What would Satan do?

Sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the church


Ever since God breathed the breath of life into an undistinguished looking lump of dirt and created mankind, Satan’s main goal has been to cause God’s people to sin so they can be damned to a painful eternity in the dark pits of hell.  It’s incredible to think that the devil hates us that much. Well, what better place to find believers than inside a church? You don’t have to look far to see that this simple strategy works well. Consider for instance the current sexual harassment/sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Recently, The Houston Chronicle partnering with the San Antonio Express, ran an explosive story titled “Abuse of Faith” that alleges, “In the past 20 years, a disturbing number of Southern Baptists with formal church roles have engaged in sexual misconduct.” The article also claims over 700 people have been victimized by pastors, youth leaders and deacons and that when informed about this problem, in general, churches and their leadership resisted acting and implementing reforms.  The hopeful news is that the SBC is now beginning to respond and has created a hotline that allows people to report abuse (1-888-528-8282.) By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church.

We contemporary Christians are fond of asking, “What would Jesus do?” It is an admirable attempt to model our actions after our Lord’s.  But I think it’s just as instructive to ask what would our enemy Satan do. It can be sobering to realize that unfortunately, even we believers are often just as affected by his tricks as we are by the guidance of Christ.  So, when I read about the SBC scandal I asked that question in an attempt to gain some perspective. I am not the devil (believe it or not). But if I were Satan, what would I do to cause anxiety and trouble in the church? Sexual harassment and abuse would be an efficient tool to use, because sex and even mere talk about sex draws attention and inspires gossip. I would enter the hearts of some men and women in the church and inspire them to harass and abuse other members and visitors. I would pick people in leadership roles, starting with the pastors and then I would infect deacons, teachers and youth leaders with lust.  After doing that, I would sit back and watch what happens.

I’ve read that when the victim reports harassment or abuse, he or she is often not believed. This is especially so when they are alleging that a popular member or church leader did it.  This often causes a split in the church. Those who sympathize with the accuser will take one side and those who back the favored church leader or member will take the other side.  Now we have division and mistrust. It’s a start. Next, people will begin to talk. This will spread gossip and cause more confusion.  The church will be forced to deal with the allegations by either having a meeting or by silencing the accuser.  Some churches choose one method. Others choose the other method.

For instance, Terry Gross on her National Public Radio Show “Fresh Air” reported that some in the SBC chose the latter method. She said, “Survivors who came forward alleging they were abused by church leaders, ministers and volunteers were ignored or silenced by church leadership and often disparaged.”

The accused may be innocent. The accused may be guilty. What seems to matter most is whether the church is viewed by the membership as being fair and transparent throughout the controversy. That is why church systems need to be in place to deal fairly and objectively with sexual abuse and harassment incidents.  The Bible gives good direction on how to deal with problems and conflicts of all types. My favorite passage on handling conflict in a Christian manner is Matthew 18:15-17.  In our Western Democratic society, everyone accused of a crime or a sin is innocent until proven guilty.  We must make sure that includes the victim. When the victim tries to get help and is unfairly discredited, he or she will probably leave the church. Chalk up another win for me, the devil. When the victim leaves, others may leave too. Now the church is smaller, weaker numerically and financially and entangled in conflict.  New visitors will eventually hear the story and some may be put off by a church that has had such a problem. Suddenly it’s hard to get new members. Even current members may wonder, if it is safe to bring family members there. They may move to another church. If a youth leader is involved, it will hinder recruitment of young people and they are really the future church.  Something must happen to stop the slide downhill.  That something is sitting on top of the church roof. It’s the cross. In other words, Jesus is the answer. It’s time now for the church to genuinely ask, “What would Jesus do?” And more specifically, “What would Jesus have us do?”

Jesus is a truth teller. He always brings truth into every situation. He said the truth sets us free (John 8:32). The first truth all believers must face is the sad fact that all of us sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). That includes pastors, youth leaders and other church leaders as well as members of the congregation.  This means we are not immune to committing sexual sins even after becoming Christians. In the Bible, we see that Satan entered people in Jesus’ own social circle and they sinned. He entered Judas (John 13:27). Jesus warned Peter that Satan was after him. Later Peter denied Christ.  Satan entered Adam and Eve and caused them to sin against God. In all three cases, those who sinned were in the presence of God. Yet Satan boldly entered them despite that. Satan enters you and he enters me. Then we sin. If we will humbly admit that fact, it will help us to understand that none of us should think so highly of himself or herself that he or she begins to believe he or she is beyond sinning.  Therefore, doesn’t it also make sense to realize that popular members and church leaders are also capable of acts that we cannot imagine them committing? In fact, according to Ministry Safe, a sexual abuse prevention training program, in the case of children, 90% of abuse victims are abused by someone they know and trust. There is no profile of a sexual abuser or someone who harasses. If you insist upon having one, grab a mirror and look in it. We are all suspects, male, female and even children. That is why we need objective systems in churches with real consequences for those who practice sexual abuse and harassment. The operative word here is objective.  It’s hard to be objective when the person accused is Brad, your popular youth leader. That is why we need to pray for guidance and seek help from our church associations. If a crime is involved, of course law enforcement has to be notified as well.  But in many church scandals, the longest lasting injuries came from church leaders trying to cover up the problem. The Bible teaches that God is sufficient for all our needs.  But he needs us to sincerely surrender to his guidance in a situation such as this. Remember, the ultimate goal of Satan is not to just stop an individual. It’s to stop God, his kingdom and his faithful people.  The real enemy is not the accused person or the victim. It’s the devil. He enters us, uses us and then moves on after leaving behind a wreckage of lives. When we realize and admit to ourselves that we can in fact be used by Satan, we will watch our actions and his. If a hug is unwanted, don’t give it. Sure, she’s wearing a provocatively low-cut dress that dangerously displays her breasts. Still, just because someone is dressed inappropriately does not justify our practicing inappropriate behavior. No means no. And even though we love Brother Bob or Sister Wanda, that doesn’t mean we know everything about them.  They, like us, are flesh and are not beyond acting inappropriately sexually. The Bible teaches that difficult as it can be, we must be willing to even stand up against friends and family for the sake of the kingdom and righteousness. Jesus taught that putting God first can cause splits in families (Matthew 10:34-39). That includes church families. But when we put God first, even the friction that comes out of conflict on his behalf will have a healing effect on the body of Christ, his church.  One insight we will receive is that we will discover who our true brothers and sisters are. They are not the people who have the same blood that we have. They are also not always necessarily the members of our church who we call “church family.”  A person can be among us, but not be one of us (1 John 2:19). Our true family members are those who are willing to forget themselves and do God’s will, especially when it comes to fairly and transparently working through charges of sexual misconduct in the church. They will allow the guiding hand and holy spirit of God to guide every decision (Matthew 12:50).  They are those who allow the Holy Spirit to rule their hearts. The good news is, the Holy Spirit can still change us even after Satan has used us.  After his denial of Christ, a repentant Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit became a great church leader who helped establish the Christian Church on Earth. It helps to remember the church is after all God’s house. So only God should decide how to handle all controversies that occur under its roof. He’s quite able (James 1:5). But we must call upon him to help, trust him and let him use us to truly do his will, not ours.

“And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”–Matthew 16:18 (KJV)

“The devil is always the first one to arrive at church.”—An old folk proverb, particularly popular in many African American churches

Look for this opinion article at least twice monthly in The Journal, usually on Tuesdays.