect His love well—unconditionally, asymmetrically, with deep wisdom and understanding. We do not depend on our children to affirm this kind of love.
- Define godly discipline. Discipline is the internalization of wisdom, so as we help our children discipline their thoughts, feelings, and actions, we must use the same care, gentleness, precision, and wisdom that we want to see in their lives. We disciple them—encouraging and correcting them firmly but meekly.
- Emphasize God's sovereignty. All authority belongs to God, and we can teach students to recognize when parents or other leaders abuse their discretion.
- Teach personal stewardship. Along with His image, God has given us many gifts unique to each individual—our personality, our talents, our experiential knowledge, our sexuality, and so much more. Abuse can seriously harm those gifts—or at least our capacity to enjoy them. We can therefore teach children a good, godly reason to pull away from harmful people and situations.
- Explain church discipline. Christ gave us a model for reconciliation in Matthew 18, which emphasizes proportional correction to personal offense. However, in cases where sin causes pervasive harm, threatens personal safety, or publicly contradicts the gospel, we can and should denounce those sins in the assembly, as Paul did in Galatians 2:11–14. Church leaders are under no obligation to ignore demonstrated abuse while following the steps of Matthew 18, nor should we exclude civil authorities from their proper oversight.
- Distinguish forgiveness and restoration. Forgiveness is the promise not to hold others' offenses against them. It's the decision to let God and the proper human authorities exact justice. Reconciliation, however, is the decision to restore a relationship to its original intimacy. We reconcile when we choose to build up trust and friendship again with someone who wronged us. Over time, we can learn to forgive anyone, but reconciliation may not always be possible.
- Teach a positive philosophy of sexuality. Rightly understood, sexual activity must be an expression of loving intimacy. As exemplified by Proverbs 5:18 and Song of Solomon 5:16; 7:10, we focus our desire on our spouse. Properly speaking, we do not enjoy sex, but our spouse. We therefore approach each other only in the mutual submission described in 1 Corinthians 7, only when this expression of intimacy is encouraging for both of us. If we forget this recipe of fidelity, privacy, cooperation, safety, and trust, then sex will become a weapon, a burden, or an idol. Check out Lesson 28 in this file as an example.
The gospel is our path, and the first step is the acknowledgement of sin. When abuse occurs in the church, we must condemn it and prevent it from continuing. In the case of physical or sexual abuse, we must immediately report it to civil authorities and pursue justice. That's inextricable from our prophetic witness.
And the acknowledgement of abuse does not hinder the gospel—the abuse itself did. When we report and condemn abuse as a public offense against the gospel, we not only protect and comfort the vulnerable, but we also lay the foundation for forgiveness and grace. The offender may never regain a position of trust in the assembly, but by accepting the consequences for sin, he or she will have every encouragement to repent.