In a previous article, I explored why the AmaBishop show became so popular among the South African population. One of the reasons was that it tackled serious issues in a populist manner. One of these, which evidently resonated with many viewers, was the issue of abuse in the church. Sadly, AmaBishop highlighted that very few churches respond well to victims of abuse—particularly claims against Christian leaders.

These instances point to a damning lack of properly responding to victims of abuse.

A guest on AmaBishop had experienced domestic abuse from her husband. Her husband, it turns out, was a pastor. Describing her experience, she mentioned that the women in her church simply did not believe her. Another guest was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a Christian leader. After reporting her abuse she faced intimidation from the church’s leadership. These churches did not stand up for those women. Support was horribly lacking. But these two instances are not isolated or rare. They point to a damning lack of properly responding to victims of abuse in many churches.

AmaBishop was well received because it did not shy away from addressing abuse in the church—including financial, sexual, domestic abuse, as well as the abuse of power. Many of those discussions were startling. Tragically, a common theme in them was that many women in the church were afraid of speaking about their abuse. We must counter this culture of fear and shame, responding better to abuse victims. In this post I offer three ways we can do this.

Listen without Judgement

Sharing one’s experience of abuse is unbelievably difficult. From what we’ve seen above, this is perhaps even harder when it comes at the hands of a Christian pastor or leader. Therefore we need to be wise in how we respond to those who share their stories of abuse. The Bible encourages us to be good listeners. We should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19), careful not to speak before we hear (Proverbs 18:13). Victims of abuse have difficulty speaking out because of different fears, so we should listen to the victim’s story with empathy and grace.

Victims of abuse have difficulty speaking, so we should listen with empathy and grace.

Linked to listening well, we must avoid casting doubt on a victim’s story while also making sure not to ‘victim blame’. Following God’s wisdom we should practise listening first, without suspicion. Sadly, victims are often blamed for placing themselves in the situation that led to abuse. This should never be the case when a Christian leader is involved. Yes, there comes a time when the details of the story must be examined. But on first hearing we should strive to be compassionate, careful not to undermine the victim or their story.

Report Abuse

Abuse should never be hidden by the church. It must be reported. There are different guidelines and laws for reporting different kinds of abuse. Among Christians, 1 Timothy 5:20 says that any elder who is found sinning should be publicly rebuked so that others will take warning. Because church discipline ultimately falls to the elders, they should ensure that the reports are accurate (1 Timothy 5:19). This means they must be objective and fair, pursuing justice that honours God. Therefore Christian leaders should not ‘close ranks,’ protecting their own.

Christian leaders should not ‘close ranks,’ protecting their own.

Importantly, reporting by a third party needs consent from the victim. In some cases, the reports may need to be reported to state authorities. In that case, church discipline can go hand in hand with processes from the state authorities. As an individual Christian, you can bring the matter to the elders of your church and work with them in the process to help the victim. Keeping the abuse a secret is not something we want to do.

Create Mechanisms to Care

Our churches should create a safe environment that will make reporting abuse easier. Unnecessary bureaucracy should be avoided, and victims should be provided with support. The church should have some sort of counselling platform for victims. We must be prepared to respond in the case that abuse takes place. It might be that your church is not resourced enough to employ a counsellor. In that case, a church can outsource help for victims of abuse.

The Church Must Tackle Abuse

Our churches should speak boldly against abuse in all its forms. For this is no mere societal problem. Every woman, man, and child is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Furthermore, churches should educate their members about abuse and how God speaks both into and against it. As the saying goes, “Prevention is better than cure”. There are many other things involved in dealing with abuse in the church and helping its victims. Part of the task for the church is to help the perpetrator too. But that is a topic for another article.

The church should never be an environment where abuse thrives.

So, in conclusion, the church must tackle abuse, on many fronts. As we saw, we listen empathetically to the stories of victims, without raising doubt or sharing blame. When we hear about abuse we must take the claims seriously. And when the church is certain that abuse has taken place, we should not cover it up but should report it. Therefore it is necessary for churches to design platforms and mechanisms that will help victims. The church should never be an environment where abuse thrives.