Stop the Abuse! Recognizing and Preventing Abuse in the Church

Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Two out of three times,  the crime is committed by a friend or family member. 44% of the victims are under age 18. Over 6 million American children were claimed as victims of child abuse last year. One in four women faces physical abuse from her partner. Even though these are just statistics, these numbers indicate an abhorrent level of life-destroying sin.

The tragedy is, the church is sometimes part of the problem.

An Abusive Church?

There has been plenty of media coverage regarding sex scandals in church. Whether a Catholic priest, an evangelical leader, or a Fundamentalist preacher, we’ve all heard about the big fall and the ugly fallout from someone’s sin. We hear far less about what goes on far more — an angry father beating his wife, a live-in partner raping his girlfriend, a demented dad sexually abusing his children, and a sickening list of other atrocities.

Christian Ministry Resources (CMR) reports that they will receive reports of child-abuse at a pace of ten every day! The most disturbing aspect of this number is that each of these are allegations of crimes committed by church staff or volunteers. Most likely, these numbers are simply the tip of the iceberg since the vast majority of child abuse victims remain silent.

Thank God, there are churches actively involved in rejecting this sin and rooting it out. Thank God, there are assemblies with a passion for purity and a mission of justice. Thank God, not every church is a place of coverup and abuse. Nonetheless, we’re facing a problem of epic proportions.

Whether we believe the statistics or not, we must own up to the fact that it is likely that this sin is lurking within the walls of our church, or within the homes of people who attend your church. At the very least, we must recognize this malady, and do something about it.

Call It What It Is

There are all kinds of names for what goes on. Sex abuse. Physical abuse. Sexual assault. Child abuse. Domestic violence. Sexual misconduct. Spouse abuse. Incest. God has a name for all of it.


It is all  flat-out sin. Disturbingly, such sin is 1) often kept secret by both abuser and victim, 2) is life-destroying, and 3) is desperately difficult to deal with. Nonetheless, calling it by its raw, punchy, biblical term is one way of seeing it through God’s eyes. It can be forgiven, but it is still sin.

This Should Make You Angry

God designed the church and family as a place of refuge, nurturing, redemption, and protection. Tragically, these are the very places where children are victimized and lives are wrecked. Children live with the scars of their abuse for a lifetime. Abused spouses live in paralyzing fear — joyless, and afraid of the next session of abusiveness. They are afraid to ask for help for fear of being found out, and the repercussions that could arise. Abused children, often suffering at the hands of family members, have nowhere to turn.

In one family, an abusive man regularly beat his wife and children. The family members were afraid to seek help, knowing that if their father found out, his violence against them would reach extreme measures. Finally, after several years of abuse, the mother went to her pastor for help. Fearing the backlash of the angry man and the disruption that he would create in the church, the pastor did nothing. Nothing. The abusiveness went on and on. The man’s sin grew more and more intense. Finally, the woman sought protection from another source.

It is likely that this story has been repeated in countless churches across the country. It’s probably being repeated right now.

Justice is Mercy

Although the church is a place where sinners can find mercy and healing, it ought not be a place of permissiveness and coverups. Bringing justice to bear upon criminals is not harsh or judgmental. It is merciful. By allowing an abuser to continue abusing, you are a complicit partner in his sin. Justice for the abuser is mercy for the victims. The church is a place where both justice and mercy should be held forth.

How to Stop the Abuse

If you’re willing to allow abuse to continue unabated within your church and within the lives of your churchgoers, do nothing. If, however, you want to pursue justice and mercy, consider the following:

  • Implement policies in your church and enforce them. Nothing says “we care” better than actually doing something about it. If your church wants to be a place of healing and refuge, be tough about your screening policies and background checks for people who work with children.
  • Disciple the men in your congregation. 99% of the abusers are men. Take an active role in holding accountability and discipleship programs for men. Potential abusers shouldn’t be kicked and spat upon. They should be lovingly discipled before abuse has a chance to take place.
  • Encourage the victims to speak up. Church should be a safe place. As much as possible, assure your people, even children, that they can confidentially confide in a pastor or counselor. Things will get messy, but things will also get better.
  • Actively pursue counseling with families who are experiencing abusive situations. Nearly all marriages and families where abuse has occurred require counseling. Problems aren’t corrected in a day. A mere slap on the hand or single counseling session can’t reverse the tragedy of years of abuse. Counsel the victims and/or abusers, or seek professional help for them.
  • Report. For some reason, many Christians are hesitant to report abuse situations to the authorities. There might be occasions when outside organizations have done more harm than good. However, in the majority of cases, such organizations are equipped to deal with abuse situations and put a stop to them. Often, civil authorities will do the very thing that needs to be done — place the criminal in jail. As mentioned above, justice is mercy in this situation. By reporting the crimes, you are pursuing justice and creating an environment of healing for those who desperately need it.

Stop at nothing to protect the weak and defenseless. Scripture tells us, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3). As Christians, we have a divine mandate to oppose abuse in every way we can. Let us pursue justice with passion and energy. Let us show God’s mercy to those in need.

Let’s stop the abuse.

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  • Reply Eric P Davis August 21, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Excellent article, really appreciate it. Often those that are abused think of themselves as outcasts if the marriage falls apart even thought they have been sinned against by the person that was supposed to provide and protect. As churches and pastors we need to think more for our flock and what Jesus thinks that what other pastors may think. God bless!

  • Reply Elizabeth Pringle August 21, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Ah, the elephant in the home, the church, the workplace, next door, so familiar a figure yet still we fear that beast. This is a great article. Abuse, the abnormal use of a human being isn’t going anywhere. What stops us speaking up? Fear of being mistaken is understandable because of the havoc caused by bringing abuse to light, right or wrong. What can we do about that? Fear of seeing someone we love shamed and imprisoned would seem to be the most prevalent reason so we hide and hope it will go away. How do we get help for that, the fear of being outside the city walls, alone and loathed, after the axe falls? I have no answer. Does anyone? Until we can find real ways to assist the victim to find the courage to tell and the strength and will to live a whole life afterwards we will not even dent that beast. The darkness has it covered. Thanks for being a voice in the wilderness of unwarranted, wicked human suffering.

  • Reply Charlene August 21, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    How timely. This subject has recently come up in conversations with some friends, and I was hoping to present the possibility of making some new church policies about this very thing. I will use this article as a resource about why this should be done. Are there templates anywhere or example policies I could see to use when crafting new church policies? I would like to see what kind of language or terminology one would use to make a policy and also what aspects should be covered. Thanks for your coverage over this extremely sad, but important topic!

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