Sexual Healing

This story appears in the Spring 2013 issue.

One in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. Someone in the pew at church sitting next to you may have been a victim of rape. Maybe you suffered sexual violence or violation.

 Some have been abused right in our churches by parents, stepparents, pastors, priests and other spiritual leaders who preyed on them instead of protecting them.

Broken. Wounded. Ashamed. The effects go beyond the physical and touch every area of life, including the spiritual.

But there is hope for healing. 

Dr. Andrew Schmutzer, a professor of Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, has written several articles and essays about how the church can help survivors of sexual abuse and is himself a survivor. Dr. Schmutzer talks with The Well Magazine about how the Church can help victims of sexual abuse heal.


What are the effects of sexual abuse spiritually?
 It is the crushing of metaphor. The Christian leader, pastor, youth worker, parent are meant to be an example of the God who is not seen.
Particularly when a child is abused, it really crushes this boy or girl’s view of trust, of protection, of this good God—particularly if the abuse is by a Christian leader.
Another effect is the mistrust of the goodness of God. How can a good God create a system of leaders that can abuse both physically, sexually and also spiritually? It is more insidious in a faith context. Some (abusers) may even say I have the authority to do this.
There is an enormous mistrust of leadership. These folks don’t want to follow anyone anymore. They don’t even trust themselves. That is one of the difficulties survivors face. They need to be taught to trust and relate all over again.
What is your assessment of how the church has dealt with this issue?
We haven’t done well. I love the church and I am committed to the church but it doesn’t always do well.
The church is concerned first and foremost with its own image. They fall prey to image management. That’s a result of pastors who are thinking more as CEOs than shepherds. They want to protect the organization.
 It’s not the victim who is center stage. It’s the organization. Most abuse is from people the victim knows. These are not suspicious people in the church’s eyes. So here’s a teenager who has been abused. How is this teenage girl going to compare in her reputation and power with a Sunday School teacher or church elder?
The church’s response is “Hey, we’re going to take a big hit if we go after this father, elder, deacon. Let’s say this child lied or this is her spiritual problem.”
 Here’s what’s really insidious. If you say someone broke into my house or stole my car, who says “Are you sure you’re not lying?” But if someone says “My uncle or my stepfather abused me,” which is very common, the leadership says we’re not sure we want to buy it because it’s going to cost us a lot.
The child, especially if he or she is still in their developmental years, is afraid to “out” this leader because the family, community, and church could fall apart and they are going to feel guilty.
They need an advocate. They need help. They need leaders in church who can help them. You are dealing with a child, someone who is still developing. They don’t know how to think about this. They think that it’s their fault or something they did or something they should just shut up about.
Churches don’t have adequate policies to deal with this. There is not a robust legal, psychological, spiritual response to this. All churches need to make sure that they have policies in place.
Let’s say you have a primary school teacher in a Christian school that finds out a student has been abused. They tell the supervisor and the supervisor tells the director. But the director says, “I’m up for promotion” or “That’s my cousin. That’s my sister. That’s my brother.”  People in the chain of authority say “We can’t report this up the chain because we’re going to lose a lot of money, big reputation, donors, etc.” Meanwhile, who is thinking about the victim?
Church authorities should immediately go outside to civil authorities when an allegation of abuse occurs and then go back into the organization and investigate. We have to have a check and balance that is not depending on people in the chain itself. This should have been done generations ago.
Part of the problem too, is victory theology. Victory theology is a simple message, a happy message, a resurrection message. But dealing with abuse is ugly. It’s messy. There’s no simple solution. Someone’s in trouble and maybe several people. It’s easier to preach: if you just pray this prayer, you’ll be healed from this. If you just go to this seminar, read this book. The church doesn’t want to do the hard homework—paying for counseling, listening and walking with their victims.
The secular counseling community looks at the church and says you guys are out to lunch because you don’t want to admit the cancer we see all the time. They are saying we hear the horrible stories that your leaders are committing, don’t know how to handle or won’t handle. Therefore, there is mistrust between the counseling community and church.
The church has fallen asleep on this.
What has to happen for healing? How can the body of Christ help victims?
Pastors need to start talking about this—regularly. Why do we pick and choose the sins we want to name? When it is named in the church by the leadership, especially the pastor, then the victim doesn’t need to break the silence themselves. They can say, “Thank you for that sermon. That’s my story. I need help.” It needs to be named.
Biblical stories that address sexual violence need to be taught sensitively and carefully. These stories would include: Dinah (Genesis 34), Joseph (Genesis 39), Tamar (2 Samuel 13) the rape and killing of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19). In the New Testament, Paul calls out a man who is sleeping with his stepmother. That stuff is still going on but we’re not talking about it. It’s already in the Scripture. Biblical stories connect with contemporary stories.
We need to have testimonies and written prayers. We need to have community responsive readings. We need to have stories told of people who were abused years ago when they were children who are now in their 30s, 40s, 50s and they’re limping but still walking with God.
We need to have healing services for victims of rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse. We need to have anointing services asking God’s Spirit to overwhelm them in a healing way, asking Him to heal this person’s body and mind. Let’s pray for these people. Lay hands on them. Let them know that we are there for them that they are not alone. They are not isolated. I’ve heard of churches having a white rose up front in a vase and a sermon for abuse survivors saying this is how God views you: “Virginity is given away, not taken away!”
We have to say that we love you so much that we’re going to walk with you all the way into counseling and you’re going to get help. We have a fund set up for a minimum of six sessions of counseling where we want to help you. Do churches have books available or support groups for survivors?
 If we don’t address this, this cancer will be contagious. Many victims go on to abuse their own children.
We need to create a new vocabulary in the church. We need to talk about this. I’m not talking about smearing people. But healing is possible. But it is a journey.

Secular people won’t talk about forgiveness. Christians only want to talk about forgiveness. We can talk about that way down the road, because the anger must be addressed before it consumes the survivor. We first need to bring help to victims so that they can get their feet underneath them. They are trying to deal with pain, rage, humiliation and guilt.
Forgiveness is not a switch you just flip on. Forgiveness is a decision you nurture for the rest of your life. In fact, as you heal, it hurts more because there’s more of you to hurt! You realize spiritual boundaries were also broken.
In helping survivors heal, don’t insist on forgiveness first. Later in the healing journey you can start dealing with forgiveness. First, we need to deal with the anger and rage and put them on the perpetrators. It’s a journey that will take the rest of our lives for many abuse victims.
The sovereignty of God is not in what he prevents, but in His ability to weave together the broken pieces of our lives. It’s a process and it requires us to help heal them here where they were broken. God gives us free will and responsibility too. He lets consequences play out. He doesn’t just stop the train from running over the car.
But He’s given us wisdom. We’re going to have to lean on each other. We all have to come together to help the broken among us.
This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the issue of abuse and healing for survivors.  Dr. Schmutzer will respond to readers’ questions in the next issue.


If you would like to contact Dr. Schmutzer, he can be reached at or you can send your questions for the next issue to


Dr. Andrew Schmutzer is professor of Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago where he has taught since 1998. He has authored and contributed to several works, including The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

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