News reports are filled with stories and analysis about Josh Duggar, the reality television star-turned-conservative activist, who is alleged to have committed sexually abusive acts against young girls when he was a teenager. Duggar has admitted that he “acted inexcusably” and has resigned from his position at a pro-family political organization. Meanwhile, TLC network has reportedly pulled the Duggar family reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, from the air while they determine the future of the show. This is after TLC cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo because the show’s mother, “Mama June” is dating a registered sex offender. The controversy here is, sadly, yet another reminder to the church of our responsibility to be a witness for justice and righteousness on the issue of sexual abuse.
I’m not interested in litigating the specifics of this case—the civil authorities and the relevant employers are now alerted to the situation. I’m more concerned that we see that this story is one more in what has been an endless cycle of stories of sexual abuse in “churched” contexts. We cannot assume that we can avoid this topic simply by making sure our doctrines are right, our values conservative, and our people sheltered from the world. If we are not addressing this issue, it is only because we are ignoring what is going on in our communities, and all too often in our pews. This requires that churches come with conviction to this question preemptively, before any specific situation arises, with a word from God.
The first step is to recognize that sexual abuse is not merely sexual immorality. Sexual immorality, any sexual contact outside the bounds of covenantal marriage, is sin and comes under the just condemnation of God’s law. Immorality is a matter of a sin against God and, usually, sin against others—a spouse, the other party, and so forth. Immorality, by itself, is dealt with in terms of a call to repentance and the sort of discipleship it takes to overcome sinful patterns by the power of the Spirit and, where possible, to restore broken relationships.
Sexual abuse is immoral, but it is far more than just sexual. Sexual abuse is an act of violence, in which one leverages power to sexually violate the helpless. The resulting aftermath is not just a guilty conscience awaiting judgment on the part of the perpetrator, but a victim who has been assaulted. Sexual abuse is not just a sin but also a crime, not just a matter of personal unrighteousness on the part of the perpetrator but also a matter of public injustice.
This means that sexual abuse in the context of the church must be handled in terms of both authorities responsible—both the church and the state. The state has been given the sword of justice to wield against those who commit crimes (Rom. 13:1-7). The church has no such sword (Matt. 26:51-53). This means that the immediate response to allegations of sexual abuse is to call the civil authorities, to render unto Caesar the responsibility that belongs to Caesar to investigate the crime. The church may or may not know the truth of the allegations, but it is the God-ordained prerogative of the civil authorities to discover such matters and to prosecute accordingly. When faced with a question of potential sexual abuse, call the authorities without delay.
The church’s role is not to replace the police power of the state, but to deal with the spiritual issues involved. Excommunication is no replacement for incarceration. The sins and crimes here involve two different spheres, and both should be engaged in stopping such. If an offender is a member of a congregation, the church must investigate the situation and follow through with biblical discipline but this does not replace the responsibility to alert the civil authorities. The church can speak to the soul of the offender and to the outside world about how seriously the church takes the horrific evil of sexual abuse, but the church cannot restrain evil through coercive power; only the civil realm can do that. If the church does not cooperate with the law, and with the police power of the law, in protecting the vulnerable, the church is in defiance against the ordinances of God himself.
The church has a responsibility, beyond alerting proper authority, in several areas. The first is to preach and teach on issues of sexual abuse. Many abused people hide in the shadows because they believe, sometimes even subliminally, that they were somehow at fault for their abuse. Sometimes abused people are fearful to come forward because they think that people within the church will think they are now “damaged” because of the abuse. The church’s witness should be clear that victims of sexual abuse are not to blame—nor are they defined by the atrocities committed against them. You may think that such truths are obvious, but they need to be said if we are to offer freedom for the captives, as Jesus did (Lk. 4:18). One of the chief ways people are held in captivity is through misplaced shame, for what has been done to them.
We should also make clear to the whole congregation the steps we are taking to make sure that children and the vulnerable are safe in our churches from sexual abuse. Tell the congregation why you have background checks, why safeguards for parent pick-up in nursery or Sunday school are in place, and so forth. Moreover, tell the congregation what the leaders will do when there is an allegation of sexual abuse. Make it clear that sexual abusers will not be enabled in your church, and victims will not be blamed or shamed.
We must maintain this witness until sexual abuse is not only gone from reality television, but, more importantly, gone from reality altogether.