5 ways the gospel shapes our approach to sexual abuse

February 27, 2019

A Pennsylvania Catholic priest raped a young girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. Bishop James Timlin wrote a letter of sympathy after this traumatic situation, saying,

“This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.”

But the bishop’s letter was not directed to the traumatized girl. It was actually sent to the priest.

This and many other horrific stories have recently emerged in the wake of a wide-ranging 884-page grand jury report that documents hundreds of cases of sexual assault and abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania since the 1940s. Not only that, but the latest news stories seem to be filled with example after example of prominent leaders, actors, or politicians who have been accused of sexual abuse or sexual assault.

Unfortunately, this issue has also escalated amongst Southern Baptists, as has been seen in the recent Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. The #MeToo moment has drawn significant attention to an issue that has flown under the radar too often for many churches. That’s why I am thankful that Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear announced 10 calls to action for Southern Baptists on sexual abuse.

The national statistics on sexual abuse are overwhelming.

The most common places sexual predators search for victims is in youth activities such as school, sports, and church. This is not just a problem “out there” in the culture. It has impacted people in our pews and people we are trying to reach with the gospel.

The need to address sexual abuse in the church

In 2018, J.D. Greear announced the formation of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Advisory Group. The purpose of the study group, according to Greear, is “to consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions.” As I have led this effort for the ERLC, we have discovered eye-opening insights from survivors, advocates, pastors, and churches. What is clear from this study group is that churches desire to get this issue right but often don’t because they lack confidence or competence.

Furthermore, churches lack confidence to address sexual abuse because they don’t feel equipped to address it. While 58 percent of pastors say the #MeToo movement has made their congregation more aware of how common domestic and sexual violence is, only about 55 percent of pastors say they are familiar or very familiar with domestic violence resources in their community. And half say they don’t have sufficient training to address sexual or domestic abuse.[2]

If a predator came to your church in hopes of grooming a child to sexually abuse, how confident are you that your church’s policies, procedures, and personnel would successfully deter him? If an incident of sexual abuse or assault occurred in your congregation, how positive are you that your church would be able to respond and minister well in the aftermath?

If a woman from your community came forward to a staff member or lay leader in your church and confided that she still faces trauma from the rape she experienced in college, how sure are you that he or she would be ready to minister well to her?

How can the #MeToo moment that the culture is facing be turned into a movement that results in lasting change in the church? It is important for churches to review policies, improve procedures, train personnel, and minister to people. But the need is more foundational: Churches need to understand why this issue matters in light of the gospel and how this issue should be addressed in light of the gospel. Specifically, we need to embrace a clear understanding of how the gospel shapes our approach to sexual abuse in five significant ways.

First, churches must care for survivors. Sexuality was created by God for our good. When it is practiced within the boundaries of marriage, it leads to true human flourishing. Understanding the beauty of what God designed should lead us to understand the devastating effects of sexual abuse on victims. For example, one victim abused as a child by a priest “was so violently raped when he was [seven] years old that he suffered injuries to his spine. [He] became addicted to pain medication, and eventually overdosed and died.”[3]

The lingering effects of sexual abuse cannot be overlooked or minimized. The trauma experienced by a survivor of sexual abuse should drive us to compassionate ministry. Many survivors have never told anyone before, so when they do, they need to be met with support and care that assures them they are not alone. Because it is often hard to share, we must be sensitive to vague, delayed, or partial disclosures.

When a victim does share, we should listen to a victim’s story and respond calmly, while avoiding questions that might shame the victim. There is no quick fix to trauma, so we will need to walk patiently with him or her, allowing time for grief. Failing to appropriately respond can bring greater pain to a traumatized individual. Unless we approach issues of assault and abuse by prioritizing the care of victims in our churches, we will not be able to effectively address the issue.

Second, churches must confront sin. We must call sexual abuse sin. Since we understand God’s design for sexuality, it would be sad if the world were more willing than the church to name and address the atrocity and brokenness of sexual abuse. Because of the Fall, we should not be naïve or shocked by sexual abuse. Moreover, the original intent in creation and the hope of redemption should keep us from ignoring or covering sexual abuse. Instead, both should allow us to confront it.

Our testimony is at stake: properly dealing with sin reflects our theology of God and the gospel. Sexual abuse is not just an issue related to sexuality; it is fundamentally rooted in the misuse of power. Authority for selfish gain is never appropriate in the eyes of God, especially when it comes to sex. When leaders or celebrities offer remorseful, half-hearted, non-apologies for their actions, it provides a backdrop for churches to discuss what genuine repentance and sincere apologies should look like.

