If you are currently dealing with the pain of abuse, such as sexual, physical or spiritual abuse, may we begin by saying that we reject absolutely any form of abuse as sinful and grieving to God.
It is the church’s responsibility to confess and address sin, not conceal it (Prov. 28:13, 1 John 1:8-9), and the church’s historical tendency to deal in a defensive, unsympathetic or even dishonest way in order to protect scandals or careers is simply wrong. At the same time, many denominations have now taken very deliberate steps both to take a public stand on denouncing all forms of abuse and in providing dedicated resources to help victims and churches deal with this area, and this development is highly welcomed.
We cannot hope to adequately cover the complexity and deep sorrow of abuse situations here, however in order that our site is not simply silent on this important issue, we offer the following observations.
In most cases, it is not wise for a victim to seek to speak directly to his or her abuser, as a result of the power imbalance and the potential for further abuse to take place. Rather, generally it is best to involve others before any confrontation occurs. Where the abuse involves criminal conduct, this should be done in co-operation with the civil authorities who must deal with the abuse.
If the abuser is a Christian, the role of the church in these situations is to confront his or her sin, promote genuine repentance and confession, support counselling, and require him or her to submit to necessary legal consequences.
At the same time, the church needs to lovingly support the victim (and other affected persons like their family). This calls for compassion and understanding, an open acknowledgement of any role the church may have played in failing to properly protect the victim, providing counselling where needed.
As these situations are generally outside the capacity and experience of people within the church, we strongly recommend seeking professional assistance, from the church’s denomination or specialist unit set up to deal with such areas.
In relation to the question of forgiveness for cases of abuse, the question of justice is of prime importance to God and to the victim. Therefore, quick exhortations by the church, friends or family to ‘forgive and move forward’ are not helpful and more often will be harmful. Whilst it is true that God calls us to forgive (Col.3:4-5, Eph.4:32), and in time it may well be possible for a victim to come to a point of unilateral forgiveness of the abuser, this is something which may only occur over an extended period of time through the grace of God working to heal that person’s heart and giving them the courage to forgive.
Sometimes, it is the victim turning to God and seeing how much God has forgiven them that becomes the basis and pathway for them extending a forgiveness to the abuser which humanly speaking they don’t deserve and could never earn. Certainly, God calls on the abuser to repent of their wrongful conduct, deeply and from the heart, and often such repentance will be a vital part in helping a victim move forward towards extending forgiveness to them. Sometimes, once repentance has occurred, God works a miracle, and reconciliation occurs – however this should be seen as the miracle that it is. Sometimes, the victim just being able to move to a point of forgiveness and be free from the burden of unforgiveness is the miracle for which we give God thanks.
As the church, we often want people to ‘get over it and move on’ so that we may feel more comfortable (think, for example, about how uncomfortable we are with grief after a death). But deep grief and pain isn’t like that, and we need the love and grace to give people time to grieve and heal, and support them in their journey towards being restored by Jesus. Ultimately, God is the only perfect healer, and our hope and help rests with him.