Addressing Abuse & Defending the Bride
Scandal mongers and abuse activists try to portray the Christ's bride as a haven for abusers with vague, yet salacious accusations. But this is not the way.
We frequently hear about abuse in the PCA. In 2017 concern regarding abuse dominated the secular news media following disturbing revelations surrounding men named Weinstein and Epstein. Concern for this sparked a number of hashtags such as #MeToo and #BelieveAllWomen.
Now - years later - some within the Church have built a platform for themselves as “Abuse advocates” purporting to expose abuse within the Church and particularly the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Even before the recent General Assembly had concluded, Emily Belz in Christianity Today decided there was an abuse crisis in the PCA. She bases her assertion on anonymous, self-appointed “abuse advocates” who say there is.
What is Abuse?
Abuse is hard to define. In Michigan, the worldlings assert abuse is using the wrong pronouns to hurt someone’s feelings. For those influenced by the world, calling a person to repent of his or her sins is abusive.
The PCA must guard against this view of abuse. Some may remember a former PCA pastor, who - facing potential ecclesiastical discipline fled with his congregation into independency - decried it was spiritually abusive to encourage people in the hope of sanctification and the mortification of sexual sins and vile passions.
In contrast to these worldly definitions, the PCA received a report from a committee that studied domestic abuse and sexual assault (DASA); the report defines abuse this way:
persistent maltreatment that causes lasting damage. In this sense, abuse is a misuse of power. Misuse of power can take several forms (physical, verbal, positional, etc.), but the essence of abuse is that it is a misuse of power which wounds another person physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. (pp. 2306-7; emphasis original)
That is a helpful definition; it recognizes abuse beyond physical forms, e.g., spiritual and emotional abuse. It also highlights that abuse constitutes a “misuse of power,” which is true, but at the same time Christians must guard against allowing a Marxist view of power-dynamics to inform what we consider to be abuse.
Nonetheless, a definition of abuse such as this helps us to distinguish abuse from other sinful patterns or behaviors. Certainly, abuse in its general sense is simply the “misuse of a thing;” all sin is therefore abuse. But if my five year old hits his sister with a Brio train track, is he abusing her?
In one sense yes, but - given that she (for now) outclasses him in terms of height, weight, and strength - in another sense no, since the power differential clearly favors the one on the receiving end and his mother will quickly correct that sinful behavior.
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish abuse from other expressions of sin and depravity. Often it is quite subjective and comes down to Justice Stewart’s test: “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Alleged Abuse in the PCA
Apart from the aforementioned DASA committee report, abuse seems to be used with alarming frequency in the PCA courts lately. Even the British press covered a situation in which a prominent Nashville pastor was suspended by Presbytery due to abusive behavior. Elsewhere there are instances in which church planters have stepped down and/or are facing discipline because of abusive patterns.
In a more infamous situation, an urban church planter was recently exonerated of claims of abuse (i.e. bullying and sexual harassment) by the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). The basis for exoneration was the evidence:
Where unambiguous digital or documentary evidence existed, however, it strongly supported the arguments of the Accused, providing objective proof against these specific allegations of sin. This fact affected the Panel’s assessment of the credibility to ascribe to testimony for which there was no tangible evidence or for which there were no third-party witnesses. After carefully examining all the evidence, The Panel unanimously agreed that the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof in this case. (p. 14)
While there is little doubt in this situation improprieties occurred, the SJC did not believe the evidence supported the serious allegations against the accused.
The Biblical Standard
The aforementioned case was a source of much consternation and seemed to be a key turning point for many to conclude there is an “abuse crisis” within the PCA. Twitter and other social media were filled with reactionary outcry in the wake of the decision.
This outcry broadened into rage against the Church judicial system as a whole aiming to depict the PCA as a nest of abusers. New hashtags, customized for the PCA, have been promoted and new websites have been launched: some claim to provide resources for victims; others - more disturbingly - publish sensational allegations aimed at discrediting well-respected saints and harming the reputation of the Church.
In one particularly egregious instance, an anonymous ex-wife of an unnamed PCA pastor makes outlandish claims about an abuse cover-up by one of the most well-respected women in the PCA. But tellingly, the blogpost is riddled with errors of fact, which undermine the veracity of its claims.1
I will not link to examples of the sites alluded to above because I do not wish to further publicize outrageous and unsubstantiated claims that malign Christ’s bride. Part of the trouble with these blogs is they vent claims of decades’ old grievances against the PCA as well as members or elders in good standing without any actual evidence.2 They make assertions, which are readily believed by scandal-hungry people and provide fodder on which gossipy “abuse fetishists” will graze for weeks to the detriment of their souls.
The PCA has a structure for bringing charges against members and officers, and it requires two witnesses of an alleged offense. These two witnesses may be either people or material (e.g., police report). But these scandal-mongering blogs bypass the judicial system of the Church entirely and instead slander the good name and reputation of the PCA as well as her officers and members by spewing these allegations publicly.
Perhaps there are some who believe the standard of evidence (two witnesses) required by the PCA is too high. Those who object to this standard ought remember this standard was neither invented by the PCA nor deduced from broad Biblical themes.
Rather, this standard is established explicitly by Christ, the King and Head of the Church, the only Lawgiver in Zion:
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deut. 19:15)
And reaffirmed by Him during His earthly ministry:
But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Matt. 18:16)
And applied to the New Covenant Church by the Apostle Paul:
Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (2 Cor. 13:1)
The way to handle grievances, claims of abuse, and all other allegations of offense is not by resorting to gossipy Twitter hashtags, innuendo, and spewing of decades’ old recollections on blogs. Rather, we ought to use the (ordinary) means God has established for protecting the vulnerable and preserving purity in His Church.
