A Lutheran Approach to Ministering to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Abuse

“It is to the little children we must preach, it is for them that the entire ministry exists.” – Martin Luther 82

Introduction

Theologians often struggle with ministering to the needs of both victims and perpetrators of child abuse. Pastoral ignorance of the dynamics inherent in these cases often results in applying the law to victims and the gospel to perpetrators. 83 This takes place when pastors fail to understand that childhood trauma often results in significant medical and mental health conditions including drug and alcohol abuse, violent tendencies, anger, promiscuity or early pregnancy. 84


Accordingly, pastors are tempted to apply the law without realizing they are only treating the smoke and not the fire itself. In contrast, most sex offenders are religious 85 and highly skilled at mouthing the words of repentance and in otherwise convincing clergy not to take strong actions against them. 86 As a result, many pastors pronounce the gospel to offenders fully intent on continuing in their sin.

When this happens, abused children suffer profound spiritual damage 87 and often flee the church while their offenders are empowered to remain snug in the pews emboldened to strike again. 88 In unwittingly harming the child’s faith, pastors are also harming the primary coping mechanism of many abused children. 89 Research consistently shows that child abuse victims “who maintained some connection to their personal faith (even if it was damaged as a result of abuse) experienced better mental health outcomes compared to adult survivors of abuse who did not.” 90

Although clergy need better training in responding to all aspects of child abuse,10 Lutheran theologians should also utilize their rich religious traditions in properly responding to these cases. In the lives and writings of Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther, we find sound theological principles for godly responses to child abuse.

To this end, this article includes a discussion of child abuse in the lives of Luther and Walther, some insight as to how abuse may have influenced each man, and an analysis of how each of these pillars of our Lutheran faith viewed children and responded to instances of maltreatment and sexual exploitation.


Abuse in Luther and Walther’s Childhoods

Although little is known about C.F.W. Walther’s mother, there is evidence his father was physically abusive. As one example, the young boy Walther was whipped for the seemingly mild infraction of accidentally sitting on a family sofa reserved for guests. 49 In reference to his father, Walther said “A young man must endure much pain, ere he becomes a gentleman.” 50

Child abuse in Martin Luther’s life is even clearer. The reformer himself spoke of physical abuse at the hands of his mother, father and school masters. Luther claimed his mother “caned me for stealing a nut until the blood came.” 51 He said his father “once whipped me so that I ran away and felt ugly toward him until he was at pains to win me back.” 52 As for his schooling, Luther recalls “I was caned in a single morning fifteen times for nothing at all.” 53 Emotional abuse, in the form of public humiliation, was practiced daily in Luther’s schooling when the poorest student was required to wear a donkey mask until the child could catch someone speaking German—and then the mask and its accompanying humiliation was passed on. 54

The Influence of Child Abuse in the lives of Luther and Walther

Luther and Walther bore some of the traits often resulting from child abuse—including bouts with depression and other forms of mental illness. 22 Apart from feelings of intense sorrow, 23 abusive childhoods may have influenced these men in other ways. Luther claimed the abuse he endured as a child is what “drove me to the monastery.” 24 Whether or not that is true, both men demonstrated a remarkable sensitivity to the needs of children and displayed in their writings and conduct extraordinary compassion for victims of abuse.

Our obligations to children: the writings of Luther and Walther

Perhaps cognizant of the blows he received, Luther expressed reservations about the effectiveness of hitting children as a means of discipline. Specifically, Luther said “children that can be forced only with rods and blows will not develop into a good sort; they will at best remain godly no longer than the rod lies on their back. But under Christian training godliness is rooted in their hearts so that they fear God more than they do rods and clubs.” 25

Luther said there was “no purpose for a father and mother” other than to care for children and rear them in the “fear and knowledge of God above all things.” 26 When confronted with the unseemliness of changing a diaper, Luther tenderly said a father should respond:

O God…I confess to Thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother… Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is pleasing in Thy sight. 27

Walther called children “far more precious than gold or silver, than house and home” and prayed:

O Lord God, we tremble when we recall that You have placed us over our children as Your representatives to lead and guide them on earth, and that You will someday say to us: ‘Where are the children whom I have given you? Have any of them been lost?’ For again and again we have been guilty of neglecting them, due either to a lack of love or to misguided love, to a lack of earnestness or to sinful zeal, to a lack of wisdom or to the deceptive wisdom of this world. 28

