Theology

Saving Our Sexuality, Part 2: On Dealing with Abuse in the Church

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Not long after my previous article went live, in which I argued that Christianity’s insistence on the sanctity of the body is alone capable of saving our sexuality from self-destruction, someone on Twitter offered this bit of gentle pushback:

Followed by this:

He’s right. How do we speak honestly about the ways we’ve failed to live up to our highest ideals?

What #ChurchToo Reveals

The #ChurchToo stories, I believe, reveal so much about us; what we really value, what we really believe. Why, I would like to ask, are we so slow to deal with abuse within our churches and ministries? Why are we are we so prone to “handle it internally” instead of dealing with it in appropriate public ways, as we should?

The recent Rachel Denhollander interview with CT is telling in this regard. In addressing why she believes evangelical churches in particular are prone to mishandling situations of abuse, she comments:

The reason that most institutional cover-ups happen in the church is not simple institutional protectionism…You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ…It’s devastating enough when money and medals are put against sexual assault victims. But when the gospel of Christ is wielded like a weapon against sexual assault victims, that’s wicked. There’s no other way to say it.

Denhollander is drawing attention to something critical: namely, the way in which sexual abuse in the church is mishandled or covered up entirely on the pretext that dealing with it openly and thoroughly will damage the “reputation of Christ” (which the church or ministry is purportedly carrying).

But what can be the meaning of this? The “reputation of Christ” was never and will never be “damaged” by the truth. Likewise, it was never and will never be “damaged” by our determination to do justice to those who have been victimized. So what are really talking about here?

The Idol of Self-Preservation

I am afraid that what we are really talking about is institutional self-preservation. And bound up with institutional self-preservation is a whole ecosystem of personal impulses which have nothing whatever to do with the kingdom of God: the desire for money, for success, for power. We don’t want to lose what we’ve worked for, we don’t want to let go of the expansion of our platforms (and all the potential benefit that will bring to us), we don’t want to suffer the frustration of the institutions we lead slowing down. The inconvenience of it terrifies us.

Our “success” culture in the church blinds us to the many ways in which things like “momentum” have become idolatries. To the extent that such things have become idols, we are very far from God. “You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not worship any god other than me,” says the Lord in Psalm 81, continuing with this memorable statement: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt; open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Ps 81:9-10).

Idolatry, in the biblical imagination, is rarely if ever a purely philosophical choice. It is always a pragmatic one: How will we survive? The question Israel was always asking, in one way or another, was this: “Which is the better bet: worshiping the gods of nations, who as often as not demand the sacrifice of innocent victims, or holding fast to the Lord who promises to preserve our lives as we remain faithful to him?”

On every page of the Scripture this question is put forth with great insistence, and it is literally a matter of life and death.

To the biblical mind, holding fast to the Lord who promises to preserve our lives paradoxically demands a willingness on our part to lose those same lives for his sake. Jesus made this the centerpiece of his call for men and women to follow him: “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). In the kingdom of God, it is precisely by our willingness to suspend our instincts towards self-preservation for the sake of Christ and his call that we are, in fact, preserved.

Why, I would like to ask, are we so slow to deal with abuse within our churches and ministries? Our 'success' culture in the church blinds us to the many ways in which things like 'momentum' have become idolatries. @theandrewarndt Click To Tweet

Learning to Trust God

In a marvelous article by Rowan Williams on Augustine’s City of God, Williams points out that Augustine believed that what was true of the individual call of discipleship was also true of institutions. In fact, this was why Augustine believed that no civitas terrena, no “earthly city,” could ever achieve true justice: its inner mandate to self-preservation betrayed its fundamental lack of trust in the power of God to ultimately uphold it. It would always, therefore, in some way or at some point violate justice in order to preserve its existence. Its actions, in other words, would always be self-refuting, for no true civitas could ever cohere in injustice.

The city of God, on the other hand, for Augustine, needed no defending, since it exists by and in the will of God. Human institutions (like the church) participate in and show forth the city of God when (and only when) they demonstrate the kind of justice and orderliness that are made possible only by depending on (to use Williams’ phrasing), “defenseless trust in the continuance of God’s ordo [order]…”

In other words, our willingness to abandon our lives, even on the institutional level, is what makes it possible to truly put God’s justice on display. Then and only does the eternal city of God shine forth in human activity. “The heavenly city,” Augustine writes, “outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness.”

There is simply no other way to put it: our capacity for justice is measured by our willingness to die for the sake of truth and holiness. In obedience to the Lord, we suspend our need for “victory” (= “success”?) and “high rank” (= “notoriety”?), and trust that by and in the will of the Lord we are holding fast to, we will be preserved.

But that is not up to us. It is up to him.

Only when we can say, and say truly, “Lord, our future is in your hands” are we capable of doing what is right, just, compassionate, and truthful.

I believe that Augustine would say that the moment truth and justice become casualties of our need to keep our ministries running smoothly, we have ceased to be a reflection of the city of God and have become, instead, little more than a hoard, driven by the lust for power and not by love.

Our willingness to abandon our lives, even on the institutional level, is what makes it possible to truly put God’s justice on display. Then and only does the eternal city of God shine forth in human activity. @theandrewarndt Click To Tweet

The Measure of Our Trust

Brothers and sisters, we can and must do better. At the core of our faith is the invitation of Jesus to die in order to find life. While we in evangelicalism normally insist upon this invitation on the personal level, we have not, I am afraid, normally appreciated the wisdom and power of Jesus’ words on a corporate level. Instead, while claiming to follow the Jesus whose death showed us the path to life, we have consistently demonstrated a pitiless lust for faux-immortality by covering up and denying situations of sexual assault and abuse.

Have we forgotten that the lust for immortality outside of obedience to God was what ruined our first parents? It is always the path to death.

Towards the end of her CT interview, Rachel Denhollander says this:

Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up…obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough. (emphasis mine)

Indeed. What it comes down to are questions like these: Are we willing to suffer the inevitable slowdown or even damaging our ministries in order to get this right? Are we willing to leave our idea of “success” on the altar in order to do justice by victims of abuse? What matters to us more? Institutional and personal advancement, or love expressed in a burning desire for justice, truth, and holiness?

Our willingness to do so is the measure of our faith. And it will determine the kind of witness that we put forth to the world.

Whether that witness be pure, whether it be a demonstration of the beauty and justice of God, his care for the weak and defenseless, or sadly marred by our many lusts–that is up to us.

Have we forgotten that the lust for immortality outside of obedience to God was what ruined our first parents? It is always the path to death. @theandrewarndt Click To Tweet
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