The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have underscored the tragedy of sexual harassment and abuse in relationships, in the workplace, and sadly in churches and Christian ministries. Cover-ups and victim-blaming in the church are too common and raise questions both of where is God in this, and where ought his people be. Bill Nelson, in the second of two articles will look at Obadiah, the role enablers play in the perpetuation of abuse, and how allies may speak up and act restoratively.
Content Warning: Emotional and Spiritual Abuse
“Spotlight” is a 2015 American biographical drama film that follows the Boston Globe’s award-winning “Spotlight” team and its investigation into widespread child sex abuse cases in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. Gradually the team discovers how many people cover up the clergys’ sexual abuse. In a key line from the movie, investigative reporter Mike Rezendez talks with a lawyer for the victims, who tells him, “Mark my words, Mr. Rezendez, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
Too often, the Christian church becomes that abusive village.
In our series, Survivor Allyship, I relate God’s word to abuse issues within the church. In part 1, “Lamenting Abuse,” I applied characters personified in the Old Testament book of Lamentations’ poetry to various roles commonly present within abuse scenarios. These include Babylon (the abuser) and Jerusalem (the victim). Here in part 2, “It Takes a Village,” I add abuse enablers to the mix, namely Babylon’s ally, the nation of Edom, as personified in the Old Testament book of Obadiah. I then apply God’s word as we discern his missional call for us as allies to aid, protect and defend the vulnerable among us.
ENABLING EDOM AND THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Babylon’s devastating sixth-century B.C. siege and assault brought desolation to every part of Jerusalem’s population. Rather than assisting their suffering siblings, the neighboring Edomites betrayed them.
I previously advocated for abused mothers who suffered a measure of Edomite-like betrayal from the Church. Disheartened by the pushback I received from multiple ministry leaders, I took courage from other victim advocates, including several vilified and gaslit and some who had to leave their ministry positions. To pay their efforts forward, I relate my personal experience with ministry leaders’ responses, ranging from passive indifference to actively aiding the abuser.
Christian missionaries undercut my efforts to protect victims whom they had mentored. These missionaries participated directly or indirectly in criminal and child custody hearings causing immense harm and trauma.
Seeking accountability for these missionaries, I reported them to the hierarchies of their respective church and missionary organizations. However, several of the higher-level leaders of these organizations rebuffed my efforts to openly discuss how the missionaries’ engagement perpetuated abuse. Most were largely disinterested in the evidence I compiled of spousal violence and the missionaries’ destructive interference in legal proceedings. Some of these Christian leaders suggested that my judgment was compromised. Others accused me of bitterness, unforgiveness, prosecuting the church, and so on. In truth, I longed to work with these ministry leaders and their organizations, not against them, to help create safe spaces for abuse victims.
Countless other abuse victims, and their allies, also suffer from the Church’s betrayal.
Early in my advocacy, I introduced myself to the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) student group president seated next to our campus ministry table at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health activities fair. I apologized that we clergy often do not handle abuse issues well. She agreed, stating, “We discourage victims from going to the church to seek help.”
Many within the abuse community share her opinion. Prosecutors, trauma counselors, and victim activists “will all tell you that the Catholic Church and the evangelical church are two of the most difficult groups to deal with,” says lawyer and survivor advocate Rachael Denhollander. “Instead of supporting victims, […] they are supporting the perpetrators.”
Boz Tchividjian, the founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), agrees. Tchividjian served as a prosecutor in central Florida in the 1990s. By the time he left, his office had handled thousands of abuse cases. He estimates that, in about 90% of cases, he and fellow prosecutors observed that church leaders and members served as character witnesses for the defendant, but “few came in defense of the victim.”
The Church’s betrayal mirrors Edom’s. Edom initially remained “aloof” as Babylon’s eighteen-month siege cut off Jerusalem’s food supplies (Ob. 11; cf. 2 Kgs. 25:1-4). The Edomites looked at their brothers’ suffering but offered no assistance. Their passive indifference later expanded into active betrayal. After Babylon breached Zion’s city walls, the Edomites laughed at (Ob. 12, 13), looted (Ob. 13c), and then handed their blood relatives over to their torturers (Ob. 14).
