By Brad Hambrick
When you hand a surgeon a blade, they think “scalpel.” When you hand a fisherman a blade, they think “filet.” When you hand a chef a blade, they think “julienne.” While the shape of the knife should make it obvious what it is for, you get the point — the role of a person impacts how he or she interprets a situation.
This is no less true for pastors and ministry leaders. When people come to us with various problems in living, we assume their struggle has a church-based answer. After all, why else would they come to us?
Actually, there is a logical answer. Victims of abuse often come to church leaders with life struggles that, at least in part, are legal matters for one simple reason: trust. They feel safe with us. Being abused is disorienting. Talking to a stranger about abuse is even more unsettling. Often abuse victims talk to church leaders first because of a pre-existing relationship of trust. We want to be a good steward of that trust.
What might cause us to be a poor steward of an abuse victim’s trust? Let’s go back to the “parable of the blades,” and remember the lesson: we see what we expect to see because of the role we are in.
As ministry leaders, when we hear abuse we tend to think “severe sin,” a strong moral category rather than “crime” a legal category. In an upcoming lesson, we will come back to this idea and wrestle with the question, “Is all abuse criminal and, if not, what do we do when severe relational dishonor is immoral and destructive but not illegal?” For now, let’s keep things simple.
When we think about how to handle “severe sin,” what passage of Scripture comes to mind? Chances are one of the passages on our short list is Matthew 18. When a church member is being abusive, church discipline is an appropriate — even if neglected — response. We will talk more church discipline later in this lesson. But what happens when our first thought upon learning of abuse is Matthew 18? Without realizing it, we have selected one ministry path to the exclusion of others.
Most counseling mistakes do not happen because we ask the right questions and arrive at a wrong conclusion. Most counseling mistakes arise from the questions we don’t ask and, therefore, never consider the possibilities that might need to occur. In abuse cases, when we think Matthew 18, we usually neglect considering Romans 13.
Biblical steps sloppily taken don’t provide safety. It is possible to hurt people with the best of intentions and good theology poorly applied. When “severe sin” is also “illegal” we need to understand how Romans 13 relates to Matthew 18 in order for Matthew 18 to be applied in a way that honors God’s design for both passages.
Let’s think about how these two passages relate to one another. First, we ask ourselves the question “Is it like God to assign different roles to different people in complex tasks?” Our answer is “yes.” In the care of a congregation God assigned different roles to deacons in Acts 6:1-7 and pastor-elders in Ephesians 4:11-13 and the one-another ministry among church members in Galatians 6:2.
Now we ask, “Has God assigned different roles to different people in the specific complex task of caring for abuse victims?” Because most forms of abuse are illegal, we again find that the answer is “yes.”
- In Romans 13 God assigns the governing authorities to run point on things that are illegal.
- In Matthew 18 God assigns the church to run point on things that are immoral.
It can feel awkward to differentiate immoral from illegal. The categories do overlap. For our purposes, suffice it to say that abuse is always immoral and often illegal.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.