Why our response to sexual abuse matters

June 8, 2018

Jane and George quietly play together in the summer sun until it comes to an abrupt halt with one scream. Mom races out the front door and finds Jane clutching her bleeding knee and pointing her dagger-sharp finger at her brother. “He pushed me!” Jane wails. George stands at a distance holding Jane’s favorite toy, guilty as charged.

With plans for disciplining George, Mom turns first to Jane. The strawberry scrape needs a bandage, but Jane’s weeping exceeds her physical pain. Mom gently soothes her, knowing the tears are about far more than her surface wound. Jane hurts for reasons beyond what she can understand or articulate as a child. She is crushed over broken trust, deception, and selfishness from a beloved brother when she expected peace, protection, and care. Jane’s mom knows to provide more than antiseptic and a band aid. She comforts and soothes, signaling to Jane that her pain is important; the injustice matters, even on a 3-year-old scale.

Like Jane’s mom, many of us know how to affirm another’s invisible wounds when it comes to everyday episodes. But once we reach the realm of the uncommon—or perhaps the uncommonly spoken—our ability to connect with what lies beyond the physical quickly diminishes. This is especially true when the family of faith is confronted with sexual abuse. Whether it’s a church member healing from abuse by a nonmember or the devastation of a church member(s) harming another, brothers and sisters often stand uncertain, even paralyzed, with how to respond to the victim.

By understanding the interplay between the church’s response to sexual abuse and a victim’s inner world, the family of faith can strategically support survivors in their journey toward Christ-centered healing and restoration.

Silence isn’t always golden

There has been a flood of reports in the last decade of previously unknown cases of sexual abuse within the church. Without focusing on any one instance, the prevalence presses the question: why is reporting so important? Two obvious answers generally come to mind. First, reporting sexual abuse to church leaders, parents/guardians, and the authorities provides the best guarantee that the abuse will stop. Protecting the victim and initiating the process where the victim receives justice must be our first priority.

Second, in almost all situations reporting sexual abuse of a minor to the authorities is legally required. Reporting requirements vary from state to state, and all adults, and ministers especially, must be aware of and comply with the reporting requirements in their state regarding abuse of a child or disabled or elderly person. But even absent these reporting requirements, we can all acknowledge the gospel-affirming message that is sent to the world at large when churches and ministers uphold the law that seeks to protect the weak and powerless. Both considerations are vital when surveying the landscape of abuse.

Yet equally important is what the church’s positive response to sexual abuse communicates to the victim. The individual effects of abuse vary widely, but common threads run throughout each instance of abuse, including the spoken and unspoken messages an abuser sends to the victim. One prevalent message is, “You do not matter. Your preference doesn’t matter. Your safety doesn’t matter. Your voice crying out ‘No!’ doesn’t matter. Your pain doesn’t matter. Your dignity doesn’t matter. The abuser’s desire for pleasure and control is all that matters.”

But when a church family steps up to report the abuse, it communicates to the survivor, “You do matter! Your safety, your voice, your pain, and your dignity as an image-bearer of God unquestionably matter!” When a church is willing to risk whatever is necessary to stand for justice in God-ordained ways, a genuine faith in the power of the cross shines forth. It’s a chance for both the victim and the congregation to see firsthand that there is no type of brokenness, shame, or calamity that the blood of Christ can’t heal. In fact, the love of Christ compels us beyond our comfort or reputation. And when the church stands against such injustice, it paves the way for survivors to (gradually) overcome another powerful lie—that their abuse doesn’t matter to God.

The power of presence

Once abuse is reported, the process of healing can begin. The extent of the process will vary from person to person, but it will always be a journey—one that is easily forgotten over time by the church family. To be clear, a survivor’s story of abuse should always be theirs to tell when, where, and with whom they choose. During the abuse, personal control was ripped away from the victim, to their harm and shame. A vital part of their restoration is for a survivor to have control of exposing those very painful memories on their terms. Even with healing in mind, holding group prayer meetings where unnecessary details of a survivor’s tragedy are shared, or urging them to share their testimony when they are not ready and willing, is detrimental to the healing process.

Instead, a church family can extend the deeply compassionate and powerfully restorative love of Christ by preparing some of its members to be available and present with the survivor in due time. Often, words are not needed when spending time with the survivor. Rather, a willingness to sit, listen, cry with, and comfort your brother or sister who is healing is a sensitive way to demonstrate the Lord’s gentle and patient care. There are days when the journey may seem insurmountable to the survivor, as if the pain, sadness, shame, and grief will never end. As the church strategically remains present in his or her life for as long as it takes, however, it is a visible reminder of Christ’s promise to never leave or forsake us.

Gospel truth reframed

A vital part of the healing from sexual abuse is exposing the lies communicated through the abuse and replacing them with the truth. The process is extensive, requiring much nuance, and is ideally spearheaded by one who is trained and experienced with the dynamics of sexual abuse. However, we should not underestimate the powerful healing that comes when those brothers and sisters who are present with a survivor speak the truth to them with wisdom and discernment.

Not surprisingly, the enemy’s greatest tactic is to utilize the abuse to undermine the heart of the gospel. More specifically, victims will often feel like the abuse is their fault. Sometimes this lie is stated explicitly during the abuse. At other times, it’s communicated in subtle, manipulative ways. The damage that so often reverberates in the mind of a survivor is that something about them is irreversibly wrong. It’s a vague, untouchable feeling. And it often runs to their core, even affecting the way they hear the gospel message.

On many occasions, a believing survivor will agree with the reality that they are a sinner, with nothing apart from Christ’s blood to commend them to God. Yet, inside them a voice says, “There’s something more wrong with you than with everyone else.” In fact, some survivors even wonder if it’s so shameful, so horrific that it’s beyond the power of the cross. Sorting through the realities of original sin versus the perpetrator’s sin is a delicate part of the healing journey. But with proper awareness, those who are supporting the survivor can be prepared to speak the gospel of grace and truth with sensitivity. At such times, the church is positioned by the Lord to bring life instead of perpetuating a lie that stands ready to snuff out the gospel of grace in the victim’s heart.

Underreporting of sexual abuse is a stark reality, both in the community at large and within the church. God’s people need to encourage proper reporting by being ready and able to stand with survivors throughout the whole healing process, speaking the truth, and ministering the gospel again and again. It is an opportunity for the church to show the truth we so readily proclaim—that there is no darkness that is deeper and no pain that is greater than the redeeming, healing power of Christ.

Standing with the abused comes with a cost. At times, it may cost us our reputation. It will certainly cost us our time, energy, and comfort. And often it will bring emotional strain, temptation toward fear, and, in some cases, an entrance into the dark corners of depravity where we hoped never to venture. Yet, as we take the hand of survivors and walk with them in their darkness, slowly leading them to the light of Christ’s healing, we embody the very command of Christ to his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Darla Wilkinson

Darla Wilkinson graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the wife of a wonderful husband.  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