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Do No Harm | Part 1

By Anna Mondal

While working in an ophthalmology clinic, I often admired our doctors’ framed copies of the Hippocratic Oath. In this ancient code of medical ethics, physicians vow not to “play at God,” but acknowledge their limits. [1] They pledge to comfort and cure the vulnerable, not cause further harm. 

This life-affirming ethic [2] was developed for physicians who heal human bodies. But even before Hippocrates, early church fathers considered people who provided spiritual care to be the doctors of the soul. [3] “The care/cure of souls…is the foundational description of pastoral ministry.” [4] Pastoral ministry is a big topic, and not one I’m not qualified or inclined to speak into. But as a woman who counsels abuse survivors, I’m deeply interested in the place where pastoral care and victim care intersect. [5]

Pastors, Power, and Victim Care

In just a few years counseling abuse survivors, I’ve listened to dozens of women share their life stories. Many looked to a spiritual authority for help. Just like a patient in a doctor’s office, they entrusted him with their vulnerability in a hope he would help. But instead of help, many women received more harm: accusations, disbelief, incompetent counsel, glib solutions. The pastor’s response only intensified the damage of past abuse. Stories like these are staggeringly common, [6] not because all pastors are bad, but because they hold what Dr. Diane Langberg calls a “phenomenal combination” of power:

“Take a strong physical presence, an articulate voice, emotional sway, and…theological knowledge and put them all together in a room with someone in crisis, whose struggles and pain have rendered them somewhat inarticulate, who is theologically uncertain and whose history carries instances of victimization—you have a potential for abuse of power.” [7]

Because of my job, my gender, and my personal history of sexual abuse, I’ve heard things from women that male pastors may never hear. I know the power that good men have to protect (or prey upon) and lead (or delude) women who have been made vulnerable through abuse. As victims of sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse come forward in our churches, how can pastors use their power to help, and not further harm? [8]

Acknowledge Victims’ Existence

Approximately ten percent of the national population has experienced a traumatic event, and one out of four are or will be victims of sexual abuse. [9] Trauma, especially sexual trauma, is not a niche issue—it is endured by people in our pews. [10] If we never talk about victimization, a quarter of the congregation may believe they are invisible, and their experiences irrelevant. 

Our churches must speak openly about the reality of abuse. When a pastor preaches on sin and evil, he should list “rape” and “child sexual abuse” alongside racism and heretical preaching. If spiritual authorities say nothing about abuse, victims may conclude that God is silent, too. 

This is not about making our churches avant-garde, politically correct, or superficially inclusive. This is about truth: naming evil, exposing darkness, and drawing sufferers toward the light of Christ. The Apostle Paul writes, “The fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth…don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:9-10). When we expose evil for what it is, the light of Christ shines. 

 

In Part 2, we will look at ways pastors can grow in wisdom and skill in the context of victim care.

 


[1] “The Hippocratic Oath: The Original and Revised Version,” The Practo Blog for Doctors, https://doctors.practo.com/the-hippocratic-oath-the-original-and-revised-version/ (March 10, 2015, accessed June 9, 2020).

[2] The original oath explicitly advocates for unborn lives. See “The New Hippocratic Oath” by Phil Ryken, Tenth Presbyterian Church https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/the-new-hippocratic-oath (May 4, 2004, accessed June 16, 2020).

[3] See chapter three of Harold L. Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham Press, 2019) 60-91.

[4] Senkbeil, The Care of Souls, 63.

[5] Victim care also includes women and children in domestically violent homes. However, the advocacy and intervention required for safety in these cases is beyond the scope of this writing, which is primarily angled toward men and women who have experienced past trauma (combat, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence/rape, and spiritual or emotional abuse).

[6] For stories beyond my own, start with Rachael Denhollander’s What is a Girl Worth?, Ruth Tucker’s Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, or Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Worthy.

[7] In Our Lives First: Meditations for Counselors, Diane Mandt Langberg, PhD (Jenkintown, PA: Diane Langberg, PhD & Associates, 2013), 113.

[8] Pastors are human—if they or their congregation expect superhuman attributes, they are succumbing to idolatry. All humans have limits, inadequacies, and are always learning. The point of this writing is not to berate pastors for being fallible—that would be absurd. Instead, the emphasis is to educate and encourage pastors who welcome an outside perspective on victim care.

[9] See Peterson, C., DeGue, S., Florence, C., & Lokey, C. N. (2017). Lifetime economic burden of rape among U.S. adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Advanced online publication. doi:10.1016/j. amepre.2016.11.014. See also https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/VAW_infographic.pdf?ua=1. Between seven and eight percent of the United States population will experience trauma at some point in their lifetime. Narrowing this further, nearly 10 percent of women will develop PTSD – often, but not always related to sexual violence and domestic abuse. (“How Common is PTSD in Adults?” National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp. Also see National Sexual Violence Resource Center, https://www.nsvrc.org/node/4737).

[10] God often seems hidden to trauma victims, based on their experiences of betrayal by trusted friends/family and complicit authorities (a mom who covers and excuses abuse, an elder board that looks the other way when allegations are made against the pastor). But God is not silent or passive about oppression – see Psalm 146:7-9; Prov. 22:22-23; Isa. 10:1-3; Ezek. 34; Luke 11:42; etc.