Trauma

It’s Time to Drop the Curtain on Sexual Abuse in the Church

There’s a myth that’s invaded the church that must be addressed, the lie that the we must hide abuse to protect the faith. That cover ups are necessary at all costs to shield the church from condemnation and finger pointing cynics. I debated whether to even write about it. I am a victim and I have endured abuse within the church. Sadly, it wasn’t handled well. It wasn’t a cover up per se, and I’ve been fortunate to have support from some very godly and compassionate people, but at the core of it I was deeply wounded.

Headlines are constantly popping up about abuse in the church, and on Monday I woke up to another shocking account. I read about the Southern Baptist Convention’s cover up of abuse and the vilification of victims. As though they sought out being violated so that they could do the devils work. As if the carnage of lost souls that lay in the wake of their abuser was on their conscience. I was furious. Not just because of the abuse, and the massive cover up, but the insidious lie that victims are doing harm by coming forward. A lie that has enabled abusers.

Honestly it shook me. I sat in bed nearly all day, triggered. In the afternoon, I went downstairs and met my husbands gaze, eyes wide, completely overtaken with emotion. “What?” he said, with a perplexed grin. I tried to choke back the tears. He had no idea I’d been wallowing all day and I was a little embarrassed by it all, but my attempts to conceal my pain were useless. A tear betrayed me as it trickled down my cheek and then it all burst out. “I’m just so tired of this fallen world!”, I blurted out between sobs, “I want to do something about it, but I’m just too terrified.” 

There it was. The barren truth. And it wasn’t just my usual fears of my abuser, it was the pervasive lie that drove the SBC scandal. That victims who speak up are responsible for the wake. For the wreckage when believers walk away and skeptics say, “We knew it!” The narrative is victims are dangerous and they are damaging the gospel. I wiped my tears and tried to busy myself by ruffling through the laundry, but internally I was praying, “God will it be my fault? Will I have sinned against you if I tell them the truth? Will the outcome be on my conscience? Will I be responsible if they walk away?” 

The lie was so pervasive it was there all along and I didn’t even see the guilt that I carried.

I’d always felt that one day God would use my story, but in a way I thought I couldn’t or shouldn’t speak until it was prettier. And I realize that’s a strange way to frame abuse, but to some degree in Christianity we wait for God to make our pain pretty. To wrap it up all nicely with a big bow. We use metaphors like a “beautiful mosaic” to tell of God’s restorative work. But what about me? I don’t have that. I’m not even sure I know what that looks like, aside from a miraculous apology and character change from my abuser. I used to hope for that, and I still pray for it, but with free will I’ve come to terms with the fact that even though God is at work, He won’t force it. So here I am left with a story that looks just plain ugly and doesn’t meet the standards for a safe testimony with little chance of collateral damage. 

The experience and aftermath of it all has left my own personal faith hanging in the balance. I can’t help but feel I don’t qualify as being spiritually mature enough for my story to be a witness. Maybe, I’m too broken. I see God at work in the midst of my trauma, but I’ve been spiritually battered. And as a pastors wife, I’ve struggled to admit it because we’re supposed to have it all together, yet I’m suffering spiritually. I feel disconnected from God. My abuse has created a chasm, and I know that ultimately I’m responsible for my faith, but the beauty in it has been tainted. After years of the Bible being weaponized against me, it’s become hard to read. And with so much pain inflicted within the church, it’s been hard to trust spiritual leader’s intention and call. Simply put, I am the carnage, my faith is in the wake.

Churches are so hell bent on “protecting” the gospel and preventing a so called spiritual decline, yet there I sat on the ground praying to God and asking if I was going to hurt him with my story. If the words welling up inside of me, desperately needing to pour out of me like the tears still wet on my cheeks were shameful. I wondered if I was the sinner for wanting to break my silence. For wanting people to hear my story, so that healing and change could come not just for myself, but for others.

Here’s the flaw with all of this. The stories keep coming. Abusers keep abusing. Headlines are popping up left and right. It’s there, whether or not we speak about it. Whether or not the church chooses to acknowledge it, and you know what, it needs to be exposed! Sin is no less sinful in the darkness, in fact it grows like an insidious mold in the shadows. 

As much as guilt and shame plague me, deep down I’m positive God was grieving with me that sullen afternoon in my living room. I’m certain He weeps with victims like me. I’m sure He is filled with righteous rage when institutions protect power over His beloved children. Worse yet, when they do so in His name. I know He stands with us, even when the optics aren’t good. Jesus walks with us even when it makes for messy PR. His Spirit stands with us when the cost is high. 

Jesus died for sinners. He is a God of freedom and choices. He waits with open arms for the oppressed, and the abuser just the same. His love is redemptive and restorative, but only if we accept it. That’s what the church needs to model. Justice that stands with the abused and protects, yet fierce love and grace in the midst of it. It’s a long process that begins with recognizing that forgiveness happens in the light. It looks like reporting to the authorities, so that the cycle ends here. 

Sure, it will be unbelievably messy. The optics won’t be great. People will walk away and the cost to the church will be high. I have no doubt that it will get worse before it gets better, but it is without question necessary.

My denomination loves to speak of revival, and I’m not usually comfortable with the word, but tonight as I lay awake it popped into my head. The church has been dying under the weight of scandal and hypocrisy. Preaching love from the pulpits when so often it’s been hard to see on the ground floor. We’ve been wallowing in a world that has turned away, blaming humanity for their unwillingness to surrender to Christ, but what if the flaw isn’t with them, what if it’s with us. With the shoddy job we’ve done at being image bearers for Christ. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and I too am guilty, but I think this realization is our key to restoration. Maybe it’s time to accept that we’ve failed at what God has called us to. That we’ve abandoned His message for our own comfort. 

I read those articles and I was angry, but I was also encouraged. I read accounts of people who were speaking up and it restored some of the faith I had lost, because I could finally see Jesus in the midst of it. The report is devastating and it comes too late in the sense that it could have prevented so much if action had been taken sooner, but I still have hope. I see a denomination that made mistakes, but is finally acknowledging it. I see repentance and church leaders bearing Christ’s image. I see His perfect love modelled as they stand with victims like me. I see revival in the change. In the messy overhaul. 

To be frank, people are not stupid. They aren’t falling for our cheap patchwork curtains that we use to create illusions of purity and holiness. So called “cynics” have been hardened by the lies, by the painful sting of hypocrisy. They’re tired of it and as lovely as Jesus sounds, too often they can’t reconcile Him with His people. That’s the struggle of victims like me too. So many of us love Jesus, but don’t see Him in the way we are treated. Like a faulty puzzle, try as we might we can’t put the pieces together to see the beautiful image. We only see a smattering of pieces that look nothing like the picture. 

The testimony is found in the truth. In a church that seeks healing over self preservation and gain. That sees the gospel not just as a message to be preached, but one to be lived. 

Secrets have a way of rising to the surface and creating a mess when they finally are brought to light, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the church was the one to do it. Could it be that silence is actually damaging the church? That accountability is the answer? I know that’s what I need from the church, and I think others do too. And yes, it’s risky, but growth never happens in comfort and despite my hurt, I believe that there is still hope for God’s church. There’s a chance for a whole new era of revival, but it starts when we drop the curtain and step out from the shadows and into the light. 

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