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Sexual Abuse and Matthew 18

I’ve heard many stories of women who’ve complained to church leadership of being sexually abused, only to hear that they should “follow Matthew 18,” meaning “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (vs. 15).

Those of us acquainted with Matthew 18 know that if the first step fails to produce repentance, we “take one or two more” with us (vs. 16). If that fails we should, “tell it to the church,” and if that fails, “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (vs. 17). In other words, Jesus commanded:

1. One-on-one confrontation

2. Two-or-three-on-one confrontation

3. Church confrontation

We start small and increase the exposure and intensity of the confrontation as we go. If we follow these steps in a spirit of Christlike love and humility, we often resolve issues with the first step. I love these guidelines, believe in them, and follow them.

But I don’t think they should be used in a letter-of-the-law fashion for cases of sexual abuse. Thus this blog.

The Matthew 18 guidelines are just that—guidelines. They are not letter-of-the-law dogmas. Sometimes higher principles must be respected. God allowed a starving David to eat shewbread because a higher principle appeared—that of feeding the hungry. If someone has been abused, returning to the abuser could lead to more abuse. Wouldn’t the higher law of protecting the vulnerable enter here?

Vulnerable people who have been harmed once by a manipulative person, in returning to speak to that person alone, unwittingly position themselves to be manipulated again. I know of a now-disgraced church leader who sexually abused multiple women. He cried crocodile tears when caught, claiming repentance and that it was a one-time mistake. Experienced, wise church leaders believed him, only to learn later he lied. If a victim returns to a perpetrator, he will pull out all the stops, including lying through his teeth, to silence her.*

Not every sin-confrontation in the Bible is preceded by a private conversation. Peter quickly and openly rebuked Ananias and Sapphira, whose hypocritical show of pretend generosity called forth instant judgment from heaven (Acts 5:1-11). Tamar publicly confronted Judah, who, thinking her a prostitute, impregnated her (Genesis 38:26). Can you imagine a young Israelite woman running in from the countryside, clothes torn, tears wet on her swollen face, being sent back to her rapist to confront him? This admittedly extreme example applies in principle. Don’t send plucked chickens back to the fox to ask him why he did such a thing. Foxes be foxes. He’ll be a fox again.

It is true that we must not believe every allegation. Smack dab in the middle of Genesis we see the story of Potiphar’s wife—a woman who lied about sexual harassment. Reason and good sense call for due process in response to sexual abuse allegations. But there is a way to follow due process without potentially retraumatizing victims.

I recommend—request, even—that if the alleged victim of sexual abuse can bear it, leaders go with them to speak to the alleged perpetrator. If the alleged victim chooses not to come along—and it should be up to them—have them write a statement that can be brought to the alleged perpetrator. Remember all the while that sexual harassment is a crime, and depending upon the details, the matter may need a dual-process approach involving both church and state.

My takeaway is this: Please, I beg of thee, in light of the possibility that abuse really did occur, don’t send a maimed sheep back to the wolf. You could end up dragging a lamb’s bloody body away from his hungry jaws.

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