Accountability and Abuse in the Church

My question is, how can we hold abusers in leadership accountable and also make it so that there are less vulnerable people falling prey.

By: Gabriela Yareliz

I won’t forget the day the bombshell regarding Ravi Zacharias’ sexual exploits became public. The board of his ministry, RZIM, released an open letter regarding the investigation. The truth was that this person who was a global speaker, teacher and frequent guest at Oxford through his center for apologetics was a sexual predator who committed sex crimes against vulnerable women around the world. All of this exploded shortly after his death, sadly, because everything was covered up for years until then. I wish his victims would have gotten what they strived for. They should have had their day in court. Someone should have listened. Accountability matters.

I addressed the fall of Ravi Zacharias quite extensively on the Modern Witnesses Instagram around that time. I realized not long ago that I don’t think I mentioned anything here, and it was worth mentioning as I have probably hundreds of posts that quote him or were inspired by things I learned from him and his books. When it came to asking hard questions, he was a hero of mine. (Sadly, he lacked the guts to face the hard questions directed at him for his actions). And it’s odd to think that someone like that can shape us so deeply, but he shaped me deeply and nothing takes that away. He taught me how to look at faith and Scripture critically, and that doesn’t invalidate the lump in my chest that I felt when I heard the horrors he committed. His life just goes to show that an intellectual knowledge and pursuit of faith is not enough. We must be transformed by it. I was and am heartbroken for the women who had tried to seek accountability and were ignored.

Even before Zacharias, due to my own personal experience, I have always known that people are deeply flawed and can appear to be one thing and then do unthinkable things. I have known this deeply in my bones. My life has been shattered by it. So, when Zacharias fell from grace, he didn’t fall too far down in my world. (This is when trust issues come in handy). I didn’t hold him on a pedestal, but I still was disappointed. Mostly, I just felt angry. I felt angry that someone would hurt the cause of Christ in such a shameful way, because unlike us fallen and wretched creatures, God is good. He is loving. He is pure. He is just. He is a protector and healer. He redeems. Those lives harmed by Zacharias’ actions are precious in God’s sight.

There has been a lot of talk about abuse in the church, and I have noticed it has been framed in a way to write off the church as a useless, outdated and harmful institution. I feel that I see more about abuse in religious circles than I do about abuse in secular environments, where abuse happens equally or more so. I think it’s because we expect more from people who claim to be something, but it’s a weird thing to do that knowing what Scripture says about our shared nature.

Being a victim these days can mean many things, and I don’t minimize any of it. As an attorney, I believe in accountability, justice, and I believe in trying something, weighing evidence and testimony and having people pay for their actions. One hundred percent. We need consequences.

No matter what setting it’s in, if someone with more perceived or actual authority/position/status takes advantage of someone in a more vulnerable state, it’s wrong.

Something I find interesting regarding the Zacharias investigation is that women came forward and did seek accountability, despite their poverty, lack of status (one could say for lack of a better term) in ministry and vulnerability. This got me thinking about how do we stop the rampant abuse in the church? What makes us members vulnerable to this and to certain types of engagements and dynamics?

I think when it comes to abuse in the church and elsewhere, we need to shed a naivete that we tend to carry around about who people are or may be. This may sound harsh, but in the words of Bobby Sausalito, “the world is trash,” and you know what? Many people behave like trash, too. I think that the accountability we need to have to end abuse in the church setting needs to go all the way around. We not only need to hold leaders accountable (which is happening more and more and being ignored less and less, thank God), but we need to hold ourselves accountable and need to educate ourselves more. This isn’t victim blaming, it’s just using our God given abilities.

I don’t minimize abuse in the church. I have my own stories of pastors (married, mind you, but trash is trash) who only wanted to meet with me in private settings, who vengefully passed out my number when I declined, leaders who told me I would go to hell and was behaving unChristian like when I declined advances, churches I left because leaders had mental health issues– I got stories. I think part of it is the way I was raised, but I have always had a strong sense of self. Listen, I am petite, had no family nearby, hadn’t had a relationship with my father in a decade and was a young and naive country girl who looked like a ripe target. But even if you are vulnerable as most of us are when we go into a house of worship (we seek community, healing, guidance and other things), even if you weren’t raised to have a strong sense of self that isn’t afraid to tell someone where they can go, God still offers us all discernment.

And I am not saying in this post, be like me. No, I am just stating I am not blind to the depths of the trash that poses as leadership out there. I am saying that I know God has shown me many a red flag, and I had to make some hard and sometimes swift decisions. In all these cases, I fled these trash leader environments and had some firm ‘no’s. I attribute this to God not myself.

