Pastors are shepherds, and shepherds are “first responders.” This is a core truth, a biblical charge that defines both the shepherds and the sheep of God’s church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). This means that church leaders are on the front lines of ministry to those in their church who have been sexually abused, often the first to hear from a victim.

However, many abuse victims view the church with distrust. And the shepherds often don’t know how to guide the sexually broken. To help build greater understanding between these groups, I want to help dismantle some significant myths, based on my background as a licensed minister, professor of the Bible and abuse survivor myself.

Myth No. 1: “Sin is sin is sin. . . .”

This is a dangerous simplicity. All sin is covered at the cross, but not all sin is equally devastating. The sufficiency of the cross is not the issue here. Shepherding the sexually abused means we must speak just as passionately about actual sin as original sin.

Sexual abuse has a complex life cycle that lives on in families, often going back generations. Moral evil has been unleashed that, in turn, corrupts the cultural environment and pollutes surrounding relationships. For example, a father who sexually abuses his daughter not only distorts her psyche but also pollutes the marriage bed with his wife. Shepherds can use quality teaching to address this complex sin-portfolio of sexual abuse.

Myth No. 2: “Everybody goes through suffering, so what’s your point?”

This myth misunderstands the relational ecosystem surrounding sexual abuse. There is always an attack-factor, a stealing; and for the victim, a diminishment and dismembering of the soul. Lifelong effects are common. Add to this the fact that God did not intervene, and you have a devastating form of suffering that causes many victims to “leave the faith.” But shepherds who minister with deep compassion can help victims rebuild their trust in community.

Myth No. 3: “Sexual abuse comes from strangers and perverted people.”

In reality, many wolves actually live among the sheep, in the church. Studies reveal a chilling reality: The majority of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew—with 25 percent of the time that abuser being a birth parent1. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused2. The data also suggests that rates of sexual abuse are not appreciably different among evangelicals when compared to the general population3. When shepherds name such sins openly, as problems that occur within their flock, then victims don’t have the added burden of needing to break the “sacred silence” that always hurts them more than the abuser.

Myth No. 4: “Preaching about such horrendous evil will scare people away.”

It takes a prophetic spirit to break that sacred silence and call out the sexual violators, but victims will then have their pain validated. And, actually, many abusers want help. Maybe most counter-intuitive is that seekers will realize, “This church calls it like it is.” When shepherds protect the sheep through honest preaching on abuse using stories already found in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 34; 2 Samuel 13), one sensitive sermon can dispel two damaging myths.

Myth No. 5: “If you’ve forgiven your abuser, you must also reconcile.”

This is a claim that may preach well but is naïve at best and re-victimizing at worst4. Forgiveness itself is typically a process for victims. Abusers need to show the fruit of brokenness to qualify for any kind of reconciliation. We’re not talking about a business deal gone bad but about victims who have experienced trauma and typically need professional help and safe space in order to heal. Shepherds must allow the victim’s needs to set the agenda, not the abuser, the family or the doting elders.

Myth No. 6: “Worship and address of sexual abuse don’t go together.”

This myth reflects our church culture—particularly the loss of lament—more than it reflects biblical worship. Broken worshipers (and who isn’t), and victims in particular, need to be creatively drawn toward God through things like testimonies, written prayers, drama, healing rituals and the use of lament5. To draw victims, we must help them worship in pain, not in spite of their pain. Sanitizing pain out of worship reveals a loss of realism, candor and corporate grief6. Shepherds might begin this process with a variation of this moving liturgy, used for a corporate healing service for victims:

Minister: People of God, why are you gathered? People of God, are you wounded? People of God, what is your hope?

Congregation: To worship the Lord who comforts us in our pain, hears our cry for justice, and breaks the walls of silence that keeps the truth from being heard. Yes! We are wounded when children are abused. We are wounded when the weak are assaulted. . . . Our hope is in God who has promised to be with us in our suffering7.

There is nothing new about sexual abuse, but openly facing such dangerous myths is new. Shepherding God’s flock requires us to be leaders who are approachable and equipped, ready to lend a hand to any man or woman touched by abuse. We must begin by dismantling toxic myths. Because shepherds speak for God, we must purge all obstacles so we can maximize our healing ministry.

