Sexual Abuse in the Church

October 23, 2018

I am terrified that it will be me.

Not that I will be falsely accused by a woman of sexual misconduct, but that I will commit it. I tell myself that I am being dramatic and that my anxiety is unwarranted. But nearly every article about sexual violence in the church begins with the haunting line, “no one thought it would be him.”

Maybe it has been me. I comb through my memories starting with high school and work my way into my early twenties. I walk back through staff meetings, coffee outings, phone calls, questioning how I have talked to women or put my arm around them. I dissect my interactions and stumble onto a few moments I would change.

I need my therapist to tell me whether my fear of impropriety is a good sign or a bad one. What does it say about me that I am worried about being the “it could never be him” guy? Is it shameful to have this hyper-awareness? Is it healthy? I don’t know what to feel. Sometimes I feel resentment. I wish I did not need to examine my own actions and motives. It is uncomfortable and tiring. This past year, the #MeToo movement has taught me that I need the type of self-examination that considers my gender. I need to pay attention to the stories of women and to my own story in a particular way. The church should, too.

If you don’t think sexual violence against women is a reality that needs to be addressed in both society and the church, there are many reports and articles that will convince you. This report by the CDC in 2011 is damning. Sexual assault is a non-partisan pandemic that the church has found itself in the middle of. In the past year, there have been many articles like this one by Sojourners, which explore practical steps congregations can take to better address the reality of sexual abuse in the church. The policy recommendations that have emerged from the #ChurchToo movement, especially those offered by female authors, are vital and necessary.

One of the recommendations consistently offered to the church is to ensure that women are represented at the highest levels of church leadership. Most of the members within churches are females, and the leadership should reflect that. We have a long way to go on this front. In a recent conversation with a friend about a church hiring a new senior pastor, I asked what the chances were that they would consider a female candidate. She scoffed. One in a thousand, she said.

One frequent recommendation is that pastors ought to preach on texts that intersect with issues of sexual abuse. The advice is offered in the hope that these passages will create space for victims of sexual abuse to find solidarity and freedom to share their stories. Unfortunately, the sexually charged stories of our beloved but patriarchal scripture in the hands of patriarchal and sexually charged pastors will not help. Pastors can and should address texts in scripture that have historically given license to violent and abusive behavior. However, I am afraid that in many contexts, this won’t address the core reason of why churches are often unsafe spaces.

In his seminal book on conflict, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf approaches conflict with others, not by focusing on policies or systems, however important these are. Instead, Volf asks the question, “What kind of selves do we need to be in order to live in harmony with others?” That is the question I find myself asking this year: What kind of self do I need to be to ensure that I am a safe and dignity-offering person to be around? What work do I need to do so that women feel safe working with me? It is a sobering question.

Reflecting on this has led me to two recommendations that I might offer to churches:

First, every pastor should be in a relationship with a licensed clinical therapist. Perhaps I should say it this way: every church board (consistory, session, etc.) should require that their pastor meet regularly with a highly qualified individual in whom they find confidentiality and counsel. Pastors too often neglect the hard work of self-knowledge and substitute it with a form of devotional study. Although studying prepares pastors for exegetical sermons, it neglects true formation. Therapy is hard, but to be the sort of self who is able to live in harmony with others, we must address the areas of hurt and pain in our own lives that cause us to hurt and cause pain in the lives of others.

Secondly, churches should celebrate communion every week, and they should place it at the center of the worship service—before the sermon. If your church does not observe communion weekly, this will seem particularly dramatic. There are many reasons to observe communion weekly, and you can read John Calvin or Todd Billings on the topic. Nothing shapes my understanding of God, myself, or others more than the weekly observation of communion.

But why place it in the middle of the service? Three years ago, I began attending a church that observes communion every week, smack dab in the middle of the service. At first, it threw me off because I was accustomed to preaching towards the communion table. I could let my sermons swell into this beautiful moment with the rustic loaf and clay cups.

The liturgical decision to place communion at the center of worship ensures that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are at the heart of every single worship service. People no longer come to church to hear the sermon; they come to take communion. This liturgical move changes the flow of power in worship and in the church as a whole by de-emphasizing the role of the pastor and emphasizing the presence of Christ at the table. The preacher’s personality and charisma should, of course, never be central to the preaching of God’s word. However, churches built around their pastor’s personalities are rampant—not just among mega-churches. The cult of personality can and often does distract from the pre-eminence of Christ and the gospel. But by placing communion at the heart of the service, Christ’s presence at the table is central and the life of the church, liturgically and otherwise revolves around him.

