A comment was made recently by a survivor of sexual assault that really struck me. She said the church tends to focus on the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. I did not really understand at first but then had an “aha” moment.
Are we more focused on sin or safety?
When my wife and I witnessed a verbal abuse attack of a close friend by her husband soon after they were married, we were ignorant of abuse. He began apologizing and hung his head. We immediately began consoling him.
His new wife sat in anger and fear while we consoled him.
We put our arms around him.
We consoled him.
We expected her to forgive and forget.
We look back at that experience in shame. We have since learned much about abuse in the workplace and home and realize our failure.
But we know that this is what the church tends to do in many cases. There is much to be done to help the church become a safe place for those who are suffering under leadership or domestic abuse.
We tend to focus on bringing the oppressor to repentance. Rather than doing all we can, first and formost, to provide safety and solace for the victim(s), we begin speaking words of exhortation and God’s promises of comfort to the abuser.
Jeff (not his real name) told me his story of bringing two other ministry leaders (major names in Christian organizations) to the founder of the ministry of which he was a upper-level manager. The founder had sexually harrassed multiple women in the ministry’s employ. They sought the founder’s repentance and suggested he step down for a few months’ time to get counseling.
Seeking the repentance of sinners is most certainly of biblical importance. It is the ultimate work of Christ to bring us to repentance.
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
2 Timothy 2:24-26 (ESV)
He has done this work in us and we are called to seek it in others through the preaching of the sweet and welcome message of the Good News. Note the sweet words in the 2nd Timothy passage. “Be kind,” “patiently enduring evil,” correcting with “gentleness.” Romans 2:4 says,
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
What leads to repentance? “God’s kindness!” And we are to mimic the Lord in this good work.
Foundations of Spiritual / Psychological
But it is important for those who come into contact with abusive leaders in the home and workplace to know the spiritual and psychological forces of this particular brokenness in God’s creation. It is Paul’s words to the Romans in the chapter before the one quoted above that helps us understand the dynamics of abuse:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Romans 1:28-32 (ESV)
Even a cursory look at those words gives you a description of an oppressive and abusive individual. “Evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slanderers, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, heartless, ruthless…”
These are not the descriptions of your average Joe.
The foundational sin of Paul’s words of exhortation are found in verse 25:
They…worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…
Idolatry, which is the giving of honor and attention first and foremost to anything other than the Lord Who created the heavens and the earth, is foundational to abuse. Those who have worked tirelessly to bring abusers to repentance can testify to the sense that abusers have been given up to their incredible debasement. They have moved farther and farther away from truly humbling themselves before their Creator.
They are always right. They are always the target of those other people. They always have justification for their sin. They lie. They are heartless and ruthless.
The sin / psychology of the abuser is one of entitlement. HE / SHE is the center of the universe in which he / she lives. He deserves all the good he receives…whether from man, woman, animal, or God.
And in this case, God calls them to account.
Therefore, we “pastor” the abuser differently than we do the average Joe. The Bible draws a distinction beween the sinner next door and an oppressor as they welcome the Gospel.
- The average Joe will hear the Gospel and see it as the good news it is. An undeserving sinner has been served by the deserving God and come out smelling like roses. Wow! To grace he is a debtor.
- To the abuser the Gospel is what he deserves. He is entitled to the good treatment by God and by others. He receives his subordinates’ or wife’s praise as that which is merited. He has been given over to his idolatry – he deeply loves himself.
Pastoring the abuser therefore means calling him to account. It means not giving in to his foolishness and manipulation but kindly and humbly telling him he is wrong and needs to turn from his blame-shifting, justifying, and oppressive behavior.
Jeff and his entourage experienced a common response of abusive leaders following the hearing of a Gospel-like confrontation: The Founder fired Jeff. And a major donor coddled the Founder by threatening to pull his support of the ministry if the board of directors did not keep him in place.
The Founder stayed in his leadership position for 10 more years when the overwhelming evidence of more and more harrassment became unbearable to the organization’s good name.
He took advantage of others’ “gentleness” while slaughtering women under his leadership.
Accountability, Not Coddling
Those with experience working with abuser intervention programs do so with an unswerving focus on accountability. They do not allow their counselees to bamboozle or take advantage. They hold them accountable.
We often hear the perpetrator’s words of shame (when caught in his misdeed) with little suspicion and give words of comfort without repentance being evidenced in life. I have been that man who received an abuser’s words of supposed repentance only to see him continue to oppress. [see this for a good list of indicators of repentance]
It is time for the church to work towards educating its masses that they might seek to comfort the oppressed and if possible call the oppressor to account.
This is God’s pattern:
Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.
Judges 2:18 (ESV)
The Lord stood by the oppressed. He brought them safety. He was on their side. He did not say to the oppressors, “What is your side of the story? How can we help you?” We know how to help them and it is to bring them to account.
He stood unswervingly at the side of the oppressed.
This is a far cry from how many churches have handled reports of abuse. It is not uncommon that in the interest of being “fair,” the church unknowingly sides with the oppressor. By giving the oppressor the opportunity to continue to tear down his target, we are siding with him. To give him a voice, we take away the long-silenced voice of his target.
Do not allow abusive leaders to “presume on the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience.”
Call them to account.
Consider picking up a free copy of “Becoming a Church that Cares About Abuse.”