Expert on sexual abuse, trauma speaks at B. H. Carroll

Says churches appear more concerned with protecting the system rather than imitating Christ

 

IRVING, Texas (Nov. 17, 2022)—Renowned psychologist Dr. Diane Langberg learned a valuable lesson from her father long before she became an expert on trauma and sexual abuse. It wasn’t a bad lesson. It was a good, but painful one with profound spiritual implications.

A heroic World War II bomber pilot, her father had stayed in the military after the war. However, an undiagnosed neurological condition eventually forced his retirement. He soon needed around-the-clock care and couldn’t stand on his own. His head was directing his body, but his body wasn’t listening and eventually wasn’t able to support life. She watched the illness unfold.

“A body that doesn’t follow its head is a very sick body,” Langberg said. That was the lesson.

After repeated controversies over sexual abuse in the Christian community—from the Roman Catholic Church, to the Southern Baptist Convention, to Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, to Camp Kanakuk—Langberg now sees the same sickness at work in the church, the body of Christ.

“The church of Jesus Christ has a head. Our head has called for us to follow him. We are not doing that,” Langberg told nearly 200 attendees at B. H. Carroll Theological Institute’s fall colloquy in Fort Worth Nov. 14-15. “Sexual abuse in Christian organizations is the king of oxymorons.”

Like the lesson she learned from watching her father’s decline, the “disconnect” between heart and head was reinforced when she visited a Portuguese castle on the coast of Ghana. Two hundred slaves at a time were held there in the 18th and 19th centuries in a dark dungeon, where they awaited transport to the American colonies. All were chained together. Some were already dead. They all sat in their own waste. Above the dungeon was the castle’s chapel.

“Heaven above, hell below,” the tour guide told her.

“Christianity is not supposed to look like worshiping with a dungeon below,” Langberg said. If that is happening, something other than the God of the Bible is being worshiped. That “something” is a system whose followers seek to protect it, rather than the ones hurt by it.

 

Trauma as mission

 

Sexual abuse is only part of the larger field of trauma now emerging as an avenue of ministry to those hurting. The problem is deep and worldwide, Langberg said. One of three females will be beaten or coerced into sex in their lifetime, many times by someone they know. And, according to the United Nations, nearly three quarters of women in some areas of the world will be raped.

Sexual trauma also affects men. While the number of men raped annually is statistically zero, the actual number of men raped yearly is near 93,000, according to the Department of Justice. Alcohol and drug abuse by male sexual abuse victims is 25 times higher than normal. The rate of suicide is 12 times higher.

“We are just beginning to see trauma as a place of service,” Langberg said. “It is the greatest mission field of the 21st century.”

“With Christ, the worst of our suffering can be redemptive to us and to others,” Langberg said.

Christ, she said, ministered to the traumatized and the crushed in the “dung heeps.” He did not flee from it, but ran into it. Today, he expects his people to do the same as they minister to those recovering from abuse. The church’s goal, she said, was to bring those hurting from silence to speaking, from isolation to community, and from a place of no hope to hope. This takes “talking, tears, and time,” according to Langberg.

 

‘Silence is a double vice’

 

Failing to talk when sexual abuse is disclosed by a victim means the victim will likely avoid speaking, and they need to speak to heal, even if they cannot fully articulate their experience. Their stories may come out in pieces without a beginning, middle, and an end. They may not make sense to those who are hearing them at first. They may also seem to the larger public unbelievable, especially when the one accused is a prominent church leader who is talented.

But the accusations are very rarely false, Langberg said. In fact, in her 50-year-long career, she has uncovered only two false complaints of sexual abuse. “No one wants to come to you to tell you they have been sexually abused,” she said.

“If they do, you should listen,” she said. “We cannot rely on what we hope to be true.”

Unfortunately, when a victim does come forward, they are most often met with the power of the system. The power in a system, she said, is significantly greater than its parts. Power is brought to bear if the system is threatened and, in the end, all of the effort goes into managing an outward symptom, rather than the internal disease. The system unites to correct the injury by silencing the accuser.

“The system uses its power to such an effect that even the victim knows not to speak,” Langberg said. The victim is made to believe speaking about the abuse will destroy the work of God. That isn’t true, and to think so is unbiblical, she said.

Systems are God’s idea, Langberg said. They are supposed to be safe. They are supposed to be forces for righteousness. When they are not, they are supposed to humble themselves and reform. The system cannot remain silent.

“Silence is a double vice,” she said. “It shows indifference to the victims and it is complicity with the destroyers.”

 

Sexual abuse in Christian organizations

 

Sexual abuse requires deception and produces coercion by the system. The deception begins on the part of the one who has committed the abuse. He or she has not only deceived the victim and others. There is self-deception involved in the failure to recognize the “dungeon of the heart” so deeply infected with sin, Langberg said.

