Apologetics and Church Abuse
By Andrew I. Shepardson
The emergence of the #ChurchToo conversations in 2018 and the release of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast in 2021 have rightly alerted the Evangelical world to the prevalence and seriousness of abuse in Christian churches, schools, and ministries. Abuse is a sin, whether it be verbal, sexual, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. Its victims deserve the best of our care, and its perpetrators deserve the most serious of our discipline (and often the discipline of civil authorities).
However, the issue of abuse is now an important issue for apologetics because of how abuse erodes confidence in Christian institutions and Christian truth claims. Because we are aware of the enemy’s desire to destroy the church, we must be prepared to respond. Here I offer six points of reflection on how Christians ought to begin to formulate an apologetic response to abuse in our churches.
However, before examining these issues, we must get one thing straight. The issue of abuse in Christian ministries is not primarily about apologetics, but about justice, holiness, and the Christian mandate to care for the hurting and oppressed. This needs to be said because often apologetics is in the business of correcting misconceptions about Christianity. For example, many people in the West falsely assume that Christianity is anti-science, so scholars like Worldview Bulletin’s Melissa Cain Travis deftly show that (1) Christians have both historically led the charge in scientific progress and (2) the presuppositions necessary for doing science are much more at home in a Christian worldview than in a naturalistic one.
Apologists might be tempted address the abuse issue in a similar manner to how we address the relationship between Christianity and science. However, we must not make the mistake of treating this like it is an image problem. Instead, abuse should awaken our righteous indignation, drive us to repentance, impassion us toward care for victims, and steel our resolve to prevent future abuse (see 2 Cor. 7). Even so, here are six aspects of the issue that apologists should start addressing:
1. Abuse in Christian contexts hinders whether Christian truth claims are part of a person’s plausibility structure. In a study of women who had been abused by clergy, 75.6% of victims reported that their “experience with the church after the abuse negatively affected [their] spiritual life,” and 59.3% said their “experience with the church after the abuse negatively affected [their] relationship with God.”
Notice that it is victims’ experience with the church that is reported here. The Bible says that God’s people are being made into a “dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22), and the church is “the pillar and the foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). If Christians maintain that the church functions thusly, then unchecked abuse challenges the truth of Christianity’s claims and their existential viability.
2. How we address abuse is a critical component of our response the problem of evil. This problem—in its existential, logical, and evidential forms—is the most important objection to Christian faith. First, thinking and acting well in response to abuse shows the world that God is ultimately just in punishing “anyone [who] causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). God will justly punish unrepentant abusers. Second, since God is just, so must the church be just in response to evil. While the gift of salvation through Christ is offered even to those guilty of the most egregious sins, the church simply must not protect ministry leaders who perpetrate the evils of abuse. There must be real accountability. Third, good Christology reminds us that Jesus himself was a victim of various kinds of abuse (Matt. 26:67-68; 27:26-44; Mark 14:65; 15:15-32; Luke 22:63-65; 23:11, 35-41; John 18:22; 19:1-3, 16-24; 1 Pet. 2:23). He identifies with abuse victims, and his resurrection proves that he provides substantial healing in this life and complete healing in the next. So then, in this life, we must partner with the God who is a “refuge for the oppressed” (Ps. 9:9) and who mercifully desires to use his people as agents of healing to those who have been victims of evil.
3. Abuse in Christian contexts affects how Christians live up to Jesus’ own apologetic standards for discipleship. Christians are, of course, to love all people: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Yet Jesus intensifies this command to his followers: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). Francis Schaeffer argues that these passages show that Christ’s command to love all humanity implies “how overwhelmingly important it is that all men be able to see an observable love” between Christians, with whom we share a bond in Christ. Yet Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel say even more than this. Schaeffer says, “What Jesus is saying…is that, if I do not have the love I should have toward all other Christians, the world has the right to make the judgment that I am not a Christian.” When we live a life of love to the victims of sexual abuse (and even to the guilty, by providing strict accountability), we show the world that we are really Jesus’ disciples. This is Jesus’ apologetic standard for discipleship.
