7 'tragic' myths about sexual abuse: JD Greear at ERLC Caring Well Conference

J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, speaks at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Caring Well Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on Oct. 3, 2019.
J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, speaks at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Caring Well Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on Oct. 3, 2019. | ERLC/Karen Race Photography

As part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Caring Well Conference, J.D. Greear identified seven myths many churches have when it comes to sexual abuse and shared why such misconceptions are damaging to victims of abuse.

“We have to learn from our past, and we have to change our future,” the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina began his message, titled “Overturning Myths Related to Sexual Abuse and the Church.”

For most SBC pastors, the idea that their church might harbor an abuser is “horrific,” Greear said, adding: “Still, we’re here, and that is in part, I believe because of a few myths that are all too commonly believed in our churches.”

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Greear, who formed the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group earlier this year, went on to identify seven myths regarding sexual abuse within the church, beginning with: “sexual abuse is not really a problem, it’s simply the latest, leftist attack on the church.”

“Believing this myth has caused us as a convention to miscategorize the words of people ... as attacks from adversaries instead of warnings from friends,” he said, citing a report from Lifeway Research that found 1 in 10 churchgoers under the age of 35 who have left SBC churches did so because they felt the issue of sexual abuse wasn’t taken seriously. 

By ignoring cases of sexual abuse, “we put more people in harm’s way, we create obstacles to faith for those who were affected,” Greear said, adding that because the SBC claims to prioritize the Gospel, it must take the issue of sexual abuse seriously. 

The second myth, according to Greear, is that “abuse only happens in Catholic/Liberal/Complementarian churches.”

“The danger of this myth is that it is naive. It relegates abuse to an ideological problem when it should be seen as a depravity problem,” he said. “We evangelicals should have known this. Didn’t Jesus say there would be wolves in sheep's clothing in order to ... abuse the flock? Of all people, we should’ve known this could happen.”

Myth three, the pastor said, is that “the church is best to handle this internally.”

Greear cited Romans 13, which states, in part: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

“If we are dealing with a criminal issue, we are disobeying Scripture if we don’t get authorities involved,” he said. “Charges of sexual abuse are clearly in the criminal category.”

Myth four, said Greear, is that a “posture of grace requires giving the benefit of the doubt to those accused and offering the convicted a second chance.”

“Friends, what about the benefit of the doubt for the one bringing the accusation? Do we not owe that to them?” he asked. "I’m not saying we throw out due process ... just that we err on the side of compassion for the abused.”

“Christian teachings on grace and forgiveness never mean covering up sins in ways that would expose others to harm,” he added.

Greear then identified myth five: “Enduring abuse in marriage is part of learning to love like Jesus.”

“You say, ‘God hates divorce.’ Yes, but God also hates abuse. We don’t enable one thing that God hates to try to prevent another,” he explained. “Being casual or deferential in relation to abuse as an attempt to avoid divorce is like saying ‘let us do evil that good may come.’”

Perhaps the most “pervasive” and “dangerous” myth, said Greear, is myth six: “we would know an abuser if one was in our church.”

“Abusers are often very likable; that’s often what makes them effective,” he argued. “They can be disarming and downright charming. They thrive in environments of naive assumptions and no accountability where stereotypes rather than sober thinking rule the day.”

Abuse often happens in private, where abusers have power over vulnerable people: “If we expect abusers to look creepy and feel ominous, we add to the sense that ‘nobody will believe me’ that survivors often feel.”

“There is no soundtrack that plays in your head, no eerie music. It is an understanding of depravity and sin that leads you to ask the right questions, not personality instincts,” he added. 

Myth seven, said Greear, is that “updating our policies will take care of the problem.”

While policies are an “essential step” in addressing the problem, they must be paired with voluntarily changes in attitude and culture, the pastor contended, adding that churches must foster a culture of “love and trust.”

“This is a Gospel issue. The credibility of our witness, and even more importantly, the souls of our people are at stake,” Greear concluded. “Caring for those vulnerable whom God has entrusted to us is a way that we can and we must put the trustworthiness of the Gospel on display.”

“Abuse is unspeakably tragic,” he added, "but this is the moment that the church can put on display the matchless power of the Gospel. Churches are equipped to do something unique, something our society cannot do because we can offer not just reckoning, we can offer resurrection.” 

The Caring Well conference was hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and its Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The event, held Oct. 3-5 in Dallas, was designed to help the SBC's 47,000 churches learn how to prevent abuse and support survivors.

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