- Location: Online Webinar
- Date: July 9, 2021
- Tags: #2021 Videos #Diane Langberg #Online Conversation #Redeeming Power
Online Conversation | Redeeming Power with Diane Langberg
On Friday, July 9th, we hosted psychologist and author Diane Langberg to discuss the themes in her book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Dr. Langberg who has been working with survivors of trauma and abuse, clergy, and caregivers for almost 50 years, desires to increase awareness and understanding of power and its abuse so those who have been abandoned by broken systems of power can be defended and protected.
She discussed the purposes, dynamics, systems, and proper place of power, as well as the ways in which it can deform and distort, noting that “our responses to the vulnerable expose who we are.” And she noted that while “much of Christendom today seems less interested in seeing as Jesus saw…and far more interested in gaining power,” there is also the invitation and opportunity before us to “cross divides, step out of high positions, and reach out with love to those who are vulnerable, whose power is little or trampled, bestowing benedictions as we go.” We hope you enjoy this conversation!
The song is “Hrepenenje” – by Jani Lechleiter. (Slovenian for “longing.”)
The painting is ‘A shepherdess tending to her flock‘ by Anton Mauve, late 19th Century.
Special thanks to this event’s co-hosts:
Transcript of “Redeeming Power” with Diane Langberg
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Redeeming Power.” I also just want to add our thanks to our collaborators at Brazos Press who are co-hosting this Online Conversation with us. It’s always a pleasure to work with you. If you are one of those new or first-time viewers or are new to the Trinity Forum in general, we work to create a place and resources for leaders to discuss life’s biggest questions in the context of faith, with a hope of ultimately coming to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope this conversation will function as some small taste of that for you today.
This is actually our 49th Online Conversation since the pandemic started. And in that time we’ve tackled all sorts of topics ranging from the rise of conspiracy-thinking, to the advent of CRISPR technology, to reading in quarantine, to the lessons of Lincoln on leadership, to loneliness. But today the question that we’re going to grapple with is both sobering and of extraordinary importance. How do we understand the purposes and forms of power, recognize its potential for both redemption and for abuse, and respond to abuse in a way that encourages hope and healing? These are questions that are often avoided in polite company but have an increasing urgency to them. A growing body of research indicates that abuse and trauma are almost shockingly pervasive, even in the two places that ought to be the safest: home and the church. But in the words of our guest today, what happens in families also happens in the family of God. Moreover, many churches or Christian institutions have responded to reports of abuse with denial, dismissal, or even denunciation, prioritizing the protection of the organization or the leader over the victim. The fallout has profoundly damaged a number of victims, a great number of victims, but not only them, but also their families, their communities, institutions, churches, even entire denominations.
So how do we, in the words of our guest today, “come to understand power and learn how to use it wisely, to bless and not to harm, and like our Lord, to lay it aside to cross divides and reach out with love to those who are vulnerable, whose power is little or trampled, bestowing benedictions as we go.” It is a challenging and a desperately-needed summons, and it is hard to imagine someone who can make it with more real-world experience, expertise, or eloquence than our guest today, Dr. Diane Langberg. Diane is a psychologist and a counselor, globally recognized for her nearly 50 years of clinical work with trauma victims. She directs her own counseling practice in Pennsylvania, is a board member of GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment, and co-founder of the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Mission Seminary in Philadelphia, as well as co-chairing the American Bible Society’s Trauma Advisory Council. She has received numerous awards for her work and written several books, including Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, In Our Lives First, On the Threshold of Hope, and her latest book, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, which we’ve invited her to discuss today. Diane, welcome. It’s great to have you.
Diane Langberg: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Cherie Harder: So as we start off, I would love to hear part of your own story. You have been a pioneer in recognizing, understanding, and caring for victims of trauma and abuse, doing this for almost 50 years, which was before you got your start, before many of the titles, the categories, that we now use to understand abuse were even coined or recognized. So I’d be interested in hearing what got you into this work, this very difficult work? And why have you dedicated a half century of your life to it?
