4 ways churches can respond to the spiritual impact of child abuse

June 29, 2020

A 7-year-old girl sexually abused by her father squirms in her chair, stares at her toes, and hesitantly asks the investigator, “Am I still a virgin in God’s eyes?” A sexually abused boy walks into a crowded courtroom and sees both his ministers and half a dozen church elders present to support the father he accuses of violating him. The child tugs on the suit of the prosecutor and whispers in his ear, “Does this mean that God is against me too?” Another boy recounts in therapy years of physical and emotional abuse from his parents. “I prayed and prayed for the abuse to stop but it never did. Why didn’t God answer my prayers?” 

These cases, and thousands just like them, reflect what researchers call “spiritual injuries” that result when an abused child is violated in the name of religion or simply has profound spiritual questions as a result of the abuse. Left unresolved, spiritual injuries also impair the physical and mental health of abused children. If, however, qualified mental health and pastoral care providers work in tandem to address the spiritual impact of abuse, faith can be a significant source of resiliency that aids in coping with abuse

Unfortunately, many mental health providers and clergy have received little or no training on the spiritual impact of child abuse. As a result, many abused children suffer in silence with no qualified professional able to address their needs. It doesn’t have to be this way. Churches taking seriously the command of Jesus to protect children (Mark 9:42) and to minister to the least of these (Matt. 25:45) should take at least four practical steps. 

First, churches should witness their faith by implementing child protection policies to prevent abuse. Many churches don’t have any policies and those that do often have policies focused only on preventing sexual abuse within the church. This is because policies are often drafted by insurance companies and law firms that want to prevent the sort of abuse most likely to result in a lawsuit. A true Christian witness would result in policies addressing not only sexual abuse but also physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. Moreover, these policies should not only address abuse within the church but also abuse in the home. Dr. Shira Berkovits writes of 10 core policies each faith community should have. Churches should review this guidance and see how close they are in meeting best practices. In addition, The Introductory Guide to Caring Well will help you think through making your church a safe place. 

Second, churches should require quality training on recognizing and responding to child abuse. Without training, even the best child protection policies will fail. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that churches and other youth serving organizations require training of pastors and others working with youth. This training should include instruction on recognizing signs of abuse, responding to a report or suspicion of abuse, monitoring employees and volunteers working with children, and implementing personal safety training for youth and parents. The training should be provided by experts in child abuse and address all forms of abuse. 

There are many high quality child abuse training programs. The Child Safeguarding Training Program offered by GRACE, the Standing Up for Children training program of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Keeping Faith training program of Zero Abuse Project are three solid options. The Caring Well initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention also provides online training and other resources. In the Jewish Community, Sacred Spaces has launched a pioneering training program called “Aleinu” (which means “it’s on us”) that allows a congregation to develop multiple best practices online while receiving expert assistance at each step of the way. 

Third, churches should speak openly about child abuse. A survivor of abuse once told me he longed to return to church but was waiting until he could find a congregation where the pastor had spoken about child abuse from the pulpit. Every Sunday night he listened to area sermon podcasts certain he would eventually find such a church. Week after week, month after month, his search came up empty and, after several years, he simply gave up. “I love Jesus,” the man told me, “but I can’t find Christ in the church.” 

This man is not alone. A Lifeway study found that 1 in 10 Protestants below the age of 35 have left a church because of silence or insensitivity in responding to abuse. In my Lutheran community, 65% of our parishioners do not believe our churches are fully prepared to respond to sexual abuse. 

Jesus said how we treat children reflects how we receive God (Mark 9:36-37). When pastors preach about child abuse, discuss maltreatment in Bible class, and develop proactive ministries for those wounded by abuse, they speak volumes about their attitude toward Christ.

Fourth, churches should develop collaborations with child protection professionals. In some states, there are creative partnerships between faith leaders and child protection workers. In Minnesota, for instance, a program called Care in Action works with social services to provide resources for children in need. If, for instance, a child is in foster care and wants to go to prom but doesn’t have money for a prom dress, partnering churches will work to address the need. 

In the United States, many maltreated children receive services through accredited Children’s Advocacy Centers. Some of these centers have developed chaplaincy services to address the spiritual needs of abused children and to educate local faith leaders about trauma-informed pastoring of children and adults impacted by maltreatment. 

A survivor of abuse once asked me how Christians could worship a God who was a victim of abuse while failing to care for the child abuse victims in our pews. To this survivor, and so many others, the true Christian church will only be known by its fruit (Matt. 7:20). 

Victor Vieth

Victor Vieth is the director of Education and Research for the Zero Abuse project and the author of On This Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life and Words of Jesus.  Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24