Abuse Prevention: Start Here

Abuse Prevention: Start Here October 8, 2018

From Christians for Biblical Equality

Abuse is an abstract concept for many people, and it’s a word heavy with cultural misconceptions. When talking about abuse, I’ve learned to bridge the communication gap by defining and describing it: abuse is a pattern of coercive control based in an abuser’s feeling of entitlement to power over another person. An abuser gains and maintains control through various tactics that can be physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, or spiritual. Abusers actually target churches to find victims and to move into positions of power, so church leaders must be prepared to prevent abuse, to deal with it in their congregations, and to provide healing for abuse survivors.

The first step in addressing abuse is to grasp how prevalent it is. Half of your church members have likely experienced abuse: child abuse, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, spiritual abuse in a religious organization. It’s not an issue “out there”—it’s an issue “in here.”

Prevent Abuse Before It Happens

1. Repeat your church’s clear stance on abuse.

When a church leadership team commits to fighting abuse, they should communicate this vision to the congregation. Mention it on the website and in volunteer handbooks. Hang signs in the women’s bathroom that give a confidential email address to contact a staff person if a woman feels unsafe in a relationship. Post signs outside the nursery that explain your policies for preventing child sexual abuse, such as screening volunteers and having two unrelated volunteers together at all times.

Preach about abuse in full sermons that focus on it, and also mention abuse as a related topic in other sermons. When teaching on marriage and relationships, always tell people that the advice does not apply to abusive relationships. Speaking openly about abuse warns abusers that they won’t find a secret place to take power over others in your church.

2. Screen staff and volunteers.

Do criminal background checks on all staff or, at a minimum, all volunteers who work with children and youth. These checks won’t always catch someone with a criminal past, but they may cause a potential predator to bypass your church. Also Google them extensively, and call all their references.

Ask nursery volunteers to go through child abuse prevention training. Send leaders of adult ministries through training about domestic violence and sexual abuse. This will help them see red flags in other volunteers, notice if abuse does occur, and may convince predators to walk away. G.R.A.C.E. is one organization that offers abuse prevention training (http://www.netgrace.org/how-we-help).

Require volunteers to sign a commitment to Christian living that details your expectations for them. Include specific statements about avoiding abusive behaviors.

3. Teach your congregation about equality and mutual submission.

Teach what Jesus taught: that we are not to lord authority over each other. Model mutual submission in the way you interact with other leaders and with church attenders. Don’t use the Bible or spiritual language to control them or gain power over them—that is spiritual abuse. Respect the relationship each person has with the Holy Spirit and don’t usurp that place in their lives. When you treat your congregation with love and honor, showing them how well they deserve to be treated, they will be less likely to accept abuse behavior from others.

Deal with Abuse in Your Church 

4. Believe victims when they tell you what is happening.

When a victim confides in you about abuse they have experienced in the past or present, believe them. Victims are much more likely to downplay or hide abuse than they are to embellish accounts. False testimony is incredibly rare in abuse cases. Your first response to a victim disclosing abuse must be, “I believe you.”

5. Immediately involve the proper authorities.

Do not keep abuse in-house and try to investigate it yourself. Abuse is a criminal matter, and it must be handled by the police. Many church leaders are mandatory reporters—make sure all staff members and volunteers know their responsibilities as mandatory reporters and the procedure they need to follow when they hear about abuse.

As soon as you get the victim to a safe place, child abuse and sexual assault information should always go directly to the police. Know the phone numbers of child protective services and any special victims units in your local police force.

Respect the autonomy of adult victims of intimate partner violence and allow them to make the decision about reporting abuse. Tell them that what their abuser is doing is criminal and offer to go with them to the police, but understand if they are not ready to do that yet. They may be afraid of losing their children, jeopardizing their financial support, being deported, or other major life challenges their abuser has threatened them with. Offer to work with them to create a safety plan that will get them ready to leave if that becomes necessary.

6. Remove abusers publicly from your church.

When a victim brings a charge against an abuser, immediately remove the accused from their position of ministry responsibility pending a criminal investigation. When an abuser refuses to repent and pursue serious long-term change, such as active participation in an abuser intervention program, remove them from your church. Make your church a safe place for victims to recover away from their abusers.

Provide Healing for Abuse Survivors

7. Train your leaders to understand abuse.

Begin by learning about abuse yourself. Read blogs and books by experts in various forms of abuse such as Diane Langberg, Lundy Bancroft, Julie Owens, and Mary DeMuth. Create training materials for your staff and ministry leaders to help them understand, spot, and respond to abuse, or use resources from experts. CBE is working on developing resources to help churches prevent abuse.

