It almost seems like we are dealing with “the unforgiveable sin,” an elder shared while describing ministry with sexual offenders in their congregation. His remark highlighted many churches’ difficulty as they seek to biblically and practically restore sexual offenders after abuse.
We are naturally repulsed at the perpetrator’s actions and the idea of restoration may be distasteful even though the gospel of Jesus requires it. Miroslav Volf, a Croat, whose people suffered in the Balkan wars writes, “No redeemed future is imaginable in which perpetrators – even judged and transformed perpetrators! – are dressed in white robes. Everything in us rebels against the image. Yet everything we know about the God of the cross demands that we seriously entertain it.”
As we think about perpetrators and victims of abuse, we must realize that they can be either male or female who are experiencing tragic brokenness and who need to experience God’s gracious restoration. However, for ease of written communication, we will be using the male gender for the perpetrator and the female gender for the victim.
Because of the Gospel’s power, we must believe that restoration of shalom can take place. Shalom is the state of wholeness, wellness, and harmony. Although shalom has been broken, both offender and victim can be restored to wholeness through the power of the cross. It is not easy and may never fully happen, but this must be our goal.
We may easily relate to restoring shalom for the victim, but the ultimate test of our belief in restoration comes as we begin the process for the perpetrator. And here, restoration means their relationship with God, not restoration of their position in the church. This is because power, and the respect that comes with position, are tools often used to abuse. It is unwise to allow past abusers to use them again.
Restoring the perpetrator begins with Christ’s compassion as we lament the victim’s pain and the abuser’s brokenness. Our grief motivates us to restore wholeness to their broken relationship. Without Christ’s compassion, we lack the capacity to seek the perpetrator’s restoration. Not to seek his restoration is to deny the Gospel’s power to transform. Thus, we must wrestle with the tension of feelings of revulsion towards the perpetrator and our responsibility to work for justice for both the abused and the abuser.
We must also realize that perpetrator and victim are bonded together. Lorraine Amstutz states, “Crime creates a relationship, albeit a negative one.” This seems paradoxical because their previous relationship has been broken by the abuse. However, the abuse has forged a perverse bond of emotion and must be considered when restoring shalom as a connection between both will always exist.
For example, David used his powerful position to sexually assault Bathsheba, and that rape created a relationship that still exists. Thus, our solution is wrong if focused only on the relationship that was broken without addressing the new perverted relationship. Because a new bond has been forged, restoration cannot be unilaterally achieved.
The perpetrator may want restoration, but the victim is not ready and so reconciliation cannot take place. If the victim is ready but the perpetrator refuses to participate, the process fails. One counselor speaking of the difficulty of achieving restoration said, “I have seen very few perpetrators who want to acknowledge the impact of their abuse, much less desire reconciliation.”
The restoration process must not cause harm by pressuring or re-traumatizing the victim as this invalidates the concept of shalom. If pressured to quickly forgive her perpetrator the focus shifts from the victim’s healing to the perpetrator’s restoration causing her revictimization. Therefore, the perpetrator cannot demand forgiveness; it must be freely given. Theologically, we believe, if victims forgive their abuser, they can experience the restoration of shalom. However, this is not easily accomplished as coming to the point of forgiveness is often a long journey.
A common way churches encourage restoration is to urge the perpetrator to immediately ask for forgiveness and the victim to grant it. While not wholly wrong, it doesn’t go far enough in recognizing the breadth and complexity of the process that the perpetrator, victim, and church must go through before restoration truly can occur. And it is wrong because it doesn’t adequately consider the cost of forgiveness to the victim.
Without forgiveness both perpetrator and victim will remain in a state of enmity and estrangement with no hope of reconciliation. However, forgiveness by definition must come from the victim as forgiveness moves the victim’s and perpetrator’s relationship to the place where shalom can be restored. This goal is not easily reached and there is danger because the perpetrator may rush through the process using Scriptures about forgiveness and reconciliation to avoid the consequences of their abuse and may manipulate the victim by saying, “The Bible says you should forgive. And if you forgive you shouldn’t report.”