4. Christians need to intelligently respond to the charge that Christianity is inherently abusive. Again, if it were the case that Christianity were inherently abusive, then Christianity would fail the existential viability test. Some have argued that Christianity is inherently abusive in that it claims that God killed his Son, Jesus (divine child abuse), on the cross for our sins; moreover, telling this story is disturbing to children. However, this is misleading. The Bible teaches that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). As Groothuis explains, “The Father and the Son, being of one divine essence (along with the Spirit), agreed to redeem humanity, each playing a distinct role. Redemption was a trinitarian act” (see Heb. 9:14).
Others charge that since Christianity has embedded power structures, these will inherently lead to abuse. There would be much to unpack here, but suffice it to say that since humanity is made in the image of God and given charge over the creation (Gen. 1:26-28), power is part of our divine birthright. As psychologist Diane Langsburg argues, “To be human is to have power to shape the world,” yet it is sin and not power per se that causes humans to become abusers.
5. The Christian worldview with its notion of common grace best explains how clinical psychology and counseling are efficacious. Common grace is the doctrine that some of the worst effects of sin are restrained and corrected by God’s grace given apart from the grace that works our salvation. As Abraham Kuyper explains, common grace is how “God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it.” This means that God’s image bearers can use our minds to devise ways in which to aid healing, and good counseling is one of those ways. Indeed, Christians who have been abused report that faith in God and counseling have been key in their recovery.
6. A final point should be made that without God, one could not say that abuse is bad and should be avoided. As the moral argument for the existence of God shows, the objective moral value “abuse is bad,” and its attendant duties “one ought not to abuse” and “abusers should be punished,” only exist in a world in which there is a divine lawgiver who is the source of moral values and duties. Without God, our revulsion against abuse reduces to emotivism.
It is time for the church to repent of abuse and to reform her practices for the greater glory of God. And it is time for Christian apologists to observe and lovingly respond to these significant ways in which our desire to defend and commend the Christian worldview comes into contact with a sometimes angry and often hurting world.
 See Melissa Cain Travis, Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2018).
 See Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 38-42. See also Andrew I. Shepardson, Who’s Afraid of the Unmoved Mover?: Postmodernism and Natural Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019), 150-152.
 David Kenneth Pooler and Liza Barros-Lane, “A National Study of Women Sexually Abused by Clergy: Insights for Social Workers,” Social Work 67.2 (April 2022): 128.
 Factual adequacy and existential viability are classic tests for the truth of a worldview. See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 45-51. The effect on Roman Catholics is more well known here with 37% of U.S. Catholics saying that news of the Church’s sexual abuse scandals “has led them to question whether they would remain in the church.” See Jeffery M. Jones, “Many U.S. Catholics Question Their Membership Amid Scandal,” Gallup (March 13, 2019), https://news.gallup.com/poll/247571/catholics-question-membership-amid-scandal.aspx.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 17.
 Ibid., 24.
 Phil Zuckerman, “Does Christianity Harm Children?” Psychology Today (August 4, 2014), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-secular-life/201408/does-christianity-harm-children.
 Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 539.
 Diane Langsburg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020), 15, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.dtl.idm.oclc.org/lib/dtl/reader.action?docID=6353568.
 Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), 30.
 Pooler and Barros-Lane, “A National Study of Women Sexually Abused by Clergy: Insights for Social Workers,” 130.
 See Douglas Groothuis and Andrew I. Shepardson, The Knowledge of God in the World and the Word: An Introduction to Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, forthcoming 2022), ch. 6.
— Andrew I. Shepardson leads the B.A. and M.A. programs in Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University and is co-pastor of Hope Denver Church in Denver, Colorado. His work has been published in Philosophia Christi, Quadrum, The Denver Journal, Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and the Toronto Journal of Theology. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of the Unmoved Mover?: Postmodernism and Natural Theology.
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Hi Andrew Shepardson... just a small oops in an otherwise fine article. It’s Diane Langberg rather than Diane Langsburg. Thanks... kudos.
Good word here Ike. Your comments on plausibility structure help explain what seems a deeply illogical decision to cease believing because of abuse. Abuse is a sin issue...not a doctrine or truth claim issue...yet, as you point out the visible livability of the faith is weakened by abusers. As Paul warns, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Rom 2:24