How Should Christians Respond to Abuse Allegations?
One of the things you can’t miss in the Christian conversation happening right now is that allegations of abuse are getting a lot of new attention. We have been talking about this in a really fresh way for the last several years. And the first thing I want to say about that attention is that it is really good that we are paying attention to these abuse allegations, into these charges of abuse. It’s really good attention.
A lot of the attention that has come about in the last few years, so many of the disclosures have made it clear that this is an area where the Church of Jesus Christ has really needed to grow in wisdom. The church, while not always guilty of malicious intent, has nevertheless good intentions notwithstanding done damage to abuse victims and to abusers, by ignorant responses that are out there by just foolishness in and how to handle this by clumsiness and how to proceed.
As the conversation is developing out there, it seems to me that there are two basic extremes that we want to avoid as the church continues to grow in wisdom on this. We don’t want to continue down a clumsy course. We want to be characterized by wisdom that is the mark of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Two Extremes to Avoid
The first extreme that we want to avoid is the extreme of abused and mistreated people thinking they will not be heard and not be believed when they come to the church with allegations. This is a very, very dangerous extreme.
This is an extreme that the church has, I’m aware, been guilty of in the past. And it is one as we lead our ministries today that we must ensure that it’s not guilty of in the future. This is the case for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the personal pain it brings on the victimized person to now not be believed when they asked for help.
Many people know of my own story of childhood abuse. I had a very dramatic series of encounters with childhood abuse when I was growing up with my mother, who was addicted to alcohol. The police were involved many times. I was involved in the foster care system. There were custody battles between my parents. All of this was documented. It is a matter of court record, a matter of public record. And I say that because a couple of years ago, there was a person in our community who circulated a written allegation that I had lied about all of that abuse and that I had just made it up.
When I read the allegation that was circulated in print, I sat with my wife, and I wept. I wept, not because I’m really overwhelmed with what that person thought of me. Not because I was afraid nobody would believe me. But because when you expose yourself, when you open yourself up and are honest about the bad things that happened to you, and you are not believed, or you are maligned and ridiculed, it’s not just an attack against something, you said, it’s an attack against you. It’s an attack against you at your weakest and most vulnerable.
I don’t want anybody in my church to feel that way. You shouldn’t want anybody in your church to feel like they’ve been victimized twice. The first time when they were mistreated by their abuser. And the second time, when they’re mistreated by you when you don’t believe them. We have to fight against this.
It’s also dangerous because if we don’t believe victims when they come out and tell the truth, then we’re actually just opening up the door for the people who hurt them to hurt more people. This is an extreme that we must avoid in the church. But there’s another extreme that we’ve got to avoid in the church.
The second extreme is the one of innocent people being wrongly accused and found guilty before any investigation. You just can’t live in a world where people are guilty until they are proven innocent. You can’t live in a world where one accusation from one person is enough to torpedo one person’s life when they are innocent.
The reason we need to be careful of this extreme is answered by understanding that police departments have investigators. They don’t just arrest people. Why is it that police departments don’t just go around arresting people, throwing them in handcuffs, and then tossing them in jail? Well, it’s because there is an awareness that guilt is so crucial and so important and so serious that it has to be proven. And so charges have to be investigated, not just punished.
Either of these extremes or refusal to believe victimized people, and a commitment to punish innocent people before an investigation happens. Either of those extremes is going to make the church a very unpleasant place to be. It’s ultimately going to be an impossible place to be if we can’t figure out how to steer a gracious course between those two extremes. And so, as we seek to steer a wise course through those two extremes, I want to give you a specific goal and a specific process that will help.
How do we respond as Christians to allegations of abuse without crashing up against the rocks of either of those extremes?
Well, let me first give you the goal. The goal when we become aware of an accusation of abuse is that we must protect the weak. That is a very, very clear Christian mandate. We don’t have any choice about it. We shouldn’t want any choice about it. The Bible commands in Psalm 82:3, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.”
God is strong, and he uses his strength to protect the weak, and he wants those who have strength on this earth to use their strength to protect the weak as well. Once we hear about an accusation of abuse, we must immediately spring into action with the goal that we want to protect the weak.
And here’s the issue. Anytime there is an accusation of abuse, there is a weak person who needs protection.
Abuse is a wrong use of power. Abusive people use their power, size, strength, and stature to do harm to weak people who cannot defend themselves. That’s what an abuser is. They use their power, their size, their strength, and their stature to do harm to weak people who can’t defend themselves.
In a world where every accusation is believed without investigation, there is a different kind of abusive person who uses their influence to mobilize the social media mob to destroy the reputations of innocent people.
In any accusation of abuse, there is an abusive person misusing some kind of power and a weak person who needs protection from it. Maybe the weak person is the one making the accusation, and the strength of the person they’re accusing was used against them to harm them. Maybe the weak person is the person being accused. And the strong person is the person using the power of accusation and the power of suspicion to damage that weak person’s reputation and credibility. The trick is figuring out who the abuser is and who the weak person is.
The last thing the church wants to do is to punish the weak and protect the strong.
So that means after that goal, we need a process. The process is going to be a process to investigate the claims and bring about justice. We’ve got, as the church, to match our commitment to helping the weak with a process of being sure we’re helping the weak and not the abusive person.
The only way to do that is going to be with some kind of third party. You are going to need help. You’re going to need to reach out to somebody who knows more about this than you, to somebody who has greater skill and facility, greater authority than you do. You’re going to need the help of a third party. And in cases of abuse that violate the law, that third party is absolutely positively going to include the authorities.
At our church, whenever we receive an accusation of abuse, we always encourage the person reporting the abuse to alert the authorities. And we always, when we receive an allegation of abuse, discharge our reporting responsibilities in keeping with the law. The law where you are might be different from the law where I am here in Florida. But you must keep your responsibilities to obey the law, and you must encourage the person reporting to do the same.
That’s because it’s the right thing to do. That’s because it is the good thing to do. That’s because the authorities have the ability to investigate and enforce that nobody in any church or any ministry has. And so, the governing authorities are your friend on this, and you’re doing yourself a favor, you’re doing victims a favor, you’re doing abusers a favor by including the appropriate civil authorities.
If there’s no illegal mistreatment, then it’s still good to use third parties. It’s still good to get outside help and the help of more people. Just even as an example, on our staff, we have a lot of people who are employed at First Baptist Church, and we have employee policies and employee manuals. And if someone believes they have been mistreated, they are able to report that to their boss. If they feel like they can’t go to their boss, there are opportunities for them to go around their boss to their boss’s boss. There are opportunities for them to appeal to our Human Resources area. We even have policies that allow outside groups to come in and do mediation when there have been disagreements between employees in the past.
The point is, third parties are your friend. Third parties help you get good information, they help you see from a fresh perspective, and they help you help the weak. They help you figure out who the weak person is. And then comes the goal of comforting the hurting person and confronting the abusive person.