Andrew J. Schmutzer is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Moody Bible Institute and obtained his Ph.D. from Trinity International University. He has written and presented numerous papers and articles on the topic of sexual abuse and has just edited a book to be published by Wipf and Stock: The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused (23 chapters, combining professionals from psychology, theology and pastoral care). He can be reached via email.

15 Comments

I would like to know what parallels people see between sexual abuse in church families and the profile that has emerged in the Warren Jeffs (FLDS) sexual abuse trial. It seems we need a new vocabulary to help people recover, and Spiritual Incest (e.g., ‘special knowledge’, ‘in-group’ vs. ‘out-group’, etc.) is an obvious parallel that I see.

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on August 05, 2011 @ 9:37am

In your myths I did not find one that addressed how to deal with Pastors who abuse parishoners(sp)children, churches who pass them along, etc. 

In the Warren Jeffs case, Power is the ultimate hold passed on through generations. In his case, the closed family/church system enabled them to not let the children listen(radio/tv),read, or have contact with world to know that the way they were living was maybe not ok….it is what they knew.

In other religions, the similar power preached to children, or maybe portrayed by elders to children, that pastors are “righteous” makes it difficult for children to accuse someone of such stature of doing something like sexual abuse.  If parents take children to church with pretense of being a godly family and socializing with pastors family, how can a child accuse someone their parents respect so well of harming them?
When a whole parish or religion(as in jeffs case)believes the pastor knows all, how does a child dare make such an accusation?
The Jeffs case is similar to the cases so public in Catholic cases. Now years after the abuse adults are coming forward and making public their pain of years. In Jeffs case it was authorities that charged him, not the victims…..I wonder if any will complain down the road that they were abused. Many of those we consider victims allegedly believe as he does.

However, not published so openly, if ever, are cases in bible based, god as athority, churches. Several Episcopal dioceses in New England were involved in the passing along of one pastor from church to church with no warning from losing church to gaining church. How nice when problems arise at gaining church and that church and diocese say you must leave area and send him to New hampshire to be in the public service field and a handyman (perfect access to homes) with no other penalty? You read in the paper almost everyday of adults in communitites abusing children, getting charged, going to jail, spending time in prison, getting out and having to register as offenders. Not so with those of the cloth if the diocese can keep it quiet.

I don’t believe the huge monetary payouts made by some churches help victims heal….it’s a buyout.
Churches need to support victims by removing leaders who are doing the harm, not allowing them to continue to deceive.  We need to hold all people accoutable for their actions, including church leaders.

Maybe “Pastoral incest” would fit for those who are victimized as children by an adult church pastor or leader of thier church family.

— Jennifer Atwood on August 13, 2011 @ 4:39pm

Dear Jennifer,

I sense your pain and outrage, and if we have the unfortunate kinship of abuse, I’m very sorry and I’m angry FOR you.

I would have liked to include the abusing pastor/priest, but there’s really no myth here. After the last decade of abusing ‘people of the cloth’ (as you note), scandal and outrage has replaced ignorance and myth. If you’re saying that you would have liked to see the pain of victims validated who were abused by pastors/priests who abused their power, I agree—my abuser was also a pastor.
I agree that children are practically helpless to ‘cry out,’ lost in the abuser’s protective ecosystem, and that is why I stated that shepherds (note my emphasis on expected biblical role and metaphor) need to speak out on this so wounded people don’t have to break the silence. Similarly, what ‘victims allegedly believe’ is what I’m suggesting is involved in SPIRITUAL INCEST; often the backdrop to physical incest.
I also agree with you that simply seeking hugh settlements really isn’t bring the healing victims need, but then it’s only biblical Christianity that’s concerned with things like forgiveness, restoration, and the future reality of relationship with the resurrected Christ (see 2 Thess 4:1-8).
Take your outrage at the abuse epidemic to the Lord—be the kind of friend and spiritual shepherd that people are supposed to see. That’s why I wrote The Long Journey Home, because it can be ‘a long journey home.’ I wish you Shalom.
Andrew

