I wish I knew less about sexual abuse. In my personal and pastoral life, I have learned far too much about the horrific reality of what some human beings will do to others for the sake of their own pleasure. However, the knowledge God has providentially placed in my life has motivated me to advocate for the abused. I have developed the following position statements with the purpose of creating awareness and provoking discussion in our Reformed communities. Please note: I do not claim that these statements are exhaustive, nor that they are necessarily the best and final way to frame the issues at hand. If others wish to improve upon them, they are certainly welcome to do so.
Let me first say a few words about definitions. In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person. It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour. In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical). Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.” These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston. Additionally, child sexual abuse occurs when age of consent laws are broken. For example, in Canada, children under the age of 16 cannot legally give consent to any person more than 5 years their senior, or who is in any position of authority over them (a coach, or youth group leader of any age).
When I write below about “Reformed churches,” I am referring to the churches with which I am most familiar: the Canadian Reformed Churches and Free Reformed Churches of Australia. This is not to say that other Reformed churches are not affected, nor is it to say that all individual CanRC and FRC congregations are affected equally. I am simply commenting from the perspective of someone acquainted with these church federations.
- Reformed churches must unequivocally and publically condemn all forms of abuse
While we should always welcome truly repentant sinners, our churches must never give the impression of being a safe harbour for abusers. Instead, we should reflect the compassionate heart of our God for those who are downtrodden and afflicted (Psalm 34:18). Further, we should aim to create a safe and healing environment in our churches for those who have experienced abuse. Finally, we ought to be churches where justice and righteousness are upheld, where victims are not further victimized and perpetrators are properly held accountable for their sins. All this starts with clearly condemning abuse, when appropriate, in our sermons, articles, etc.
- Sexual abuse has occurred in our churches
While I am unaware of any official statistical data, certainly anecdotal evidence indicates many instances of sexual abuse. Whether these instances are out of proportion to the broader population is unknown (yet certainly worthy of a responsible scientific study). However, with sadness we ought to humbly admit that it has happened in the past. One might hope that it would no longer be happening, but because churches are made up not only of sinful human beings, but also a mixture of believers and unbelievers (Belgic Confession art. 29), realistically we should expect continuing occurrences. Nevertheless, we ought to do everything we can to eradicate this great evil from the church of Christ.
- There is often a link between sexual abuse and unhealthy spirituality
Abuse victims often struggle in their relationship with God. Because they have had horrible evil inflicted upon them (often when quite young), they may question God’s goodness, love, and providence. If they were abused by a father or other authority figure, they may have difficulty relating to God as a loving Father. They may also have difficulty understanding and appropriating biblical teaching about sexuality, family, and marriage authority structures. The spiritual consequences of abuse can be far-reaching and add to the guilt carried by abusers.
- There is often a link between sexual abuse and mental health issues
Sexual abuse is a form of trauma. It is an atrocity that may overwhelm the one who has experienced it. Any type of trauma can have mental health implications. Depression, anxiety, self-harm, multiple personality disorders, addictions, and other effects can result from sexual abuse, particularly if it is not addressed. These mental health issues can then also present challenges to a sexual abuse survivor’s spiritual health.
- There is a link between pornography and sexual abuse towards children and spouses
In general, pornography objectifies others as a means to sexual gratification. In itself this predisposes an individual who uses pornography towards abuse. This effect is exacerbated by the way pornography use often sinks to increasingly depraved levels. The wide-spread availability of violent and abusive pornography is proven to increase the prevalence of sexual abuse. Consequently, Reformed churches must be vocal about the dangers of pornography, as well as supplying resources for members to escape slavery to this sin.
- When preaching and teaching the Fifth Commandment, Reformed churches must also address the abuse of authority
Anecdotal evidence relates that abusers will sometimes invoke the Fifth Commandment (“Honour your father and your mother”) in order to justify and continue their abuse. Reformed churches regularly preach on the Fifth Commandment (with Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and should take the opportunity to emphasize that this law does not condone abusive behaviour. We should make it clear that all abuse is contrary to God’s will and abusers who appeal to God’s law to justify themselves are doubly condemned.
- Reformed churches ought to develop abuse policies to address past abuse and prevent future abuse
When things are put in writing, it indicates that we take them seriously. A matter as weighty as sexual abuse ought not to be dealt with haphazardly. While not every circumstance can be envisioned ahead of time, some general guidelines for church leaders and members can go a long way to dealing effectively with recent abuse in the church. Moreover, policies to prevent future abuse ought also to be in place as a matter of due diligence in protecting the sheep and lambs of God’s flock.
- Any local church which facilitates abuse by covering it up or refusing to report it puts into question its status as a true church of Jesus Christ
One of the marks of a true church is the faithful exercise of church discipline. If a local church allows abuse to continue by covering it up rather than dealing with it as the gross sin that it is, that church is dramatically falling short on this mark. If the office bearers of a church refuse to report abuse to the proper authorities, they likewise show a significant failure to deal with sin appropriately. A true church will take serious sins seriously and deal with them accordingly, both through the keys of the kingdom of heaven and by cooperation with the civil authorities where appropriate.
- There is hope for survivors and perpetrators in the gospel of Jesus Christ
For those who have experienced abuse, the wounds can heal. They can heal as the balm of the gospel is applied and we learn to understand better the unfathomable grace of God towards us and others. Perpetrators of past abuse can also find help and healing at the cross. If they truly repent from their sins, if they are humble and honest, if they look to Jesus Christ alone as their righteousness, they can receive forgiveness from a gracious God and meaningful change in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, that in no way diminishes the personal, criminal, or ecclesiastical consequences of this sin.