Choosing to Trust the Church After Sexual Abuse


Earlier this summer, the Mennonite Church USA held its annual conference. The unofficial theme was something no organization wants to print on promotional materials. Over and over, Anabaptist leaders at the gathering repented of the denomination’s complicity in their most famous theologian’s sexual abuse.

John Howard Yoder is thought to have victimized nearly 100 women during his tenure at a Mennonite seminary in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was forced out and later disciplined by the church, but without anyone revealing why he’d faced censure. He died in 1997. What makes Yoder’s abuse all the more grotesque is the theology that made him—and his church—famous: Pacifism.

Yoder’s legacy serves as a powerful reminder for all kinds of Christian organizations. Abusers don’t always appear to us as heartless monsters. They can be smart, thoughtful, well-loved Christians. They can hide inside our own churches. God recognizes our naiveté about human nature. As Diane Langberg put it, “We think we know people. God says we do not. He says we do not know ourselves.”

Last weekend, I sent my daughters to Sunday school at church. It’s the same church I attended growing up. It’s where I was married and my kids were baptized. It’s also the same church where my best friend was raped repeatedly by a youth pastor in high school.

During worship, the head pastor (who was not on staff back then) raises a hand of blessing over the kids before they make their way to class: “You are valuable because you are made in God’s image.” I still feel nervous every time my daughters, 5 and 8, leave my side.

I love this congregation, the place where I came to know Christian community and grow as a believer. But bitterness and cynicism had become regular companions in the sanctuary. I had been hurt by what had happened to my friend years before, as well as sexual violence in my own family. (My siblings were both assaulted, one of them also within a Christian organization.)

To tell myself that their cases were merely anomalies brings a false sense of comfort. I know how often these things happen, and I know that even seemingly good leaders like Yoder and our fun youth pastor can hurt those under their care. So what now? Is my only option to mistrust everyone?

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Heather Caliri


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