Sexual Abuse In The Church

As a Christian psychologist, I can say, that if sexual abuse were suddenly eliminated from our culture, eventually, a great number of people would not be in need of my services. The tentacles of sexual abuse reach into every pore of a victim’s life, and wounds profoundly. Abusers, particularly pastor/leaders in the church, sadly, crush the sense of trust that their positions afford them. The damage to relationships, and often even to one’s sense of God can be profoundly harmed. That is why, as scripture says, “to whom much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48). Leaders, and truly anyone in a place of authority, must be held to the highest standard, because they have the greatest potential for harm.

Women Are The Weaker Sex

Starting with this provocative statement, taken from 1 Peter 3:7, where it reads “Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”, let’s unpack this from the perspective of sexual abuse in the church. This concept has been distorted in the church to support a bias towards male superiority.

First of all, the concept of weakness is true only in a very narrow sense of the definition of strength. Every research conclusion on the differences between males and females establishes that men are, on the average, physically stronger than women, both in muscle mass and the capacity to lift heavy objects. It is true that some women are physically stronger than some men, so the statement does not hold true in every situation. But taken as a general rule, men are stronger physically than women.

In truth, women can be considered stronger in a number of areas reported by research. They generally live longer, have superior relational abilities, may have stronger immune systems, and have lower levels of dependency on substances for emotional coping. There are other indices of women’s relative superior strength to men but these are sufficient to establish the point. The point is that men and women are equal in value with relative strengths and weaknesses.

There is another critical difference between men and women that reflects an aspect of women being weaker, and that is in their sexual physiology. Actually, it is not helpful to call this a weakness, but rather a dependency. What is meant by this? The female body has a complex set of conditions that must be met in order for the sexual experience to be pleasurable and satisfying. Women are dependent upon a relational sense of safety to be present, in order for the process of arousal and preparation for sex to occur.

Think about this. The whole sexual experience is perceived as critically different for a man versus a women. A man, fueled by testosterone and a more aggressive drive sexually, can perform (at least when they are younger and in the early stages of a relationship), no matter the emotional climate of the couples togetherness. Men are more aggressive. They penetrate. They can have sex even when angry.

Women are more vulnerable. They receive the physical process sexually from the man. So in this complex respect, women are more dependent on conditions being met than are men. Women are dependent upon a sense of safety to allow their body to prepare itself for the receiving of the man, and for sexual pleasure to occur.

Over time, if a man does not respect and respond to the conditions necessary for a woman to experience sex in a pleasurable way, the result is that the woman’s capacity to respond shuts down. Instead of pleasure, they experience discomfort and even pain. Distorted notions of scripture that focus on a woman’s obligation to satisfy their husband, have resulted in years of unpleasant sex for women, and that eventually diminishes their desire for physical intimacy. In a less understood sense, this is a form of sexual abuse. Women’s bodies must have the preconditions met for pleasure to be experienced. This is a reality that every man must understand or he will sabotage his own sex life. This is why the common relationship complaint follows the pattern that women want emotional intimacy while men push for physical intimacy.

Men often feel like they are being held hostage when their wives pull back from sexual involvement because they are asking for more emotional intimacy. Men do not realize that women are not doing this to manipulate men, but rather because this is just the way that God designed the complimentary physical complexity of sexuality. Emotional intimacy or connection assures the women that they are safe, needed, valued, and in a relationship with a man who deeply respects and values their unique physical reality. Only then does the woman’s body naturally relax and go through the necessary physiologic process that prepares them for pleasurable sex. Here is an analogy. Would anyone want a person to come into their house if that person is angry and demanding? Of course not. But a woman’s body is that house.

It is with these above considerations that the aforementioned I Peter 3:7 text must be understood. Weaker has nothing to do with equality. It is clear that both the men and women are joint heirs to the life of the Kingdom. The admonition to men is that, because of these clear differences in strength and physical dependency, they must respectfully adjust (submit) their aggressive tendencies to the unique physical reality that women experience. It seems clear that Ephesians 5:28, which challenges men to love their wives as their own bodies, emphasizes that if a man loves his wife in a sacrificial way he, in effect, loves himself. This is certainly true in the sexual arena, because if a man aggressively seeks to force his wife to submit to his sexual demands, over time, he is sabotaging his own ability to have a satisfying sexual life.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs whenever there is a disparity of power between any two parties. It happens when one party, who demands sexual gratification, uses his or her power to intrusively force their sexual needs onto the party with less power. Sexual abuse occurs on a spectrum, from most aggressive to least aggressive. It is always a violation of the dignity and right to safety that all human beings possess as made in the image of God.

