The Biblical principles behind reporting sexual abuse

by David Sanchez on September 9, 2021 in Sexual Abuse Response

Dr. David Sanchez serves as Director of Ethics & Justice in the Christian Life Commission. Learn more at txb.org/clc.

The Bible takes sexual abuse seriously. We should report it (1) because it is the law (in the case of minors) and we must submit to the government God has placed over us to execute his justice, (2) because as God’s people we are charged to stand up for the oppressed and vulnerable, (3) because doing so discourages other would-be offenders, and (4) because reporting the offender provides them with a chance to see their sin for what it is and repent. The scriptures commonly used to keep sexual abuse and assault from being reported by keeping it “in house” are not used carefully and in no way refute or nullify these mandates and principles.

Scripture takes sexual abuse and sexual assault seriously

Let’s first quickly clarify our terms. The term “sexual abuse” is used to indicate when a minor is tricked, forced, or coerced into sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. “Sexual assault” refers to such behavior when both the abuser and the victim are adults. With that in mind, Deuteronomy 22:25-27 could either be describing sexual assault or sexual abuse by today’s standards, depending on the age of the “young woman.”[1]

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor…”

From this passage we see that the rape, according to God’s law in the Old Testament was a crime on par with homicide. It was not the type of issue one settled with one’s neighbor, such as making restitution for the loss of a donkey or ox (Exodus 21:33-36). The proper response, ordained by God for his people so that they might be blessed while living in the promised land, was corporal punishment. While the Old Testament law no longer applies to believers today, and no one should take it upon themselves to murder an accused sex offender,[2] the passage still exposes the serious nature of sexual abuse and establishes the precedent for reporting the offense and bringing the offender before a court of law for justice.[3]

Scripture encourages reporting cases of sexual abuse and sexual assault

Romans 13:1-5 encourages believers to be subject to governing authorities. The reasons Paul gives for doing so are theological (because God, in his sovereignty, has ordained this authority over you), logical (because through that authority, God avenges those who suffer wrongdoing), and practical (because in obeying that authority, the believers avoid God’s wrath themselves).[4] How does this apply to our current discussion? Well, in Texas, it is a Class A misdemeanor to fail to report sexual abuse. Therefore, reporting such an occurrence is a means by which we submit to God’s authority by submitting to the government He has placed over us. It is the way that we place the punishment of the offender in God’s hands instead of our own. Finally, quite frankly, doing so also keeps us from ourselves being guilty and punishable under the law for remaining silent.[5]

Proverbs 31:8-9 encourages believers to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. This passage is less well-known, so it’s worth quoting in full first before a brief discussion: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”

This is one of many passages that speak of God’s desire for his people to protect the oppressed and to see that they are given justice.[6] In the case of sexual abuse, the victim likely has been coerced into silence and submission. They need an advocate to speak up on their behalf. Reporting the abuse to the police is a means of doing this. The scope of this passage, and its call to stand up for others, reaches beyond the particular event(s) of the known instance of sexual abuse. The abuser may have had other victims in the past, concurrently, or in the future as well.[7] Reporting their abhorrent behavior also protects these other potential victims.

As a side note, the victim may need compassionate encouragement to find their voice and speak to the authorities about their abuse, and possibly a friend who will go with them and affirm them in this brave act of faith.[8]

1 Timothy 5:20 encourages believers to rebuke unrepentant sinners publicly, for the sake of others. It states, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (emphasis mine). This is a perspective that we do not often hear. The public rebuke of sin discourages other would-be offenders by revealing to them the consequences of their actions. In the case of sexual abuse, reporting the offense communicates that these matters are taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. In the case of a day care center, for instance, if word was spread that a sex offender was prosecuted, it would discourage other predators. In the case of a community of faith, where let’s say it was discovered that someone in leadership had abused their power by sexually assaulting a member of the congregation, reporting it to law enforcement would communicate to all that such conduct is not becoming of believers, is not hidden, and will not be tolerated.[9]

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 encourages believers to remove the sexually immoral from among them for the sake of the immoral person. Here, Paul describes the process of excommunication as an act of mercy, rather than one of vengeance or judgment. He states, of the unrepentant member of the Corinthian congregation, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” In other words, he is to face the consequences of his actions, rather than receive protection from within the community of faith, with the hope that he will eventually “snap out of” his wretchedness and “wake up to his sin and repent.”[10]

It could easily be said of a someone willing to commit sexual abuse or assault, someone so ready to treat another human being made in God’s image as their own personal object of gratification, that they are indeed deeply entangled in sin, and likely have been for some time. In such a case, it can be biblically argued that refraining from reporting their crime shows a lack of love for them. Shielding them from the consequences of their actions in the form of a report to authorities also shields them from an opportunity to see the heinousness of their actions in a new light, and deprives them of the chance that this would be the event that leads them back to the transforming power of the gospel. A victim of sexual abuse needs to hear this perspective, that reporting the abuse is not just the right thing to do, it is also the loving thing to do. Similarly, if you are a victim of sexual assault, and someone were to say to you, “You need to forgive them, not report them,” I would encourage you to reply, “I have forgiven them (or I am trying to forgive them) and that is why I am reporting them.”

