Theology, Culture, and Counseling Victims of Sexual Abuse

So I finally got around to watching the 20/20 episode about Tina Anderson. Chuck Phelps and I run in different IFB orbits (independent fundamental Baptist churches constitute anything but a cohesive movement), and until now I haven’t given the Zichterman/Lewis/DoRight arguments much thought. Their accusations simply don’t apply to my splinter group of what I seriously doubt can even still be called a movement. However, I was recently asked about the counseling method discussed in the 20/20 episode (see part two) and watched the video. One allegation raises an issue concerning how theology and culture intersect.

Tina Anderson alleges that during counseling Chuck Phelps’ wife asked if Tina enjoyed having sex with her rapist. According to 20/20, Linda Phelps denies ever saying that. Personally, I have neither an idea who said what nor any desire to speculate. However, this counseling technique was often used in IFB circles during the 1990s. It was motivated out of a sincere desire for holiness but suffered from a serious lack of wisdom and an imbalanced approach to sin.

On Thursday Evening, July 26, 2001, Evangelist Tom Farrell preached a message at the Wilds Christian Camp titled “The Priority of Purity.” In that message, he explained,

Now I’m going to deal with something that is a little touchy so don’t move. Somebody comes and says, “Preacher, I was sexually abused.” I want you to here me, and pastor you may want to use this. In counseling—and I’m very discreet in my counseling—I will ask this question: “Was there ever a time that you were a willing partner?” There’s a reason I ask that. Now don’t look at your friend watch me. If there was, it may have started as abuse but if you surrendered for any reason then you are guilty, and you will never know the forgiveness and cleansing of God until you confess where you were wrong. However, if there was never a time that you were willing and you were sexually abused, let me give you an illustration that will help you.

Suppose you worked for me at a grocery store, you were one of my cash register gals. I give you the deposit. I say, “Go two blocks down here. Make a deposit at First National Bank.” On the way down you are robbed. You did not do one thing wrong. You are robbed. Are you guilty of stealing? Yes or No? No, you are not. Now, suppose you go and step into an alleyway and you take out two hundred dollars and put it in your pocket and deposit everything else. Are you now guilty of being a thief? Yes, you are. You may not have stolen the whole thing son, but you did steal part of it.

Now you understand this. If you have been robbed, God’s judgment is on the person that did it to you. You don’t have to get even and you don’t have to be bitter. You can cast your care upon the Lord and God will deal with that. But I want you to know—from the front row to the back row—if you were sexually abused and you had nothing to do with it, you need feel no guilt because in the sight of God you are not guilty. You were robbed, and God almighty will deal with the thief who is the low down scum who did that. You let God take care of that. You let Him be the avenger. Now if you are in sin, then confess your sin.

Evangelist Tom Farrell is a popular speaker and leader among a significant segment of IFB churches. This summer camp message was preached to about a thousand teenagers and their pastors who came as sponsors. Due to the nature of Farrell’s ministry, this sermon was likely preached thirty or more times in 2001 and was heard by thousands. The statement quoted above was an aside towards the end of the message, so it could have been a one-time extemporaneous addition. Please remember that this was a spoken address and was not prepared with the precision we expect in print. I don’t know if Farrell still promotes this approach to counseling victims of sexual abuse, but messages such as this did contribute its widespread use.

Let’s break down the approach.

The Good

Tom Farrell rightly observes that people can sin while and especially after being victimized by sexual abuse. The human heart is desperately wicked. Sin pollutes everything people do this side of heaven. Even while being victimized by another, the human heart can rebel against God. Following any sort of sexual abuse, victims must guard their hearts lest their righteous anger turn to bitterness and their innocent suffering become a justification for destructive sin habits.

The Bad

This approach takes an imbalanced view of sin. Sins connected to immorality are treated with the utmost priority as the ultimate obstacles to sanctification. Remember the sermon is titled, “The Priority of Purity.” Earlier in the sermon, Farrell argues that “virtue” in 2 Peter 1:5 refers to moral purity and must be achieved before any progress can be made in sanctification. He states, “After you are saved, the next choice you must make is moral purity because purity precedes maturity.” He then has the crowd repeat “purity precedes maturity” several times. Farrell argues that Christians must deal with purity before they can become sanctified in other areas of life. Thus TV and music choices make appearances in this sermon. If any area of your life can be tied in some way to sexual sin, you must confess and forsake it before you can start becoming spiritually mature.

This sort of emphasis was hardly limited to Independent Fundamental Baptists. Evangelicalism as a whole has historically tended to make bodily purity a default watershed issue when lacking of a clear theological understanding of culture. In an article that traces Evangelical attempts to adapt to youth culture, Thomas Bergler notes,

But how could Christian youth and their leaders tell the difference between worldly compromise and beating the world at its own game? Because they had few clearly articulated theological criteria for deciding which adaptations to youth culture were morally acceptable, YFC [Youth For Christ] leaders instinctively turned to the purity of youthful bodies as the key distinguishing mark that separated cultural victory from worldly contamination” (“Are We going to Grow Up?” Christianity Today [June 2012]: 21-22).

As with any theological imbalance, this singular focus on purity resulted in a host of unintended consequences. In broader Evangelicalism, the Christian’s personal relationship with Christ was often transformed into “an erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol” (Bergler 22). In some circles, this imbalance resulted in insensitive counseling techniques.

The Ugly

“Was there ever a time that you were a willing partner?” This question does strike upon a potential sin problem. Adolescents can commit sexual sins regardless whether they are old enough to give legal consent.

However, such a question must be used with extreme caution. Victims of sexual assault often struggle with false guilt and doubt whether they put up enough of a struggle. If one is going to give one piece of advice for counselors of sexual abuse victims, this question shouldn’t be it.

Inevitably, counselors will need to help victims sort out their feelings of guilt, and occasionally some guilt might be genuine. Unless a counselor already has a close relationship with the victim, counselors may need a long time to raise discussions of guilt. If the possibility of sexual sin becomes the ultimate aim of counseling, this discussion will be rushed, more important issues of healing will be ignored, and the victim will be hurt.

Going Forward

Obviously, anyone still using this question as an initial part of counseling sexual assault victims should re-evaluate this approach. Perhaps a potential sin is being pursued with unwarranted and potentially destructive vigor due to a knee-jerk reaction from sinful culture. Of course, counselors may need to eventually raise a question such as “do you fear that any of this guilt might be genuine?” However, this must be done realizing that sexual impurity is not the ultimate sinful pollution.

On a broader level, Christians must develop a theologically informed view of culture. Unbiblical assumptions will inevitably have unintended consequences in ministry. These problems can’t be fixed by petition drives or public apologies. The ugly results will just crop up somewhere else. The only solution is to think more biblically, especially about culture.

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