Stop Handling Sexual Assault “In House”

This has been such a prevalent issue over the last couple years, both in a national scale but also a local scale.  There was a scandal in my own home church and larger denomination.  There’s the ongoing Catholic church scandal.

Lately, it seems like it has intensified.  It feels like I’m reading a new story every week, and it’s not just churches.  The military has issues.  Boarding schools are in the spotlight.  And don’t even get me started on Josh Duggar / Bill Gothard.

Sexual assault is everywhere.  It’s a sick, sad truth.  It makes victim of young and old, male and female, rich and poor, drunk and sober.  But there is a pattern, at least as far as I have seen, and it is disturbing.

We insist on settling things in house, and, even worse, as Christians, we use the Bible as an excuse to do so.

Recommended Read- Not Marked: Finding Hope and Healing After Sexual Abuse by Mary DeMuth

Last week, one of my readers came forward with a story of being sexually assaulted by an assistant pastor.  She told a pastor, because that’s what good Christian girls are told to do.  The pastor confronted the accused, and he denied it… because, guilty or not, that’s what accused people do.

She told three more pastors, and, in keeping with the “Biblical Model for Church Discipline and Confrontation” each of those three pastors approached the accused.  In keeping with the “Human Desire to Save My Skin and Not Admit Wrongdoing” he denied.

Now, in the interest of “Discovering Truth” she, the victim, has to meet with her pastor (a man), her attacker (a man), and his pastor (a man).  In this ‘completely unbiased meeting’ two pastors will listen as a laywoman in the church accuses a fellow pastor of sexual assault.  She will in turn listen as he denies the accusations, and likely blames her for initiating contact, because that seems to be the thing to do.

This is the narrative for many stories.  A woman is assaulted by a man in the church and she has been taught by the church that you handle these sorts of things ‘in house.’  So, in trying to do what she believes is right, she goes to a leader in her church.

That leader then confronts the accused.  Soon, a meeting is called where the victim and the attacker have to sit with each other and recount their version of events.  The leaders then determine the appropriate course of action based on what they believe to be true.  The “secular justice system” is rarely involved.

To be fair, I think the intent behind these actions are good.  We want the truth and want to make sure that good men aren’t falsely accused.  I understand that.  However, when we insist on keeping such allegations within ‘these four walls’, we fail to realize two very key things.

We are Christians and citizens.

Yes, we are Christians, and our primary identity is that of being in Christ.  However, we are also citizens of the countries where we reside.  We are members, not citizens, of our churches.  Churches, ministries, camps, whatever they are, in the name of God, are not independent states.  As citizens, we are protected by and subject to the laws of the countries in which we reside.  Your membership in a church does not exempt you from the government.  Which leads to:

Sin is not equal to crime

The passage often cited for church discipline and the idea of Biblical confrontation is Matthew 18:15-19.  In this passage, Jesus is offering instruction for what to do when a brother (or sister) in Christ is living in sin.  The first confrontation is to be one-on-one, and then it escalates from there.  The purpose of this process is to restore the offender to fellowship within the church.

I’d like to suggest that this is not a passage dealing with criminals within the church.  Sexual immorality is, of course, considered sinful by Biblical standards.  If a man and woman are living together out of wedlock, that is not a crime by society’s standards, but it is a sin within the church.  Sexual assault is different; it is illegal by governmental standards.  Immorality (a sin) and assault are two different things.

Is there grace and forgiveness?  Of course.  Is there restoration for the repentant?  Yes.  Is there a free waiver of all consequences for actions? No.

Let’s consider some non-sexual scenarios for a moment:

  • A woman is a gossip.  She is always talking bad about everyone, getting and giving the latest scoop on the deacon’s wife and the pastor’s wife, and the newcomer.  You know, she’s that person.  That person needs to be confronted according to the Matthew 18 model.
  • A man struggles with alcoholism.  He is absolutely addicted to the stuff.  In some churches, that would fall under the scope of church discipline.
  • That same man gets drunk one night, out of control, and beats his wife.  Then, he gets behind the wheel of a car and goes careening the wrong way down the interstate and fatally crashes into a car.  Should that be handled in house?  Of course not.  We recognize that to be a legal issue.  What he did was illegal- he beat his wife and he drove under the influence, and will likely go to jail for vehicular manslaughter.

Boil it all the way down:

[Tweet “If someone was accused of murder, would you handle that in house?”]

It’s easy for us to draw the line in some cases and clearly see the immoral versus the illegal.  For some reason, though, when it comes to sex, we can’t seem to draw that line.  We have this fascination with figuring out why it happened.  Was she wearing something?  Was she being suggestive?  Maybe he’s into porn and that has clouded his judgement.  

We muddy the issue and very rarely reach some sort of resolution.  In fact, the only resolution I have personally seen is when an alleged victim bypasses the church structure and reports straight to the police.

This is what you would do if you were attacked in an alley.  This is what you would do if your house was robbed.  This should be what you are encouraged to do in the case of sexual assault.

Bottom line, alleged or not, and regardless of where it happened and who was involved, sexual assault is a crime and, as such should be addressed by the criminal justice system.  Christians can report crimes, and should not be hindered in doing so.  There are certain things we simply cannot ‘solve’ in house, and sexual assault is one of them.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, regardless of age or gender, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline to be connected with trained professionals in your area.