Diane Langberg: I got into it in the early 1970s, having finished a master’s degree, starting a doctorate, and I began working under a psychologist. And during that time there were very few women in the field. And so oftentimes when clients would come to the office, they would ask to see me, at 22. So it was certainly not because I knew a great deal, but because of my gender. And so I began meeting with women and girls over time, and they would say things to me in a coded manner. For example, one woman took her long hair and threw it over her face and just said, “My father used to do weird things to me.” I had no idea what that meant. It was not in my world. I had never heard anybody talk about anything. Abuse was not a topic of conversation. And so I learned from my clients, who were courageous and who began to tell me their stories little by little. I went to a supervisor who labeled what was happening “hysteria” and told me not to listen. Obviously, I didn’t listen to him, which probably says something about me, but I chose to listen to the victims. I was also at that time, just because of when it was, working with Vietnam vets. I’m the daughter of an Air Force colonel, and I have a soft spot for vets. And what I began to realize was that the women and the vets had the same symptoms. And so eight years later, they came up with the diagnostic category of post-traumatic stress disorder. But during those eight years, there was no category for what either the women or the vets were experiencing.
Cherie Harder: So we’re talking today about redeeming power, and so it probably makes sense for us to start with at least a common understanding of what we’re talking about. And I’d love if at sort of the outset for you just to give us your working definitions of what power is, abuse, and vulnerability, as well as the dynamics between them.
Diane Langberg: Well, power is simply the ability to influence. So every human being has it. And if we go back to the book of Genesis, we see, as we were made in the image of God who holds all power, you know, he gave us power and told us to rule and subdue the earth—not each other, but the earth. So it’s just part of being an image-bearer of God to have power. And when people think they don’t have any, I remind them, if they’ve had a child, that if that child at two or three days old, wakes up at three a.m. screaming because he’s hungry, two big adults who are exhausted jump out of bed. That’s power. And so we have it from birth. Vulnerability is when you can’t make things happen yourself and utterly rely on others, like this infant, so that when you are in pain or need or something like that, others must come alongside and help you. “Vulnerable” simply means you can be wounded. So it covers all kinds of things that can happen to humans. And all human beings also have vulnerability. We have power and we are all vulnerable. One of the impetuses for abusing power is the fact that we don’t like to be vulnerable. And so we look for ways, often crushing others, to feel powerful in ways that are destructive to others. And abuse simply means to use wrongly. And so when we use another human being in any capacity, we have been abusive to them. So we can do that with words, we can do that with physical things. We can do that with emotions. We can do that with the word of God. We can use people wrongly in many ways.
Cherie Harder: One of the fascinating—well, there is so much—but one of the fascinating things in your book right off the bat is that you said that whenever there is abuse or misuse of power, there is always deception, that deception both precedes and then protects the abuse of power. Could you kind of untangle this ball of deception and abuse? Why does deception necessarily precede the misuse of power?
Diane Langberg: Well, again, I would have to start with Genesis, because our twisting of power came through deception from the enemy. We chose to believe that deception. And so what he essentially did was use God’s words to call humans to do something ungodly. And we did, and we still are. And so deception is how we get used to things that we would normally not do. So, for example, if you look at something like a pornography addiction, you know, it starts out with somebody showing you something or you’re only going to look at it once and then you’re not going to do it anymore. It’s the things we tell ourselves to make things that are blatantly ungodly OK. And then as we practice that, the deception grows, and our capacity to see it lessens. And so we actually believe ourselves: “If I do this, whatever, I’m not hurting anybody.” “When I hit my wife, it’s only because she deserved it. And if she would do what I asked, it wouldn’t happen. And it’s OK because I’m the head of the house” or whatever. Those are the deceptions that permit someone to begin doing something ungodly, and they support it so that it can grow and make deeper roots. And so we deceive ourselves, we deceive others, and we become convinced that what we’re doing is OK when in fact it is death.
Cherie Harder: Along those lines, you had mentioned that often one of the first or the early-stage forms of deception is labeling things inaccurately, and even just picking up on something you said earlier where some of the early victims that you had met with were described as “hysterical.” I mean, one of the things that’s interesting is that trauma victims until—well, you mentioned there wasn’t even the title of the category of PTSD until recently. Before that, it was “shell-shock” or it was “hysterical women.” It was essentially labels that largely indicated that the victims were themselves either weak or histrionic. And I guess one question is, why did it take so long for us to come up with truer categories for trauma and abuse that weren’t inherently disparaging to those who have suffered from it?
