the Hope of Survivors

Why Do They Do It?—Ardis Stenbakken

Ardis Stenbakken(From the October 2011 edition of HopeSpeak)

Almost every time you open a newspaper or see a local news report, you are likely to read or see a story involving sexual abuse by a teacher, a pastor, lawyer, coach, caregiver, doctor, therapist, political leader, or church leader. In our small city one of the biggest stories of the spring was about a teacher caught naked in a car with one of her 16-year-old male students. And of course we have all known about the clergy sexual abuse stories from Ireland. Here in the United States there has been one story after another about a political leader involved in some sort of sexual scandal. Other countries are not exempt either.

Reading and thinking about these stories, I have to ask myself, Why do they do it?

I am not an expert, just someone who cares a great deal about the victims. As I think about this issue, I think the answer is: They do it because they can. You see, these cases are not simply about abuse; it is about power.

Because the abuser has some type of power, some authority, some prestige that puts the abused in a position of inferiority, it makes it extremely difficult to stand up to the abuser, especially if the abused is a child or someone who is seeking help for some issue; they go into the relationship with a need. The person in power may have some economic control, have some sort of influence over the victim, may have physical power, informational power, psychological or emotional power, and even spiritual control—someone who is “closer to God, and knows the Bible better,” than the abused.

Unfortunately, when boundaries are crossed, someone always gets hurt, and often it is the person who has the power as well as the “victim.” And when it is a church leader, not only do the individuals get hurt, but so do the church and the mission of the church. In other words, abuse of power is not a victimless crime, nor does the perpetrator skate free.

The Bible is full of stories about power, the good use of power, and the abuse of power: The first and most obvious is that of Lucifer who became known as Satan. He had power, but he wanted more power. He used his position to poison the minds of a third of the angels. Not satisfied with causing them to fall, he went to work on Adam and Eve and all those who came after. Once again, the abuser and the abused are hurt—Satan will get his final punishment at the end of the thousand years.

The misuse of power is often subtle. It can be seen in manipulation. This certainly happened in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes the abuse of power comes in the form of “Poor me,” or by causing one to doubt; this again was used in the Garden of Eden. And sometimes the abuser tries to force by saying, “After all I’ve done for you!” All these are dishonest, abusive, and manipulative.       

The opposite of Satan and his abuse of power is Jesus, the one who is the all powerful, the Almighty, the one Who never used His power for his own benefit. In fact He laid His power aside and took the position of a servant. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). He is our example. He knew and respected boundaries. He never forced anyone—and He still doesn’t. He gives us choice and freedom.

Pharaoh was another who abused his power. “Pharaoh said to Moses: ‘Get out of my sight! And watch your step. I don't want to ever see you again. If I lay eyes on you again, you're dead’" (Exodus 10:28). Misuse of power boomerangs—it was his son who died, not Moses.

Another biblical example of abuse of power was the story of Eli’s sons. (I Samuel 2:22-25) They practiced many forms of abuse until Eli’s ministry was destroyed and the sons and Eli all died. An author I respect, Ellen White, had something instructive to say about this case: “Many who profess to be the ministers of Christ are like the sons of Eli who ministered in the sacred office and took advantage of their office to engage in crime and commit adultery, causing the people to transgress the law of God. A fearful account will such have to render when the cases of all shall pass in review before God, and they be judged according to the deeds done in the body…. Adultery is one of the terrible sins of this age. This sin exists among professed Christians of every class….” —The Sin of Licentiousness, TSB 99.2

One of the stories in the Bible that can really help us understand this whole issue of abuse of power is the story of David and Bathsheba. Historically we have looked at this story simply as a story of adultery. It is still adultery, but we need to take a new look at the story.

More than once, David had exercised great restraint in use of power. He had understood boundaries. He had listened to Abigail and didn’t kill her husband and all those around him. David said to Abigail, "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me” (Samuel 25:32). When David had the opportunity to kill Saul, he instead cut off a corner of his robe. David even felt guilty about that. The Bible says, “Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord’" (1 Samuel 24:5, 6). A similar experience came later when David took the spear and water jug from beside Saul’s head (1 Samuel 26).

But when David saw and desired Bathsheba, he ignored boundaries and used his considerable power to get what he wanted. Some have suggested that Bathsheba had tempted him, and could have refused his advances. Those who suggest this do not understand the power of an ancient king. And even if she could have refused David, he was the one who should have been responsible. Larry W. Spielman, who has written about leadership and prevention of church professional misconduct writes, “Some have pointed the finger at Bathsheba, suggesting that she seduced David by bathing where the king was sure to notice her. This makes Bathsheba, not David, responsible for the king’s inability to control his erotic urges. Such a suggestion is ludicrous. Even if Bathsheba behaved in a way to arouse the king’s passions, King David is fully responsible for what he does. Despite her beauty and allure, Bathsheba does not have the ability to cause the king to lose all sense of control and responsibility any more than Goliath had the ability to cause David to be afraid. Indeed, in the latter crisis David remained calm and in control (1 Sam. 17:36-37).”1

David was seen as a religious and political leader. He was expected to hold a higher level of accountability. But he let down his God, himself, Bathsheba, his country, his friend Uriah, and his family—because of his sin he was never able to discipline his sons.

Sometimes a person in power will excuse abuse by saying this action was a “Private matter.” Sometimes the legal term is used of “consenting adults.” But what David thought was private was not private and it affected the entire nation. He found “your sins will find you out” (Numbers 33:23).2

We need to challenge our churches, our power structures, to adapt policies that will help maintain boundaries and support those who are abused. Scripture calls us to reform/change the way our power institutions work. Jeremiah 7:1-7 reminds us that we are to change our actions, deal justly, not oppress the powerless, not shed innocent blood (the ultimate abuse), not follow other gods (including the drunken god of power and abuse).

We also need to support each other, helping all to understand boundaries and the danger of submitting to one in power. We need to help those in power understand their boundaries and hold them to them. When we are clear as to what abuse of power is, we are better able to withstand it and to deal with it.

THEN, wonderful things will happen for the people of God.

Ardis Stenbakken retired the end of 2004 from being director of the Women’s Ministries Department at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. She and her husband live in Loveland, Colorado, where she continues to edit the Women’s Ministries devotional book series, take speaking appointments, write, and other Women’s Ministries and church assignments. 

1 Accessed 2/24/2008. No longer at this link.
2 The biblical portion is taken from the 2008 Women ’s Ministries Abuse Prevention Emphasis Sabbath sermon written by my husband Dr. Richard Stenbakken and myself.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18