How the Church Body Can Prevent Sexual Abuse

Justin Brierley Contributing Writer
Published: Nov 22, 2022
How the Church Body Can Prevent Sexual Abuse

 If you raise a concern with a staff member or elder and don’t believe that the matter has been properly addressed, keep going until you find someone who will take your concerns seriously.

The church is a place where we should be able to go in order to find love, acceptance, and healing. Unfortunately, some people have also experienced church to be a place of abuse and sexual assault, leaving them traumatized. Due to the authority and position of religious leaders, victims are often blamed for their own abuse or accused of lying. The culture of silence around abuse within our churches has made it difficult for victims to come forward and seek justice or help. This is a serious issue, and we are all too familiar with the series of leadership scandals that have rocked the evangelical church in recent years. 

I had the honour of hosting a webinar on Premier’s “Unbelievable?” titled, “Falling from Grace: Addressing Power, Leadership and Abuse in the Church” with special guests Rachael Denhollander, attorney, author, advocate, and educator who is recognized as a leading voice on the topic of sexual abuse; Amy Orr-Erwing, author, speaker, theologian and former Vice President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries; Mike Cosper, writer, and podcaster primarily focused on exploring issues of worship, culture, and spiritual formation; and Diane Langberg, practicing psychologist whose clinical expertise includes 50 years of working with trauma survivors and clergy. 

These source experts discussed how abusers infiltrate churches and manipulate their followers, as well as why these types of behaviors are tolerated by pastors and church leaders even though they should be addressed immediately. I learned a few key takeaways – things individual church members can do to help prevent further abuse from occurring in any of our churches. 

Become Educated

First, we must become educated about the nature and warning signs of abuse and feel empowered to speak up when we see something that is not right. We need to be alert to the symptoms of abuse, including isolation from friends or family members, depressed mood, lack of personal care, etc. There are a wealth of resources available online, including from our podcast sponsor thirtyone:eight, regarding what abuse looks like and how it affects victims. We can also learn how best to respond in a way that is caring to those who are victimized and to equip ourselves with knowledge of local organizations to whom we can refer victims for support.

Normalize Difficult Conversations

Next, we need to no longer shy away from difficult subjects in our conversations with fellow church members. We must normalize conversations about abuse so people aren’t afraid to mention their concerns or suspicions. As believers, we of all people should know how to speak the truth in love without straying into gossip or slander territory. If you raise a concern with a staff member or elder and don’t believe that the matter has been properly addressed, keep going until you find someone who will take your concerns seriously. 

We can also call upon our church leaders to provide more teaching and small group opportunities regarding these issues. You can suggest your church hold a weekend seminar and bring in experts on sex abuse prevention in the church context. You can volunteer to facilitate a small group that is open to anyone who has experienced abuse to share your stories and find healing together. Then, if someone later experiences abuse and doesn't feel comfortable talking directly with their pastor, they'll have other avenues through which they can receive help and guidance, knowing an entire small group of fellow church members is there to support them.

Hold Leaders Accountable

Finally, we need to hold our church leaders accountable when it comes to having policies and procedures in place that protect both our vulnerable members from abuse and our leaders from false accusations. By enacting rules and safeguards regarding pastoral staff or other leaders never being alone with members outside of view or knowledge of others, for example, we can lead with prevention. Church members or even members of the community need not be afraid to ask about these policies and procedures. What commitments do ministry volunteers sign? What background checks are done, and what are the standards by which staff and leaders must abide? And are these rules and guidelines consistent for everyone, from the volunteers who put out chairs each Sunday to the senior pastor? 

By ensuring protocols are followed regarding reporting suspected abuse to legal authorities, we can help restore the church’s reputation as a place of light rather than darkness. 

This is a complex problem and not one that will be solved overnight. But if the church body takes this seriously and works on it, we can make a difference in our churches and communities. As a body, we need to change our culture. We need to stop believing that clergy are above reproach and can do no wrong because they are not infallible. They are human, just like you and me. And being human means having flaws and weaknesses, which can lead them down dark paths that include abuse of any kind. We have to think about authority differently, as being something that’s communicated primarily by love and sacrifice rather than control.

If there is anything good that has come out of this tragic situation, it is that victims are no longer afraid to speak up and that a watching world is beginning to understand that the Church is not the same as Christ. The body is supposed to follow Him and have a likeness to Him, but the system, the organization, is not Him. So often in the past, the Church has been accused of hypocrisy, but now the public is starting to see that individuals who act out are not reflective of the majority of believers. Yes, there are hypocrites, but most church members love others and try to live a Christian lifestyle. We do not condone abuse and are appalled that any institution would attempt to cover it up. It is good that those outside the Church are beginning to understand this truth about individuals within the church, even if they are still suspicious of organized religion. 

As individuals within the body of believers, it is up to each one of us who has been called into this ministry of love and acceptance to do our part in helping prevent sexual abuse or abuse of any kind from happening again. We believe that God has called us to be a light in this world, and one way we can do that is by being open about the issues facing our churches and not being afraid to step up and speak out when we note an area of concern. 

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/EJ Rodriquez

Justin Brierley is the Theology and Apologetics Editor for Premier Insight which produces podcasts such as “Unbelievable?” and “The Big Conversation” in which he hosts discussions between people of opposing views on issues of belief, life, science, and meaning. He is the author of “Unbelievable? Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.”