Diane Langberg: Well, part of that is collective deceptions, I think. Things that we want to believe are true: that home is the safest place there is, that church is a sanctuary. And so we have things that we want to be true and long for. And when something shines a light that suggests that it isn’t true, we find a way to deny it. So it’s very difficult to get right labels for things if it doesn’t happen. Right. And it’s much easier to believe it’s the other person’s fault. I mean, we do that when we drive: “I speed because I’m late” or “I’m driving this way because of the stupid person in front of me,” you know? And so we do it with ordinary things, and when things are more threatening, we’re even more likely to do that, find a way to label it, to make it not mine, and to make it OK. We want it to be OK.
Cherie Harder: How widespread of an issue are we talking about here? And one of the reasons I ask is it can be hard to get statistics that seem to have widespread agreement. But one of the interesting things I saw just in the process of kind of reading your book and doing a little bit of research for this conversation is what a significant disconnect there is between, say, surveyed pastors in their perceptions of how pervasive abuses is and, say, you know, certainly advocacy groups or even what the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, says. So how big a problem are we talking about?
Diane Langberg: Well, one of the standard numbers is one in four women—and this is in the United States—one in four women and one in six men are sexually abused before the age of 18. So when I’m speaking to groups, particularly in a church or whatever, I say, “OK, now you think about your women’s group.” They’re sitting in the pews or in a circle and you count them off. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. That’s how many in that group have been abused. And the same thing with men, one in six. And then I think it’s like one in seven marriages or so experiences domestic violence. It’s sitting all over our pews. It’s in our schools where our children go. You know, they are going to school with kids who are being abused.
Cherie Harder: And is there a difference in incidents between the church and the broader culture in terms of the pervasiveness?
Diane Langberg: I have not found one. Everything I have read and certainly what I have seen is that the statistics hold for churches as much as they hold for any place.
Cherie Harder: As a Christian yourself, who has spent her life in the church, to what do you attribute either the lack or the deformation of our spiritual formation that enables the church to have roughly the same incidence of abuse as the broader world?
Diane Langberg: You know, I would say first that it’s been there forever. I mean, that’s why Ezekiel talks about wolves among the sheep. And there’s talk about wolves among the sheep in the New Testament as well. And so there have been things going on that are evil in sanctuaries from way back when. And part of the reason for that is that if an exploiter such as a wolf is hungry, you go where people are vulnerable and aren’t looking for you. And people in churches aren’t looking for you because everybody there is nice. And so it’s easier to find food in places like that. They also go to those who are little and not necessarily in size and age, though certainly that, but also in their own power and capacity to take care of themselves or fight for themselves or whatever. So we go to places where people think they’re safe. And then they stop looking.
Cherie Harder: One of the fascinating studies that you mentioned in your book, which speaks to kind of the ongoing impact of abuse and trauma, is you cited a study that showed that, I think it was at least 300 percent—of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, there was a referral rate to psychologists or psychiatrists that was 300 percent higher than the general public, such that essentially the trauma, not just of the generation before, but of two generations before, at least by appearances, was passed down and transmitted to multiple generations. How does that happen? How does trauma get transmitted throughout generations?
Diane Langberg: That study was originally done in Canada, and it was quite fascinating when it first came out just to see that indication. I certainly had encountered it in my office. So I would often be working with women who were incest victims, not only of their own fathers, but of most of the men in the family and often trafficked as well by men in the family. And so when I began to ask questions, I learned that their mothers were incest victims and their grandmothers were incest victims. It was all anybody knew. And I worked with women in those situations. Nobody ever told them that what happened to them was wrong. I was the first person to tell them. And you have to learn a whole different way of life when you begin to think like that. It’s terrifying and full of pain and everything else. But I’ve also had the privilege of working with incest victims who have raised unabused children. And I’ve told them over the years, it’s like turning a massive ship, and the first turn seems so little; it’s never going to make a difference in the way the ship’s going. But you keep turning the ship, and your children will be facing a different way than you did. Maybe not as far as you want, but different. And they’ll turn the ship, and your grandchildren won’t even know what sexual abuse is. And I have seen many women go through that hard work and time and watch the generations completely shift the direction they’re in.