To avoid consequences perpetrators may go to their pastor and ask for forgiveness. One writer says, “Because the petitioner appears remorseful and seems to be following the prescribed formula to activate God’s grace, many pastors utter the words of assurance: “You are forgiven.” This is wrong because the pastor cannot forgive on the victim’s account and thus bypasses the victim against the direction of Scripture. If the pastor “forgives,” the perpetrator can demand forgiveness by saying, “The pastor says I am forgiven, so you must forgive me.”
This illustrates, as one counselor said, that “Perpetrators often do not understand how long the process can take as they do not comprehend how difficult it is for the abused to come to the point where they can forgive their abuser.” Easy forgiveness may be desired by the perpetrator as a quick solution but forced forgiveness further abuses the victim and does not help the perpetrator address the root causes of his sin.
Some feel forgiveness can be easily given as an act of the will. They believe as God’s forgiveness is instantaneous and complete so ours should be. This simplistic approach only sees forgiveness as volitional and intellectual. They argue, “We know we should forgive and so we will to forgive.” However, this ignores the psychological and spiritual aspects of the victim. For many, the experience is a long process of internal wrestling before they can forgive because forgiveness is complex and has different levels.
Jennifer Greenberg, abuse survivor and author, defines these levels as “boundaried forgiveness” and “reconciled forgiveness.” She says, “Boundaried Forgiveness is when we let go of our anger, resentment, and desire for revenge; yet we may maintain boundaries and pursue justice … The storm inside is quelled, but we won’t tolerate further abuse.” Thus, “boundaried forgiveness” is a half-way house for the abused. They have gone as far as possible toward forgiving their abuser without the abuser seeking reconciliation.
However, while reaching the level of boundaried forgiveness, restoration has not taken place. This only happens when there is reconciled forgiveness. Greenberg says, “Reconciled forgiveness is only the ideal when our abuser is genuinely repentant … and we’ve had time to objectively observe this with a clear head and a mending heart … While our relationship may not be perfect or completely restored, a process toward reconciliation has begun.”
While she forgave her abuser on the level of boundaried forgiveness, she has not reached reconciled forgiveness as he wasn’t interested. And that is the problem in trying to restore shalom. Sometimes, one can only go so far.
Even if the victim only reaches “boundaried forgiveness” she breaks the perpetrator’s power over her. There is no anger or revengeful desire welling up whenever she thinks of the perpetrator. She has given “boundaried forgiveness” and experienced the restoration of shalom within herself.
Granting forgiveness does not mean that seeking justice is abandoned. While forgiveness is central to restoration, the process is incomplete if justice is ignored. Some argue that the victim can forgive without experiencing justice but restoration of shalom is not possible without justice taking place because the relational wound is left open and longterm healing will be difficult. Phyllis Kilbourn writes, “Children have a strong sense of justice, and the prosecution of the perpetrator can satisfy this basic need … they can find such action strengthening and therapeutic.”
Thus, we must administer justice for both victim and perpetrator. We cannot ignore the abuse or avoid bringing the perpetrator to account. Sexual abuse is breaking both the law of God and man. If the church does not report sexual abuse to the authorities, they are covering up the crime and become accessories to the fact. Only by bringing the perpetrator to justice can justice be gained for the victim.
Perpetrators may hope that by asking for forgiveness they will not have to face justice. Church leaders must identify this stratagem which subverts the process of restoring shalom and achieving justice. Instead, they must take two actions. First, they must report perpetrators to civil authorities as the law requires. Secondly, the congregation must exercise church discipline beginning with removing the perpetrator from his position. Some might object that this is harsh and unloving. Victoria Johnson, counters by saying “It may be only during incarceration or court proceedings that offenders get the help they need.”
Some believe that individuals and churches forgive, but governments seek justice. However, this compartmentalizes forgiveness and justice and abrogates the duty of working to bring about justice (Micah 6:8) in cases of injustice. This raises the question, “Are forgiveness and the demand for justice incompatible and contradictory?” The answer is “no” because forgiveness and justice are interconnected in the process of re-establishing shalom.