Babylon’s assault and Edom’s betrayal arouses God’s compassion, and justice. The LORD proclaims, “Comfort, yes, comfort my people, Speak comfort to Jerusalem” (Isa. 40:1-2a). He sees Zion’s suffering (Isa. 54:11a) and looks “with compassion on all her ruins” (Isa. 51:3). He also answers Zion’s prayers for vindication (Lam. 1:21c-22), “a day of vengeance, […] to uphold Zion’s cause” (Isa. 34:8).
The LORD avenges Jerusalem against Babylon and Edom, bringing both nations down. Babylon betrays Edom, their “ally,” as the prophet Obadiah prophesied. The sword of the LORD soaks Edom’s land in blood (Isa. 34:5-7).
As the LORD uncovered Edom’s treachery (Lam. 4:22c), he is now exposing his Church’s betrayal. Jesus is wielding his terrible sword of public humiliation against his church with a vengeance.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is still reeling from revelations that predators have navigated into their leadership hierarchy with ease. Over a decade before the 2019 landmark investigation, SBC executives resisted survivors’ and advocates’ persistent pleas for a national database to prevent widespread and systemic abuse within their affiliated churches. So, the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle assembled one of their own. They’ve since reported on more abusers. Internal divisions continue plaguing America’s largest Protestant denomination in the investigation’s aftermath.
In February 2021, an independent investigation of the late Ravi Zacharias, an internationally acclaimed evangelist, exposed his sexual predation that spanned decades. Related reports revealed how Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies, enabled his abuse.
David French’s article, “You Are One Step Away From Complete and Total Insanity,” exposes RZIM’s attempts to silence Ruth Malhotra, RZIM’s former publicity director. Malhotra had questioned RZIM’s narrative following abuse accusations against Zacharias. RZIM executives brought Christian conciliator Judy Dabler to facilitate a 3-day group “conciliation.” Escalating verbal attacks by various RZIM leaders culminated in Dabler’s soul-crushing words to Malhotra, supporting RZIM top management, “you are one step away from complete and total insanity.”
Christianity Today’s Nov. 2021 article, “The Christian Peacemaker Who Left a Trail of Trauma,” chronicles Dabler’s abusive career as a certified Peacemaker Ministries conciliator and lecturer. Their investigative report exposes Dabler’s decades-long trail of emotional wreckage and trauma. It also raises questions about how the system of Christian conciliation is used to protect power and abuse in evangelical churches.
Former RZIM staff Carson Weitnauer admittedly enabled abuse. In his apology to Lori Anne Thompson, one of Zacharias’ victims, Weitnauer confessed, “To my great regret, I continued to believe and communicate to many others […] that you and your courageous allies were maliciously slandering a good and godly man.” Weitnauer also challenged his organization, calling Zacharias’ abuse and RZIM’s enabling “a catastrophic betrayal.”
Afterward, Weitnauer relayed that many survivors responded by saying “that no one believed them when they came forward. Actually, they were bullied into silence and felt their only choice was to leave the organization where they were abused. Can you imagine the pain? They experienced two betrayals: the abuser’s betrayal and the betrayal from everyone who protected and defended their abuser.”
Proverbs 17:15 clearly warns, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” God calls us instead to: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Prov. 31:8), and to “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
We cannot remain neutral. We must side with the victims. If we otherwise stand “aloof” or ally with violent predators, we, like Edom, become “as one of them” (Ob.11). In minimizing the perpetrator’s abuse, we become accessories to his wickedness. By failing to protect the abuser’s victims, we aid and abet his violence.