Cherie Harder: You know, in some ways that leads to another argument that you have made within the book that often abuse and trauma is not limited to individual bad actors, but can actually be enmeshed within communities, even systems. What does it mean for a system to be abusive? And how does one respond to an abusive system as opposed to an individual?
Diane Langberg: The word system means “together stand.” So when we think about a system of anything, whether it’s government or some kind of organization or the church, which is a system, it’s people standing together, usually for a particular goal or purpose or whatever. And so what the people want to do is maintain the system because of what it gives them. So if you come along and say the person who’s running that system is a wolf and it’s devouring the sheep, nobody wants to hear that, because if that’s the case, then the thing that they believe in, that keeps them safe, isn’t safe. That’s terrifying. And so oftentimes the system, whether it’s a family again or a church or whatever, will deny and make a scapegoat of the one who tells. Because to do that is to break the system, which indeed it is, which is what Jesus’s reaction was in Jerusalem with the synagogue. That was a corrupt system that used God’s name. And he went and turned it upside down. That was his response. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But we protect the systems because it makes us feel safe. We’re not. But we want that feeling.
Cherie Harder: Are there particular—I mean, this might sound too pat and tidy—but are there tells? Part of what you have been describing is not just a wolf disguised as a sheep, but a wolf disguised as a shepherd.
Diane Langberg: Yes.
Cherie Harder: Which is, you know, is even more disorienting. But wolves who disguise themselves as shepherds, how do the earnest sheep detect them? How can they see through the disguise?
Diane Langberg: Well, oftentimes when people look back, they realize that this was somebody who never took criticism, weren’t allowed. This was somebody you couldn’t say no to, which is a form of bullying when you can’t say no. And so they would see the smaller things that had been going on for years. And then when they were told the bigger thing, they didn’t believe it because they had covered up or ignored or said, “well, that’s just the way he is” or “he works really hard and he’s tired” or whatever. And so we excuse the smaller things because we want the system to be OK, because it keeps us safe or makes us feel good or whatever. And so we deny the smaller things and excuse them, which is a form of deceit that’s quite contagious because the person who is doing those things is already deceiving themselves. And then when it blows up bigger, we say that can’t be true. But actually, the path indicated that that was coming.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Just to press on that for a moment. You know, one of the challenges is that there is so often, you know, the hard-charging leader, the one who will not give up, the one who will not say no, who powers through, who has an indomitable will, who has great charisma. This is a type that we—both within the church and outside the church as a society—value and admire and often aspire to and believe that this is in many ways what makes for a successful leader. We’ve kind of made many of those qualities almost synonymous with leadership. And so I guess one question is, many of the people who are listening today, we serve on boards, we serve within organizations, we serve within institutions. Is there a way to operate that helps—inoculate might be too strong—but fortify an organization or institution against the abuse or misuse of what can be helpful leadership traits of persistence and vision and passion and enthusiasm from being misused, from allowing that deception that you’ve spoken of to start and take hold?
Diane Langberg: Well, I’d say that seeing that in the church today and seeing it globally is probably one of the greatest griefs that I have, because what I think is happening is that we are measuring good leadership by external qualities and results. What should measure a good leader is likeness to Christ. He’s not what you described. And he didn’t live like you described. And we have lost our way. And so somebody charismatic and brilliant and articulate and the numbers go up, both money and people and all those things, we applaud as a good shepherd. But our God says the fruit of his spirit, his things, [are] totally different from that. Those are not measures of the presence of his spirit. And so we have followed the externals and counted on them. We have not looked at the character. And we have not required that the character be Christ-like. Personal leadership is supposed to carry Christ in a way that shows him to others and teaches them how to show him to others, which is not what we’re doing. And so it’s not just that we’re completely on the wrong track when we do that. There’s not a special thing to look for to know that somebody is a good leader or bad leader other than Christ-likeness in their character, day by day, over time. Not just their words. They can use words and be totally impatient and cruel and angry and all those things, and we excuse it because of the gifts. We confuse gifts with character. They’re not the same.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to go to questions from our viewers in just a second, but before we do, statistically speaking, there are people who are watching today who have been victims of abuse, both by abusers and perhaps again, by the way that they had been treated within their family or their church when they went forward. And so I wanted to ask you, to those people who are watching who have been abused, mistreated, and then hurt further by the church’s indifference or disbelief, what counsel and encouragement you would offer?