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on August 17, 2011 @ 5:30pm

Dear Andrew,
I cannot thank you enough for the excellent way you are articulated this problem. I am a biblical counselor in Northern California and have worked with many abuse victims. Being a compassionate, wise shepherd makes the difference in helping them heal and regain their trust (in God and humanity) to some degree but expecting them to attempt reconciliation with an unrepentant abuser is ridiculous! I also love the worshiping in your pain aspect of our article—I find too many folks want to run to solutions (even victims themselves) rather than take the time to mourn as Jesus indicates and trust God for His comfort. Thanks for this encouragement to keep ministering in love to other broken people.

— Cindy Yarbrough, MA on August 19, 2011 @ 2:26pm

Dear Cindy,
You underscore some important points: (1) how survivors struggle to regain trust in God and people, (2) the need for evidence of ‘fruit’ in the life of the abuser prior to reconciliation, (3) the need to incorporate real pain before we call it ‘genuine’ worship, and (4) our infatuation with cure rather than care.

Where is the church getting these misguided ideas? Or better, who is fighting these destructive trends on behalf of survivors. I’m so glad to hear counselors talking about such things. Please offer your advise and encouragement to the pastoral leadership in your area. Continue speaking, listening, and weeping.

Andrew J. Schmutzer

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on September 03, 2011 @ 10:07am

It’s good to see your work on this topic, Andrew. Part of my ThM work at TEDS in 1984 was on sexual abuse in evangelical churches, long before the topic was “out in the open.” Good on you!

— Rev. Dr. Tim Callaway on September 17, 2011 @ 3:28pm

Dear Tim,

It’s so encouraging to know you were working (and discussing?) SA in 1984. I’m not sure I would say it’s ‘out in the open’—certainly not what it needs to be. Too much shaming and misinformation is still around. But improvement has truly been made. It’s time to collaborate and take this issue to the next levels of policy and collective grief, for the protection of our kids and grandchildren.

Regards,
-Andrew J. Schmutzer

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on September 20, 2011 @ 9:39am

Christian leaders who want a fresh resource to address sexual abuse can now find it at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Long_Journey_Home_Understanding_and_Ministering_to_the_Sexually_Abused

This would be an excellent book to have in your church library.

I and 25 other professionals, from the disciplines of Psychology, Theology, and Pastoral Care collaborated on this new book, just released. Designed for Christian leaders (professors, counselors, pastors, social workers, missionaries) to better address sexual abuse in their field of work, this is a refreshingly holistic tool. With 23 chapters, Discussion Questions, listing of further resources, prayers for survivors, a large glossary, and extensive bibliography, a more integrative resource is now available to help bridge the dialogue between professions that often talk past each other.

I thought you might like to know.

Blessings,

Andrew J. Schmutzer, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical Studies
Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, IL 60610
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
(w) 312-329-4431

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on October 18, 2011 @ 10:12am

Good material. I have a couple of questions.

1.  What is “spiritual incest”?  I looked it up online, and still can’t figure out what it is. 

2.  Would you say that sexual abuse is the worst form of abuse?

3. What do you say, if anything, about pastors or Christian workers who have been falsely accused, exhonorated, but still have their careers destroyed? 

If you get a chance to answer, I would appreciate it.  BTW, I’m going to buy this book and give it to our pastor. We have policies and safeguards in place, so I know that this is an issue our church is concerned about. Your book looks like a good contribution to this subject.

— Mrs. Webfoot on October 19, 2011 @ 3:47pm

Dr. Schmutzer,

You were one of my very favorite professors at Moody, and some of the things you said in class I can still recall easily. Of course, your works to us mks were also influential. I want to thank you again, this time for doing the work to address this issue from both a pastoral and theological perspective. This hits home personally with one of my siblings abused on the mission field. I’m thankful for great member care in that situation, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Kacie

— Kacie on October 19, 2011 @ 5:14pm

True enough, your comment regarding how “out in the open” it really is. My point was that we may forget that back in 1984 none of the numerous Catholic priest scandals had emerged as regular fare on the nightly news, the MK schools dynamic wasn’t public information, etc. Here in Canada, it’s only been in the last 20 years or so that horrific realities regarding various abuses in aboriginal schools has come to the fore, leading to a public apology in the House of Commons to the First Nations by our Prime Minister in June 2008. Best to you and your efforts to educate and expose on this crucial matter, my friend.

