Recognizing and Responding to Abuse in the Church

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Domestic violence. Spousal battering. Child abuse. Sexual abuse. These word pairings shouldn’t have to exist; they represent a shattering of shalom. But we sadly live in a fallen world, and these tragedies are realities for far too many people. How can your church recognize and respond to abuse?

This question was the topic of a 2018 panel discussion at The Library at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). The panel featured insights from Sam Williams (Fulp Professor of Biblical Counseling Chair at Southeastern), Jeremy Pierre (Chair of the Department of Biblical Counseling and Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Brad Hambrick and Kristin Kellen (assistant professors of Biblical Counseling at SEBTS).

Watch their conversation above, or read key excerpts below (edited for clarity).

If nothing is done, it is the abused who suffer.

Kristin Kellen on the importance of having conversations about abuse.

“I appreciate that in the last couple of years, this topic has come to light more clearly. We have had more clear conversations… We need to be speaking clearly and firmly against abuse. We should never in any sense condone it, and I think that’s generally where we’ve gone. We haven’t always handled it well. But I am thankful that we’re at least having these conversations much more often than I feel like we were 8 to 10 years ago.”

Jeremy Pierre on the importance of implementing ideals.

“I have been very encouraged how strong and clear the statements against abuse have been. I think that resonates with the people in our pews. I don’t think there’s a lack of conviction on this at all…. [But] we need to more intentionally pursue the ability to implement what we ideally say ought to be done.”

Brad Hambrick on the importance of bringing abuse to light.

“If nothing is done, it is the abused who suffer. Whenever an abuse victim goes from isolated to supported, we should rejoice and be relieved. There is hope. I am almost always equally grieved when things go public, because it’s one thing to go from isolated to supported. It’s another to go from isolated into the public view to where then that individual who just went from isolated to under so many eyes and so many agendas with their stories. They have to process being known by a few to many so quickly; that can be exceedingly difficult. And lots of confusion comes in….

“From a pastoral care and counseling perspective, ethical mistakes usually don’t happen because we ask the right questions and we get the wrong answers. They happen because we don’t see the question that needs to be asked. We care based upon the question that pops in our head, and we realize two weeks [or] three months later that there was important stuff we didn’t think to ask….

“So as church leaders, when we hear abuse, do we hear ‘big sin,’ or do we hear ‘crime’? That’s going to take us in two different directions. Hopefully we hear both. And we recognize that there’s a legal jurisdiction, and there’s a pastoral care jurisdiction, and we begin to think through what it looks like to do excellent pastoral care for everyone involved while cooperating with the Romans 13 jurisdiction.”

Brad Hambrick on differentiating between squabbles and abuse.

“The language I would use is to think of a spectrum, not buckets. When you have buckets, there are clearly defined edges, there’s a gap, and there’s a new bucket. When you have a spectrum, it’s one continuity and you’re crossing particular thresholds. So when you look at a rainbow, the middle of the stripe. It’s kind of clear when it’s red, kind of clear when it’s blue, kind of clear when it’s purple. When those changes happen, it’s not as clear. When we talk about the various forms abuse can take, part of just being humble is saying, ‘I live on that same spectrum.’ And that recognizes I’m not talking to somebody who’s different than me. I’m not talking to somebody who’s capable of things I’m not capable of.

“Now, some of those markers along that spectrum, that’s where there can be lots of debates about where those lines of demarcation are…. We might say one of those markers is intentionality… in the technical term of abuse, intentionality is very much implied. But great damage can be done without intentionality. It doesn’t make it less damaging. Another line we can draw is effect…. How much harm was done?… Maybe another line of demarcation might be less obvious is narrative. How freely and accurately can we talk about it? …. A lot of the ‘crazy-making’ of abuse is how it’s talked about afterwards. The blame-shifting, those kinds of things, where [the abused] begin to wonder: Is this really my fault? Is it really that bad?

“[Think] in terms of a soundboard, and we have these different aspects that can take it into that decibel range where [the sin] is chronically unhealthy enough that it moves from dishonoring to dangerous.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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