Diane Langberg: I guess the first thing I would say is, I am so sorry that it happened, that it’s wounded you, and that some people have done it, and covered it up in the name of God, because they have lied about God when they’ve done that. I would also remind you that when we’re told in the scriptures about our good and great shepherd, we are told things like he was reviled; he was rejected; he was pierced. He has borne what victims have borne. And so he knows and he listens. I would also say that the victims I have known who have taught me so much, have also demonstrated incredible courage. Anybody who tries to speak the truth about these things is a courageous person. And that is a gift to the church, and it is, frankly, my personal opinion, having dealt with this for so long and dealt with it around the world, not just in the US, that the voice of the victims—sheep that have been wounded—is actually a prophetic voice to the church. It’s the voice that says, “It’s not right. Things are rotten in the house of God.” That’s what their cries say to us, and any prophetic voice that points to truth and to God is from him, and we as his people in not listening to you, not sitting at your feet, not helping you be safe and find healing, have avoided and shut up the voice of our God, even as we say we continue to serve.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Diane. We have quite a few questions that have come in, and if this is your first time joining us, you can enter a question for Diane in the Q&A box. You can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question, and that does give us a better sense of what some of the questions that have the most interest are. And I know we won’t be able to get through all of them, but we’ll try to get through quite a few. Diane, Hannah asks, “What are the unique gifts and perspectives that victims bring to their communities and what can we learn about the heart of God from their stories?”
Diane Langberg: Well, they bring courage; they bring truth and light even when it’s ugly. We’re not called only to speak nice truth. We’re called to live in the truth. They bring insight into things that we are blind to. And they can teach us much, both about evil and what it looks like and how it’s deceiving us, and they also can teach us much about God himself, one, in terms of how he became wounded on our behalf and what that really means. We’ve lost sight of what that really meant for him. But also that those wounds are there to show us that he’s cared for our wounds and that we as his people are to look like him in listening to those we would normally discard or think are not telling the truth. He has sent them to us, to listen, to walk with, and we’ll be walking longer than anybody wanted to, including the victim.
Cherie Harder: So we have several questions that have come in about deception. I’m going to just bundle a few of them. Jane Glendening and Maureen McKnight both ask a version of this: “Your interpretation of deception is similar to that of addiction. Is there information about addiction being a factor in deception or is deception at the heart of addiction?” And similarly, Benjamin Murray asks, “What are the biggest areas of collective deception?”
Diane Langberg: I would say that deception is at the heart of addiction because part of what an addict says, “I’ll do this just once more, but then I won’t do it again.” And so the deception feeds the addiction, supports it, helps it continue in a justifiable manner, so to speak. But I think that deception is in every single human being. And I think we can’t get to the bottom of it while we’re here on this earth, even though we can look at it and face it and understand what the light says when it shines on us and all of those things. I think it’s core.
Cherie Harder: Yes, so we have several questions also about people who have been abused within the church and how to handle. Natasha Prakish—and apologies, Natasha, if I’ve mangled your last name—she writes, “After seeing friends who’ve experienced severe abuse within the church and faith-based communities who leave their faith as a result, how do you reach out to these friends when they are so against anything Christian?” And then an anonymous attendee also asked, “Do you have suggestions for someone who has been severely sexually and spiritually abused by a pastor who cannot seem to make her way back to church, even though she knows she desperately needs both guidance and community?”
Diane Langberg: Both of them: don’t ask them to come to church. That’s not a safe place. And they’re not going to trust and they won’t come. Go to them. And be Christ. Don’t talk about him. Don’t teach. Be him with them, walk with them, listen to them, cry with them. Love them. Speak to their courage to say the truth, even when it’s dangerous. All of those things. I have sat with people with terrible incest and abuse histories, sometimes for several years, before somebody will sit down on the couch and say, “You know, when I first came to see you, I told you you weren’t allowed to talk about God.” “Yeah.” “And you’ve honored that.” “Yes.” “Well, I think today I’d like to start talking about God.” But it took years. He was there. The only way he could be there was in me, so that they could get a taste of what he’s really like by being with me. It’s just so different. It doesn’t come by words, it comes by being with, in the flesh.