Our Obligations to Children: Luther’s Catechism

Luther’s childhood was violent and influenced him in early writings to use the word “Father” primarily as a judge. 31 However, Luther’s catechisms contain much gentler prose as he writes of “dear children coming to their dear father.” 32 According to one scholar, the reason for the change in Luther’s writing is simple:

Luther had discovered what it meant to be a Father! ‘Father-like’ was not a simile for Luther’s father but the experience of Luther himself as a father, especially with the death of his second child, Elizabeth, as an infant. 33

As one biographer notes, Luther “played and prayed with his children. He listened to them laugh—and cry. Sometimes when they cried he would take them in his arms until the last sob had come and gone.” 34 Although not a perfect parent, Luther’s tender interaction with his children is reflected in his view of God’s relationship to us. In his explanation to the second article of the Creed, Luther said simply “(Y)ou may believe in Jesus, that he has become your Lord…and set you on his lap.” 35

In his explanation to the fourth commandment, Luther saw not simply an obligation of the children toward their parents but also a responsibility of the parents toward their children. In Luther’s Large Catechism he admonishes parents this way:

Everyone acts as if God gave us children for our pleasure and amusement, gave us servants merely to put them to work like cows or donkeys, gave us subjects to treat as we please…We really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world. 36

Luther and Walther’s Response to Sexual Exploitation

One scholar finds that “one of the most surprising things about Luther’s explanation of the sixth commandment is the equality that Luther implied throughout.” 13 This same scholar notes that “whatever sexual relations were to” Luther “they were not an invitation to exploitation.” On a visit to Rome, Luther had seen priests sexually exploit women and may have had this in mind when he directed his pen against “the whole swarm of clerics in our time who stand by day after day in the church, singing and ringing bells, but without keeping a single day holy, because they neither preach nor practice God’s Word, but rather live contrary to it.” 14

As a young minister, Walther guided the emerging Missouri Synod through a scandal in which at least four women were sexually exploited by Lutheran Bishop Martin Stephan. The conduct of Stephan would be deemed a felony crime under modern criminal codes. In response to this conduct, Walther and his colleagues applied the law to the unrepentant Stephan by exiling him from the colony while they poured out the gospel to his victims. 15

Luther and Walther’s response to domestic violence

Luther and Walther both faced instances of a parishioner enduring beatings from a spouse and both men chose to protect the victim over the objections of the authorities. Luther “fought for a woman’s right to divorce an abusive husband, despite the Wittenberg City Council’s fear that if that became grounds for divorce, no one would be left married in Wittenberg.” 7 Similarly, Walther supported a woman beaten to the point of being unconscious by defending her right for separation. When admonished by the church, Walther defended his theology and may have gone so far as to lie to the authorities as a means of protecting both the woman and her child. 8

Applying law and gospel to victims of child abuse: lessons from Luther and Walther

Victims of abuse have often turned to drugs, alcohol, sex or other behaviors in search of relief from abuse. 17 In one case, a victim of physical and sexual abuse developed an addiction to meth and while high on the drug drove a car and accidentally killed a man. When released from prison, the man was deeply remorseful but unsure if God would still accept him. 18 In such a scenario, the obligation of a pastor is to offer the release of the gospel.

According to Walther, the only contrition necessary to receive the gospel is the realization you “can no longer find consolation in yourself; if everything is dark and depressing” and you cry out “Where can I find consolation?” 19 For many survivors, the world is indeed “dark and depressing” and their cry for consolation is a plea rooted in enormous pain.

The gospel has much to which victims can relate. Christ was the descendant of a sexually exploited woman 20 and was often seen in the company of other sexually exploited women. 21 Victims often see understanding in a God who was himself beaten, neglected, and nailed naked to a cross. Indeed, many survivors have told me their favorite Bible verse is: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3 ESV).

This is not to say a pastor should ignore a victim’s abuse of drugs or other harmful behavior but rather that the theologian must first recognize the hole in the victim’s heart. When properly applied, the gospel will assist in moving a victim away from sinful conduct. 22 The victim may then be more amenable as a pastor assists in helping him or her access medical and mental health care, chemical dependency treatment, or other services.

