Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

Why Is Abuse Rampant in the Church?

a woman sitting in a church, Bringing sin to light is not a distraction from the churchs mission

This morning, I had a headline pop up on my phone:

"Bombshell 400-page report finds Southern Baptist leaders routinely silenced sexual abuse survivors"

I clicked on the link out of curiosity as to what this secular news agency had to say, knowing that there's often a bias against Christianity. However, like most of you, I know there has been sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and all religious denominations.

How do I know? Because I've experienced it. Within my own marriage. To a Southern Baptist pastor. My experience is slightly different, but it is still abuse. He used scripture to manipulate me. He had an adulterous relationship (think about it--adultery IS a form of abuse).

But, let's take it a step further. While the "other woman" made a conscious decision to have an affair with my then-husband, she could also be considered a victim of his abusive behavior. He took advantage of his position as a pastor to draw her in. She was enamored with his biblical knowledge, with his godliness, something she perceived her husband didn't possess. How do I know? Because I read the emails and transcripts of their late-night chats. So much of it was her perception of who he was from his pulpit--not who he was behind closed doors. 

Why is abuse so rampant in the SBC? Why is abuse so rampant in the Church? While I am certain it is multi-factorial, I can share a few things that I have come to realize over the years.

1. We deal with fallible humans and not an infallible God.

I know many of us long to be like Jesus, but we simply are not. Our example was perfect in every way. He knew how to model grace and truth. He could read hearts and direct people. He could see the deceit in the hearts of men (Jeremiah 17:9) and direct them where He willed (Proverbs 21:1).

However, our earthly experiences are with sinful men, not our sinless Savior. Not one of us is without sin (Romans 3:23). And that includes the leaders who are supposed to be teaching us to be more like Christ Himself. They are sinners, and we can be certain that they will one day be judged more strictly (James 3:1). Even though we often put spiritual leaders on a pedestal, they are humans and sinners just like we are.

2. We are taught forgiveness and grace.

Our faith is one that emphasizes forgiveness and grace, which rightfully are key tenets of Christianity. We teach that women are to clothe themselves with gentleness, kindness, and patience (Colossians 3:11-13). These are good qualities, essential qualities.

The problem is that we fail to give any time to abuse and boundaries and toxicity. We fail to see that Jesus Himself wasn't a doormat allowing others to walk on Him. When He faced the Pharisees, He recognized the toxicity in their hearts and called them out on it. His words were not kind and gentle but direct and truthful. He chose to put space between Himself and those who were toxic to Him and to His mission. 

We need to learn that boundaries and recognizing abusive, toxic behaviors are not contradictory to our faith. Instead, it can actually enhance our relationships with God.

3. Our love for God encourages us to always do the right thing.

We sincerely desire to walk in obedience to God, to bring glory and honor to Him. But sometimes, our desire to do right actually causes us to become entrapped in unhealthy situations. 

When my pastor-husband had an affair, I remember tearfully telling a friend my biggest concern was the damage that we had inflicted on the name of Christ. The truth is that we had not done anything to damage the name of Christ. He had done something to damage God's name. But, I was connected to him. I was his wife. In my desire to do the right thing, I had forgiven and forgiven and forgiven again--and failed to stand up to my husband. I was so intent on staying in my marriage because it was the right thing that I failed to see how walking away could actually be God's will.

So many of us are actually incredibly devoted to our faith, and we fear exposing our abusers will actually damage the name of Christ. It makes it so much harder to walk away.

4. Spiritual abuse includes twisting Scripture subtly to make it sound biblical.

Remember the serpent in Genesis? He didn't come up with some outlandish claim to distract Eve. Instead, it was a subtle change to God's words. "Did God really say...?" Genesis 3 

Abusive spiritual leaders often know scripture and are capable of subtly twisting it to make it seem sound and biblical. They have often already gained their victim's trust through their charisma and the persona they portray. They usually have command of the scriptures. And, we rarely question or doubt their authority on the scripture. It makes it fairly easy for them to gently groom their victims and convince them their view of scripture is not fully correct.

Think about submission. How many times have we heard that a wife is to submit to her husband? The man who takes that scripture out of the greater context and uses it to control his wife is guilty of twisting scripture. The truly godly man will recognize that submission is a two-way street that must be tempered with all of the wonderful qualities of Christianity: forgiveness, grace, patience, and tender-hearted mercy. It's not an opportunity for the man to exercise control but is instead an act of respect and putting others ahead of ourselves. 

Sadly, abuse in the SBC and the Church in general is real and damaging. It's time we empower the faithful with the truth. The truth that people are sinners. The truth that our faith lends itself to missing toxic and abusive behaviors. The truth that we can get caught up in doing the right thing for God and failing to see how we are easily being led astray. 

We must learn that Jesus didn't always offer grace. Sometimes He chose to walk away from those religious folks who were toxic and abusive.

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