How churches can avoid shaming survivors

Caring well for those who have experienced abuse

September 3, 2020

She wanted to serve her church. She had a strong teaching ministry in a parachurch organization, and when the call for Sunday School volunteers came, she was eager to help. But a question on the volunteer application stopped her cold: “Have you experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child? If yes, please explain.”

Yes. One in four women and one in six men in America have experienced this type of abuse before the age of 18. But why are they asking that question?

For many reasons, this lady had chosen not to speak publicly about this abuse. She approached an elder who knew her story for advice. He counseled, “In the current environment, I would not recommend you submit the application.” He explained that staff were careless with confidentiality, so anonymity would disappear, and, in the end, she wouldn’t be permitted to serve anyway.

And by “she,” I mean “me.”

The new scarlet letter? 

Is this the new scarlet letter: “A” for abused? Was I too damaged to serve or too dangerous for the lawyers? My church thought I was broken beyond repair. And, momentarily, once again, I wondered if I was. I felt powerless, shamed, and isolated—this time at the hands of my church. 

Churches of every stripe are beginning to recognize the abuse in their midst, abuse that is alarming in its frequency and impact—it is heartbreaking, horrifying, repulsive. Churches are understandably frightened, and so are their insurance companies.

The question I was asked on my volunteer application is thankfully not a common question for many churches. Some churches do ask it, and it’s damaging, so let me explain why this is a bad policy. Think about how it affects the survivor filling out the application. I had done nothing wrong. I was a child who was abused decades ago. I have had good counseling, and I would never want another child to experience the trauma I did. But here I was, ostracized for another’s sin. I have worked throughout my life to minimize the abuser’s influence on my thoughts and actions. And yet my church was unwilling to consider that healing was possible. Isn’t our faith predicated on grace and new hearts and resurrection? Was this policy a loving, caring response to the survivor?

The vast majority of child abuse victims do not grow up to be offenders. Indeed, because of our history, we may be the last person to commit such an offense and may be the best qualified in recognizing signs of abuse and reporting concerning behaviors. Although trauma can influence the direction of our lives, this complexity is not something a church, much less an insurance company or law firm, would be qualified to determine.         

How effective is that question in screening church volunteers? Will it actually reduce abuse? A predator looking for a new target in the church is probably going to be wary of any question which may raise the alarm. No predator is going to honestly answer the questions which might raise a red flag. Screening questions are important, but this question isn’t the answer and does more harm than good.

Thinking through how to care for survivors

Churches must be more careful in the way they respond to survivors. This scarlet letter is not loving, factual, or preventative. Here are a few things churches should consider when thinking through these issues:   

  1. Know that your church is filled with survivors, both male and female. Many people are bearing burdens you would never guess.
  2. Recognize the signs of an abuser. Kind over-attention and regular physical affection may be of concern. Sometimes there are no signs—just a family friend who has temptation and access. 
  3. Recognize the signs of abuse, and train your staff to be aware. Is a normally gregarious child withdrawn? Is there reluctance to talk or trust? Is there a sexual knowledge or action beyond a child’s years?  
  4. Have a clear understanding of reporting laws and preventative measures. Report what should be reported, even if it is uncomfortable and embarrassing. And make sure that your staff does the same.1To learn more about reporting, see Lesson 2, 7, and Appendix A of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.
  5. Don’t promise to keep secrets or not tell, but do demonstrate loving care with the confidences of survivors.2To learn more, see Lesson 3 of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.
  6. Be present in the lives of those who have been abused. Being there and ready to talk (or not) is one of the strongest ways that followers of Jesus can extend the character of our omnipresent God to his family around us.  
  7. Trust the grace of God in all as you act to care and protect. You might be wrong at some point. You might raise concerns about a potential abuse situation when all is well. Or, you might not be able to identify a predator before trauma occurs. You are not omniscient or omnipotent, but your God is. And he is just. He can be trusted to execute his wrath on all evil.

*Due to privacy, the author has chosen to remain anonymous.


Due to security concerns, we are not able to share the name of this author. Read More by this Author

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