These descriptions are what we call an oxymoron – statements that are a combination of contradictory words and incongruous elements. Think about this now common phrase: ‘abuse in Christian organisations’. These words should take our breath away and cause up to weep. Sadly, they often result in scrambling for ways to hide or ignore the abuse so that the ‘Christian’ organisation can proceed undisturbed. We have forgotten God’s word to the young boy Samuel. When called by God, Samuel responded: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ God told him that he was about to bring judgment on Eli’s house forever for the iniquity he knew … and did not rebuke’ (1 Sam. 3:13).
I fear Christendom has given much effort to hiding and ignoring iniquities we have known about and, like Eli, failed to rebuke. The iniquity in our case is often sexual abuse or assault. Some who name themselves Christian have used sexual acts, words or pictures to control, manipulate and intimidate others. We are using something God calls sacred (sex) to violate a human being He loves and who is created in His image. In doing these things, and in covering them up, God’s people in His sanctuary have become complicit with evil that God hates.
In practicing darkness while professing light, we sin. Often those things that enable long-term sin to continue are so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we do not even see them anymore. That is why Jesus called the Pharisees ‘blind guides’. Darkness conceals and disguises. It distorts, hides and disturbs vision so that things appear other than they really are. Darkness varnishes over blemishes. We use the darkness to hide ourselves from ourselves, from others and from God. That is called deception.
Gifts for blessing used for harm
It is important to note that in all acts of sexual abuse and assault, power has been abused – the power of position, size, age, status, verbal capacity or knowledge used the service of exploitation. These qualities, often labelled as gifts in a leader, are used not to bless as was God’s intention, but to coerce, silence and exploit another. The obvious example is an adult abusing a child, but there are many adult relationships with a power imbalance where vulnerability is exploited and abuse occurs (doctor/patient, pastor/parishioner, or teacher/student). Those in need of protection and safety have instead been wounded in the house of God.
In addition to child sexual abuse there is also rape/sexual assault in Christian organisations. There is domestic violence in Christian homes. When such events occur and/or are covered up or excused we not only wound the vulnerable, we break the heart of the Father. To say we live and work in the name of Jesus means we do so bearing His character. Where we do not look and live like Him we have failed to serve Him.
What does the church need to know in order for the lambs of God to not only be fed but also protected in His sanctuary?
Not out there but in here
The first lesson is recognition that sexual abuse is not a problem out there; it is in here. It sits in our pews, it happens in our homes and schools; it occurs in churches, on mission fields and within our organisations. We need to know how to speak about it, how to teach truth, and how to protect the vulnerable and care for the victims. Scripture is clear that we are defiled by what comes out of us. Abuse is always fruit borne by the abuser. It is never caused by the victim. All victims, children or adults, need understanding and protection, not blame. A grown man or woman can be abused. There are countless ways to coerce another human being into something they do not want that will do harm to them.
Don’t hide cancerous lumps
Second, as Christians we often fail to report the crime of abuse, thinking we are protecting family or some part of the body of Christ. Family and church are God-ordained institutions worthy of our protection. But to cover up abuse is the equivalent of hiding a cancerous lump on your body in hopes that it will cure itself. However, there is nothing sacred about an institution full of hidden sin. Like cancer, it spreads. When the people of Israel were going to the temple full of sin, God sent their enemies to destroy that God-ordained holy place. Our God does not protect those institutions that He has designed when they are enterprises full of evil. God regards sin – not loss of reputation, or loss of an organisation – as the worst thing in the world. He wants those places that bear His name to be holy in the secret places. Only then they are truly His.
When someone alleges that a serious crime has occurred – in their home, school or Christian institution – we need to immediately call the civil authorities trained to pursue the allegation and determine its truth. To fail to do so is arrogant and inevitably damages the victim and endangers others. Our choices to handle this crime ‘in house’ are never choices on behalf of the victims. It is a choice made to protect the perpetrator and the institution.