Cherie Harder: We also have a number of questions that pertain to the abuser. So, Caroline asks, “How can we embody the gospel in how we treat both the victims and the abusers?” And Ginny Savage asks, “What does repentance and restoration look like for abusers and enablers as well as victims? How can the church assist in that repentance and restoration for all three?”
Diane Langberg: Well, part of what we do with abusers is if they cry and say they’re sorry, we say it’s fine. And we say that if we don’t do that, we haven’t forgiven them, and we don’t know anything about grace. At the same time, we’re sometimes saying that about a pedophile where the state says you have to go to prison for 30 years. So we’re saying it’s fine by a few words and tears and the state is saying it takes decades. You can’t get to the place where you hurt a child, particularly many children and repeatedly, and be OK by tears and words. And the way we love an abuser is to not trust them. It’s like working with an addict. “Well, I can go into the bar, I won’t drink.” “No, we’re not going into the bar. I’m not going to go with you.” The reason is because the deception is so familiar and so common in them, they cannot even see the depths of what they have done. And so we don’t seem to realize that believing that repentance is fine—it could be somebody who’s abused 20 children over 15 years and you only know about one—but you’re not loving them to say it’s fine. Years ago, a church had a little girl who was about four or five come and meet in a room alone with a man who probably weighed 200 pounds, who had sexually abused her. And he cried and said he was sorry and they required her to say, “I forgive you.” And they let him walk and be in church and guess what happened? That’s not what it looks like. It’s not love to do that to somebody, certainly not love for the victim, but it’s not love for the abuser. They’re full of poison and we’re saying it’s OK.
Cherie Harder: We had a few questions about kind of pervasiveness. Benjamin Murray asked, “Do abuse numbers differ by geographic location inside the U.S., e.g. rural, suburban, or urban?” And Scott Orthey asks, “Is abuse less prevalent in non-male-only ordination churches?”
Diane Langberg: I do not know of any research that says how much abuse happens in different sorts of communities like rural or city or whatever. And what was the second one again?
Cherie Harder: Scott’s question: “Is abuse less prevalent in churches that ordain women as well as men?”
Diane Langberg: No. First of all, many of the women who’ve been abused were abused before they came to church. Women can abuse too. Women can abuse children and whatever. The percentages are less than men, but they do it. Anybody in power can do that. So it isn’t gender. It’s mostly gender-related because men have the power in most situations. But women in power also do this. I’ve known of incest victims from their mothers. That’s who abused them.
Cherie Harder: Several other questions have come in. “For those who have been abused, especially spiritually abused in the church, under the hands of narcissists and bullies, what would you recommend as helpful practices for healing?”
Diane Langberg: Well, it would in some measure depend on the individual, because I would want to know what would feel healing to them, and that will be different for different people, just like with abuse victims. Some of them might say, “I don’t want to go to church,” and that’s fine. It has to be OK when it’s been poisoned not to say to them, “you have to go back,” and they’ll feel like they’re just drinking the same water. And so, again, I think it is the embodiment of Christ in a walk alongside people. And if somebody is experiencing spiritual abuse, part of what that often means is the word of God has been used to cover up evil or to commit it. To sanction it. I wouldn’t use the word of God, I would be the word of God to somebody like that. Because if you do those things thinking you’re helping, you’re not, you’re going to build the wall higher and increase the fear. He became like us so that we could become like him. That’s what he did. That’s what we’re called to. And we get caught up on buildings and words and systems.
Cherie Harder: Question from Denise Contant, and Denise asks, “Do we leave? Do we endure? Do we keep trying to expose the deception, the behavior of the character, or do we move on because no one believes us?”
Diane Langberg: Well, the very most unhelpful response I can give you is it depends. But certainly speak up. And if it isn’t heard, speak up some more to more people or whatever. Yes, if that’s what you choose to do—sometimes it’s not safe to do that. But do keep in mind that our Lord went into the temple that God designed for his people to worship him, and he went in there and cracked whips and turned tables over and said, “You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves,” which literally means a safe place for those who steal. That’s what an abuser is, and when our churches hide those things, we have made it a safe place for those who steal. They didn’t listen. He left. He went back a second time. They didn’t listen. He wept, and he never went back. He never went back.
