Thoughts on Sexual Abuse for the Church

If you are at all tuned in to the latest election-happenings, then you are probably thinking and/or talking about sexual assault.  I’m not going to write about Donald Trump, because this election is so polarizing it causes us to make up our minds before we actually read what people have to say. I’ve read a great deal online about sexual assault and the Church’s response to it. I find myself convicted to speak in a way that reaches Christians on both sides of the issue.  I think as a pastor I have a moral responsibility to speak into this big and dark area of the Church and our culture—specifically because the conversation amongst Christians has become so warped.  

I want to begin with a short history lesson.  Sexual assault is a very new term in Christian history.  You need not go far in the Church’s story to encounter cases where church leaders overlooked or minimized the sexual abuse of women.  In fact, you can find many cases where the Church deliberately endorsed sexual abuse.[1]  For instance, during the Crusades soldiers were told that rapes committed during war would be forgiven.  For the most part, however, the Church’s immorality on the subject thrived not by endorsing blatant acts of abuse.  Instead, the Church and Jewish culture before it, employed one major tactic: blame the woman. 

I remember once in my high school youth group a girl came in wearing short jean shorts.  A youth leader took her to the side but talked so that all could hear.  He said that she couldn’t wear such scandalous clothing to church because it would make the boys think bad thoughts about her.[2]  If you are a woman reading this, allow me to say something loud and clear: the lust and actions of a man are never your fault. Even if you stand naked on a street corner, a man’s thoughts are his own—how much more so if he actually violates your body!  Women can make decisions about their attire based upon their own conscience and their relationship to Jesus.  So too, I, and all men like me, must make efforts to control my thoughts in all circumstances as a result of who Jesus is in my life.  We each must take responsibility for ourselves.  No matter what kind of sin we’re talking about, people are responsible for their own actions.

The tactic of blaming sexual sin on the seductress is as old as time.  You’ll notice that Adam blames Eve in the Garden—I sinned because of this woman you gave me, God (Gen. 3:12).[3] We’d do well to remember just how effective that argument was before God. In Jesus’ day it appears to have been common practice to blame adultery on women.  For an example look at the woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned before Jesus comes to her defense (John 8:1-11).  I cannot say it enough, where was the adulteress man?  As they say, it takes two to tango.  

Notice then the point Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount: 

27 “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away.[4]  

Jesus situates the blame for lust squarely on the man doing the lusting.  Think about how low our cultural bar is for sexual misconduct compared to Jesus’ words.  In our culture you have to speak in a threatening manner or actually touch a woman to be in the wrong.  For Jesus, you’ve entered the realm of adultery just by thinking the thoughts.  You need not speak it or act it.  I’m afraid that the church too, often leans toward the standard of our world for sexual misconduct rather than toward the teachings of our Lord.  

Something like 1 in 4 women have experienced sexual abuse.[5]  This is absolutely unacceptable and the Church, I believe, has the power to greatly reduce those numbers.  We have a Jesus-centered responsibility to band together in advocacy. Remember, Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery without any indication that she is repentant.  If indeed, the adultery was consensual, then she had done something immoral.  So if this is the way Jesus stands up for someone who has sinned, how much more for a victim of abuse? So should be the posture of his Church.  Jesus laid out a ridiculously high standard of sexual morality for men. We too must abandon a culture that blames women for lustful thoughts, words, or actions.  We must be a place that teaches boys about the dignity of a woman’s body.[6]  We must be a place that empowers girls to grow into a confidence that God has given them a body all their own; a body that is a precious temple to be given away by them to a husband . . . never under pressure, coercion, guilt, or shame. We must teach boys, girls, women, and men that everyone always has the right to say no.[7]  We must teach every Christian that a sexual encounter without consent is assault. 

Allow me to make one interrelated point.  This controversy has also caused a lot of conversation about “locker-room talk.”  I’ve read major Christian leaders defending lewd language during conversations amongst men as “normal.” One said, “that’s just the way it is.” That’s right, if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead in his tomb. But for those of us who put our hope in the death-crushing power of a transformational savior, it is not normal. The bible does not split hairs on the subject of our speech:

But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them.[8]

If that is not an unbelievably strong admonition against, “locker-room talk,” I’m not sure what is.  We must not judge or alienate people for their sins, but we must also not diminish what Christ teaches us to be wrong and right.  One of the worst effects of election season, especially this one, is the way it makes Christians on both sides pick and choose what is wrong and what is right.  

All I ask is that regardless of who you choose to vote for, don’t let your allegiance to a candidate move you even an inch away from your dedication to follow Jesus.  Don’t give influence to pundits on issues of faith.  Fox News and CNN and the rest of the media spectrum haven’t the slightest interest in pointing you toward Jesus.  

So as you think about the nature of sexual assault and the Church’s role, I hope you’ll bow before Jesus.  I hope we can join together to enact Jesus’ high standards.  I hope we’ll be compassionate to those who make mistakes, but also that we’ll hold firm to the hope Jesus has given us. I hope that we can, in his Spirit, create a Church where victims are safe and valued, and perpetrators are both held to account and offered redemption.[9] 

[1] It was common in the Middle Ages for priests to instruct husbands to beat insubordinate wives. Even in recent times you can find Christian leaders who’ve told wives that their husbands cheated on them because these wives didn’t live up to certain standards—especially sexual standards.
[2] This is bad enough, but even worse, I’ve heard Christians say that if a woman is drunk and then raped, the rape is her fault.  From a theological perspective, this is throwing the baby out with the bath water.  I think Christians think that if they treat the woman as a victim they are somehow endorsing her drunkenness.  When you make a mistake you do not deserve to be taken advantage of.  That sounds more like Karma than theology based upon the life of Jesus.
[3] Never forget that Gen 3:6 explicitly says that Adam was with Eve during the conversation with the serpent.  Also, Paul, on several occasions, blames Adam for sin entering into humanity: Rom. 5:12, 14 and 1 Cor. 15:22. The transgression of Eve is mentioned in 1 Tim. 2:14, but you’ll notice that she isn’t blamed there for the universality of sin the way Adam is in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
[4] Matthew 5 (NLT)
[5] There is a campaign on Twitter right now where women are sharing their stories of sexual assault.  It is not for the faint of heart and contains some very graphic language/images. But if you want to read some of it click here.  Or you can read a story from a Christian woman reflecting on her experience of abuse by a man in her church, here. One of the best ways to move toward compassion is by listening to the stories of victims. 
[6] I wrote about the sacredness of the body, previously in this blog.
[7] It important to remember that sexual assault can go both ways.  But it would be a mistake to act as if women abusing men happens at the same rate as men abusing women.
[8] Ephesians 5 (NRSV).
[9] I know I haven’t covered every facet of this topic, so I invite your questions:


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