Rape is at the farthest extreme of aggressive sexual abuse, in that it completely exploits the physical disparity of power to force the second party to submit to painful penetration. This is mostly a phenomenon that women experience, although men can get raped in prison, or as boys with bigger men, or even by older women. But it is by far experienced more frequently by women than men. And the rape of a women combines the two levels of weakness described above, physical dominance and dependence for sexual pleasure. When a man rapes a women, he is overpowering her physically and totally disregarding her physiology. The rapist forces a woman to receive penetration when she is unprepared and frozen in fear. This results in deep and pervasive pain, which has life- long consequences.

At the other end of the spectrum are the less violent forms of sexual abuse. Any unwanted touch, being forced to watch something sexual in an extremely uncomfortable way, rubbing body parts, and having to listen to sexual words directed at the victims, are all abusive because they are unwelcomed. The common denominator in all of this is the abuse of power by one person over another. Between these two extremes are a whole array of intrusive sexual behaviors that force the giving in of the victim to the aggressive demands of the perpetrator.

A woman that says “no !” is signally that any sexual behavior is a violation of her sacred right to safety and self-protection. When abuse of power invades a woman’s world, their interior experience goes from one of trust, to one of vulnerability. The story of countless victims of sexual abuse is that of a fundamental shift in perception of the world. They go from joy and openness to risk, to fear and self-protection. Abusers essentially steal the life from a victim simply to satisfy their selfish desires. The candle of life often dies and a sense of darkness takes over. Life in all of its’ fullness gets extinguished.

There is, of course, another way that abuse of power manifests itself in a sexual way, and that is when an aggressive man (or women, though much less frequent) uses their position of power or authority to force a sexual abuse victim to comply with sexual demands due to a threat of dire consequences, such as being fired.

The Church And Sexual Abuse

The church, in a sense, creates the perfect storm of abuse potential. It has, over much of its’ history, elevated the value of men over women. The vast majority of its’ leaders have been men. It has perpetuated a biblical myth that women must submit to men, not only in terms of decision-making, but in sex. So many Christian women have been immersed in this culture of male privilege, that, at some deep, probably unconscious level, leaves them operating with a sense of false guilt around the idea of giving in to a man.

Leadership is often the arena in which abuse of power exists. Why does the church focus so much on leaders? Why is there so little focus on the followers? Even though the church ostensibly holds to the plurality of gifts, none of which are more important than another, the leadership gifts seem to be treated as if they have an elite status and worthy of endless conferences. There appears to be a spiritual caste system in the church, placing leaders above and everyone else beneath. And leaders in the church are disproportionately male.

Elitism Unchecked

Research indicates that the people who gravitate to leadership are often those with inherent narcissistic characteristics. One study showed that almost 40% of ministers show high levels of narcissistic traits. Here is a critical question for the church. Do we want narcissistic and entitled people to be our leaders? Narcissists both push themselves forward and are affirmed in the leadership arena. But the core of narcissism is entitlement, which is the essential component operating in the abuse of power leading to sexual abuse. It has become painfully clear, in looking at Willow Creek and Bill Hybels ,that this leadership elitism has gone on unchecked, and the church is paying the price for its’ existence.

Privilege And Entitlement

So, when there is a coalescence of physical power, positional power, and vulnerability on the part of a multitude of people, abuse potential is high. Male privilege has been discussed recently, due to the #MeToo movement . Male privilege is the notion that, because a man may have superior strength or position, they are entitled to exercise this imbalance in a self-gratifying way. Men in general, and particularly in the church, need to do a self-examination on their underlying sense of privilege. Every man who demands that his wife respond to his sexual needs, no matter the wounding impact on the women, is operating with a sense of male privilege.