The church must be better. And we can be. By giving women representative leadership, connecting our pastors to therapists, and shifting power away from the pastor and to Christ we can begin to make churches safe places that honor the stories of all people.

About the Author
  • Caleb Schut recently moved to Australia with his family. He graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 2016, served as the associate pastor at Grace Chicago Church in Chicago, IL for six years, and currently is an Assistant Pastor at an evangelical church in Sydney. Additionally, Caleb and his wife run a non-profit called Beautiful Response in partnership with leaders in Uganda and Haiti.

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  1. Caleb,

    I appreciate your concern for this issue. I also appreciate that you labor in a different ecumenical setting than me, so I won’t speak to the issue of women in office or other aspects of polity here. I affirm that sexual abuse is a deeply important issue for the church to address, and, in part, I think a Biblical view of sexuality is an antidote to the consumptive vision of sexuality that presses in on us from every angle, even welling up in our own sinful hearts.

    However, I really want to caution you on intentionally supplanting the Word preached as the center of worship. It was a central concern of the very Reformers you cite in this article that the sacraments (in this case, the Lord’s Supper) act as sign and seal to the Word preached. Bavinck describes this issue as fundamental, as the Roman church placed the sacrament above the Word, while the Reformers place the Word preached at the central place. That is, you can have a service where the sacraments are not administered, but you cannot have a service where the Word is not preached (the meeting becomes something else without that preaching).

    I’m less concerned as to where the Lord’s Supper falls in the order of worship, although the Reformers, including Calvin, were again clear on an order where the sermon preceded the sacrament, but I think if the sermon becomes entirely about bringing us to the Table, then the Lord’s Supper can again supplant the sermon, so I’m not as focused on that.

    I also applaud your concern that the preaching not be about the pastor’s rhetorical skill or ego, since the pastor acts as a prophet, and only through the pastor’s strict fidelity to Scripture can we claim that the preaching is feeding the flock with the very Word of God.

    I simply post here to encourage you not to, through your Godly concern not to yourself be the center of worship, rob God’s Word of its central place. The seal is meaningful because of the document it certifies; the invitation to sit at the table is judgment without knowledge of the host. We are a sinful people, who, as James says, forget our own reflection when we turn from the mirror of the Word. That Word must therefore always be held in front of us, and the reminder and clarification that comes by the preaching of that Word must always be the center of our worship. The mouth of faith that eats the bread and drinks the cup to our blessing only comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.

    I post this publicly because your recommendation to decentralize the preaching was public, but I do pray for the Lord’s blessing on your ministry.

    1. What a thoughtful and helpful comment. Thanks for taking the time to read and to respond. The way you highlight the importance of the preached Word is a welcome contribution to my suggestion that communion be observed centrally. I wasn’t quite careful enough in how I used the phrase “central” and its synonyms. I certainly don’t want to “supplant” the preaching of the Word nor any other part of the worship service by shifting the liturgical sequence of worship.

      If I was going to explore this topic a bit more, I might try to explore how observing communion centrally (in terms of order of service) provides a standing place, a sort of glow behind the preaching of the Word that only elevates it. At the same time, I think it shifts power away from a central figure head, which is a welcome shift in 2018.

    2. Ouch. It’s the “Catholic” (not “Roman”) church you mean.

      Bavinck’s splitting of a too-easy dichotomy over Word/Sacrament reflects the ethnic and sectarian apartheid of his day and the bigotries that went with it. E.g., “We are Reformed because we are not Romanists!” Lutheran, Anglicans, and even many Reformed traditions never originally defined themselves by such reductive stereotyping of a Catholic Other that puts “Word” below “Sacrament.” This splitting came later, quickly in some cases, with bitter, often violent conflict. Today, many always-reforming traditions agree that it is impossible to celebrate the Eucharist without preaching the Gospel, but it is possible to preach the Word and make it all “Law” or “Glory” and miss the Gospel and the Cross. This, was more fundamentally the critique Luther made.

      1. Gerry,

        I meant what I said. The church may claim to be the only true church (and therefore “Catholic”), but it is not. I mean it with no malice, but if I’m shortening the name from Roman Catholic, I’m picking the former descriptive over the latter, because it’s more accurate.

        Also, are you asserting that the distinction of Word from Sacrament is a bigoted concept?