But then the deception is carried further. The system gathers it forces and begins to make the victim feel responsible. What will happen to the church? What will happen to the minister? Will this not be a stain on the honor of Christ? All such questions make the victim carry both the burden of abuse and the weight of the church’s reputation.

“One of the most powerful weapons of deception is the use of spiritual language,” Langberg said. “The word of God says in no circumstance is the shepherd to feed off his sheep. God is against that shepherd, he says in Ezekiel 34. When a shepherd feeds off the sheep, the word of God is honored when he is removed.”

Just how rampant sexual abuse in the church is may never be known, but for every case discovered there are likely many more which go unreported. Where it has been exposed, however, the response of the Christian community has been naïve, she said. The church has failed to recognize sin is the worst thing in the world. This is another effect of the “narcotic of self-deception,” Langberg said.

“The exposure of something true is not going to destroy what God is doing,” she said. “If you lose the capacity to tell the truth, you become a slave to the sin.”

 

Restrictive grace and lifelong repentance

 

This slavery to sin has produced in the church a poor understanding of grace and a corrupted pathway of repentance. Many churches, Langberg said, accept tears and a simple plea for forgiveness when an abuser is confronted and confesses. They seek to move on, often with the abuser and abused only pews apart. But this is not grace. Grace is not absent restrictions. In fact, grace is full of them.

Langberg said God’s instruction to not murder was a grace. A parent telling a child to avoid playing in the street is a grace. Those are restrictive measures.

“To remove someone from a pulpit is a grace. It is a keen awareness that their sensibility to sin is so damaged they cannot recognize it,” she said. Removing the abuser from that position is a protection for him, as well as for the flock.

Repentance likewise has been misunderstood, Langberg said. Instead of confessions and promises “to never do it again,” the church should understand repentance as a lifelong process—a slow, consistent change over time. Its genuineness cannot be discerned for a very long time. Casting repentance in this light will remove the false choice which is often presented to churches. That choice is between preservation of the system or love and obedience to Jesus Christ, she said.

 

Important lessons

 

Churches can avoid many of the problems associated with sexual abuse by learning key lessons. First, the abuse of minors and sexual abuse is always, everywhere an illegal act, in all 50 states, Langberg said.

Second, discerning the truth and accuracy of an accusation is not the function of the church. It is the function of law enforcement. The first step church leaders must take when confronted with abuse, Langberg said, is the call to the police.

Third, while “clergy sexual abuse” is not a crime in all 50 states, it is important to recognize the phrase “it was an affair” should carry no weight with the church. A pastor having a sexual relationship with a congregant is abuse, because he is in a position of authority. Likewise, the church should reject excuses such as the pastor being enticed by the dress or appearance of a congregant.

Another lesson the church must learn is God’s kingdom is not an institutional structure. “He doesn’t desire form over substance,” Langberg said. “I believe God would rather see these things fall down flat than continue hiding these sins.”

Finally, the church needs to recognize that hurting the sheep breaks the heart of the Shepherd. The church’s allegiance is not to a system. Its allegiance is to its head.

“As I said, a body which does not follow its head is a very sick body. The church of Jesus Christ has a head. Our head has called us to follow him. We are not doing that,” Langberg said. “I fear we have revered the system more than God.”

“Our thinking is whatever we do to preserve what we love in our life is good, blind to the fact it looks nothing like him.”

Langberg concluded with an encouragement to keep a watchful eye over the sheep, and to avoid selecting leaders based on talent and gifting rather than integrity. The ability of a minister to eloquently articulate theological truth does not mean the person articulating them is an obedient servant of Christ, she said.

“Many have fed off the vulnerable sheep under their care. But sheep do not eat sheep,” she said. “Wolves eat sheep.”

Langberg is author of Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Brazos Press, 2020); Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores (New Growth Press, 2015); Bringing Christ to Abused Women (New Growth, 2013); and On the Threshold of Hope: Opening the Door to Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Tyndale, 1999). She is also a frequent contributor to Christian Counseling Today.

She has trained trauma counselors in the field on six continents. She is also clinical professor at the Global Trauma Recovery Institute of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Penn.

B. H. Carroll’s semi-annual colloquy is a calling together of scholars for academic discussion. PhD students and guests from seven states attended in person. Students and guests from 23 states and seven foreign countries (including Canada, Guyana, Angola, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam) attended in online.

Dr. Gene Wilkes, president of B. H. Carroll, said Langberg had presented an impactful and thorough theological reflection on how the church should respond to abuse. He reminded those present the need to make the suffering of Christ a central teaching of the faith. Reading Langberg’s own words from another publication, Wilkes said:

Of one thing I am certain: unless we are gripped by the truths of the Cross of Christ in our own hearts and lives, the hope and power of the Cross will not pass from us to others. We cannot give what we do not have. May love and obedience to the Son of Man so govern our personal lives that he can through us bring life to this ruined planet.”

 

 

 

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