Cherie Harder: So we have a question from Penny Forbes who asks, “Do you believe that complimentarianism, which results in women being excluded from pastoral leadership in many denominations, has contributed to the abuse and misuse of power, domestic violence, and sexual abuse?”
Diane Langberg: Well, again, I don’t know statistics on something like that. And I think that that is on a continuum, just like everything else human. So you probably have people who are complementarian and who are extremely authoritarian and rigid and demanding and abusive. You probably also have some very kind people on the other end of the continuum. So I don’t think that we can—we can certainly say places invite it or make it easier to say such things are right that aren’t right or something like that. But abuse by humans of other humans has existed forever in this fallen world and long before those were categories or any other categories, long before there were churches and systems and buildings the way we’ve done it for centuries. So it’s the human heart that’s the main problem. And so, yes, some of those things might feed it or OK things in ways that others do not. But they probably OK it in other ways. And so I think those things are worth evaluating, but we can’t hang our hats there. It’s not deep enough.
Cherie Harder: This next question comes from an anonymous attendee who asks, “As an elder in a church committed to male-only ordination, I’ve observed that women who have experienced abuse are often understandably reluctant or even intimidated to share with us what they have suffered or to place trust in that group of men to support, listen, or take appropriate action. What strategies would you suggest for expressing genuine care and sympathy in this context?”
Diane Langberg: I would find some women who have shown the characteristics of being helpers, comforters, gifted in those ways of helping people who are suffering, and I would have them do things to be trained about trauma and sexual abuse and domestic violence. And I would have them always then ready to be assigned to any woman who breathes of any kind of abuse to an elder and that that woman who’s a victim should never be in a room with elders without one or two of those women with her. She’s not going to come, she’s not going to say the full truth, she’s not going to feel safe. And she has reason for that. It doesn’t matter how nice the men are, they could be perfectly safe human beings who love God. But the fact that they’re men is going to scare her to death, not to mention a group. So train them, get them to learn, get them to read, get them to study these things, get them to find professionals to teach them, so that they can walk alongside, and frankly, get some of the men trained as well, particularly in things like sexual abuse and domestic violence and things like that, partly so that they know how to walk alongside somebody who beats his wife. Most elders don’t learn that anywhere. But if a woman comes and says, “He’s breaking my bones and shattering everything in the house, and I’m not safe,” she’s not the only one who needs somebody to walk with her. So you need men and women in the church who are trained and knowledgeable about these things to walk alongside.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Eva Nafier, and she asks, “The labels of ‘hysteria’ or ‘shell-shock’ seems so ancient, but you’ve reminded me that it really wasn’t all that long ago that these accusatory labels were being applied. Are there any false labels currently being used to victim-blame or write-off people suffering with PTSD or CPTSD?”
Diane Langberg: Well, sure there are. Actually some of the same labels are still being used, depending on who you talk to. But certainly in things like sexual abuse or rape or domestic abuse, the labels are about what kind of wife somebody is or what kind of clothes somebody had on or all kinds of things that look to put at least half of the blame, if not all of it, on the victim. Which is basically what things like “shell-shock” did. I mean, you’re shell-shocked because you’re a weak man. You know, that you’re flawed, that’s why that happened. So it’s always the victim’s fault for those kinds of things, even in those times as well.
Cherie Harder: Jennifer Briggs asks, “What can you say about recovering from the Bible being used as a weapon by church leaders? How can someone return to the Bible in a healthier way?”
Diane Langberg: Little by little. Perhaps—sometimes with clients, I’ve had them read maybe two or three verses, usually in the prophets or in Psalms. And just read those verses, put them on an index card and read them. And we pick it out together. So they say, you know, “No, that one’s not good. Yes, that one’s good.” So they have a say. But something that they identify with, something that speaks to them, which could simply be a verse that acknowledges their suffering. Or a verse that says, basically, “God, where are you? I don’t see you anywhere.” I mean, there’s all kinds of scriptures that relate to the experience of being a victim. David wrote lots of them. So I would find things like that if they’re ready and willing and they have the say about that. And write them on something other than handing them a Bible or having them pick up one. And just do it in eyedropper amounts.
