A Sexually Faithful Church Protects the Vulnerable 

A heartbreaking twenty-year regret. I saw something and hesitated. A summer’s day walk through a park led me by a parked car. A glance gave me a brief view inside the car to notice a man and what looked like a young child. Something felt off; when the man looked over, and we locked eyes, I froze internally but kept walking. I hadn’t seen any obvious wrongdoing, but his face and a subtle alarm going off in my heart rattled me. Scared and confused, I rushed to the neighborhood police station and reported what I’d seen and was told a car would be sent out.

A twenty-year regret that I did not approach that car leads me to pray occasionally for the now-adult-child, just in case a vulnerable child was hurt that day.

A disturbing fact that should motivate Christians toward vigilant, courageous action is that sexual misconduct and abuse of power happens even among us. To us. By us. It’s not only those “out there,” like the child in the car, who need protection, but all those who are vulnerable within the church.

Four Steps Churches Must Take

This is a deeply troubling, potentially overwhelming topic, so consider the following four steps as your church’s starting point for being a sexually faithful church. At the end of this article, there are a few resources to further guide your church.

ACKNOWLEDGE

Acknowledge that the horror of sexual abuse has happened to many people in your congregation, and they come into the Body of Christ with deep scars and wounds. See them; they are there. Your ministry needs to take their stories into account as you pastor because trauma does not disappear into the past. Those with abuse histories are especially vulnerable to being abused again.

Acknowledge, also, that abuse can happen in your church, particularly by those in leadership. It’s terrible, but true, that sexual predators target faith communities. Why? Christians are often naive, quick to trust, ignorant of this problem, and churches generally offer easy access to children.1 Abusers find the church to be a refuge for their evil deeds.

The abuse scandals that have rocked churches share a common thread: the abused were not listened to. Disbelief and cover-up became the way many churches dealt with the allegations. Rather than pursue truth and protect and care for the wounded, leaders covered for their friends, colleagues, for the reputation of their ministry and church.

The result: Broken and bruised children and teens (adults, too) weren’t believed. Lives were further traumatized; the faith of many failed.

Humanity is so utterly devastated by appalling sin that we need radical intervention through Christ. On behalf of the vulnerable, it is God himself who calls leaders to see the broken and respond to them.

Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.

“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).

Refusing to acknowledge and deal with these kinds of sins is to commit a graver one: turning away from Christ himself who identifies with the oppressed and weak.

LEARN

Learn what you need to do to protect your flock. This task may seem overwhelming, but thankfully there are a growing number of trustworthy resources like Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) which provide education and training on subjects like:

  • How to develop a comprehensive plan for your church regarding the vetting of anyone who has a role of responsibility for the vulnerable.
  • How to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
  • How to recognize the typical profiles of pedophiles. Most pedophiles know their victims and are winsome, skilled deceivers who can present in church settings as charming, dedicated Christians.
  • How to conduct an effective investigation of accusations of abuse, particularly if the accused is a pastor, staff member, or lay leader.
  • How to develop policies, communicated and agreed upon by all leaders and staff, to refuse to hide or cover-up any allegations, and hold one another accountable to follow through.

But do more than study policies and procedures. Read stories from those who are survivors of sexual abuse. Talk with those who are willing to share their stories. These first-hand stories flesh out in powerful ways how abuse can happen, what its devastating impact is, and how the church can effectively protect and respond.

PROVIDE COMPASSIONATE CARE

It goes without saying that this is vital for those who have been abused. So gather resources that provide a list of experienced and spiritually mature people, men and women in your congregation that can come alongside those who have been hurt, and professional counselors who are experienced in counseling trauma and abuse victims and for their families who are also profoundly impacted.

Care is needed for the abusers, also. God’s grace goes the full distance to forgive all sin, and to provide healing through his Spirit, including the hearts of abusers. But offenders also need protection from themselves. A compassionate approach to abuse means that the abuser must submit to boundaries, guidelines, and oversight, and any refusal to do so will mean discipline and even expulsion from the church.

LEAN ON JESUS

Finally, to protect the vulnerable, sexually faithful churches need to depend on Jesus to do this. I close with this because, after considering the first three steps, no one can doubt that this kind of ministry is beyond anyone’s ability. We cannot lament what is horrific, confront sins such as deceit, malice, abuse, betrayal, and pride, care for children and adults who have been devastated by the selfishness of others, and deal with abusers from our personal and feeble reserves of wisdom and love. We need radical wisdom and strength from outside of ourselves; we need a Savior and Redeemer, and we have one in Jesus.

“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).  We cannot be satisfied with saying these words; we must live them out as ones who are called to reflect him.

This article first appeared in the harvestusa magazine Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.

RESOURCES

Recommendations for Churches Dealing With Abuse” by Diane Langberg

Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) is an excellent resource for churches

Onguard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church by Deepak Reju

1GRACE, “Five Characteristics of Child Sexual Offenders in Faith Communities,” (accessed 10 May 2019).


Ellen shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can Your Church Protect the Vulnerable in Your Midst? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Ellen Mary Dykas
About The Author
Ellen oversees the Philadelphia office’s ministry to women. Her ministry is focused on discipleship with women who are struggling with sexual and relational sins in their own lives, as well as women who are impacted by the sexual sins of their spouses or others. Ellen is available to teach, equip and encourage others (churches, organizations) to become more effective in ministering the gospel of Christ into the midst of all aspects of sexual brokenness.

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