I saw a very sad comment on twitter the other day. The comment was that the person would never refer an abuse victim to a church to seek help. They didn’t say it to gloat or to condemn. Rather, they said that it made them sad/angry to say this.
Now, the deeply sad thing about this is that if the abuse victim cannot find help, refuge, safety, hope in church, then where will they truly find it? After all the one source of refuge, help and hope is Christ and we should be the ones able to offer him.
I want to suggest that if we are ever going to reach the stage where people can confidently refer the victims to us, then some things will need to change. Here are a few. I’m sure this list does not count as exhaustive.
1. We are going to have to learn that part of our Gospel responsibility means challenging the bullies and abusers. This means that as much as we don’t like confrontation, we have to be prepared for it.
2. We are going to have to recognise that bullies and abusers often present themselves as active, charismatic, charming people and that too often we like to be around and in the company of active, charismatic charming people because they make us feel popular and good about ourselves.
3. We are going to have to stop excusing behaviour as “oh so and so is just like that…”
4. We will need to learn that bullies and abusers can always find people who will support them. The racist will find the right sort of foreigners who don’t have a problem with them. The sexist will always find women they can charm and get them to affirm them. As well as being charismatic and charming they are highly manipulative and they happily abuse the good will of others.
5. We are going to have get serious about our doctrine of sin. The whole idea that “so and so could not possible do such and such” is too prevalent even in churches that are meant to understand doctrines including Total Depravity and the sense that we can be simultaneously saint and sinner.
6. We will need to get away from a simplistic/superstitious concept of forgiveness and regeneration where the person magically escapes from the hold that habitual sin has on them. We need a doctrine of sin and forgiveness that includes the need for ongoing mortification of sin in the believer’s life. We will need to recognise that restoration does not exclude ongoing consequences as a believer allows body discipline to be exercised.
7. We will need to take safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults seriously. We must not see our policies and procedures as interfering bureaucracy but as a means to honour God and to love others.
8. We need to be prepared for messy stories and recognise the possibility that these might change partly because victims learn to hide and cover up the truth because they learn not to trust and learn that sharing the truth often leads to them being vulnerable and disbelieved.
9. We need to escape a shallow and superstitious understanding of healing and restoration and recover a proper doctrine of now and not yet. This means that we need to have a proper theology of suffering. We can grasp that suffering related to physical health can be chronic, ongoing and even lifelong. Do we get that when it comes to emotional health? We need to run away from caricatures of Biblical counselling which see emotional health issues as always down to the sin of the sufferer. People are sinners and sinned against.
10. We need to escape from the “need to know” everything.
11. We need to remember that we are not saviours. There is one saviour. Churches must not be places where sufferers become dependent on others or where we find our worth and value in saving others.
12. We need to grasp the wonderful doctrine of future grace and eternal hope and really dig deep into what that means
13. We need to truly respect confidentiality and escape church cultures where everyone needs to know everything.
14. This also means that we need to learn to work together at body ministry. Too often churches resemble the school boy football game where everyone chases the same ball leaving wide open spaces on the pitch. Everyone chases after the one pastoral issue often rugby tackling each other off the ball and leaving other urgent matters unattended to.
15. We need to stop trying to own other peoples’ stories. This means that neither the abuser who repents nor the victim who finds healing is there to supply us with a testimony to use on our platform.
As I said, this list is by no means exhaustive and I’m sure others will have things to add and clarify. But hopefully it is a start of sorts.
Postscript: Duncan Forbes has provided me with this link to a talk he gave on church and helping people suffering from trauma and PTSD