This past week, a friend alerted me to an article detailing hundreds of sexual assault cases found in Independent Fundamental Baptist churches throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Sad to say, this didn’t shock me. I was raised IFB. I was first exposed to sex in elementary school by classmates at my IFB-associated school. They all attended my IFB church. I’ve shared numerous times about my experience there and how it contributed to shaping my life (for better and for worse).
It’s important to remember that a more strict structure doesn’t automatically protect children.
In fact, in some cases, the false sense of security they provide can actually endanger children.
My first impulse was to write something detailing how the lack of accountability (hence the “independent”), saturated purity culture, and unquestioned patriarchy (in other words, the man is always right, even when he’s beating you) found in many IFB churches is a breeding ground for sexual assault.
But the sad reality is, this situation isn’t unique to a certain religious group. And not all IFB churches harbor predators. The difficulty with IFB churches is that they are independent… meaning each church essentially comes up with their own rules. There’s an undercurrent that’s common in many, but basically, each one is different. That’s part of the brand.
So, how do you speak to the issue without blanket smearing an entire faith group?
You speak to the victims.
Because lines like this should not be true:
“Victims repeatedly cited deference to pastoral authority as a factor for why they initially trusted their abusers and why it became so difficult to bring their wrongdoing to light.”
But, you know… the people who can change that in the churches probably don’t read my blog. The victims, however, do.
Many women who struggle with things like lust, pornography, and compulsive masturbation have a background involving some sort of sexual trauma.
If that’s you, particularly if you’ve been abused by someone you should have been able to trust, I want to say this to you:
Sexual assault is wrong.
I don’t care who it is. It could be a pastor, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a clergy, a counselor… it’s wrong. No one has the authority to violate someone else. It doesn’t matter if it was “just a little thing” or a full on rape- if what happened to you was unsolicited, unwanted, or not consensual, it’s wrong. If you were underage and manipulated, even into consensual sex with an adult, it’s wrong. If someone used a position of power to coerce you or threatened your job in order to use you, that’s wrong.
You may not recognize it as sexual assault right away. Not all sexual abuse looks like rape. But it’s still wrong. If your pastor makes a move on you and says he’s God’s man and you can’t tell him no, he’s wrong. If your babysitter took advantage of you by “playing doctor” that was wrong. It’s wrong.
If that happened to you, I am sorry.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be. People aren’t supposed to violate each other. They aren’t supposed to abuse trust. When a person in a position of trust violates that trust in order to prey on people, it damages the entire trust system.
It’s not “just” sexual assault; it’s a violation of boundaries. It’s a threat to your feeling of safety and security. It may take you weeks, months, even years to feel you can overcome what has happened to you. No one should have to go through that and I am sorry that it is now part of your story.
What happened to you is not your fault.
It doesn’t matter what you said or what you were wearing. It doesn’t matter how much you had to drink or whether you chose to go for a run at night. You are not responsible for the other person’s actions. People may try to tell you “if you had done (fill it in) differently” it wouldn’t have happened to you. But you don’t need to listen to them. What happened to you was wrong, without excuse, and is not your fault.
You have a right to pursue justice.
There is a time and place for church discipline and corporate actions for violation of policy. Sexual assault is a crime though and you have every right to report what happened to you, no matter when it happened. No matter who the person is. Do not let anyone strong arm you or threaten you into believing otherwise. No pastor, CEO, parent, or caregiver is above the law.
If you aren’t sure who to reach out to, reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
It takes courage to report, but silence doesn’t make you a coward.
Yes, there are great stories of brave victims who have stepped forward to report their abuse. Sometimes they stand alone. Other times they stand in groups. Sometimes their faces are on the news. Other times they remain anonymous, listed as Jane Doe’s in lawsuits and news reports.
But even if you choose not to tell, that doesn’t make you a coward. We have different reasons for being silent. Maybe you’re afraid of what might happen to you or someone you love, maybe you don’t want to go through the process of interviews. Maybe you just want to move on with your life and not have to relive this in courts, including the court of public opinion. In our broken system, no one can really fault you for that. If your perpetrator could be hurting other people, I would encourage you to step forward, but silence doesn’t make you selfish, a coward, or any less a victim.
Even if you decide to come forward years later, after you have had time to heal, that silence doesn’t negate your story.
You may never know justice.
Our justice system is broken, but no system is perfect. Your perpetrator may seem to “get away” with what happened to you. People may not take your claim seriously. They may blame you, or brush you off. You may have to see that person at family gatherings, at church, at the neighborhood grocery store, at work. It may seem unfair that they seemingly get to move on with their lives while you pick up the pieces of yours.
Even when you do everything “right”- tell the police right away, go to the hospital, get evidence- that person may still get away with what happened to you. You may never get to see justice.
But you can still know freedom.
When Elizabeth Smart was rescued from her predator and returned to her family, her mom told her something that has stuck with her.
“Elizabeth, what these people have done to you is terrible, and there aren’t words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil they are. They’ve stolen nine months of your life from you that you will never get back. But the best punishment you could ever give them is to be happy, is to live your life, is to move forward and do all of the things that you want to do. Because by feeling sorry for yourself and holding onto the past and reliving it over and over and over again, that’s only allowing them to steal more of your life away from you and they don’t deserve that…” (Source)
Justice and freedom are not contingent on each other. By all means, pursue justice, even if it means “outing” someone you trust. The blame doesn’t fall on you. But also know that when we don’t get the justice we seek, we still can know freedom.
Boundaries are Right and Good
You are right to be gun-shy when it comes to trusting people again. If you were abused by a pastor, for instance, it makes sense, and is probably healthy, to have boundaries for the rest of your life when it comes to pastors. Is every pastor going to take advantage of you? Of course not, but if you don’t feel like meeting with a pastor one-on-one, don’t let them force you.
You may decide not to let your kids stay over at a relative’s house, or you may choose to have two babysitters instead of one. It makes sense that you would have boundaries that have been informed by your life experience. Other people may not “get” them and that’s ok. Put boundaries in place that you need in order to trust safely.
At the end of the day, what you experienced, regardless of the severity, is a form of trauma. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a Christian counselor experienced in sexual abuse and trauma. Reach out to them, so you can find healing and hope. If counselors are a source of problem for you, then I encourage you to tell a trusted friend or family member or check out any number of resources on sexual trauma.
I’m sorry this is part of your story. It shouldn’t have been, and God would never ordain pain like this to happen. Sexual abuse is a sin on the part of the abuser, regardless of how holy or important they think they are. It is not a blot on your record; it’s a stain on theirs.
My friend, Mary DeMuth, ends her book Not Marked with a powerful call to tell the whole story.
“What story are you telling yourself? That you’re an unregenerate victim of sexual abuse who will never feel whole and clean? That you’ll always be marked, destined for further abuse? That you’ll never enjoy a satisfying sex life? Have you resigned yourself to a lesser story? That kind of story only leaves room for your perpetrators, but it doesn’t allow Jesus the space He needs to utterly redeem what they did to you.”
You are not damaged goods. You are not unmarriable. You are not unlovable.
Leave room in your story for healing. It may take you days, months, or years, but you can know freedom, hope, and healing even if you never see justice.