Pastors must also be cautious in urging a victim to forgive their offenders. Forgiveness is a difficult concept for many victims and requiring this act is to place the victim under the law. In commenting on the obligation in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others, Luther noted that man cannot forgive in the way God can and that forgiveness is never a work we must complete in order to be saved but is instead a work of the Spirit. 23 Specifically, Luther said the devil lies to us when he says “You must forgive or you will not be forgiven; you have not forgiven; therefore despair.” Luther simply retorted that through faith we will want to forgive but may not forgive fully this side of heaven. 24

Applying the law and gospel to perpetrators of abuse: lessons from Luther and Walther

Child abusers, particularly those who sexually molest children, are extremely skilled at mouthing words of repentance. 9 Indeed, molesters often purposely seek out congregations in which to operate because they are confident in the gullibility of clergy.

In the words of one convicted child molester:

I consider church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians…They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people…I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words. 10

In recognition of this deception and the cognitive distortions to which many offenders cling, a pastor may wish to explore the sincerity of the parishioner’s repentance. To this end, the pastor may want to explore three subjects with the offender.

First, ask about the offender’s willingness to address the needs of his family. This may include moving out of the house if his spouse or children desire, obtaining medical and mental health care for the children or spouse he has violated, and giving the pastor enough information about the use of religion in the abuse so that he or she can assist the victim in responding to any spiritual damage.

Second, determine the extent of the offender’s cognitive distortions. This can be done by asking the offender if he holds himself fully accountable for his crimes or whether he believes his wife or children are in any way to blame. In one case, a Lutheran pastor convicted of molesting children in his congregation blamed his offenses on his wife because she withheld herself sexually. 11

Third, remind the offender of our obligation to abide by the laws of the land (Romans 13:1-2) and inquire whether or not he will be turning himself into the police and accepting earthly consequences. You may wish to remind the offender of the thief on the cross who accepted governmental punishments for his crimes but simply implored the mercy of God for his soul. In response, Christ offered the kingdom of God. 12

A child abuser unwilling to address the needs of his victims or to accept full responsibility for his conduct is likely a poor candidate for the gospel. Indeed, C.F.W. Walther said that a “child molester” unwilling to turn away from his sin does not have “genuine faith” because a person who “has obtained a living confidence in Christ cannot live in sin. His faith changes and purifies the heart.” 13

Even if a Lutheran pastor pronounces God’s forgiveness, he must work with the offender to address the needs of his victims and otherwise repair the damage he has inflicted. Indeed, many Lutheran hymnals contain Luther’s questions in preparation for Holy Communion. In response to the question how we will respond to Christ’s forgiveness of our sins, Luther writes:

I will daily thank and praise him for his love to me. With his help I will fight temptation, do my best to correct whatever wrongs I have done, and serve him and those around me with love and good works (emphasis added). 14

In the case of child abuse, an offender seeking to correct the wrongs inflicted will seek sex offender or other treatment, will turn him or herself into the police and accept governmental punishments, and will work to address the victim’s medical and mental health needs.

If a child abuser is unwilling to act, the pastor is nonetheless compelled to protect the victims. In a report on the pastor-penitent privilege, the Missouri Synod notes that if a parishioner is not truly penitent but is simply using the pastoral office to his own advantage, the pastor has no obligation to keep the parishioner’s confidence. 15 If, for example, the parishioner is not genuinely remorseful for sexually abusing a child but is hoping the pastor will keep the offender’s wife from calling the police, there is no penitent privilege. Even if the penitent is sincerely confessing his sins, a Lutheran pastor must “exercise his judgment in protecting the interests of those in danger.” 16 In acting to protect existing and future victims, a pastor should, at a minimum, call the police.

Conclusion

Martin Luther believed “Children’s faith and lives are the best, because they hold fast to the Word and simply know God, and they believe in God for certain, just as He said and promised.” 1 In responding to the sin of child abuse, Lutheran pastors and teachers must be careful not to damage the simple faith of the little ones in our midst. In fulfilling this obligation, the writings and conduct of Luther and C.F.W. Walther provide a treasure of sound theological practice. Let us mine these riches to the glory of God and the benefit of children.

Understanding and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: A Primer for Parents and Caretakers