Sexual Assault and the Church

Warning - this is an important discussion, but by necessity it is a frank one which is going to go into some hard, and in a few places explicit, places.

I've touched on this topic in a few places over the years, but never very deeply. Lately I've been wrestling with whether to say a few more things about it. It's very much in the national conversation, but because it's tied to the current election and I'm strictly against pastors endorsing political candidates or telling people how to vote, I've debated whether to broach it. That said, the fact it is somehow politically divisive is perhaps an indicator that we need to spend some time sorting through it. So let's go there.

Let's talk about sexual assault and the church.

First, I want to simply suggest that the church needs to spend some very serious time reflecting on the issues surrounding sexual assault. I have both seen personally and heard from many others the way some churches seeking to bury or avoid the issue. So I'd like to start by suggesting three fundamental truths.

Up first: sexual assault happens a lot. Seriously, a lot. Depending on the statistics, between one in five and one in ten children are sexually abused before the age of 18. Twenty percent of women get sexually assaulted (sometimes again after that in childhood, sometimes repeatedly) in college. Even for those rare apologists who try to argue those stats are too high, let's be unreasonably conservative. Let's say 10% of women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. That's still a staggering number. It means that when I look out at my congregation (150-200 people) on a Sunday morning, 7-10 of the women present have experienced it. And, if you believe the statistics above, that number is more like 15-30. Plus a smaller but still significant number of men. Which should scare us because...

Sexual assault hurts people grievously. I could link to more stats and studies, but let me just speak about people I know. I have friends, both male and female, who were groped, fondled, forced into all sorts of dark acts, and legally raped (more on that language in a second). Some as adults, many as children. They are still scarred by it. Some of them took decades to even be able to speak about it. They struggle to trust people. They have panic attacks and nightmares. They are deeply scarred by this behavior. And that, I am convinced, is because...

All sexual assault is a type of rape. There is this bizarre thing that many men do when they discuss sexual violence. They rant and rage against "rapists" - i.e. those forcing actual sexual intercourse without consent - but when people talk about grabbing women's genitalia, groping and fondling them, or using physical force to take other sorts of sexual advantage of them without their consent but without actual penetration, they say "boys will be boys" and talk about "locker room talk." But forcing yourself sexually on someone is forcing yourself sexually on someone, regardless of the specific location of your sexual organs during the event. It is always destructive, and it is always evil. The fact that, out of cunning or cowardice, many men don't technically commit what is legally considered rape doesn't change the nature of the act. It is morally equivalent, and equivalent in the eyes of God.

And it is because of this divine perspective that I get so frustrated when the church minimizes or avoids addressing this issue. Men often frame discussions of sexual violence in terms of "I have a daughter," and I get that emotionally. But I am much less interested in that reality than in the Christian truth that every woman (and man) has a heavenly Father, and that someone forcing themselves sexually on one of God's image-bearers makes Him angry as hell. Literally.

We as leaders in the church have to talk about this issue. It is widespread, it is damaging, and it has for far too long been condoned by our silence, and sometimes even our speech. Part of this means that we need to have frank conversations in our churches about the wrongness of sexual assault. Part of it also means we need to take practical steps to ensure it doesn't happen in our ministries or, if it does, to respond with protection for the victim and justice for the perpetrator rather than the other way around.

That said, as I listen to sisters talk about their experiences of sexual assault and abuse in the church and as I wrestle with it myself, here are a couple of other applications I think need to be made.

We need to stop blaming women. Even implicitly. Especially implicitly, as this is much more toxic than obvious victim-blaming. The question, in response to allegations of rape or sexual assault, of "what was she wearing" is as absurd as responding to murder by asking if the guy was being a jerk. You know, because if so he was obviously asking to get killed.

The reality is that, in Scripture, sin is always the fault of the sinner. Of course sin happens in a context, I'm not denying that, but it is always the person committing the sin who is culpable. Even in a situation where a person intentionally seeks to tempt you to sin, while that is wrong, Scripture is absolutely clear that there is no temptation that we as Christians cannot (and must not) resist. If you give in to that temptation, whatever it is, that is your fault. Not theirs. Sin always shifts the blame to others; righteousness instead accepts it squarely on our own shoulders. If a man sins sexually, that is his fault and (in a real sense) his alone.