I think that just as we are taught to take responsibility for ourselves and how we position ourselves in other aspects of life, we need to teach people to do the same in the church. We need to stop idolizing people and putting them on pedestals. We need to stop expecting the super-human from mere humans who are often hungry for all the wrong things. We need to be in environments because they make us holy, not because of friends, ambiance, distance, tradition, music, a nice time or a false sense of security or community. We need to get police and authorities involved. Call the district attorney’s office; let’s go. We need to evaluate the fruit in people’s lives and listen (really listen) to those around us. We need to stop seeking from people the things we can only find in God’s presence and through relationship with Him.

I think that if we started raising children like this and started empowering members like this, our churches and what happens in them would look differently. Let’s stop acting though, like the church is the only place abuse happens. Unfortunately, it’s not. The world is filled with abuse, and the unsanctified lives that wreak havoc in churches reflect the mainstream exterior. We do not control what is done to us, like someone assaulting us, but we often do control a lot of the response. (And I recognize that there is a lot of psychology involved, here. People respond differently to trauma, but this is why we need to educate people to seek help because this is empowerment. God can do the impossible and give us the courage we need to move forward). We can talk to someone, we can report it, we can flee before anything happens, if circumstantially that is possible. We can seek help from someone else, if we don’t know what to do or feel trapped (and this someone doesn’t need to be a “leader”. In fact, it’s often better if it isn’t).

As a church body, we need to take accountability for what we are bringing into the church. Our attitudes, our family dynamics and our addictions. This is just one example– I can’t tell you how many times I have seen or heard messages (or posts) about sexual abuse or violence against women (and I support anti-abuse messages) from people where I see a pretty clear acceptance of pornographic type materials (photos, literature, etc.) or an acceptance of nonbiblical sexual standards and values by the way a person lives, etc. Not saying this to judge but to simply ask the question, what makes one better than the other? (Especially, when so much of pornography involves exploitation of women and children). Studies have shown that many who are perpetrators of abuse have similar addictions or enjoy similar content. I can talk about this at length in many examples and ways. I know of places of worship where members were having affairs with other people’s spouses, leaving an insane tangled web of families and brokenness. Perhaps something that hinders accountability in churches is the fact that there is rampant secretly held sin. Who in their right mind, knowing their secret vices, will go and report someone else? Will they even have the sight to see it? My point is: what are we bringing to the church as a church body? Are we connected to God in a way where we really can discern His voice and hold ourselves accountable?

It’s important to hold the church accountable. I vocally do this. I write here and speak to leaders about things I observe all the time. But I don’t do it to write off the church. WE ARE THE CHURCH. I talk about these things because I love the church. Despite every church I have had to flee, every minister creep I’ve had to block, and the church that turned its back on me and my family in our greatest time of need– I love the church. Christ died for this church. I am an active part of the church. And with every bad thing that has happened to me in a church setting, I recognize the grace and help God granted my family and me by members of that same body of Christ followers. The church has been a source of deep rescue, as well.

The church is deeply flawed, and yet Scripture tells us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

For every person who has been deeply hurt by the church, my heart breaks. I am sorry. The church needs you to shape it into what Christ wants it to be. You aren’t alone. I pray that you find a community that can uplift you and help you find the healing you are looking for. A place where you can serve safely. They are out there. I know it. No one deserves abuse or betrayal of trust. No one. I will add that I promise you, you won’t find anything better in a world that glorifies and celebrates sin. The flaws and unholiness we see in ourselves should make us hate sin that much more, knowing the pain it causes. I pray for restitution and justice. Nothing will escape God’s justice. A thing that brings me so much comfort. God is not mocked or fooled. I pray for discernment.

And whether we have suffered abuse or not– I pray we can each look at our lives and before we hold another accountable, let’s hold ourselves accountable. What are we bringing to the table? Have we led with Godly example? Have we bestowed unmerited trust in someone? Do we see or sense things that are off? Do we know it’s ok to say ‘no’? Do we know that it’s ok to leave everything behind and run? Do we know someone we should encourage to seek help or justice? Can we be a voice for someone dealing with trauma?

Let’s ask these questions more. Christ said the wheat and the weeds grow together, but at the harvest, they will be separated. The weeds will be thrown into the fire. Let’s seek wisdom and discernment, which He gives liberally to all who ask. (James 1:5; Phil. 1:9-10) I know this to be true.

People close to Zacharias said he justified his actions and felt no remorse. I’d say that’s chilling, but we humans have a way of doing that. We excel at this. We are really good at justifying our own actions, lifestyles and conclusions. We forgive ourselves so easily (or feel there is nothing to be forgiven); it’s everyone else who has the problem. We are humble like that. (Sarcasm noted.)

Christ said, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) It’s time we really accept the fact that the church is not some “sheeps only” pen. There are wolves. We should beware, and we should also make sure we aren’t one of them.

Published by Gabriela Yareliz

Gabriela is a writer, editor and attorney. She loves the art of storytelling, and she is based in NYC.

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