Sexual violence and the church
“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!… And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Matthew 18: 6-9
The church is not what immediately comes to mind when you hear of sexual assault. I know it’s not what comes to mind for me.
And, to be honest with you all, I don’t provide you with an unbiased perspective on Christians and the church. I would describe myself as pretty pro-Jesus. I would go so far as to say Jesus is perfect, flawless and so is his word. However, the church is another beast altogether.
I would say most churches are actually pretty flawed because they have an inherent systematic problem that cannot be fixed. The problem is people. The church is not a place, it is a people, and the church often falls short because it is composed of sinful, imperfect people.
However, that does not excuse the church from my criticisms. There have been times in articles past where I have implied that Christians get it wrong. This is one of those articles. The church doesn’t do a good enough job protecting the men and women in their community from sexual violence. Worse still, when these crimes come to light, they disappoint further still by sweeping it under the rug instead of addressing it.
Instead of being proactive, the church is often reactive. And when I say proactive, I don’t mean having stupid canned answers about how, “our church is a safe and welcoming place for all” or, “our church takes these instances of violence very seriously.” I am talking about equipping churches with the resources and training to make the church a safe place for those who have been a victim of sexual violence — a place of healing.
Instead, people are so unwilling to admit that this is a thing that can happen anywhere to anyone that they often blame the victim because the reality that someone in their community that they may know is a predator is too bitter a truth to swallow.
It can be easy to point the finger and say, “Well, that’s only something that happens in other churches, other denominations and other areas.” But the data supports that this is something that happens everywhere.
A big part of the problem is the purity culture in churches. Even I, a professed churchgoer and lover of Jesus, have been vocal about how harmful this is, especially when I attended a private Christian school.
By age 14, purity culture was heavy in my preteen mind. I was already being told that I couldn’t wear skirts too tight because the men and boys would look at me; I would lead them astray when I did. I was told that I couldn’t wear jeans with holes because if I did, then boys would look at my legs and stare at my skin. I shouldn’t hang out with boys, or I will be seen as easy.
From a young age, I was already being conditioned to believe that if a man touched me inappropriately and thought terrible things about me, it wasn’t his fault. I was the one to blame. The responsibility lies on my shoulders. If I were just good enough, faithful enough, Christian enough, then I would be fine.
And by the grace of God, I have made it this far without being a victim of sexual violence. But that wasn’t because I dressed modestly; it is because I am lucky. God has helped me dodge bullets I would have probably never seen coming. Because frankly, that I have made it this far is a miracle.
Then there is the way churches talk about sexual impurity. We are so quick to point out that having sex outside of marriage is a sin, and we loudly proclaim that cheating is wrong. But that lack of conversation, the silence about sexual assault being a sin, is deafening. Churches and church leaders drastically underestimate that this is a problem in their churches. And yet, there are no statistics that suggest that the church is any safer than the outside world. Conservative statistics estimate that 1 in 6 women are victims of sexual violence. How many women sit in your pews who would benefit from the church speaking out? How many men do you have sitting in your congregation need the same?
I was never really taught what consent was. After all, why would good Christian girls need to know about that? I’ll tell you, church, because young women need to know that their voices matter. That they are allowed to say no; it doesn’t matter who is asking them to do anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, a pastor, a church elder, a friend or a husband.
And because of purity culture, forgiveness is weaponized when a girl does come forward. Instead of practicing biblical justice, we are quick to dismiss their claims and even if we do believe them, we tell them that if they were really a good Christian, they would forgive their abuser. Churches be a refuge, a sanctuary and a place where people can go to seek help. Instead, churches are part of the problem.
I would say I am sorry, but I don’t actually feel sorry, so I am just going to go out and say it if you are not trained in helping victims of sexual assault. Then biblical church counseling is probably not the solution. It takes humility for church leaders to recognize that they may not be equipped to tackle this problem. A lot of times, pastors can be seen as the ultimate authority on all things religious. Pastors, deacons and church leaders are no more God-like than I am. But that does not change the fact that leaders hold important influence over the body they serve. So if your leader tells you that it’s not that big of a deal to forgive and forget, that does a lot of damage.
Purity culture is often built on broken theology and misinterpreted verses that understand the language of the verse but not the spirit. Modesty is ubiquitous with what women are wearing when the Bible tells us modestly is far more about the state of your heart.
1 Peter 3:3-4 says this, “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
Essentially, it’s not on the outside; what’s on the inside counts. What’s beautiful is not gold and jewels; it’s about your treatment of others. So if everyone has got something to say about the condition of someone else’s heart, perhaps you should worry more about the plank in your own eyes before you begin complaining about the speck in mine.
The state of someone’s heart is between them and the Lord. If you have something judgemental and superficial to say, worry about yourself.
This is my incredibly long-winded way of saying it. Churches, you have miles to go to treat sexual assault with the seriousness it deserves. You as a community are not only ill-equipped to help your members through this but actually can foster a dangerous environment.
It’s difficult to criticize the church when I love it so much. But we criticize the things we love because I believe that we as a people can do better. I believe that we can be a force for good. I believe we can seek justice in the court system but also seek biblical justice.
My life verse is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In becoming a social worker, I hope to pursue biblical Justice. That means aiding the orphan and the widow, loving others and helping those who cannot help themselves. If you think for one single moment that Jesus’s heart doesn’t break for every person who has experienced the hurt caused by sexual assault, you may not know Jesus like you think you do.
If you find that your eyes lead you to sin, Jesus teaches that you would be better off blind. It is never a person’s fault if they have been sexually assaulted. I speak so bluntly because I need the church to do better. I need the church to lead the crusade to protect all people, and children especially. Do better. Be better — advocate for better in your community.
I have read of many failures and few church successes in this area. Church, stop pressing young girls to bear the burden of sexual sin. Teach your young men accountability and responsibility. Be compassionate for those in your community and recognize the harm done by inaction. Seek out resources and education on this topic, and be humble enough to know when you don’t know the answer. I expect more from your church, and so does the world.