It is important to recognize that Jesus, though He was God, divested Himself of His privileges, and became a servant (read Philippians 2) . It seems clear that the true vetting of leadership qualifications in the church, must be done around the characteristic of humility. Men generally chafe against this quality, because they have been socialized around competition and aggressive achievement. Truly strong men are characterized by confident humility, whereby they have enough self-worth to set aside their privilege (modeled after Christ) in the interest of loving their partner. Humility is the foundation of how every man, operating with a sense of male privilege, must bring his body under submission to his sexual aggressiveness. That is how he can live with his wife in a manner worthy of their being joint heirs of the Kingdom of God. Might does not make right in God’s Kingdom.

In sum, the church and a distorted Christian understanding of male domination and leadership, has created the fertile ground for sexual abuse of women.

The Epidemic of Sexual Abuse

This time in our civilization has been characterized as the most sexually preoccupied generation. Sex permeates every pore of our existence, from marketing, to internet pornography. The general cultural presumption is one of entitlement. Everyone believes that they are entitled to feel good and to not have to respect limits. The combination of this hyper-sexual focus, with a power imbalance in favor of men, has led to a proliferation of sexual abuse. The church itself is riddled with both sexual abuse and sexual addiction. Pornography, which fuels this hyper-sexual focus, is rampant among men in the church. Studies have shown that many male pastors are secretly indulging in pornography, while trying to maintain a public persona of righteousness. The Catholic church has now clearly been shown to harbor and protect priests who sexually abuse vulnerable boys and girls. When abuse occurs from someone who we place trust in, the foundations of one’s sense of confidence becomes eroded. It cannot be over-emphasized that abusers trade their short term gratification for the life long pain and suffering that victims must endure.

The church is a prime hunting ground for abusers. Women, who often put their trust in male leadership, are vulnerable to the advances of a male leader. It is so clear that this dynamic of vulnerability, coupled with power and privilege, makes the church a hot bed for abuse. The stories that have come out about the victims of Bill Hybels have followed this vulnerability differential. He was elevated as this god-like leader, who was imbued with power and privilege. He had a number of female employees who should have been able to operate with a sense of trust and safety and, instead, experienced the intrusion of his sexual advances. This experience leaves a vulnerable person exposed to an often life-long sense of fear.

The Interior World of The Sexual Abuse Survivor

So what is the big deal? Sexual abuse is one of the most devastating traumas that an individual can experience. To fully understand sexual abuse one must have endured its’ ordeal. Over the years, while having listened to countless stories of sexual abuse, I have been able to distill the common themes and symptoms. To keep it less complex, the female experience will be focused on. The interior world of a women (or girl) experiencing sexual abuse is dark and murky and filled with tremendous terror. Trauma theory explains the basic dynamics of the abused victim.

The abuser, who holds all the power, confronts the victim with demands for sexual gratification. Again, understanding female sexuality, her body is unprepared to respond in any pleasurable way. Instead, since this is an unsolicited and unwelcome intrusion into the world of the female, her body reacts in a classic “fight or flight” pattern. She experiences an internal sense of terror, but, because of the power differential, she is a captive prisoner of the abuser. Her body goes into a freeze pattern, where she is stuck in terror without a means of escape.

For many abuse victims, the only way of exiting the trauma of the situation is to disassociate one’s mind from awareness of the terrifying pain. The brain, in a sense, protects the woman from the immediate intensity of the experience by detaching and floating away. But the brain registers this whole experience as a terror-based memory, with all the frozen coping behaviors associated with survival. Trauma experts call this an incomplete resolution to the “fight or flight” response.

The belief that gets implanted, coupled with the physical terror, is that escape is impossible. Normally, when people can respond to a traumatic event by doing something, such as running away, the impact of the trauma is lessened. But with sexual abuse, the terror is linked to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and gets frozen and imprinted in the brain as a pattern.

This core belief in helplessness is why so many victims experience multiple episodes of sexual abuse. They are stuck with the notion that they cannot stop the aggressive intrusion of an abbuser.

The Cost Of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse trauma changes a woman who, before abuse, may have been trusting, and optimistic, to a person who feels a general sense of vulnerability. The victim may have felt confident and competent, but after abuse, the residual experience is one of vigilant oversensitivity to the possibility of further abuse.

Men in general may become triggers to trauma. Women who marry often experience physical intimacy as a re-creation of the components of the original trauma. This is because the normal sexual experience contains components that remind the victim of aspects of the original abuse event. Things like a man’s body being on top of a woman can replicate elements of the sense of being overpowered or suffocated, which occured in the original abuse. This triggers the original “fight or flight” coping pattern, even though this current man is not abusive.