Addressing Abuse in the PCA: the courts are open
The proper way to address claims and grievances of alleged offenses is through the courts. Even the pagan town clerk in Ephesus recognized this reality:
If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion. (Acts 19:38–40)
This year there has been much commotion regarding allegations of abuse in the PCA: a lot of heat and very little light. The proper place to bring allegations of abuse is the courts; primarily that of the Magistrate and secondarily to the Church courts.
These two parallel courts serve different, necessary ends; the purpose of the Magistrate is to protect and punish; the purpose of the Church courts is purity and preservation (both of the glory of Christ and by reclaiming sinners). God has instituted both courts.
A. Abuse by Individuals
If you are aware of an instance of abuse in the PCA, after you contact the police, there are many within the PCA who would be ready to assist you in pressing your claims against an abuser. Our Book of Church Order (BCO) contains procedures that mandate an investigation when claims of abuse are brought against a member or an officer:
It is the duty of all church Sessions and Presbyteries to exercise care over those subject to their authority. They shall with due diligence and great discretion demand from such persons satisfactory explanations concerning reports affecting their Christian character. (BCO 31-2)
Notice, in order for an investigation to be launched by the Church courts, it does not require two witnesses, but even a single allegation by one individual will suffice. This investigation may discover additional evidence a lone individual witness may not have. Any person may bring a report to a Church court; you do not have to be an elder or a member in the PCA or even a believer.
This is all the more the case for pastors; the BCO contains a special provision to ensure pastors are not screened against allegations, but that allegations are taken seriously:
If any one knows a minister to be guilty of a private offense, he should warn him in private. But if the offense be persisted in, or become public, he should bring the case to the attention of some other minister of the Presbytery. (BCO 34-3)
It may be daunting to know how to bring a “report” concerning the Christian character of some member or officer to a Session or Presbytery. But there are people throughout the PCA willing to help.
If you feel alone, please know there are elders within the courts of the PCA who will serve you, protect you, and minister to you in Christ’s name.
If you have evidence of abuse in the PCA, after you have contacted the police, you are welcome to contact me and I will help you bring a request for investigation to the Church courts as well. You can send me a message via Twitter or Substack and I will help you and/or find others to walk with you and care for you.
B. Negligent Church Courts
Sometimes abuse is not just centered in one individual, but covered up by a Session or ignored by a Presbytery. Our BCO provides a remedy for this situation as well:
When any court…shall receive a credible report with respect to the court next below of any important delinquency or grossly unconstitutional proceedings of such court, the first step shall be to cite the court alleged to have offended to appear before the court having appellate jurisdiction, or its commission, by representative or in writing, at a specified time and place, and to show what the lower court has done or failed to do in the case in question. (BCO 40-5)3
Those are a lot of words. But what they mean is that if a report is sent to a Presbytery about a Session that has covered up abuse, the Presbytery is bound to act. Likewise, if a Presbytery ignores a credible report, the General Assembly is bound to investigate the situation.4
Here again the standard for investigating is not two witnesses, but only one; they are not bringing charges, but simply investigating allegations to discover the truth. These reports are taken very seriously by the Church courts.
Certainly this process might be daunting, but you do not have to do it alone, nor do you have to resort to anonymous blogs. Instead, make use of the institutions God has established to address these matters: the Magistrate and the Church courts.
C. Waiting on the Lord
While there will always be grifters seeking to capitalize on the sufferings of abuse survivors in order to build their own brands, God’s people must avoid the urge to take our grievances to such. Going to a blog and airing your grievances for the whole world may make you feel powerful for a moment, but it will bring you neither lasting peace nor heal your wounds:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isaiah 55:2)
What will bring peace and healing? Trusting in the means of God’s appointment to address matters of sin, abuse, and neglect: the Magistrate and/or the Church courts. But these things take time and do not provide the instant gratification that the “publish” button on blog does. Instead of seeking instant gratification, wait on the Lord and trust the process. And trust God’s providence more than the process, because sometimes men fail, but God’s justice is perfect and shall be vindicated.
But even if the courts operate with perfect integrity and justice is clearly served, what then? There again it is necessary to wait on the Lord. Even when abuse or other sin is uncovered, punished, or censured, that cannot restore what has been lost or heal what has been broken. Only God can do that.
And we have the promise that He will one day do that. And it is in the light of that Day that survivors of abuse may find peace, freedom, and strength for these days.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:3–5)
This is the best news. Wait on the Lord. Make use of the means He has appointed. Trust in Christ now who has gone to prepare a place for His people where all the consequences of sin and suffering are gone, because He has borne the sins of His people as He was hanged on a tree.
Christ has freed His people both from being defined by or dominated by their own sins as well as the sins others have committed against them. Embrace the freedom of Christ now, live in the freedom of that Day now.
For example, the anonymous author claims a PCA pastor’s retirement is linked to his membership in “a PCA church,” which is untrue in two ways: first, PCA pastors are not members of local congregations, but presbyteries and second, a PCA pastor’s individual retirement account would not be forfeited if he left the denomination.
What is the reason these are members or elders in good standing? No one has brought allegations to the church court. Rather than gossip online about church officers and members, accusers ought to bring their grievances to the church courts as discussed below.
General Assembly takes these 40-5 reports very seriously. Recently a presbytery was referred to the SJC because a congregation had failed to record properly the lack of abstentions in its congregational meeting, and the presbytery did not redress the matter satisfactorily.