ANN MAREE GOUDZWAARD|CONTRIBUTOR
Helen is a middle-aged woman in your congregation. She has two married children and one teenager who still lives at home. Helen and her husband, John, have been in and out of counseling with their pastor for at least 10 years, yet she continues to have difficulty articulating what exactly is wrong in their marriage. Because of your recognized leadership in the church, Helen comes to you for advice. What should she do? Counsel doesn’t seem to help. How should she respond when John tells her their problems are all in her head? Sometimes she just feels crazy. “Can you help me?” Helen asks. You’re not quite sure where to turn.
In 2019, the PCA General Assembly commissioned a study committee to produce a report on domestic and sexual abuse for our denomination (DASA). The committee, consisting of seven teaching and ruling elders, as well as five “expert” (female) advisors, worked together for three years to compile a biblical basis and practical application for pastors and leaders in the PCA to reference as they encounter reports of abuse in the local church. In June 2022 the committee released their report.
I served on this project and had the privilege of interviewing victims and listening to their stories. When the report released, victims and people helpers asked how to use it to help minister to women in crisis. My hope is to answer that question and inspire confidence to effectively help victims like Helen.
What the report is
The DASA report is “advice” from the committee. The charge for the committee was to,
“Prepare an annotated bibliography of resources the Committee endorses on topics related to child abuse and sexual assault, domestic abuse and sexual assault, and domestic oppression…include pastoral resources for the care of victims of these sins, as well as ministry and counsel…report regarding best practices and guidelines that could be helpful for elders, Sessions, Presbyteries, and agencies for protecting against these sins and for responding to them.”
The report is structured into two major sections. The first is a biblical and theological basis for understanding abuse while the second includes best practices for Child Sexual Abuse, Adult Sexual Abuse, Domestic Abuse, and the Misuse of Spiritual Authority. The report also contains extensive appendices with definitions, information regarding child protection policies, documents regarding repentance, forgiveness, divorce in domestic abuse, and an annotated bibliography for further education.
What the report is not
Despite the inclusion of factual “case studies” derived from interviews with confirmed and alleged victims, the PCA report is not an investigation into the extent of abuse in our denomination. Victim advocate and attorney Rachael Denhollender, who served as an expert on the committee, encouraged the denomination to perform an assessment of the state of abuse in the PCA. The outcome of that recommendation is yet to be determined.
Also, the DASA report is not binding. The PCA does not have a top-down form of government, so the report does not create denomination wide standards. Individual churches and leadership will ultimately determine best practices within their local church and presbytery context.
The following are several ways we as women in the PCA can use this report to further one another care:
The biblical theological introduction of the report is rich with a confessional basis for how to think about the dynamics of abuse. Cases like Helen’s happen often. These women aren’t battered physically, so they may not necessarily consider what happens in their home as abusive. The Westminster Standards provide an understanding of how God speaks often and definitively about a misuse of power, that His heart is for the oppressed, and that the church must respond to such evil decisively.
The report will help provide a biblical understanding of an abuse of power and control in relationships. When women come to us for help, one of the primary ways we can serve is to educate them regarding misuse of power and coercive control dynamics. The report also has advice regarding how to respond to a report of abuse.
The report might compel us to initiate conversations with our church leaders. Go over the report together and develop a strategy for how to respond to reports of abuse. Use your voice to advocate on a victim’s behalf. Your voice is very important in this discussion. Only women know what it feels like to live in a woman’s body, to feel that vulnerability to assault, and then to experience the devastation when our perspective of circumstances is questioned. Women serve other women when we help give them a voice. If they know female voices will not be heard, they will not come forward. If we want to minister to and care for them, we need to create a culture in which they can feel comfortable to reveal their struggle.
The report articulates how to prepare a rich response system in your church before abuse occurs, and the type of team to structure in order to prepare to minister to victims and their families. Commissioning visible, qualified team members is one of the ways in which the church will encourage individuals to feel safe enough to reveal abuse.
Darby Strickland (also a member on the committee) has said, “Victims can’t cry out to the Lord unless they have language.” The Westminster Standards provide a framework for articulating oppression (abuse, persecution) including the biblical proof texts. The word of God itself gives victims language that shines a light on the sins committed against them. Scripture is comprehensive in describing sinful, abusive behavior and God holds his children primarily accountable (1 Pet. 4:17). Christ’s body is called to name evil for what it is and deal with it decisively.
The report provides care givers and victims with words to describe the experience of abuse. God’s people imitate him when they use his words to cry out from within injustice. Practically, the report helps discern methods for drawing out a victim’s story.
Diane Langberg, another expert on the DASA committee writes, “We are called to speak truth, to shine light, and to call things by their right name as did our Lord. We have been told the human heart is deceitful above all things and that none of us can comprehend it. That means humility is important.” Those who work in victim care are rarely confident. Every case is unique and must be carefully explored and interpreted. The evil one wants nothing less than confusion in every situation. The heart of humility recognizes this weakness and seeks qualified help.
The report will show a need for curiosity. It helps us see we don’t always know the answers and must remain humble and open to correction. It will compel us to learn more about the victims. They alone intimately know their experience, and our humility must lead us to exegete them as well as we exegete God’s word in their care.
Practically, the report encourages leadership to engage competent, third-party investigation. In order to avoid instances of false reporting, or the inevitable “he said, she said” difficulty, trained, objective individuals and institutions will aid in identifying abusive dynamics.
The DASA report is a great beginning for how the PCA can respond well to cases of abuse. However, much work remains. Pray for our denomination, the victims, perpetrators, and their families. Abuse is a significant cultural issue impacting society beyond church walls. Pray for the leaders shepherding a local congregation. Pray that Christ’s body will be the primary place victims find healing. Pray that God be glorified in our efforts.
To learn more about the DASA report, click here.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
 Darby Strickland, Story, Episode 2, Safe to Hope Podcast (September 2022) https://www.helpherresources.com/