Husbands often react by getting angry and personalizing the trauma-based reactions of their wives as rejection. Men tend to understand sexual abuse from a male sexuality perspective, and minimize abuse as something that should not be that difficult to move beyond. But a pervasive sense of powerlessness and helplessness form the internal world of victims, who may be more susceptible to further abuse because of a sense of their own inability to form boundaries around intrusive abusers. From the perspective of the victim, they are regressing to an experience of terror and desperately seeking escape.

Every woman is unique and has different coping abilities. There is no absolute prediction of outcome to abuse. The younger the person abused, the more pervasive the damage of abuse. Children are far more vulnerable and powerless to stop perpetrators. They form a more generalized and rigid sense of their own vulnerability to harm. They often live in a protective world where they must try to stay safe. These experiences form the core of a life-long pattern of depression, eating disorders, chronic anxiety, and substance abuse, a hyper-focus on control, among a whole host of other symptoms. They often have a life-long pattern of either developing the extremes of hypersexuality or a complete lack of desire for sex. Symptoms can be relatively mild to debilitating.

The Toxicity Of Sexual Abuse In The Church

Most people who sit under the teaching of the church listen to the scriptures and hear consistent teaching about love and respectful treatment of each other, modelled after Christ. They, therefore, form a presumption that the world of Christianity, and the church specifically, should be a safe sanctuary from the threat of abuse. This high expectation and idealization make it particularly damaging and traumatic when a person of authority, such as a pastor, acts contradictory to the assumptions about love and respect. When this kind of person suddenly, invasively, pushes for sexual gratification, the whole world of trust is disrupted, and catastrophic fear and distrust occupy the minds of the victim.

This had to be the experience of every female victim of Bill Hybels in the Willow Creek situation. This man, this leader, this authority figure, this teacher of the ways of Christ, suddenly ruptured the veil, intruded in a way that was so disorienting and violating, and left them in the wake of his self-gratification demands. Then, coupled with a myriad of influences, they may have felt confused, and fearful of sharing their experience.

Abusers often are what we call “crazy makers”, who, by their behaviors, get victims to question themselves. “Did I act in a flirtatious way, did I just distort reality and misinterpret the intent of the perpetrator, did this really happen?”. This is because, at some level, they do not want to believe that this revered person could have done such a thing. Perpetrators, like BH, try to get victims to question their reality, and can explain away any challenge to their behavior by implicating the motivation of the victim. He might say “ they felt scorned by me and so needed to lie about what I did, or they actually came onto me and are now turning it around, or I did not give them the promotion that they wanted and so they are retaliating, etc.”. And since perpetrators have a lot of narcissistic traits, they may well compartmentalize and believe their own lies. Blame the victims.

Sexual abusers keep their victims captive to silence, and the crushing sense of shame that this creates. The victim is told that exposing the abuse will result in horrible consequences. They are told that no one would believe them and they will be humiliated. All strategies to silence the voice of a victim result in an often life long pattern of shame and fear and deep isolation. It is only when the truth comes out, and the comfort and acceptance of others is experienced), that the trance is broken, and the victim can begin to heal. Children, particularly, tend to blame themselves, and this intensifies their tendency to suffer in silence.

The cost to survivors is hard to calculate. The way that their world is shifted from that of trust and carefree feelings to angst, anger, and depression is beyond destructive. Sexual abuse perpetrators inflict pain and then insulate themselves from the devastation that their behavior inflicts on victims. It is like they drive a motor boat through a series of swimmers, leave them in their wake, flailing in pain, and then speed off (sail off) and minimize their awareness of the pain they have inflicted. It fundamentally takes a pathological lack of empathy to abuse someone. People of conscience, who know of the life-long devastation that sexual abuse inflicts on a victim, could not do such a horrific thing. But narcissists and sociopaths can, because they rationalize that their needs are more important than the needs of a victim.

The Church’s Responsibility To The Victims

When an abuser operates within the confines of the church, and that abuser has clear characteristics that are in line with how an abuser acts (narcissistic entitlement), and when that church does not confront that leader/abuser, out of fear of his power, the church itself becomes an enabler to that abuse, and should both confess its’ guilt and should compensate the victims. We see this in the Catholic Church, as multiple millions of dollars have been paid out to victims. Priests were moved and hidden, sent to new hunting grounds for abuse. The church enabled the predatory behaviors of priests.