Confronting sin also means being honest when something goes wrong in the church. A church must evaluate what went wrong when abuse occurs in order to make appropriate changes, report the abuse, own their errors, and apologize appropriately. Even if the incident occurred years before, it is never too late to do the right thing.

Third, churches must seek justice. Abuse is not just sin. It is also a crime. Consider these startling statistics I heard at a Ministry Safe Summit:

The comprehensive report on child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania demonstrates the injustice of a systematic cover up by church leaders of the extensive abuses. Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, “The cover up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”[4] The main concern was with avoiding scandal. The problem included a broken system that empowered and protected predators. And children suffered grievously as a result.

Churches need to be more concerned about dealing with sexual abuse in a way that demonstrates justice and care for victims than with lawsuits or the damage that scandal might produce. We should not wait to investigate allegations as a condition of reporting. When in doubt, report. Reflecting the God of justice, the church must seek justice for victims of sexual abuse. We must take sin seriously and recognize sexual abuse is a sin issue and a crime that needs to be dealt with in the legal system.

Fourth, churches must protect the vulnerable. As we embark on our efforts to address this issue, we must have an unwavering commitment to protect the vulnerable and never tolerate any form of abuse. Many churches now require criminal background checks and have a child-check-in system. These are great first steps in addressing the problem, but more needs to be done.

Churches can protect the vulnerable by requiring sexual abuse awareness training, thoroughly screening church staff and volunteers, considering the specific context of the church, continuing to monitor and give oversight to their programs in this regard, and by improving strategies and ministry for future incidents. These steps may make it harder to give volunteers a name tag, but even if it deters some volunteers from serving, protecting the vulnerable is worth a small inconvenience. The call for church leaders to shepherd the church certainly entails protecting the children from the potential of sexual predators.

Fifth, churches must equip the saints. The previous four steps take sexual abuse seriously and also demonstrates to a congregation that the church is a safe place—both in preventing abuse and in getting help for those abused. In addition to this, the church should teach members how to respond when a friend from small group or a child in AWANA shares they were abused. An individual traumatized by sexual abuse will likely tell someone close to them who is trusted. That may be a counselor or a pastor, but it will often be a friend.

As a result, we need to train the people in the pews who will likely have the first conversation with a victim. They need to know how to care well for each survivor. Help first responders know how to model empathy and action. Their first instinct should be to take the stories of victims seriously. We have a God who cares for the most vulnerable and hears their cries; his people should be characterized by this as well. The church should be the place where victims of sexual assault find help and hope in their time of desperation. Training on how to identify sexual abuse and respond to survivors will help church members navigate a difficult topic in a Christ-centered and compassionate way.

Churches need to actively address sexual abuse by caring for survivors, confronting the sin of sexual abuse, seeking justice, protecting the vulnerable, and equipping the saints. One church recently made a bold move in addressing sexual abuse in their congregation. Although there were no known instances of abuse in their church, they hired an independent investigator to see if there were abuses they were unaware of. They knew that the church had to respond to this #MeToo moment in a way that brings about lasting change.

The pastor of the church stated in an interview, “The Church in America has been so afraid of ‘being attacked’ by our culture that we cover up anything that doesn’t make us look good.”[5] He continued, saying, “We want to be a safe place for people, both a place for those who have experienced abuse, but also a system that prevents it in our context.” This pastor understands that the church doesn’t need to cover up sexual abuse to maintain God’s reputation. In fact, addressing sexual abuse gives us the opportunity to proclaim we are great sinners in need of a great Savior and demonstrates the character of our God to a watching world that is taking the brokenness of sexual abuse seriously.

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine.


  1. ^ https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics
  2. ^ https://lifewayresearch.com/2018/09/18/pastors-more-likely-to-address-domestic-violence-still-lack-training/
  3. ^ https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6060525/Pennsylvania-report-details-300-priests-sexually-molested-1-000-children-70-years.html?ito=social-twitter_dailymailus
  4. ^ https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/taking-action/press-releases/attorney-general-shapiro-details-findings-of-2-year-grand-jury-investigation-into-child-sex-abuse-by-catholic-priests-in-six-pennsylvania-dioceses/
  5. ^ https://relevantmagazine.com/issues/issue-96/itstime/

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … 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