        The primacy of the Word preached is a regular assertion throughout the Reformers, and, yeah, to some degree, the Reformation was defined in terms of how it differed from Rome. Not in the sense of being the opposite of whatever Rome was so much as in fundamental disagreements about the nature of faith, grace, Scripture, and so many other things. No one with any fidelity to what “Reformed” has historically meant would assert that you could have the Sacrament without the Word, while there is disagreement to some degree over the inverse, but only as a matter of preference (For instance, while Calvin preferred to link them always, he clearly didn’t think it heretical to embrace a practice in Geneva that saw administration of the Lord’s Supper less frequently).

        Conversely, Rome does allow taking the Eucharist without hearing the gospel, and they consider the Eucharist the sine qua non of Christianity.

        Therefore, there is an elevation of the Eucharist in Roman theology that places it arguably above and certainly separate from the Word. The Reformed have always argued the inseparability of the Sacrament from the Word and generally affirmed a dependency of the Sacrament upon the Word. In this way, the Word is above the Sacrament, and many Reformed believers carry the independence of the Word to mean that the preaching does not always need to be accompanied by the Sacrament at all times.

        1. I’m afraid you don’t understand the relevant ecclesiology, in which there has been broad agreement between Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans who can all count themselves catholic yet also “separated brethren.” The relevant master-text is St. Paul saying “Christ is the head of all men,” i.e, everyone. Aquinas explicated this definitively for the church of his day, in which it (as the body of Christ extended through time) is coextensive with all humanity, if only in potential. There is a universalist possibility in a universal church; these things go together. Take away one, and you also take the other, reducing the church to a sect.

          Magisterial Catholic theology has attempted to remain faithful to the course set by Aquinas. At many times various popes and theologians have responded reactively to historical situations, such as European Catholics collaborating with the Nazis, or baptized and ordained Christians in antiquity who cracked under persecution and renouncced the faith. At such times, many were motivated to define the church as having an outside, so that these terrible sinners and heretics could be thrown there in a space that tends to grow and find places for every other infidel — Jews, Muslims, separated brethren. But this has all been set right since the world wars by ecumenical movements, which for Catholics were really capped off in recent times by Benedict XVI. The bishop of Rome is not the head of all men, nor the head of the universal church — he is Christ’s vicar at the present moment for a divided church militant that still expresses its catholicity as something beyond itself. The institutional church is not the Church, the full body, throughout all time. In the periods of reaction and conflict, yes Catholics and Protestants alike have aggrandized themselves as “the true church” while condemning others as false churches, heretics, atheists, etc. (In fact the modern concept of atheism arises from intra-Christian polemic.)

          Having explained that, yes the division of Word/Sacrament is a polemical dichotomy invented to bolster identity around antagonism, and that is how you’ve used it. Your original comment is full of “we must not be mistaken for ‘Romanists’ (another pejorative)” as its motive. As if there’s any danger!

          If you can “take the eucharist” (which literally means ‘giving thanks,’ following the text of Luke 22:18-19 where the word is used) without hearing the gospel in the gospel-filled reading and responses that pervade the Mass (and traditional Protestant liturgies based on it), well then that is a personal issue. People can clog their minds or be badly taught or simply inattentive in any kind of religious service.

          As a catholic reformation scholar, it’s amusing to read you refer to “Rome” as a “they” that “allows” and “considers” things. I’m not sure what to make of the idea of the pope “misleading” a billion catholics to think Christ crucified and yet alive and dwelling within us is “the sine qua non of Christianity.” (First, we’re not a hive-mind or all that controlled by a hierarchy; second, how is this a false message?) Yes, it’s a ritual. It’s not magic. The eucharist’s semiotic relationship to (a mysterious, mystical) reality may be the big hangup for you. Those old academic debates about accidents and substances are not really significant except as history, much of it regrettable. But by all means keep the factions and fights of early modernity alive as late modernity hangs from a cliff.

          The earliest Catholic, Christian sign of the church is to be known by our love, which unity expresses.

          1. I will respectfully disagree, Gerry.

            While your tone and assertions are insulting, the agreement of a segment of Lutheran congregations and the Anglo-Catholics to acknowledge the position of the pope does not remake the whole field of church relations such that someone who rejects the concept that pope is the vicar of Christ suddenly doesn’t “understand ecclesiology.” The very concept of “vicar of Christ” is defined, by the Roman Catholic church itself as the supreme leader of the Church of Christ on earth. Rejection of that jurisdictional claim is not a historical anomaly reserved to the very most fractious, it’s part of the reason why the Reformed have traditionally identified the pope as an anti-Christ.