Rachael Denhollander emphasizes that the most important way to combat abuse is “to communicate that it matters […]. That’s what communicates to predators that they will not be harbored, and they won’t be safe […] to the people who would mishandle or cover up allegations of abuse that there will be consequences […]. to survivors that [they’re] going to be heard and listened to, and it’s safe to speak up.”
Clear protocols for addressing and following up on abuse allegations provide a concrete structure which communicates that abuse matters. Without explicit procedures, organizations risk failing to recognize and resist the lying and manipulation of an abuser, especially one actively recruiting allies and discrediting his victim.
The article, “How to be an ally for victims of abuse,” published by the Stop Abuse Campaign, provides practical victim-centric guidelines which helpfully emphasize active listening and allowing survivors to take control and share as much as they are comfortable. The article also suggests starting points for spreading awareness to help end abuse.
RESTORING THE CHURCH
God’s uncovering of the Edomites’ betrayal, and his judgment upon their nation, points to when God will decisively deal with all the evil in the world and bring his healing peace over all the nations (Ob. 15-21). “Then, the Lord will reign as King!” (Ob. 1:21). Jesus’ present exposure of his Church foreshadows the same.
As we long for King Jesus’ coming, let us join him in restoring his Church to bear witness to the full and final restoration that ultimately awaits. As more of our churches become safe villages, extending strong support to survivors and zero tolerance to abusers, we hasten Christ’s complete restoration of the Church as his bride without blemish.
 Significant research reveals that custody court judges consistently get custody decisions dangerously wrong. Abusers often win custody or unsupervised visitation. The 2019 Washington Post article,” ‘A gendered trap’: When mothers allege child abuse by fathers, the mothers often lose custody, study shows,” highlights the current family court crisis and explains the brokenness within family court systems that protective mothers are forced to navigate. See also Family Court Custody Crisis and Why Family Courts Usually Fail Victims on the Stop Abuse Campaign website, and additional information on the Child Justice website.
 See Jeremiah 13:22, 26; 26:16, 17, 26; 49:16, 51:54; Ob. 1:4.
 Scholars attribute Edom’s decline to the Babylonian king Nabonidus. See “Nabonidus, as-Silaʿ, and the Beginning of the End of Edom.”
 As the Edomites lost possession of their ancestral homelands, they gradually migrated south of Judah (the southernmost region of Israel) to an area that became known as “Idumea,” the Greek form of Edom’s original name (see Mt. 4:25; Mk. 3:8). Following successive attacks by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 BC (1 Macc. 4:29,61; 5:65) and John Hyrcanus in 126 BC (Jos., Ant., 13:257ff.), Simon bar Giora, led 40,000 soldiers who viciously attacked the Edomites of Upper Idumea, devastating the surrounding villages and countryside in 66 CE (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book IV 9-5 and 9-7; cf, Ob. 18). After 70 A.D. the Edomites disappeared from history.
 In 2019, San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle journalists reported that their six-month investigation found about 400 current Southern Baptist Church leaders and workers credibly accused of sexual misconduct since 1998. Many among the more than 700 victims, primarily children, were abandoned and shunned by their churches.
 Christianity Today’s article refers to Wade Mullen as “an expert in the ways religious organizations respond to abuse allegations” and mentions his concerns regarding Christian conciliation. After their article was published Mullen tweeted, “the entire system of Christian conciliation needs to be more thoroughly examined by the Church and society.” Rachael Denhollander added, “Christian mediation/conciliation groups *rarely* have any understanding of abuse, power dynamics, or frankly even healthy corporate structures and policies and have little to no accountability structures for themselves. More often than not, they are dangerous and perpetuate abuse.”
Bill Nelson recommends the Resources for Survivors, Advocates, and Organizations on Wade Mullen’s website.
About the author:
God has privileged Bill Nelson to represent Him among students and scholars gathered from over 50 nations at Johns Hopkins University over the past 25 years. Bill is an ordained minister through the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), having received his theological and ministry training at Dallas and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries. He and his wife Michele enjoy hiking in the mountains and other activities with friends and family, including their three grown children.