We need to stop treating women like threats. Connected to this first argument, there is a deep strand of evangelical moralizing that encourages suspicion of women. I have heard pastors given advice like "never befriend a woman" or "watch out for female parishioners" out of fear of affairs and unfaithfulness. And I get that - I've watched brothers who are pastors go down in flames because they committed adultery or otherwise sinned sexually.

But again - that's not the woman's fault. Pastors don't have affairs because they are friends with women. They have affairs because they want to sin sexually or emotionally. They have affairs because they've grown to hate their spouses. They have affairs because they've developed egos too large for one woman to sate or made God so small He can't keep them from doing what they please. And again, all of these are the pastor's issues.

The reality is that the biblical answer to how men should treat women is not to treat them like succubi and so avoid them, but to treat them like sisters and so learn to respect them. The problem with treating women like threats is that it still buys a narrative where they are basically just bodies in the orbit of your sex drive. It demeans them, and this actually makes sexual sin with them easier. Granting them dignity and honor as friends and sisters is a far better safeguard.

We need to stop making modesty about men. So a couple things here. First, it's worth noting that the two passages in Scripture about women and modesty (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:3-4) don't seem to be about sexuality at all, but rather about shows of ostentatious wealth. That said, let's grant that they have some amount of application to not dressing in ways that are over-sexualized. The thing is, the reason for this dress that Scripture gives has nothing to do with men's struggles with lust. Nothing. What they have to do with is honor and respect - honor and respect for oneself and for God. I'm entirely comfortable telling my daughter that a certain outfit is inappropriate. But the reason is that she is a woman with dignity and worth, a human being and not just a sexual object, and so dressing in ways that communicate that she is just a sexual object should be beneath her. God made her too good for that.

What I will never tell her is that she needs to dress modestly because of her brothers' struggle with lust. I understand why pastors do this, and I appreciate that they are trying to get men to resist lusting, but it just isn't a biblical approach. In the first place, I'm a dude. I am perfectly familiar with those struggles. And if my heart wants to lust after a woman, it doesn't require bikinis or halter tops or whatever to do it. I remember the story of a medieval monk who sought to chastise his sisters in the convent because they were wearing their nuns' habits in a provocative manner. Lust, like we said above about sin in general, is something whose blame always belongs at the feet of men.

Now I know lots of men are going to protest at that, so let me offer a further reason I think this is the wrong approach. The world will always have women who aren't going to wear the denim dresses and long-sleeve turtlenecks some men seem to demand. Indeed, it has always been full of people who don't meet a given preacher's notions of modesty. Scripture commands men not to lust in that world, and it never gives an exception clause for women's dress. Jesus hung out with prostitutes. Paul ministered in Corinth, where by all reports topless women solicited patrons at the temple gates. They sought (and in the case of Jesus, perfectly modeled) sexual purity while surrounded by immodesty. This convinces me that, whatever else we say about men struggling not to lust, suggesting that the women they are lusting after are somehow at fault is fundamentally misguided. Likewise, telling women that they are somehow the gatekeepers for men's purity is insanity. They are the ones being wronged when men lust after them, not the ones doing the wronging.

And all of the above is important because we need to think about how what we say sounds to women who have been victimized. One of the things that almost always results from rape and other forms of sexual assault is a sense of shame. Women feel dirty and objectified. Those abusing them in these ways tell them they are dirty and objectified. Often, especially for children, they believe (and again, are told by those preying on them) that the unwanted sexual attention it is wholly their fault. It takes years for them to realize that this isn't true, if they ever do.

When pastors blame women, when they treat them like threats, when they tell them their dress is somehow a justification for men's objectification- they are actually taking the side of the predator. They are aiding the rapist. They are destroying the innocent lambs while the grinning wolves curl at their feet.

This is why I think it's so important that the church address sexual assault and other forms of sexual abuse head-on. It is also why we need to be sure that we who are men in church leadership are speaking about it with care and in ways that treat women as equals, sisters, and image-bearers of God. Because to do otherwise might well mean that we are the ones who have to answer to their Father for our failures.


  1. Hey, Eric. This is so important--thanks for writing it. This part, especially:

    The reality is that the biblical answer to how men should treat women is not to treat them like succubi and so avoid them, but to treat them like sisters and so learn to respect them. The problem with treating women like threats is that it still buys a narrative where they are basically just bodies in the orbit of your sex drive. It demeans them, and this actually makes sexual sin with them easier. Granting them dignity and honor as friends and sisters is a far better safeguard.

    Hope you and Elizabeth and family are well. We didn't know you that long, but you've all been in our thoughts and prayers.


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