Lessons Learned On Sexual Abuse

November 14, 2017

The recent #Metoo movement on social media reminded me of a very dark time my wife and I encountered in our ministry. A missionary, who we knew and trusted for over twenty years, was exposed as a sexual predator. He was respected and revered by churches in the United States as well as thousands of people in the field. Yet, he used this position of power, influence, and trust to take advantage of women sexually his entire adult life. My wife and I made an emergency trip to Asia to minister to those who had been devastated by this man’s sin. While we often read of these situations, we never imagined that we would be in the middle of one. And, as we went through the deep waters, we were reminded of many truths that need to be reinforced.

Sexual predators are incredibly deceitful

I thought I knew this man well. I worked with him in ministry several years in the United States and also spent many months with him on the field. Our families were very close. My wife and I helped to raise his adopted son. He was one of the most respected Christian leaders in the country where he served. He appeared to be very effective as a preacher, counselor, mentor, and church planter. For many of us who thought we knew him well, there was no reason to suspect that he was involved in sexual sin, much less criminal behavior. Yet he was living a double life. Similar to Amnon in 2 Samuel 13, he manipulated circumstances to get alone with a trusting young woman and then took advantage of her sexually. He, as well as other trusted spiritual leaders and/or family members, exploited many women.

Young people need to be taught to “cry out.”

In Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Moses writes that a young virgin who is approached sexually by a man should “cry out” for help. If she did not cry out, it was assumed the girl was responsible for her participation in the fornication. Once our predator was exposed as having had a sexual relationship with a young woman (a minor, young enough to be a granddaughter), many other victims came forward. If someone had exposed this clergyman thirty or more years before he would not have held such a position of influence and trust. That knowledge might have protected many other women from abuse. More than one woman wept because she thought she was the only victim. If she had “cried out,” others might have been spared. Because sexual predators are masters of manipulation, and victims are naïve and vulnerable: young people need to be prepared to know exactly what to do if someone tries to take advantage of them.

The church needs to protect and help victims

After Amnon raped his sister Tamar, King David (her father) became very angry. Unfortunately, he did nothing to help her (2 Samuel 13:21). Tamar’s brother Absalom also failed to defend her, and instead told her to keep silent. “Has Amnon your brother been with you? But now keep silent, my sister, he is your brother; do not take this matter to heart” (13:20). Victims are often told to keep silent in order to avoid disrupting the family or church community. In the case of our missionary friend, some knew about his sin. Yet, like David and Absalom, they failed the victims by choosing to keep quiet. More than one person even tried to blame the young lady who was the most recent victim. If those who were aware of this man’s evil acts had taken action, he would have been stopped literally decades earlier. Instead, they hoped that he had changed and expressed shock that his pattern of evil had continued. Scripture teaches that we are to reflect God’s particular care for the weak and oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9; Psalm 146:7). The church should be the safest place in the world.

Sexual predators need to be publicly exposed.

The Catholic Church was scandalized when it was discovered that they were moving priests who were sexual predators from one parish to another. These priests would then find and abuse more victims.  In the same way, many families choose to hide the crimes of a predatory grandfather or uncle in order to avoid the disruption and shame that would result from their exposure. The same type of cover-up has happened repeatedly in other churches and Christian organizations.

We learned that our missionary friend had been forced to quietly leave more than one place of ministry decades earlier because of sexual sins with young people under his care. He was then able to move on to the next community and establish the trust by which he was able to isolate and victimize more women. Church leaders who abuse their position of power and influence must be dealt with publicly (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Where appropriate, their crimes must be reported to the government authorities (Romans 13:1ff). Sadly, we learned that there were many other spiritual leaders in the country where this missionary worked who had engaged in similar vile behavior with impunity. The situation with our missionary friend appears to be first time that such sin has been dealt with biblically and publicly. One good thing God may choose to do through this tragedy is to help churches learn to protect victims by identifying and removing predators. Regardless of spiritual gifting or effective ministry, leaders who abuse their power to take advantage of others sexually must be permanently disqualified from leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

Victims need help to deal with the past biblically

In his excellent book, Putting Your Past in its Place, Steve Viars writes how we can either respond righteously or unrighteously when we are sinned against. While the predator has the far greater sin, the victim may be guilty of responding sinfully to what has happened to her. Some victims fail to cry out. Some victims, after initial resistance, become willing participants in sexual sin. The victim needs to understand that, like Bathsheba and Tamar, a person who abused his position of power has sinned against her. She may also need to confess her own sin to God and to others who have been affected. A young woman victimized by the missionary when she was still a minor continued in a sinful relationship with this man for over ten years. God gave her grace to repent of her failure to expose his sins and also of her own sexual sin. She received godly counsel and is now walking with the Lord.

We must put our ultimate trust in God, not men

Our fallen missionary was excessively respected and revered. When such a man falls, the faith of those who trusted him can also be shaken. We are warned that if we put our trust in man we will be like the bush that withers in the desert (Jeremiah 17:5-6). But if we trust in God, we shall be like the flourishing tree planted by the river of water (Jeremiah 17:7-8). While many were deeply shaken by the fall of this missionary, the end result was that those who had relied on him too much now rely on the Lord. We thank God that the failure of a false messenger has not led to a rejection of God’s message. Furthermore, we see a new generation of leaders stepping up to care for Christ’s church in this nation. We hope that this will be a generation of leaders who will be careful to protect the flock, keep watch on themselves, and look out for one another.

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  • Jim Newheiser, DMin
    (MA, DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is director of the Christian Counseling program and professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He is a fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and a board member of the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (FIRE).
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