Before forgiveness can be given, the abuse needs to be acknowledged as wrong. This begins as the victim clearly details the horror and atrocity of the abuse. She claims no responsibility for what was done to her. The abuse and trauma lie squarely at the perpetrator’s feet. To be pressured to accept some fault or blame for her abuse, as she forgives, is to perpetuate the injustice, and hinder her healing and the pursuit of justice.
This naming and condemning the wrong is equally as important for the perpetrator. He must confess the horror and atrocity of the abuse without excuse or minimizing his action and affirm the abuse was his responsibility alone. How does this confession relate to justice? By admitting his abuse, the perpetrator acknowledges his actions implicitly demand consequences and by submitting to them, justice is fulfilled. In this way, he demonstrates sincerity and achieves some measure of justice for the victim. This does not imply that his punishment equals the suffering experienced by the victim or in any way balances the scales between the penalty paid and the abuse suffered. However, when justice is carried out, it is a step in restoring shalom because the church and society is seeking to “put things right.” It recognizes the victim’s suffering and need for justice and clears the way for the perpetrator’s restoration.
What is the relationship of consequences to forgiveness and justice? Some perpetrators reason, “If you forgive me there should be no consequences.” Greenberg writes, “Unfortunately, a church leadership team might say, “You need to forgive your youth pastor, and you should not report him, because when we forgive, we put sin behind us.”
However, biblically we see consequences even after forgiveness. When Israel refused to enter the promised land, God determined to destroy them. After Moses interceded, God forgave them, but they suffered the consequence of not being able to enter Canaan (Numbers 14:20-23).
When the victim forgives and no longer holds the perpetrator’s wrong against him, she breaks the power of the perpetrator and his evil act over her. She no longer is held in the traumatic bond that was forged in the abuse because she has exercised her will against his evil instead of submitting to it. She is fulfilling the admonition, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Thus forgiveness, freely given, releases the victim from the negative psychological power and control of the oppressor. The emotional bond forged in the abuse can be broken and shalom restored. Without forgiveness, whenever the victim remembers the abuse, the repressed memories rush back and the suffering is relived. But forgiveness defeats those feelings and deprives the perpetrator of ongoing control.
Restoration of shalom requires grace on behalf of the victim. The perpetrator does not deserve it. It is an amazing act which can only be granted through the power of God’s grace working in her own heart. Jesus illustrates this concept of grace when He says that we should do more than what the law requires by “going the extra mile.” In this action there is a release from insisting upon one’s rights. Instead, it is a strong declaration of one’s own agency and freedom by voluntarily giving what is not deserved. This restores personal dignity as the gift of offering reconciliation is a reality that the perpetrator cannot deny, thwart, or effectively oppose.
While the perpetrator may refuse reconciliation, he cannot stop reconciliation from being offered. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in Romans 12:18. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. In fact, the gracious act of forgiveness, is a means to begin reconciliation with the offender. It does not consign the perpetrator perpetually to the prison of his evil past. Because of her forgiveness he is not forever an outcast within the Body of Christ.
For the restoration of shalom, the body of Christ must be a safe and supportive community to the perpetrator and victim alike. Unfortunately, this is not always true. Sexual abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander says because abuse is commonly covered up, “[The] church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse,” and, “[the] church is one of the worst places to go for help.” What a tragic indictment! We must be a safe place for perpetrators and victims by transparently dealing with abuse and following through with acts of justice and healing. In this way, we will begin restoring shalom in the lives of those involved.
In conclusion, the church must surround both perpetrator and victim with arms of love, support, and prayer to do all we can to restore shalom. As we wrestle with the difficulty of restoration and the possibility of it never completely happening, we must acknowledge we are dealing with human brokenness and spiritual weakness. Thus, if we can only help others to take steps toward the goal of restoration, we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another (Romans 14:19).”
article by Phil Morrison. Phil served as a Pastor with the Bible Fellowship Church for fourteen years before going to Kenya in 1992 where he taught at Moffat Bible College, served at Rift Valley Academy and founded the Multi-Church Pastor Institute. In 2014 he joined Africa Inland Mission’s Child Safety Team and did his doctoral dissertation on the topic of Child Sexual Abuse in the Kenyan Church. Presently, he is a Board Member and Trainer with the Child Safety Protection Network.