SEXUAL ABUSE & THE CHURCH
EUGENE PARK | DEC 27, 2017 | 12 MIN READ
In the past few months, we’ve seen powerful men accused of sexual misconduct and abuse. Some of these figures were unknown to many, while others are shockingly familiar. But the level of cover up has been downright shameful for these cases, some of which are decades old.
Many have been quick to point fingers of blame, including some in the church, painting this as the danger of the “secular world.” Yet I feel there are lessons and warnings from this crisis that the church must reckon with.
What’s to blame?
People from different political and theological groups use these fallen men to blame their rivals as the root of the problem. Yet what is the unifying factor for these heinous sins? It isn’t where you stand on the political spectrum (Roy Moore & Al Franken), it isn’t your ethnicity, and it isn’t being in a particular form of business. Rather what all these men have in common is power -- they all are men of authority in their respective institutions.
Power in itself isn’t inherently evil. In any group, leaders must carry authority, even in the church. Look at the apostles and leaders in the Scriptures who carried a form of power for the benefit of the Gospel. Yet the danger comes when power becomes an end rather than a means.
In the Netflix television series House of Cards, viewers see this in narrative form. As you follow the life of politician Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey, who is also facing allegations of sexual misconduct) in his quest for the presidency, you begin to realize he isn’t chasing any single position of power but power itself. It becomes like a drug, as Underwood will do anything to obtain more of it. And you see the path of manipulation, abuse, and even murder that he leaves behind. People become objects of either use or abuse for Underwood’s own benefit.
Lead people, not objects
We as the church don’t need to look to fiction for this warning. The Bible is filled with men of authority who succumb to abuse, and even sexual abuse. One of the clearest examples is the relationship between King David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1 - 12:31).
During the prime of his life while he should have been defending his kingdom, David saw Bathsheba bathing during her normal purification ceremony. He saw she was beautiful (he lusted) and soon learned that she was already married to Uriah. But he still sent for her and slept with her.
Although Bathsheba’s consent in the encounter is unclear in the text (she was most likely raped), it is clear that David abused his authority by laying with another man’s wife. His abuse even leads him to try to cover up his adultery by sending Uriah to the frontlines to die. To David, his subjects were no longer his people who was called to protect. Rather they were objects of his desire or obstacles to overcome.
I doubt David had desires to sexually abuse others the minute he received power. I don’t think David’s first thoughts after taking down Goliath was, “I’m going to commit adultery and even murder!” But rather it is small “excusable” abuses of power that will always lead to inexcusable abuses.
When we have power, we feel so many temptations to use it in our favor. It could be putting those who annoy you at a lesser table and bringing only those you favor to your inner circle. Maybe it’s even flashing your authority to make sure you get your point across in a meeting. Or it could even be a hug that lasts too long or a hand that lingers longer than it should.
For leaders, we have to see that these abuses always pile up, and they can lead to disastrous results. These small abuses lead us to see those under us as objects, not people, and objects are easier to abuse than people.
We also can easily cover our small mistakes. We pin our small failures to those under us as just “dropping the ball”. And again we will always want to cover up our failures, beginning with the excusable and leading to the inexcusable.
Whether you’re a student leader in a campus ministry or a lead pastor, you have to understand that any form of authority must come with a sense of caution and accountability. You need people to speak candidly into your life, even those under your authority. Even if you’re simply a college student, the decisions you make in leadership are forming you to become the leader in your future. No one becomes a sexual abuser in a quick moment of power, but rather with small missteps of power.
Exhortation for the church
One uncomfortable truth is the Asian-American church will face its day of reckoning as well. We will see (and have seen) pastors and leaders we’ve respected fall to the heinous sin of sexual abuse. And to be frank, we must do all that we can to help more light fall into the church to expose sin.
Power in the church is a tricky thing. Many see their leaders and pastors almost as being special people of God with divinely-backed actions. This can make accountability difficult because it seems like we are speaking out against God.
But to any of you who have been sexually abused by the church: It is never too late to speak out. If you feel unsafe to speak out in your church, contact other leaders around you and contact local authorities. The status of the abuser never justifies the abuse. I’m not calling for a witch hunt of pastors and leaders, but we need to understand this sexual abuse within the church can be so easily swept under the rug, especially in an Asian-American context.
To the church: we must do our best to protect the vulnerable (Psalms 82:3-4). We must create systems of accountability for leaders and power in our churches. We cannot simply stand by and protect our image as a perfect church over the safety of our daughters and sons. The burden is on those with power simply because we wield it, and the abused do not.
Looking to Christ
Although prominent people of power have fallen (and will keep falling), our ultimate hope has to come from the one who wielded ultimate authority and power not for himself but to serve: Christ himself.
Jesus gives timeless wisdom to our current crisis in Mark 10:42-25: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you...For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
As the son of God, Jesus could have easily used his power to get out of sticky situations. From being tempted with hunger in the desert to dealing with his unruly disciples Jesus could have asserted his right as king of kings and done whatever he pleased. Yet he never does, instead staying committed to serving the people he came to save.
Even his relationship with the women around him is far from similar with male figures today. He approaches women scarred from sexual abuse (John 4:1-54, John 8:1-11), celebrates their faith (Luke 21:1-4), and even welcomes them to work with him (Luke 8:1-3). Even more striking is the use of women as witnesses in the Gospel accounts in a time when their testimony was disregarded in official courts. In the end, Jesus saw the women and men he met as people not objects.
The only way to defeat abuse is not simply through reform and rules but looking to a greater figure -- a savior. The Gospel of Christ protects the abused, affirms their desire for justice in abuse, and gives them the power to conquer it. The Gospel informs those in authority to serve people not objects and even protect those in danger of abuse. Let us come out of the darkness, as uncomfortable as it is, as we fix our gaze on the one with ultimate power who came to serve.
Eugene Park is the Associate Pastor at True North Church in Palo Alto, CA. He is married to Sylvia and expecting a baby boy.