Addressing Sexual Abuse in Christian Institutions

May 29, 2018
In the last two blogs, I have written extensively about what we as evangelical Christians need to do to create environments for women that are safe, welcoming, and affirming.  All of these efforts will be in vain, however, if we do not protect them from sexual violence and other forms of sexual abuse.

The prevalence of sexual violence, and the unwillingness of some institutions to address it, has received a great deal of attention over the past several years.  Unfortunately, high profile Christian institutions have not been immune to this scrutiny. So, why is this happening, and what do we need to do about it? These are the questions that I would like to address in today’s blog post.

Why Does It Happen?

I am not a sociologist or a social psychologist.  I am not an expert in sexual violence, and I don’t want to be one.  However, both in my academic work (which does appropriate the tools of social psychology) and in my experience as a church leader, I have learned some things about why institutions do the things that they do.  It is important to understand institutional behavior not so that we can excuse it, but so that we can be more effective in our efforts to change it.

My first observation is simply this.  Institutions are going to do what is in their best interest, not what is in the best interests of the individuals that participate in them.  It is just a fact of social psychology. People incorporate the groups in which they are embedded into their own identity, and if the group suffers a loss in prestige, the individual members of that group (and especially its leaders) feel that loss.  People want to avoid that loss of prestige, and so they will often act in ways that hide their group’s deficiencies from outsiders.

What this seems to mean for our topic is that people often pretend that sexual violence could never occur within their group.  When that perception is the starting point, reports of sexual violence are often treated with suspicion. People want to believe that “this kind of thing just doesn’t happen here,” and so they will try to find ways to blame the victim or to otherwise deny that the abuse took place.  Or, they will acknowledge that something bad happened, but they will try to keep it hidden from public view.

But why do people act in this way?  Don’t they realize that it would be better for the group if they just admit what happened and address  it? Don’t they realize that the cover up is nearly always worse than the crime? These questions lead to my second observation—one that I am shamelessly stealing from Jim Wilder and Marcus Warner.  In their book Rare Leadership, they observe that immature leaders often lead out of fear.  When a crisis happens, the relational parts of their brains just switch off, and they focus on solving the problem any way that they can.

So, what does this mean practically?  Think about it this way. A report of sexual violence comes to an emotionally mature leader.  He or she empathizes with the person reporting the abuse. He or she sees the apparent victim as Christ would see them—as a person in need of support, understanding, and encouragement.  The immature, leader, by contrast, does not see a person. He or she sees a problem, and he or she wants that problem to go away. As panic builds in the immature leader, he or she begins to work out strategies to cope with her or his own fear, rather than figuring out how to help the apparent victim.  And unfortunately, these strategies are often based on avoidance, manipulation, or other relationally defective methods of social interaction.

We also need to recognize that feminist critics are right to point out the (implicit or explicit) misogyny that often stands behind many institutional actions.  Obviously, this is not the only factor in how institutions function. Victims of sexual violence are sometimes male, and the leaders who refuse to protect them are sometimes female.  Nevertheless, it is a factor, and those who have carefully read the Bible should not be surprised by this.  One of the most grievous consequences of human sin is the barrier of mistrust and misunderstanding that it places between men and women.

What Do We Do About It?

So, as Christians, how do we help our institutions be more responsible citizens in society and more hospitable places for our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters?  There are no easy answers. Still, I think that there are some basic strategies that we can employ to help our institutions be all that they can and should be. They include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Dedicate ourselves to a more nuanced understanding of sin.  Protestants have rightly presented sin as an individual and as a cosmic reality.  Still, sin can be a corporate reality, too. Individuals are responsible for their behavior; to claim otherwise would, in the words of Eric Johnson, deny them the dignity of human agency and thus would diminish their personhood.  Nevertheless, churches, universities, seminaries, and other organizations are also responsible for their behavior. They cannot simply blame their leaders when something goes wrong. Again, no one wants to blame the innocent along with the guilty, but our individualism sometimes blinds us to the way that institutions seem to have a mind of their own—and to the way that this institutional mind can be corrupted by sin.
  • Do consistent preventative maintenance on the sexuality of those we lead.  We don’t just want to address problems once they occur; we need to start trying to prevent them in the first place.  Pastors and theologians need to talk about the dangers of using sex to meet psychological needs and the problems that are created by associating sex with violence or control.  Parents, student ministers, teachers, and coaches need to be on the lookout for children who have an unhealthy view of sex and need to get those children help before they do something to someone else.  Theologians, spiritual directors, and psychologists need to work together to create programs and curricula that will help people develop a healthy sexuality and that will help professionals involved in treating those who already have problems.  (I know that some of these things are already being done; let’s just do more of them.)
  • Dispel institutional naivete.  All of us need to help the churches, missions sending agencies, academic institutions, and other organizations to which we belong understand that sexual violence can and does happen in Christian contexts.  Rather than sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it doesn’t happen to us, we need to prepare our organizations for the day when it does happen. I know that institutional naivete can be a challenging phenomenon to overcome.  I am convinced, however, that it is absolutely essential for us to do so.
  • Develop emotionally mature leaders.  Our leaders need to be theologically knowledgeable.  They need to be spiritually sensitive. They need to be vocationally skilled.  But they also need to be emotionally mature. They need to be the kind of people who function well in a crisis, who never forget who they are supposed to be in Christ even when the pressure is on, and who always value people more than prestige.
  • Dispel the myths of misogyny.  Obviously, we need to expose and confront false portrayals of the value and attributes of women, for these portrayals are used to justify violent actions and their cover-up.  But we also need to confront false portrayals of what it means to be a man. Violence and sexual predation are not an essential element of what it means to be a man, and even if they were, that doesn’t make them right.

Join the Conversation

Perhaps you have other ideas about steps that we as followers of Jesus need to take in order to make our institutions safer places for women.  Please share them with us in the comments section below. We want our churches and other institutions to be places where women can come and find healing.  We want them to be places where women can turn when they have nowhere else to go. And we want them to be places where women will know that they are safe from physical, emotional, and sexual predation.