Research has repeatedly shown that we cannot tell who is lying. Yet when we are told someone is abusing we think: ‘I know that person; it cannot be true!’ Scripture warns us that our hearts are utterly deceitful. We do not even know our own! Scripture says that Jesus trusted no man because He knew what was in man. We say: ‘I know him; I trust him!’ Jesus says: ‘I know him; I do not trust him’. Scripture says the tares grow right beside the wheat and they look exactly alike until the fruit is borne. When we trust the likeness and say the fruit cannot be so, we abandon victims and leave perpetrators in bondage to habituated sin. None of this looks like our God nor is it obedient to Him.
Enable people to speak
Third, we need to acknowledge that victims of abuse are not just ‘out there’ but in our midst and most have never told their story. Many do not feel safe to do so. Some have tried and been silenced with the admonition to forgive, forget and move on. We choose not do the incarnational work of entering in. Trauma occurs because suffering such as sexual abuse and assault overwhelms normal human coping. Those who are victims live with recurring memories of atrocities both witnessed and endured. The memories infect their sleep, destroy their relationships and capacity to work, torment their emotions. The wounds of trauma are not visible; their effects are.
Trauma also has a profound spiritual impact. Trauma raises questions about who God is. Victims are uncertain of His character; His faithfulness; His love and His capacity to keep us, to be our refuge. Trauma mutilates hope; it shatters faith; it turns the world upside-down. It is important that we understand these struggles and do not silence them or treat them as a failure of faith. Victims are crying out from pain and, like our Lord, crying: ‘My God, why?’. When we silence victims of trauma we do further damage and in fact become an obstacle in the work that God can and longs to do in a life battered by trauma and evil. Our rejection, silencing, denying of truth teaches lies about our God.
Become a door of hope
People who are suffering long for help and comfort. We have all experienced this in times of pain. It is an open door for the church to bend down, like her Lord bent down for us, and enter in with ongoing care. As we do so, we will begin to see the trauma wilderness in which many dwell, the valley of trouble, becoming a door of hope (Hos.2:14,15). The church of Jesus Christ is called to bring light to dark places, love to damaged souls and truth about who our God is – He who entered in so that we might know Him as He truly is, and then be like Him.
Recovery involves a reversal of the experience of trauma. Victims need to tell their story. They may be afraid, slow to speak, uncertain of their words. But as we listen, and bear witness to their trauma we grant them dignity, safety and comfort. Second, they need to grieve. Trauma always includes loss. The victim’s sense of self is altered, as is their way of functioning in this world. Trauma can dismantle faith and hope and it turns what we thought was true upside down and backwards. Healing includes tears. Third, the victim needs time. Both you and the trauma victim will want a quick recovery. Such significant and deep wounds do not recover quickly. The deeper the wound the slower the recovery. The more trauma in a life the more complicated healing is.
There is a call to the church today to enter into the pain, the abuse, the exposure, the fear, the desire to deny. It is easy to want to silence suffering voices. We want to deny what is true. Sadly, we often try to silence those voices by blaming a lack of faith, by demanding the victim trust in a God who will heal immediately.
Listen to the words of a genocide survivor in Rwanda: ‘I saw only evil. I no longer believed God to be good. The church was not a sanctuary for my family; it was a cemetery. But then you came, you listened and you heard my broken heart. And now I think I can believe that God too is listening and hears my pain and will be my sanctuary because I have gotten a taste of Him through you’.
The call to the church is to be the Word made flesh. It is my prayer that God’s people will follow Him into the dark and difficult places, throwing the shadow of His great glory over the suffering of this earth and in our churches and organisations that bear His name.
en will be publishing two further exclusive articles by Dr Langberg addressing the UK situation later this year.
About the author
Dr Diane Langberg is globally recognised for her 50 years of clinical work with trauma victims. She has trained caregivers on six continents in responding to trauma and to the abuse of power. For 29 years she directed her own practice in Jenkintown PA – Diane Langberg PhD and Associates. Now in partnership with Dr Monroe, Langberg, Monroe & Associates continues this work which includes 17 therapists with multiple specialties. Dr Langberg’s newest book is Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Other books include Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, On the Threshold of Hope (with accompanying workbook), In Our Lives First: Meditations for Counselors and Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores.
Dr Langberg is the recipient of the Distinguished Alumna Achievements from Taylor University, the American Association of Christian Counselor’s Caregiver Award, The Distinguished President’s Award, and the Philadelphia Council of Clergy’s Christian Service Award.
She is married and has two sons and four grandchildren.