8. Prepare resources for survivors.

Research and list the local and national organizations that can help people who are escaping abuse as well as organizations that work with abusers to help them change. A few good places to start are with domestic violence shelters and hotlines, sexual abuse advocacy organizations, and counselors who offer abuse recovery therapy.

Earmark some of your church’s benevolence funds to help victims get away from their abusers and to pay for professional therapy as they recover.

Form a pastoral care team specially trained to lead survivors toward recovery from abuse. This shouldn’t take the place of licensed counselors, but it can be a helpful addition to meet survivors’ spiritual, emotional, and practical needs.

9. Ask survivors to share their testimonies.

Invite abuse survivors to publicly share their testimonies with your church. This helps the survivor see God’s hand in bringing them through, it gives others in the church who have not experienced abuse more empathy and understanding, it lets other victims know the church is safe and will help them, and it warns abusers that your church will not tolerate their sin. Protect the comfort and confidentiality of the survivors who share—for example, they may not want their story recorded and posted on your website.

As your church addresses abuse and becomes known as a safe place for abuse victims to heal, more and more survivors will come forward with their brokenness. God will make your church into a community that overflows with God’s comfort and freedom.

This article is primarily focused on addressing abuse of women and children in the church. However, men are also abused (and may even feel pressured not to report due to narrow gender roles and cultural ideas about what it means to be masculine). This is a critically important issue that also deserves attention


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  • Wes

    A lot of good points here. But #4 runs against clear biblical commands (1 Timothy 5:19, 2 Corinthians 13:1, Proverbs 18:17). I think we can adequately listen to and protect victims without presuming the guilt of the accused until an accusation is fully investigated and the church hears both sides. Likewise, immediately removing an accused from ministry on an accusation alone, without any due diligence, per #6 is imprudent.

  • Abuse Survivor

    Just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. Everything in it was excellent!

    BTW, in case you are reading this, Scot, I’m the child abuse survivor who has been in contact with the diocese to get clergy training on domestic violence. Thanks for stepping up to the plate with this CBE repost. I especially liked Becky’s mention of having the church set aside funds to help victims get away. The number one thing that kept my Mom and me from getting out sooner was that we didn’t think anyone would help us financially. (My Mom has an autoimmune disease.) We were mostly proven right when my father did finally abandon us. While individual Christians we knew could be helpful and kind, the church as a whole failed to provide a sure safety net. It was very scary to go through, to say the least. To this day, it almost makes me hesitant to this day to put money into the collection plate, because I always think it will be wasted on a better PA system or something that won’t help anybody with anything. I want to give money to help people, not to put on an entertainment production.

    God bless!

  • swbarnes2

    Why do you think you have to post this? Why haven’t Christians known all this for 2000 years through sincere prayer?

    You do that understand, the people who have Paige Patterson teaching ethics have no moral idea what you are talking about, and never will.

  • scotmcknight

    Thank you

  • Chad V

    Good points. Alleged victims should indeed be heard, their grievances taken very seriously, and an honest investigation conducted. But there are at least two parties to be considered and it is of supreme importance that the notion of due process and the presumption of innocence be respected. To do otherwise is reckless.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    what really makes me shake my head, is people dont know when they are being abusive. How can they when people who are christian believe they are worthless (thats abuse) without Jesus. From the get go, what you believe, makes you who you are. So, with that being said, good luck catching abuse among christians, because I wouldnt know where to begin, other than I hope people have the sense to do some self reflection before they pass judgements that may not be accurate.

  • I might actually disagree with your point about #6, depending on the situation and the nature of the accusation. If there is an allegation of sexual abuse, I think you launch the investigation immediately and put the accused on paid leave. If the accused minister is completely innocent, he or she doesn’t need this weighing upon him or her while actively ministering and serving. It would be unfair to ask the minister to carry out normal ministry and carry the weight of the seriousness of the situation (and the awful feeling of being falsely accused). If the investigation finds the accusation to be true, then it’s all the better that the minister had been removed right away. I think that fits within what #6 is suggesting. She is suggesting a leave during the investigation phase, and public removal after the investigation finishes.

  • Wes

    Removing the minister on the testimony of one accuser alone clearly runs against the oft-repeated rule that accusations are not to be made public until they are supported by two or three witnesses. The proposal in #6 violates Jesus’ commands in Matthew 18:15-17 and Paul’s in 1 Timothy 5:19. If anything, Paul’s teaching suggests we should treat accusations against elders with greater scepticism, likely because they are bigger targets for false accusations. I simply don’t see how #6 comports with biblical teachings.

