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The Conflicting Church Messages I Remember While Growing Up as a Survivor of Sex Abuse

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I grew up in a rural conservative Baptist church. Every Sunday we would pile in the car and go down the road to attend Sunday School with the church service afterward. We would sing in the plays dressed as angels, wisemen, and shepherds. The potluck dinners were attended regularly with the church community meeting downstairs to eat together. I went to church youth group each Wednesday evening and daily vacation bible school each summer. This sounds like it could be a fantastic supportive community to be a part of, and I know in many churches that is the case. However, I did not experience it this way.

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In my world the church was fear based. You participated in these activities so that others would not judge you, and so that you could avoid eternal damnation. I don’t believe they ever intentionally marginalized me as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. However, I still recall many instances that resulted in this.

“If you have premarital sex you will go to hell.”

This is the biggest one that stands out as having an impact. As a 9-year-old girl I was terrified. I didn’t understand that this was not sex. I didn’t understand that this was abuse and therefore should not count in that equation (even if I believed it). I was convinced that I would go to hell when I died and every week that we walked through those big double doors it was all I could think of. Not knowing a lot about anatomy and puberty, I was constantly terrified that I was pregnant. I would expect to go to the bathroom and have a baby show up (clearly I had no idea just how much goes into pregnancy). I was constantly trying to hide this fear while being told that God knows all.

“Forgiveness is a virtue and is necessary to get into Heaven.”

You can see the conflicting messages right here. As humans we are expected to forgive, but if we mess up bad enough God will not be as forgiving. I knew what was happening to me was wrong. It was continuing to happen. Yet each week I heard the message that forgiveness is expected. At what point is forgiveness not possible? It sure was not when I was young and it was still going on (and right now still isn’t — but that is for a different blog entry). Thus, I tried as hard as possible to find compassion for him. Maybe if I could be a better person he wouldn’t be doing it. I took the burden upon myself when he should have been the one carrying that baggage.

“O-B-E-D-I-E-N-C-E…Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.”

This was one of the songs that we sang quite frequently during Sunday School. The message being that as children we needed to obey our elders. If we obey them wholeheartedly we will be granted a space beyond those pearly gates. We would walk with Jesus like in those children’s coloring pages. But what does this do for children when the adults or “elders” in their lives are taking advantage of them. As kids we learned to simply do what they ask…no questions. That would be our salvation.

These are only a few of the messages that my childhood church gave to me while I was experiencing the abuse. Essentially what it had to do with was power and control. This particular institution used fear to encourage their members to act in certain ways. When you missed one week of Sunday School you were lectured for the majority of the lesson in front of other students. Simply because the teacher could. Do I believe it was intentional to target us? No. However, I do believe that there was a culture that needed to be questioned, examined, and reevaluated. Many of these people attended the church for a great deal of time — it was what they knew. However, this is why churches need to educate their staff on the dynamics of childhood abuse. Teach the signs, develop sensitivity, and change the culture into that community that they claim to strive for.

Photo credit: daseaford/Getty Images

Originally published: April 11, 2019
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