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A Charge for Church Leadership: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse and Ministering to Survivors, Part 2

Ongoing Needs among the Wounded

Wise pastors have also learned to be sensitive to those in their congregations who have been victims of abuse. When describing marriage or family in teaching and sermons, it is important that biblical ideals be portrayed faithfully and honestly, but it is also impor­tant to relate that too often marriages and families are marred by sin and brokenness. When families are proclaimed from the pulpit as God’s perfect plan and when families are praised as the ideal way for children to be raised, pastors need to remember that many marriages and families—even in churches—are deeply marked by abuse.

If there are no perfect families in the Bible, why do church leaders like to preach about them?

In light of the examples of family life that are included in the Scriptures, it seems surprising that so many pastors are tempted to preach the “perfect family” sermons that victims of abuse find so difficult to hear. When we look at the families in the Bible, it seems that God went out of his way to make it clear that even in homes of faith there can be terrible wrongs. God chose to include in Scripture many Old Testament stories of people—some of whom were kings and priests—who did terrible things to members of their own families as well as to others. Surely the biblical concept of the family needs to be portrayed with a clear understanding of how sin can affect that which is intended by God to be such a nurturing, loving relationship. Immediately, examples of the trafficking of Joseph (Genesis 37) or the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) come to mind, but there are many others as well.

Pastors who decide that they would rather not address the issue of sexual abuse need to realize that when such serious problems are allowed to stay hidden in the church, victims or survivors continue to endure physical and emotional pain even as their concept of God and his love for them becomes distorted. A church where abuse is never addressed is a church where people are not safe from being victimized. Furthermore, such unaddressed behaviors can also do irreparable damage to the witness of the church. Additionally, when the abuser is a church leader and the abuse is allowed to continue unaddressed, it can destroy the very fabric of the congregation, possibly even separating families.

Ministering to the Reality of Shame

The issue of shame also needs to be considered by church leaders. Sexual abuse leads to shame on so many levels.15 The abuser often uses shame to keep the victim silent, and the victim may feel ashamed to come to church, believing that if others knew what they were enduring they would be rejected or shunned or misunderstood. But another powerful aspect of shame is the desire of church leaders and members to maintain the illusion that abuse never happens in churches, or that it doesn’t happen in this church or in this denomination. Such attitudes can keep a church from ministering to the hurting as Jesus would (Matt 20:34; Mark 1:41). By recognizing that sexual abuse is an important issue for churches and addressing it publicly, pastors have the opportunity to turn the shame into an opportunity to care for the hurting. By shattering the myth that “there are no victims here” and proclaiming that the church is a place where victims are welcomed and loved, the sin is named, the shame is broken, and the church is freed to begin reaching out with the love of Christ to care for its wounded by providing an atmosphere of grace and understanding and by providing acts of love that demonstrate in practical ways that the gospel is not limited to those who are from “ideal” families.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2014

About the Author: Nancy Nason–Clark is Professor (and Chair) of Sociology and Director of the RAVE Project University of New Brunswick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada).

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