The church should compensate victims, because sexual abuse victims almost invariably need intense professional help to move out of their trauma-influenced struggles, and into healing. Should a victim have to pay for the help they get? No! The church should accept that the pain that they allowed to be inflicted is costly, and the victim should not have to bear the burden of getting help. When the church does this it is seriously taking ownership for its’ culpability in the genesis of pain suffered by the victims. In the legal field, payments can be ordered to compensate for pain and suffering.

Why Has Sexual Abuse Become So Rampant, Even In The Church?

This moves me to my conclusions and to my pet peeve. The church has followed the disintegration of the culture, in moving to isolation and lack of true healing connections. For multiple generations men, going back to ancient times, were mentored by older men who taught them the ways of healthy manhood. Included in this were rituals that taught boys to bring their aggression and sexual intensity under control. The elders of the community knew, that if younger male sexuality went unchecked, the village would be unsafe.

Men were taught that women were sacred and worthy of being honored and treated with deep respect and protection. Boys or young men who acted inappropriately were held to account by men in the community. Elder men knew that boys and young men who were free to roam and pillage sexually would destroy the community of trust. Boys and young men were taught to learn to endure suffering, bring their bodies under subjection to self-control, and to focus on the greater good of the community. All expressions of entitlement were quickly confronted and stopped, so that trust could be experienced by all. There was a formal and understandable process by which men moved from boyhood to manhood. It was call the initiation process.

In the current culture, all of these containment structures have collapsed. When I developed a program at Willow Creek called “Passage To Manhood”, which attempted to restore the process of wisdom transmission, it was not supported because it was a “low incidence program”. In other words, it did not have the appeal necessary to push it forward and have it championed. It is my contention, that the church’s lack of focus on this vital need of men, is a contributing factor in the out of control sexual abuse of women.

I believe that boys, young men, and elder men, need to cross fertilize information about what a healthy and wise man looks like. The church has followed the pattern of separation and isolation and has disconnected adolescents from their elder men. If we do not learn to reintegrate men from every generational level, we will not contain them, and so will not reduce the potential for ongoing abuse.

As Christians, we believe that nature reflects elements of truth that God seeks to teach us. We call it natural theology. The heavens, for instance, declare the glory of God (Psalms 19:1). An interesting phenomenon in nature, that supports the absolute importance of the integration of young with older men, is a story from Africa. A nature preserve had only young male elephants who went into what is called musth, which can be conceived as similar to an adolescent male going through puberty. Their sexual hormones were raging. These young male elephants were pillaging, killing, and raping the other animals on the preserve. They had intense sexual energy, but no containment, and no older male elephants as role models. The solution was to place bull elephants with these young males. These older males contained the sexual energy of the younger elephants and created a safe environment for the female elephants and other animals. Here is a clip that shows this phenomenon.

In the church, if we do not integrate sexually healthy men with younger men, we are leaving our women in an environment that is unsafe. Pastors can be predators. Youth pastors are often the most susceptible because of their close association with young females. Often these leaders have not been initiated into the ways of healthy, sexually controlled, manhood. They often live in isolation with their sexual struggles. We idealize them and isolate them, which is the fertile soil for sexual acting out. Men in general have not been brought into the fold of manhood, where their sexual struggles can come under the accountability of wise men. Until men of faith return to the ways that God ordained, living in a community of transparency and accountability, the horror and lasting impact of sexual abuse will continue.

2 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse In The Church

  1. I am very very grateful for your explanation of women’s sexual response and needs. You are the first ever Christian man I have read who affirmed something I knew in my heart, but couldn’t explain.
    One thing I wanted to say and I hope you don’t mind: You refer to previous generations having older male mentors who taught them to honor women. I am sure this is true, but I also believe previous generations were not always fair nor honorable to women–no ability to vote, own property, educate themselves, etc. I get tired of being seen as “other” so much–it makes me feel like an alien, even when it is supposedly honoring.

    1. I completely agree that many men of earlier generations exerted a sense of Male privilege. It was men who really got it that understood the Biblical admonition to treat women equally and with respect.

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