Calvin and Charlotte1 raised their daughters with what they considered a strict adherence to Biblical teaching. When their daughters exhibited concerning changes in behavior in their teen years, Calvin and Charlotte didn’t understand why and searched for ways to change their parenting.
They explained, “In our search for answers, we embraced purity culture and the ‘Vision Forum’ patriarchal teaching.” They did not realize how that would add to their daughter, Mia’s burden.
When Mia revealed that she had been sexually molested at a young age by the son of a church deacon, then later by the nephew of her childhood pastor, and raped as a young teen by two men in the another denomination (one being a youth leader), so much of what Calvin and Charlotte had failed to understand became clear.
Mia’s change in behavior at home and struggle with the church had its roots in her experience of sexual assaults.
The Spiritual Abuse Was Worse than the Sexual Abuse
It was not too late for Mia, but the church and her parents needed to respond to her struggles in light of these horrible experiences as a child.
Unfortunately, Mia did not receive the response she so desperately needed from the church. However, Calvin and Charlotte worked through the issues with Mia, coming to learn much not only about sexual abuse, but also spiritual abuse.
Mia’s pain runs deep and she continues to struggle with the church. The way the community responds to the report of abuse from a victim greatly impacts their healing process and the church failed miserably. Calvin and Charlotte are still hoping that the church leaders will learn from this experience and be biblically responsive in the future.
When Mia approached the church leadership – elders who were assigned to care for her – the abuses she had received as a child were only piled on higher and deeper. Mia concluded that, “The spiritual abuse [at the hands of the church leaders] was worse than the sexual abuse.”
Mia’s husband of ten years was disengaging from their marriage so she reached out to the elders. She had remained silent about the sexual abuse by men within the church for 17 years but now shared her trauma with the elders. As her parents explained, Mia must have had a significant trust in the elders to share her story with them after hiding it in the dark so long.
It was a very important step for Mia if she was to begin healing from the sexual assault.
Not only did she share her story of abuse but, in that time of vulnerability, she confessed her own sinful responses that grew out of those horrifying experiences. Rather than a time of care and redemption, she experienced more shame from the elders. [More on this in a future blog]
In a letter to their daughter, Calvin and Charlotte said,
“Unfortunately, your experience proved that your elders were not safe. When you told them about the state of your marriage, when you shared the details of your abuse, their response was not to protect and care. Instead, they put the burden of your circumstances back on you.“
One particular elder, when meeting with Mia, was unbelievably harsh with Mia, who had been sexually assaulted by men within the church as a child and had lost her husband and father of her children.
Mia was crying out for help, and the elder “crushed her”.
Mia recounted an exchange she had with this elder in a meeting with two elders of her church. She was humbly describing to them her lack of “Biblical maturity.” She didn’t want them to treat her like a pastor’s daughter. She told them, “I am not here” (using her hand to point up high), “but here,” (then lowering her hand to designate her “lack of maturity”). The elder responded saying, “You’re not even here Mia, you are here,” while pointing to the ground.
Piled higher and deeper.
Qualifications for Elder
In another conversation, the offending elder asked how Mia and her husband were doing following a meeting with the two elders. Mia told him that she had tried talking to her husband and it was no better. At that point she did not know her husband had been having an adulterous affair. The elder responded, “You do talk too much. . . maybe try not talking.”
At every turn the elder turned the responsibility on Mia rather than listening to and supporting her in her pain.
The other elder and church pastor should have taken their shepherding responsibilities seriously. They should have stepped in when they observed and were informed of the offending leader’s harsh and Pharisaical conduct. However, they continued to defend this elder. In addition, an investigative committee from the denomination’s regional organization seemed to suggest begrudgingly that he had failed in his shepherding.
Calvin and Charlotte continue to ask the question why no one was willing to hold the elder accountable for his unkind and hurtful behavior. What did his fellow elders stand to lose?
Form Over Substance
When Mia wrote a letter to the elders sharing her hurt, they did not respond for weeks. After not hearing anything for weeks, Mia, along with another elder brought an additional concern about the offending elder to the church board. When Mia once again received no response, she brought him up on charges to the regional committee with the hope of getting help from the denomination.
Finally responding, the elder board wrote to her saying, “Your filing judicial charges has complicated the matter,” not, “We are so sorry we have failed to support you in your incredible need.”
Rather than share the love of Christ, providing support to receive counseling for her horrible experiences in the church, they began to cross their t’s and dot their i’s. In a letter to Mia they continued to point out that she didn’t follow the church rules in how she brought to their attention the failure of the offending elder’s shepherding.
“It is clear to us that you have misunderstood the nature of personal and non-personal offenses, as well as public and private offenses. First, our Book of Discipline III.4 states, ‘Offenses are either public or private. Public offenses are those which are commonly known.‘”Elder Board’s letter to Mia
It goes on ad-nauseum. A bunch of gobbledy-gook to distract from the issue at hand and their duties as God’s shepherds.