            I believe you are indicating that you are a Roman Catholic. If so, I get why you can completely gloss over the doctrinal differences that are still maintained by most Protestant churches. If you claim to be a Protestant, then I urge you to study your own tradition. The nature of the Lord’s Supper is not a question which has faded into obscurity, and a distinction between Word and Sacrament simply isn’t something invented by the Reformers, let alone something invented by them for purely polemical, transitory purposes. The nature of the Word and Sacrament are central concerns of the Reformation. I just don’t see how you can claim to be a scholar of that period and not perceive that.

            1. I’m not sure what you find insulting. Repeatedly using pejorative labels, historic terms of abuse, and identifiers disliked by the groups you are applying them to is not something I have done. I think you understand “Romanists” is a straight up insult. “Roman Catholic” is not much better. It refers to one of many Catholic liturgical rites, not the church that includes them all. I cannot really believe you imagine the church is like North Korea, led by a dictator, which is how you talk about it in your comments. Was this your experience at Georgetown?

              The Lutheran World Federation, The World Methodist Council, The World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Anglican Communion all came together on the Joint Declaration on Justification — this is not a small segment of Protestantism as you seem to imply. That historic moment, still unfolding, was never a matter of anyone “accepting the position of the pope,” as if the pope personally forms and sustains some unchanging body of doctrine, which he certainly does not do. The reforms of the second Vatican council, for example, included the input of many Protestants, including Reformed theologians such as G. C. Berkouwer and Karl Barth. The conciliar history of the church is something we can look forward to as a continuing influence, not the ultramontane aberration you seem to imagine is as real as some marginal sedevacantists wish it actually was.

              Yes, the jurisdictional claim of the bishop of Rome remains a historical inheritance of the western church that divides it principally from the east but also points westward that still value the tradition of apostolic succession. This remains a point of open dialogue, I believe. This and the doctrinal differences are not so great, and nothing should impede the mission of unity and love, which we have to constantly strive for.

              My original point, relevant to Caleb’s article, was about Word and Sacrament not being an essential identity feature of Protestantism such that there must be an airtight compartment, in Reformed liturgical thinking, between the celebration of communion and the sermon, as if one is all “Sacrament” and the other all “Word,” where the apparent emphasis of one must necessarily de-emphasize the other.

              Luther, who brought made Word/Sacrament distinction thematic, presented it as a unity or dialectic, not a dichotomy. It became that, sadly, because it was so easily weaponized for polemical usage against opponents on all sides. Luther wrote of the sacraments as “the outward Word” or the Word of God made visible. In the large catechism he, an Augustinian monk at heart, says that if the Word is joined to a Sacrament it becomes one. None of this is controversial, just read what Luther says. Gordon A. Jenson is a good historical theologian to read on the subject. Allen G. Jorgenson has provided a recent systematics approach.

              1. Gerry,

                I can say “Rome” because the Roman Catholic church is organized in a papal ecclesiology. It is headed by a single figure, and while there is diversity within that body, not the least being different rites and the sedavacantist groups, they have a centralized structure that allows for such descriptors. “Roman Catholic” is even a descriptor used in the very joint statement that you’re referring to. It would be improper to describe anything as a Roman Catholic belief unless it was approved by the central body. I’m not deaf variance in the practice of different groups that fall into that denomination, but the sacraments are one of those areas that are extensively spoken to by that body; hence, for instance, why, despite this consensus you’re referring to, none of those churches who have signed the declaration are welcome to partake in the Eucharist at a Mass.

                You could still drive a truck through the doctrinal differences contained in that joint declaration, not to mention the very real differences on the most important aspect of this for our conversation: the Sacraments. The Mass remains an idolotry. Nothing in this document touches that. It remains a central assertion of the Reformation, and it remains an issue about exactly the distinction of Word and Sacrament that you’re saying is illusory.

                You haven’t clarified if you are yourself a Roman Catholic or not, nor, if you are not, the degree of your dialog with them. I have a friend from my Georgetown days who was, up until recently deciding to marry, on the path to priesthood, even studying in Rome. He runs a very popular blog that I gave him the name for (“Shameless Popery”). We’ve spent hours talking through the many differences remaining between Reformed believers and the Roman Catholic church. We’ve talked and argued about it until we had to agree to keep it off limits in some conversations in order to not center our whole friendship on that (just ask my wife). One of my clearest takeaways from extensive dialog with him is that, even where we think we’re talking about the same thing, we almost always meant different things by even the words we’re using. Grace, for instance, is a very different concept in Reformed and Roman Catholic conceptions.