— Tim Callaway on October 19, 2011 @ 5:21pm

Dear Mrs. Webfoot,

The Long Journey Home is a an analysis of sexual abuse that draws on several disciplines, so I’m not surprised that ‘spiritual incest’ wasn’t found on the web. In the Glossary (p.448), I define it this way: “Spiritual incest is characterized by: religious syncretism, rigid hierarchies, religious chaos in the home or social group, doctrinal brainwashing, spiritual ideas used as ‘mantras’ (e.g., ‘I can trust you, but not your flesh’), and instilling an ‘in-group vs. outgroup’ spiritual elitism. Shaming techniques are used against dissent (e.g., ‘God is going to punish you for…!’). Survivors can feel a profound sense of spiritual betrayal, spoiling of religious heritage, lack of intellectual agency, and personal ‘ruin’ when they try to process their experience.”

In other words, Spiritual Incest describes the power-plays and narcissism common in physical incest; only it is applied to RELIGIOUS CONTROL. Small wonder so many victims of sexual abuse also pitch their faith—it’s often a toxic mess of physical and spiritual abuse they really don’t know how to separate, and secular counselors don’t help them here.

I hope this helps.

~Andrew

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on October 21, 2011 @ 9:48am

Hi Kacie,

Thanks for your kind words.

As a previous student, you know I don’t separate the pastoral from the theological. Put another way, way too much ‘social justice’ discussions lack a firm theological basis as a guiding compass. Anyway, I don’t and can’t separate these—nor do I believe they should be.

I’m very sorry for your sibling’s experiece of abuse, in the context of ‘God’s work.’ So horrific, including for the reputation of our Lord! Fortunately, it sounds like some quality intervention was found. I recommend you check on line for MK Safety Net, a site dedicated to abused MKs (forgive me if you know of it already). I will be speaking at a conference they are sponsering this Spring. Check it out.

Many blessings,
Andrew

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on October 21, 2011 @ 12:03pm

Dear Mrs. Webfoot,

I understand your 2nd question but, even as a survivor myself, I’m not comfortable picking out one form of trauma or violation and calling it the worst. It is too simplistic. In truth, there are different KINDS of violation and abuse, with overlapping trauma-profiles. Research shows, for example, that the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) of returning soldiers is similar to that of abuse survivors.

Now that said, there are aspects to the sexual abuse ‘profile’ that are not adequately understood. While one can be invloved in a car accident that can produce trauma (unfortunately, I know that one too!), one does not merely have an incident of molestation—like having an accident. So while friends and family never side with the other car or tree; friends and family often side with the abuser AGAINST the abused. In abuse, there are two ‘whos’, not a ‘who’ and a ‘what.’

So while cancer and car accidents are publically acknowledged, supported, and funded, sexual abuse is especially traumatic because of the layers of RELATIONAL BETRAYAL: sexual abuse is not openly acknowledged, publically mourned, or socially supported. It is what James Gould calls, ‘disenfranchised grief’ (see his chapter 20 in The Long Journey Home (pp. 293-313). This is just one element that makes sexual so devasting. I could also talk about the reality of HUMAN-induced trauma in abuse (rather than tree, car, or cancer cells).

Let’s start listening to their stories, and asking ‘How can I help?’ or ‘How can we as church leaders come along side you?’

Throwing life preservers,
Andrew

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on October 22, 2011 @ 10:52am

Readers: I would like to know what kinds of Healing Services or sensitive expressions you’ve seen or experienced in church for abuse survivors. What, do you think, would be most meaningful for survivors in such a service? Please share some ideas.

Thanks,
Andrew

— Andrew J. Schmutzer on October 28, 2011 @ 7:07am

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