In addition, Mia said they “threatened to bring charges against” her for writing what she wrote.
Calvin and Charlotte pointed out to me that they have become convinced that the elders are mostly concerned about “their position, role and status.” They are “puffed up,” as Paul warns Timothy when choosing elders (1 Timothy 3:6).2 As I read their letter and listened to descriptions of meetings with the elders, they seem to be pounding their chests, defending, and justifying their actions rather than humbly seeking to shepherd the flock.
And in their wake they are leaving deeply hurt people of whom the Lord Jesus Christ gave them opportunity to serve.
Again, in their letter to their daughter, Calvin and Charlotte said, “Men, shepherds, leaders in Christ’s body went to great lengths to make sure what truly happened was hidden and, in the process, they attacked you.” They went on to say, “[The elders] would not deal with heart issues and hid behind process.”
Where Do They Go from Here?
When the church “courts” fail to bring justice and mercy and faithfulness in the relationships they are called to provide for, protect, and love, where do you turn?
In the case of these elders, they have done nothing illegal to report to the civil authorities. However, they have clearly failed on many accounts to shepherd the flock of God and should be held accountable. Where can Mia, Calvin, and Charlotte turn to bring that accountability?
Waiting for the Lord to bring vindication certainly is a biblical option (Psalm 135:14). However, doing nothing means the elders will be allowed to continue to mistreat God’s people and diminish the church’s Gospel witness to the community. God continually calls His people to step into the melee and seek justice for the vulnerable [Isaiah 1:16, Proverbs 1:2-3].
In their case, the family has chosen to use social media. When the failures of an elder have destroyed many relationships and the complicity of his fellow leaders are compounding the problems, it is important to bring help to others who are suffering under their leadership. In order to warn others, it may mean bringing in the various types of media.
Again, speaking about leadership in the church, Paul tells his young charge, Timothy,
“Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”1 Timothy 5:19-20 (ESV)
There is a standard for “charging” an elder. When there has been a significant number of broken relationships (“two or three witnesses”) caused by the elder in question, it is time to bring it to the church – to make it public.
How far abroad is it publicized, Paul does not state. He did not have social media in that time.
But, his letters to various churches were read widely even as they are today in our social media. In more than one place Paul brings to our attention the wickedness of specifically named early church leaders (2 Timothy 4:10, 14). Those men’s names, which appear in Scripture, have gone down in history, having been an example of foolishness and evil to the church for centuries. Those words have been read by millions, if not billions of people.
The “engagements” his words have had far outnumber the most viral post of today’s social media.
Horribly offended members of the church may choose to make known the offenses of a leader in social media, emails, news outlets, or other public places after finding no help from other church leaders. It is my recommendation that, as an advocate, you take a deep breath and walk alongside the abused member to bring accountability to the leader. You may be uncomfortable with broadcasting it far and wide, but the healing of the victims and the accountability of the leader are more important.
The primary goal is love and love demands that an erring leader is brought accountability because scripturally, a leader is held to a higher standard than congregant members (1 Peter 5, James 3:1). It is likely that this is why Scripture holds them to a higher standard. . . from his place of authority and opportunities to teach, the damage he can do goes well beyond the scope of the errors of those under his charge.
Rather than judge the traumatized, seek justice for the oppressed.
Leaning Into Their Story
Let Calvin, Charlotte, and Mia’s story help us learn how to respond to the deep, deep hurt of those who have faced abuse. Recently, I have had numerous conversations with others who do not know how to engage with someone who has been abused.
So often the trauma from abuse has created incredible physical effects and those who have been abused will often seem crazy as they repeat themselves, mix up facts, and struggle to make sense of their experiences. It isn’t crazy; it is the physical response of the body to protect itself from further harm.
Second, leaders in the church need to learn humility, open their ears. . . and close their mouths. Had Calvin, Charlotte, and Mia’s church leaders considered Jesus’s condemning words to the Pharisees, they may have taken a breath and asked how they could help Mia instead of pulling out their church policy manual (Matthew 23 – nearly the whole chapter).
And finally, church leaders need to realize that they are held to a higher standard of behavior and when they fail over and over and show clear signs of abusive leadership, they should expect their story to go far and wide. . . as well it should.
1 Calvin, Charlotte, and Mia are NOT their real names. Though they were unconcerned having their names published, it is P&S’s desire that there be no distraction from their story. The church denominations that failed them have also been kept anonymous for the same reason. Their story could be told in every denomination, and indeed I have heard these stories in numerous denominations. Lest readers think this could only happen in that denomination, P&S wants them to know it IS happening in their denomination.
2 1 Timothy 3:2-3 says an elder should be of “good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome due to the power he possesses.” Several of the items listed by the Apostle Paul are pointed at how the leader is to relate to others. Hospitable, gentle, not quarrelsome, not authoritarian. If a man has significant difficulties with these, he is not qualified to lead in the church.