Cherie Harder: We have another question from an anonymous attendee who asks, “How can we remain Christ-like in the experience of abuse, namely in the forgiveness of abusers, while not downplaying the severity of the abuse or protecting the abuser?”
Diane Langberg: Well, first of all, Jesus, in the midst of abuse, spoke the truth. He is the truth, so he never deviated from that. He never excused things, he never called them by the wrong name. He always called things by their right name. Now, if you do that with somebody who is being abusive to you, you risk more harm. And so I think that the other thing that you have to think about is how to remove yourself from that situation because the person is so full of deceit and so practiced in what they’re doing deceitfully and abusively, that your presence is going to lead to more of that because they don’t see clearly and they can’t stop themselves. So sometimes the best thing, for example, not only for her own safety, which is obvious, but the best thing for a woman who’s wife to a violent man is to leave because then she’s not there to hit, which is certainly good for her. But it’s also good for him. And so we often think that our words will somehow change things. They don’t. It’s so deep. Words are not sufficient. You can’t talk somebody out of being an abuse.
Cherie Harder: There are quite a few questions pertaining to how one deals with different power dynamics within the church itself, and the questions just kind of jumped around here. We have one anonymous attendee who asked, “How can young people respect the authority of church leadership while still working for change within the church?” And then another related question from Erin Holbrook who asks, “How do those of us who get crushed by pastors and power fight and speak up when most of the processes for evaluation of our pastors are lacking and so people just wind up leaving the church deeply wounded?”
Diane Langberg: Well, ask me the young person one first again.
Cherie Harder: Yes, that question was just how can young people both respect the authority of church leaders while working for change?
Diane Langberg: Well, I would really study the gospels, because that’s what Jesus did. You know, he never met a Pharisee that he didn’t know was created in the image of God. He spoke the truth and he risked criticism and all of those things. But you don’t treat someone else in a demeaning or hostile or putting-down way. You tell the truth and invite them into the light, in a way that shows respect for them as a human being. Otherwise, you become like them. So you don’t excuse it, you don’t OK it. You can call it by its right name. But they’re still a human being, which means they’re still somebody created in the image of God. And you don’t forget that. You can’t trample on them and change them any more than— You become like them then; it’s contagious. It’s easy to do. It’s very easy to become like an abuser, trying to convince an abuser not to abuse. Did you follow that?
Cherie Harder: There are so many more questions. We won’t get through them all. But perhaps a good closing question comes from Meredith Teil, and she asks, “How do we hold hope that power can be redeemed while empathizing with those who have suffered trauma and abuse in the church? In other words, how does one maintain a posture of ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’?”
Diane Langberg: I don’t know any way to do that except by the face of Jesus Christ. I, you know, I’ve tried to quit a couple of times, this work. Basically told God I was quitting. I didn’t even ask him. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But every time I have hit a wall or felt like I couldn’t help anymore or I couldn’t hear another story or whatever, there’s a way that he has met me in that place and given me more of himself, helped me to see him more clearly, and understand what he has done for us, what abuse he endured on our behalf. And how he dealt with others. And so I don’t know any other way to keep going [than to] sink deeper into him and who he is, because otherwise we get numb or we start giving short answers because we can’t listen anymore or we get hostile and start looking like an abuser on a milder scale, or we pretend. I mean, there’s all kinds of ways you can go wrong in this work. And the other thing that I have, you know, I have an office full of therapists who all work with trauma, and part of the way we do that is each other. I started out alone for a long time, and it wouldn’t have been good had it stayed that way. It wasn’t a choice at the beginning because there wasn’t anybody else who was doing that. But it became a choice later on. You need companions. Love your Lord, and love you.
Cherie Harder: Diane, we could talk for a long time, just so appreciate your wisdom. Thank you. As we wrap up, Diane, the last word is yours.
Diane Langberg: Thank you. It’s been a privilege to do this. I’m just going to read a small portion of a poem by George Herbert, which has meant a great deal to me in this work.
Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus died.
Let me tell you a strange story.
The God of power, as he did ride,
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolved to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.
The stars his tire of night and rings obtained,
The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,
The sky his azure mantle gained,
And when they asked what he would wear,
He smiled and said as he did go,
He had new clothes a-making here below.
Word made flesh.
Cherie Harder: Diane, thank you. It has been a privilege to talk with you. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.