By Jack Wilkie
One of the biggest stories of the last year has been the emergence of the “#MeToo” movement, and more recently the #TimesUp addition to it. Our country has watched as thousands of women have opened up about their experiences as victims of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault all the way up to rape. In fact, “Silence Breakers” won Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2017 for bringing the problem out of the darkness and directing the public’s attention to the issue.
While there is truth to the often-noted points about the filth of Hollywood and the entertainment industry and even to their hypocrisy in furthering the problem, we must keep our focus on the main thing, and that is the people. What we learned is that we are surrounded by people who have been sexually violated. The problem is everywhere. As the people called to shine Jesus’ light into a dark world, this should get our attention. We should be primed to respond to such widespread pain.
And yet, in a number of cases, churches have been part of the problem. One case that got widespread attention occurred when a denominational minister in Memphis named Andy Savage admitted to coercing a 17-year-old girl into sexual activity in the late 1990s. Upon his confession, his church gave him a standing ovation. The ovation highlighted the fact that many who believe in God still aren’t sure how to respond to these revelations, particularly when the accused may be someone we love. So, let’s take a look at this issue from three angles – how we can help the victims, how we can handle the accused, and how we can prevent it in the future.
The church must be a shelter for victims. While there are complexities that must be dealt with in how we process accusations (believing every claim is irresponsible and creates the potential for “To Kill a Mockingbird” situations), and due diligence must be done, our default response should be to listen to those who say they have been a victim of unwanted sexual attention and to show them the compassion of Christ. One of the key truths underlined by the #MeToo movement is the fact that the effects of being sexually violated can plague a person for years. Depression, self-loathing, self-blame, feelings of worthlessness, and more are widespread in victims of sexual assault. The last place they need to be rejected and left to feel alone is in the church. We must be prepared to show love and care for any who share their story.
One abuse survivor shared with me that confession is often difficult and even impossible for some for various reasons, reasons that help explain the common question about why it often takes so long for people to come forward. One, it’s difficult to relive the story out loud to others, and they’re not sure that they’ll be believed even if they do. Two, they struggle with processing it, feeling that they had some fault or part in what happened. Three, they are afraid of the problem getting worse, especially if it’s an ongoing issue and the predator still has access to them. For these reasons it’s imperative that we as a church always have an open door and a listening ear for those who open up about what they’ve been through.
The church must handle sexual predators biblically. One of the saddest revelations of the #metoo movement was the sheer amount of victims who were silenced to protect the one who committed the act – some even silenced by churches, as Savage’s victim was. It doesn’t matter if it’s a minister who has been there for decades, the newest member, or anyone in between. If it is learned that someone in the church has violated another sexually, proper steps must be taken. That can (and typically does) include legal steps. We who preach biblical morality should never try to protect people from the legal consequences of their actions.
On the other hand, the gravity of the predator’s sins does not mean they shouldn’t be treated with love and grace, as difficult as that may be. They should be confronted and called to repent (Matthew 18), and they must be shown that forgiveness is available to all who repent, put on Christ, and walk in the light. They can still be members of the church, and should be treated as such, though they will have to be subject to supervision whenever gathered with the church. Further, they may potentially be subject to a move to a different congregation if their victim(s) is part of the church and uncomfortable worshiping with them. If they are truly repentant, they will understand and comply willingly.
The church must establish a clear understanding of both the value of every individual and the necessity of maintaining biblical sexuality. The ultimate message of sexual assault is “my desires are more important than you.” We must emphasize to all of our members the value each person has as one of God’s image-bearers and that God created them to be loved, not used. We are (rightly) quick to point to the Bible’s one man, one woman basis for marriage and sex in the Bible when LGBT issues come up, but we must make sure we’re just as quick to emphasize it when it comes to physical contact and mental objectification. No one has a right to another person’s body outside of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-3), and this includes the pornography and lust that helps create the objectification of others. Our churches must lead the way in pushing a vision of sex as holy and honorable before God (Hebrews 13:4) both in deed and thought. When that happens, sexually predatory behavior becomes unthinkable and we can move towards our churches being places where #MeToo need never be uttered about our members.