Is the Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?
This question came up in a recent twitter thread in response to outrageous comments which have resurfaced made in 2000 by yet another leader of a major Christian denomination (Paige Patterson, President of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, part of the SBC). These comments, similar to John Piper’s comments in response to how women should respond to their abusive husbands, are quite literally nauseating to those of us who have suffered at the hands of abusive husbands. But they should be nauseating to every decent human being, too. These statements are inexcusable and yet, both men, prominent leaders in Christianity, refuse to retract their words.
Additionally, new high-profile cases of pastors and church leaders committing, covering up, or being dismissive of the damaging impact of abuse in their churches seem to be coming to light each week.
It makes everyone wonder, is the church ever a refuge for the abused?
While these cases are horrific – I mean truly and thoroughly horrific – it would be wrong to denigrate the whole of the body of Christ with the same broad brush. We have a shamefully long, long way to go in righting these damaging wrongs against the vulnerable in our midst, but there are some shining examples of loving pastors, elders, and church leaders who are desperately trying to understand these issues and their impact, stand for righteousness, protect the vulnerable, and be the agents of change in this culture of cover-up.
I know – I am blessed to be a member of one such church.
My pastor and elders are by no means experts in the fields of abuse of any kind – they would be the first ones to admit to that. But they have sought to faithfully – and lovingly – walk beside me on the darkest path I could ever imagine.
They have been humble enough to learn – though the learning curve has been steep and difficult for all involved. They have been gracious enough to be challenged by a deeply wounded family and yet remain compassionate and kind at all times. They have been willing to re-think positions they’ve held dear in light of newly acquired understanding of the dynamics and impact of abuse. And they have wrestled with their own hearts about how to respond in faithfulness to scripture and compassionate care for my children and me. And because of all of this, they have also had to endure false and ugly accusations against them because of their willingness to stand against evil.
This has not been an easy road for them or for me. This has, at times, been a torturous process. It has been years-long, and we’re still not on the other side of it all. I have had to be both sufferer and tutor on a path that I don’t know how to navigate either. But these men have been willing to try to see with new eyes what it means to shepherd, protect, and defend one of the flock who was being devoured. They didn’t know how to fight this battle before I came along, but they have been willing to learn and then learn some more in order to do so well. My pastor, in particular, has been doggedly faithful in leading them in this.
I know that I am in the minority. There are too many – far, far too many – abominable stories emanating from pastoral responses like the ones above. The norm is for pastors, in their woeful ignorance and sometimes arrogance, to think that abuse is a marital problem rather than an insatiable desire for controlling power and domination emanating from an idolatrous worship of self. Those of us who love Christ and understand his call to all of us to be humble servants in his kingdom need to relentlessly call for our leaders to be knowledgeable and discerning in the issues of abuse of all kinds. But let us also, with reverence and deep appreciation honor those who, like Jesus, use their power and authority to bend low, protect, deliver, and help set captives free.
Is the church ever a refuge for the abused? It is grievous that the question has to even be asked this way. Jesus would take cords and make whips out of them for those dishonoring the character of his Father with such callous disregard for his little ones. But thankfully, there are faithful, Christ-honoring shepherds who love him, and his flock enough to stand up for the oppressed, stand against their abusers, and defend against harm.
Thank you strong and gentle shepherds – your reward in heaven is great.