‘We don’t talk about that stuff’
Dismissing or minimizing accusations of abuse in the church can tear families and communities apart
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I remember when I was a 9-year-old pastor/missionary’s kid growing up in Singapore, there was a man who always loitered around our church after Sunday service. My father’s church shared the same building with another church, and that man was a regular attender of that church’s morning service.
Being a pastor’s kid, I spent a lot of time waiting while my parents and other church members talked for hours about grown-up stuff, usually praying for world evangelism or something as eternally consequential. My younger brother and I befriended another pastor’s two kids who were also bored to death, and we would spend that time playing hopscotch, jumping rope, or buying snacks at the nearby shops. It wasn’t long before we bumped into that man.
I forget his real name, but we called him “Uncle.” Uncle was in his 40s, with a gangly frame, knobby knees, and wispy, balding hair. I still remember the day my brother and friends told me they met a friendly guy, and soon, Uncle was hanging out with us almost every Sunday afternoon.
At the time, I didn’t realize how weird it was that a middle-aged man would spend his Sunday afternoons with a bunch of prepubescent kids. I just liked that he bought snacks and cheap toys for us. But I didn’t like how he always wanted me to sit on his lap, and I didn’t like that whenever I refused, he then asked the other pastor’s daughter over. It bugged me that he only seemed to want the girls, that he never asked to cuddle with the boys.
I was too young to understand what’s going on, but even then I was acutely aware of this leaden, sickening feeling in my gut that I now recognize as shame and disgust. I was also confused: If this man is a bad man with unsavory intentions, why would he be in church? Why would the adults let him hang about? I had trusted him because he was a professed Christian and made verbal references to Jesus, but now he didn’t feel safe.
Then one day, when Uncle asked me to sit on his lap again, I decided I had enough. I jumped up and yelled, “No!” Then I stomped away, and I told the other kids that we will never, ever hang out with that man again. I never told my parents about Uncle because shame and disgust made me want to hide and forget everything, and I was relieved when my father’s church eventually moved to another location. We never saw that man again. Today as an adult, I look back and wonder if my intuition was right—and I thank God nothing serious ever happened.
It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this incident, but I’ve been experiencing that familiar uneasy, skin-crawling feeling again as I read today’s news about long-hushed sexual assaults on women and children, as I research domestic abuse cases in churches, as I meet various individuals who tell me childhood stories of experiencing rape and molestation, as I meet homeless women who tell me they lost everything after fleeing domestic abuse. But this time, it’s not just disgust I feel—it’s a slow-rising burn of anger against unaccounted injustice.
One 27-year-old woman I recently met told me she was raised in a very conservative evangelical family who spent a lot of time at church—and that’s where a fellow church member raped her when she was barely a teenager. She told the appropriate adults what had happened, but no one seemed to take action against her perpetrator. The knowledge that the church—a sacred community that’s supposed to be her safe refuge—overlooked this act of grievous wrong almost severed this woman’s relationship with God.
For the last few weeks I’ve been researching how churches handle claims of domestic abuse, and I spent hours talking to women who said their husbands abused them and their children. Several of the women I talked to said when they finally brought the issue up to their church leaders, hoping for safety and relief, they instead felt hurt, confused, and revictimized when their church didn’t seem to take their abuse claims seriously. All these women eventually left their churches, and one told me she still couldn’t enter church doors without having a panic attack.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says one in four women and one in seven men in the United States “have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” With those numbers, the problem is likely prevalent in churches. Biblical counselor Warren Lamb, a former abuse victim who has been counseling abusers and abuse victims for three decades, said he’s been “passionately banging on the walls, windows, and roofs of churches” to alert faith leaders that domestic oppression is real and destructive, and it’s going on inside their congregations’ households: “But we don’t talk about that stuff.” And from what I hear and read from several Christian abuse specialists, it’s not uncommon for church leaders to dismiss or minimize accusations of abuse.
Lamb said many churches don’t want to admit that someone in their congregation could be an abuser, that such evil could exist within their pews. It’s hard for people to believe that the smiling, generous church member or leader who serves so faithfully and prays such sincere prayers could be a master manipulator abusing his wife and children back home. These Christians might agree that wolves can creep into the sheep pen, but few want to believe it is true of their own church. They acknowledge the reality of sin but emphasize grace and redemption without fully fleshing out the necessity of soul-wrenching, self-undoing repentance.
To those churches, Lamb warns that whenever they let an abuser escape accountability for his sin, “It poisons the pond. It impacts everybody.” And that’s what I saw in many real-life stories: The evil of domestic abuse doesn’t just affect the couple involved—it breaks families, friends, and communities apart.
It disfigures the glorious image of earthly marriage as a metaphor of Christ’s union with the Church. It prepares the perfect breeding ground for the devil to wreck more havoc in the most important relationships within the Body of Christ, and it silences other victims who lose hope for justice and redemption.
There is evil in our churches. We are not immune to the devastating disease of sin, and each time a public scandal breaks out in one of our churches, it’s just the smoke pouring out of a whole underworld of various other hidden, hushed-up sins within the church body. No wonder God deals harshly with sin that invades His people, as demonstrated in Achan’s story in Joshua 7, or the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
Dealing with sin is ugly, messy, dirty work. Jesus Christ demonstrated His love for us by stepping into our ugly, dirty mess, and then He demonstrated how ugly and dirty sin is by dying in our place in the most brutal way imaginable. If that’s how God views and deals with sin, that’s how seriously we need to view sin as well, and we must reflect Christ’s love for His Body by doing the hard, hard work of fighting it.
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