                This runs all through the document you’re pointing to as a sign that we’re not that different anymore. We still really genuinely are, and the centrality of the Word preached and the nature of the Sacraments remain key features of that division. They even divide strains of Protestantism, as the Reformed wouldn’t agree to everything Luther says about the Sacraments, and there is a significant difference between the Reformed view and the memorialist view that dominates in many broadly evangelical churches today. My initial encouragement to Caleb was not to sell the Reformed tradition short by lightly re-centering the worship on the Lord’s Supper instead of the preaching. I really appreciate the spirit with which he took my comment, and I’m not on some radical, bigoted fringe of Reformed thought to make that assertion (and neither was Bavinck).

                1. You left out your use of “Romanist,” a true term of invective, just as you continue to ignore all the substance here. If I make claims, I offer support for them. You seem to pick verbal surfaces to riff on, ignoring the substantial points of theology and history or any regard for sources. I guess your authority to speak about Catholics and Catholic thought rests on your experiences with your blogger friend, which you would much rather discuss than what someone like Luther actually said about Word and Sacrament. It’s very clear you want to maximize not only differences but hostility over them to the point that you are threatened by a pastoral and liturgical idea that is perfectly amenable to the followers of Luther and Calvin. If it truly matters to you not to seem like “some radical, bigoted fringe,” your rhetoric seems contrary to that goal. It is all about defining enemies who must be maximally dissimilar, depersonalized, and then labelled with terms of derision and abuse as well. My point stands; you’ve illustrated it well.

                  1. Gerry,

                    I left out my use of the term “Romanist” because I’ve never used it in our conversation here. Only you have. As to everything else, I have tried to stay on topic. I have made a good faith effort to engage your points, but you clearly are not seeing it that way.

                    At this point, you have called me a bigot, and you’ve expressed a sense of amusement at my ignorance and complete lack of understanding of this topic. You are dismissive of historic Reformed beliefs about the nature of the Sacraments as significant only as part of a regrettable history (dismissing theological concerns that are obviously significant to me as irrelevant). You say that you have not engaged in using historic terms of abuse or the use of less-preferred adjectives. Fine, I’ll grant you that, but only because you have been directly personal in your assertions.

                    All of these things suggest that this conversation has run its course in a public place. I still stand by the substance of my encouragement to Caleb, and I am happy to continue a dialog with you on a personal capacity, but I see no further value in engaging you publicly in this setting. Please do feel free to email me directly (, as I really am willing to engage you one on one via email, or, depending where you live, to meet for coffee or a beer sometime.

                    I am not looking to maximize hostility, but I doubt I could say anything in this setting that would convince you otherwise. Perhaps in private communication we could speak more fruitfully. I invite you to engage in that way.

  2. Caleb,

    Thank you for this post and for your thoughtful reflection about abuse in the church, spiritually and emotionally healthy pastors, and the life-giving renewal we receive in the sacrament. I also greatly appreciate the gracious dialogue between you and Donald. It adds to the strength of your piece.

    My only addition to what you’ve said well already is that while counseling and therapy might be a helpful and needed resource for pastors, the central underlying issue that you are identifying is that pastors, by the nature of their work, can be so isolated. Some of this isolation can be self-imposed. This isolation can be a fertile petri dish for dysfunction and moral failure. This is why I advocate strongly for pastors to seek out peer groups where they are allowed to be vulnerable and have a regular avenue to discuss joys and fears, successes and struggles. I have enjoyed the benefit of a steady peer group over the past decade of ministry and it is has given me encouragement and health, and I believe, has allowed me to have some healthy longevity in my current call. I am not saying that I have everything figured out and that I don’t have blind spots that some intentional therapy would assist me in uncovering, but having regular, intentional contact with others who share similar challenges and experiences has been invaluable to me.

    1. Thanks for adding the comment about peer groups. I haven’t been a part of a pastor’s group that promotes genuine vulnerability, so I’m glad you added that. My experience has been that pastor’s groups have an odd combination of ego and are pretty much always just men. Can you pinpoint anything that enables the group that you are a part of to be open and vulnerable with one another?

      I have had vocational loneliness met by those sorts of groups, but find that I don’t feel comfortable being 100% transparent, at least not in the same way as I am with my therapist.