Barriers to belief: church abuse

In Barriers to belief I reported that the biggest barrier to non-believers was the many much-publicised cases of sexual abuse within the church. How should christians respond to this?

The obvious first steps

With tears: Sometimes sexual abuse has been denied or covered up, sometimes, it seems, to protect the church’s ‘good name’. But we cannot deny that many people have been badly hurt by the actions of some ministers, priests and pastors. We should be more concerned for hurting people and more concerned to follow Jesus in ministering to hurting people than in the church’s reputation. Tears and a willingness to assist must be the first steps in a response.

Never again: There are various legal requirements on reporting and addressing abuse. Most churches now take these very seriously, as they should. As much as is humanly possibly, we must try to ensure that abuse never happens again, and if it does, that it is discovered and addressed properly.

But I want to look at a possible underlying contributory cause.

Sexual abuse and power

Many who have studied sexual abuse argue that it is more about power than about lust:

  • It has long been a feminist view that: “Rape and sexual assault is seen as one of the ways in which men enact their dominance in a violent way over women, children and other men.” (Yarrow Place rape and sexual assault service, Government of South Australia)
  • A University of Missouri-Columbia study of sexual harassment in the workplace found that the abuse of power was the most common reason given by participants in the study and concluded: “sexual harassment is more about power than sex”.
  • A Catholic theologian argued almost a decade ago that the sex scandals in the church at that time were “brought on not by sex, but by a misuse of power by priests and church authorities” and then says: “The great task for us to face as a Church is the use of power.”
  • The website The Hope of Survivors addresses the issue of pastors abusing counselling situations to establish a sexual relationship with vulnerable women, and concludes: “this is not a love affair by two consenting adults. This is an imbalance of power, this is an abuse of power”.

The connection between power imbalance and sexual abuse helps explain why abuse is committed not just in the church, by pastors, priests, ministers, bishops and youth leaders, but outside the church by teachers, managers and supervisors in both government and business, sports coaches and scout leaders. But it also means we need to consider why there is abuse of power in the church.

Christians need to re-think power and authority

I believe that power and authority in the church is exercised in a very different way than envisaged in the New Testament, and as exemplified by Jesus. And I think this wrong view of power leads to many problems, and is a contributing cause of abuse. We’ll look at this in my next post.

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