Do verses that speak of “going in private” to deal with offenses apply to cases of sexual abuse or assault?

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 cautions believers to avoid lawsuits, but does this apply to sexual abuse? In a word, no. The language Paul uses here to describe the types of offenses that the Corinthians were going to court over are translated in English (ESV) as “trivial cases” (v.2) and “matters pertaining to this life” (v.3). In other words, these are civil matters not criminal matters.[11] To say “You should not report sexual abuse to the authorities because believers need to settle this among themselves,” is to misinterpret the context of the passage as well as ignore Paul’s stronger instructions for sexual immorality in the previous chapter.[12]

Matthew 18:15-17 speaks of telling your fellow believer of their sin against you “between you and him alone,” but would this include the sin of sexual abuse? There are at least three things to consider here. First, Jesus is depicting a situation where the offender and the offended are on equal footing. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault….” However, in the case of sexual abuse, the situation is always that of an imbalance of power. The person offended is not in a position to go to their abuser and speak as equals and hope to be heard. Second, given the nature of the offense, and the likelihood that the abuser will respond negatively (even violently) and then deny their actions later, going to them alone would be extremely unwise. A one-on-one should be avoided at all costs. Third, that is not to say that the other steps of going with others and then going before the church should not be taken, especially if the offender is a leader within the church.[13] As discussed above, church discipline is vital to the church’s health and the offender’s repentance. Yet, it should not be seen as a substitute for reporting the crime(s) committed. This is a “both-and” situation, not an “either-or” one.

Romans 12:17-19 speaks of not seeking vengeance or repaying evil for evil but leaving room for the wrath of God, but is that a reason not to report sexual abuse? You may have heard stories of poorly handled allegations of sexual abuse, where the parents of a victim were told that reporting the offense would be a vengeful act, and that instead they needed to simply forgive the offender. However, as mentioned earlier in the discussion of Romans 13:1-5, submitting to governing authorities by placing someone into the hands of law enforcement is putting justice into God’s hands. To do otherwise is to shield them from His discipline, and from a situation that might bring about repentance.


Notes:

[1] According to Texas state law, a person is a minor until the age of 18. However, during biblical times, a person was considered an adult at age 13, and the Jewish custom was for a woman to marry anytime between first reaching puberty and age 20. Furthermore, even if the context of the passage portrays the victim as an adult according to their customs, it is not a logical leap to think that the crime itself and the consequences would not also apply if the victim were a child.

[2] See Romans 12:17-19.

[3] It is also worth noting that the victim is believed based on her own testimony, in a situation where there are no other witnesses. For a fuller treatment of this passage see “God is not silent: What the Bible teaches about sexual assault,” by Dr. Katie McCoy

[4] Longenecker (The Epistle to the Romans (NIGCT), 955-972) gives the reasons of “theological,” “logical,” and “practical” along with some very helpful discussion of how this passage applies to believers all over the world, who seek to thrive under various types of governments. See also T. B. Maston’s writings on ”Citizenship” in Both-And: A Maston Reader, 181-206.

[5] Jesus, himself, does not mince words when it comes to protecting the innocence of children (Matthew 18:5-6).

[6] See also Deuteronomy 24:17; 27:19; Psalm 10:17-18; 82:3; Isaiah 1:17; 56:1; Jeremiah 22:3; and Micah 6:8.

[7] MinistrySafe explains that sex offenders often have multiple victims prior to prosecution.

[8] I say “act of faith,” because reporting an offense to police by no means guarantees prosecution or conviction. In fact, according to RAINN, only 25 of very 1,000 sexual assault perpetrators go to jail or prison (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system). Thus, many fail to report sexual assault because they feel that reporting the assault does not do any good. Nevertheless, reporting is a means of placing the situation in God’s hands and trusting that justice will be done.

[9] See also 1 Corinthians 5:6-7; and Ephesians 5:3-17.

[10] Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT), 175.

[11] See Garland’s commentary for a more robust argument against those who see this passage as dealing with sexual misconduct (1 Corinthians [BECNT], 198-200).

[12] Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5 where the immoral brother is expelled, even this was not the instance of a crime, as the context portrays consenting adults. Sexual abuse is a crime. Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 5-6 are helpful, but they do not supersede or nullify his instructions in Romans 13, and the mandate to submit to governing authorities. As on all topics, we must take the whole counsel of God’s word and not just a single passage in determining the proper, God-honoring course of action to a given situation.

[13] Cf. 1 Timothy 5:19.

Read more articles in: Sexual Abuse Response, Counseling Services, Ministerial Health

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