  • I don’t think that putting someone on leave is the same thing as removal. I think it is simply the wise and fair thing to do. If the investigation acts with urgency, a person might only miss work for a few days. The very nature of abuse, particularly in the cases we are talking about in churches, is to generally happen behind closed doors, one-on-one. Abusers set up the situation so that if the victim were to make a complaint, they could either use their power to intimidate, or at the very least, leave the victim in a “he said, she said” situation. The only real, true witness is the victim. Literally, anyone else who might be a “witness” to the abuse is either someone by hearsay or seeing something circumstantially (e.g. the abuser was in building at the time of the allegation). I’m not sure 1 Timothy 5 applies to a situation like this because of the very nature of the abuse; otherwise, an elder board wouldn’t even consider hearing the allegation until the victim either can produce another witness, or another victim comes forward with a similar story. This process is exactly how women have been silenced over the years. All #6 seems to be suggesting is that an investigation happens, and put the accused on leave until the investigation is closed.

  • Wes

    Well, I guess we just have differing views on the authority of scripture in this area.

  • KJH

    Great article!

  • Elca

    Yes it is good to point out abuse. But it seems many women do not see the misuse of their tongue as abuse.
    But it is….
    When will i read about the way women used her tongue to abuse and disrespect the men in their lives?

  • Kirk T.

    In the first paragraph, the author lists verbal abuse as one of the ways that abusive people gain coercive control over another person. This applies to abusive people of all genders, not just one.

  • Elca

    But the last paragraph but into focus who she is speaking of…
    quote,“This article is primarily focused on addressing abuse of women and children in the church. “
    Have you ever read an article about how women use their tongues and disrespectful behavior to abuse men? Can you share a link?

  • Jason Carle

    A woman writes a timely and topical article about current events, about a topic currently on everyones mind and the first comment is… But what about the women who abuse men???

    Come on now, the differences in numbers between the two have got to be staggeringly large, we live in a patriarchal society. Sure, if you’re a man and you feel you are being abused by your spouse, speak up, but don’t cry because someone wrote an article about the way our society treats women who are being, or have been, abused.

  • Jason Carle

    I don’t believe I am worthless…

  • Jason Carle

    oh yeah, why bother, it’s totally not happening… Come on, Jesus said so, so it never happens… pppfffttt, silly woman.

    /sarcasm

  • Elca

    You are missing the point. Abuse by the tongue is commonplace in this society, a feminist-driven society. But we are NOT talking about it, because, women are the ones doing the abuse.
    The irony in you telling me to ” speak up” is exactly what the #metoo movement is about.
    Women weren’t speaking up and now that I am speaking up, you seek to silence me. Why?
    Because I am a man? or because women are incapable of that kind of abuse, thus making me and others to be LIARS?

    I would give a hearing to any woman who says she has been abused and will apply the ” Innocent till proven guilty ” rule.
    But I will investigate it thoroughly. And if she was found Lying, I will tell her she was Lying.

  • gingoro

    I was abused in residential school and by far the worse abusers were female.

  • gingoro

    My wife and I were willing to occasionally volunteer for nursery duty but it turns out that to be eligible one needs to go thru the whole vetting process in the church abuse policy including police reports. We simply gave up as we do not see that as our primary ministries.

  • scotmcknight

    These are not the only texts, and they are not adequate to cover all situations. When there is no witnesses we turn first to Deut 22:25-27.

  • scotmcknight

    We can listen to and protect and not presume guilt and we can investigate, but one on one situations are to be investigated carefully, and Deut 22:25-27 must be consulted.

  • Scot, I wonder why you don’t start back at verse 23? It seems to me that this is an important factor.

    I’m fully aware of the reasons why victims don’t “scream for help”, shock and disbelief (that the perpetrator would do this!) and fear (of what others would think and how the one in power would bring more suffering, through gossip — which is the scourge of the church, IMO) at the top, followed with shame (as in “how did I let myself get into this situation?”)…. Yes, it’s a complex and deep-rooted problem. Justice and mercy require humble discernment.

  • Wes

    I agree we can investigate without presuming guilt, but we can do that without removing someone from their position based on a sole, uncorroberated accusation and believing accusers before any investigation has taken place, as is proposed in items 4 and 6 here.

  • CNObserver

    The Bible chapter that really applies here is Romans 13. Abuse allegations are the domain of the civil authorities to investigate — that’s why God put them there. And if the accused person turns out to be guilty, removing them from their position will protect other people in the church from being abused. Don’t Christians want that? Secular workplaces (such as schools and major corporations) suspend people accused of abuse all the time. Why shouldn’t churches? (I say all of this as an abuse survivor whose abuser died long before I ever told anyone. Thankfully, everyone I’ve told has believed me.)