More than a buzzword
Preventing abuse in the church starts with understanding the roles of power and deception
Sexual abuse within churches now makes headlines, but psychologist Diane Langberg has worked with trauma and abuse survivors for 48 years. She co-leads the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Biblical Theological Seminary, sits on the board of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE), and co-chairs the American Bible Society’s Trauma Advisory Council. Here’s an edited and tightened interview.
How did you get so involved in this issue? While seeking my Ph.D. in psychology at Temple University in the early 1970s, I worked in the university counseling center and also part time for a Christian psychologist. Many women wanted to see me, not because I was experienced—I was only 23—but because I was female. One day a young woman told me, “My father used to do weird things to me.” Other women told me about sexual abuse, rape, domestic abuse.
Did you study that in graduate school? No, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t exist until 1980. I brought an incest case to my supervisor. His response was, “Women sometimes get hysterical, and your job is to not believe them.” I obviously disobeyed the supervisor and found my own way. I became a student of victims for a long time before I really understood what abuse was, how it happened, what it did, and how the damage followed not just a person’s lifetime, but often into the next generation.
When that woman said, “My father did weird things to me,” did you know what she meant? No, I did not. She didn’t know what to call it either. It was very difficult for her to tell me. She was afraid, full of shame. But I knew enough to tiptoe and ask little questions and wait for answers. I soon realized that these women and the Vietnam War soldiers coming home both shared similar symptoms.
One thing I’ve read is that the term abuse refers to a pattern of abuse rather than a one-time mistreatment. Think about it this way: Suppose a husband beat his wife to a pulp. She was never beaten before, and she was never beaten after. But I can assure you that he is continually abusive, because he wouldn’t have gotten to that point if not for the way he speaks to her, the way he treats her emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. All he has to do is look at her a certain way, and she’ll do whatever he says, because she’s afraid. So there’s ongoing abuse. People will look at that sometimes and say, “Well, he quit hitting her.” I’m glad he quit, but he’s still abusing her, both using that memory of the beating, and also in other subtle forms of violence, in a very powerful way to control her.
In my generation, maybe because we’re so well-versed with pop psychology, sometimes people throw out the words PTSD or abuse very lightly. You’re right. Those words are buzzwords now. PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is a very particular diagnostic category, but it’s become a common word. That minimizes the experience of real PTSD. The same for the word abuse, which literally means “to mistreat or use wrongly.” Given that definition, we’ve all abused somebody. Obviously, we should never mistreat anybody, but if we use that word all over the place, we dilute what it means clinically. If we equalize all forms of mistreatment, we can’t understand the depth of suffering of someone who’s truly been abused.
You believed women who had been mistreated, and started speaking out about it. Nobody wants these things to be true. I understand that. I got pushback in the academic world but even more from the Christian world: I’m encouraging women to leave their marriage, to disobey their husbands. By talking about sexual abuse within the church, you become the enemy, because you’re breaking multiple boundaries. One: You don’t talk about sex. Two: You don’t talk about sexual abuse because it doesn’t happen, and if it did, it’s probably your fault. Three: It never happens in God’s house.
I go to a young church, and we talk about abuse more openly. We’ve certainly made progress. Today I get emails from ministries and churches, particularly from younger women, asking how to talk about these things, how to respond well. It differs among denominations. Abuse against males is slower to come to light.
Most churches don’t have extreme cases of pastors sexually abusing members. Plenty of churches don’t have such flagrant examples. But in churches that do not acknowledge this issue of power and the potential of its abuse, you may have people who misuse their theological power: They say, “I’m the authority. Do this, do that, or you’re not a Christian.” I’m talking about a theological power that doesn’t allow people to disagree on, for example, how long your skirt should be: A lot of focus on the externals, not the heart.
Your latest book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, is all about power. Why power? Working with victims from churches, I began to think about power as a central issue in terms of abuse. The other central issue is deception. Congregation members do not want to believe their leaders can abuse power. They think, “My pastor’s a godly person. Look at the size of our church and all the people coming to Christ! That can’t be possible.” They use spiritual language to protect their institution. But the misuse of power started in the Garden of Eden. We’ve had a lot of practice. We’re really good at misusing it and lying to ourselves about it.
You wrote that power itself isn’t bad. Even a newborn baby has power. Power simply means to impact or influence. At the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve, “I want you to rule and subdue the earth.” Those are power words, and it wasn’t about doing it to people. Now we do it to people. Since the Fall, we attempt to use power to serve ourselves, which means hurting others.
You also talk about church as a powerful system and how it can either be a blessing or a danger. Christians don’t often think about power. We’re individualized. The word system literally means “to stand together.” When people stand together for whatever purpose, they have a system. That system develops rules and regulations, which is valuable because part of having a system is to take care of the individuals in it. Say a church of about 3,000 members has a controlling and authoritarian senior pastor who damages relationships. Somebody comes forward and accuses him of sexual abuse. Others step forward, and we’ve got six victims. What people mostly want is to fix it quickly so things can go back to the way it was before.
They might investigate, but then? Say the pastor steps down, the victims go to counseling, but nobody deals with what’s underneath, even before the sexual abuse was exposed: deception. The pastor was deceiving himself. The people deceived themselves by tolerating some of the telltale signs, such as his unkindness and control issues. By simply removing the pastor, it’s like removing the biggest part of the cancer, but leaving behind some other cancerous cells that will grow, because it’s not about an abusive person, it’s about the system. If this is God’s church, it should look like Him. He is full of truth and light, humility and love.
One term I hear a lot these days: racial trauma. I’ve heard people say that’s not a real thing. When somebody speaks of experiencing racial trauma, I need to say, “Teach me.” That’s called empathy. Racial trauma can be passed down for generations. Humans are meant to pass things down. Our children grow up in a culture that’s been influenced by generations, for good or evil.
Why is listening so important? Because we follow a God who became incarnate. He came in the flesh to be like us. That’s what Jesus did—He put on our skin, ate our food, and talked to us. He did it to show us we are worth understanding. We’re called to give that same gift to every human being we encounter.
It can’t be easy constantly listening to stories of evil and abuse. I tried to quit twice. God wouldn’t let me. He taught me: You’re doing this work for the sake of others and for My name, but this is also for you. My clients over the years taught me how to be more like Him. They gave me a gift when they brought their sufferings to my office. My work has been redemptive for me.
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