“Biblically” Counseling the Sexually Abused

This is Part 6 in my series on the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM). Go here for all the posts in the series.

**Content Note: Victim blaming, ignorance of trauma and description of sexual abuse.**

If you’ve been following all the posts in this series, you’ve probably seen how Biblical Counseling would be damaging to people suffering from mental illness. Today, though, I want to show you how biblical counselors view sexual assault and abuse, and how this type of counseling is particularly devastating for sexual abuse survivors. Being a survivor myself, this issue is particularly close to my heart.

If you want something that will keep you awake at night and possibly cause you to hurl your electronic device across the room, reading the G.R.A.C.E. report on Bob Jones University should do the trick. For those unaware of the reference, BJU was recently investigated for their inappropriate ‘biblical’ counseling of sexual assault victims. For the really retch-inducing stuff, I suggest starting around page 70 and reading through page 100. The amount of ignorance and victim blaming these counselors have displayed over the years is almost beyond comprehension. And they have the gall to justify it.

But what really appalls me is that BJU’s counselors aren’t just participants in the Biblical Counseling Movement, they are leaders. They produce and sell training videos to teach other would-be counselors their views on sexual assault and abuse:

Dr. Berg tells would-be counselors, “What happened to you affected your physical body. It does not have to affect your spiritual soul…I say, ‘Please understand how I am saying this. I understand how this can be contrived if you don’t understand my tone of voice and what I am saying. But because there is a difference between physical and spiritual, this happened to just your body.’ I am not saying that to minimize what was done, only to accentuate what was not touched without my permission, my soul, my spirit. My will has to be involved in rebellion and in anger and all of these things for my soul to be touched by what happens to my body. (From Crisis Counseling I, Understanding and Biblically Overcoming Childhood Sexual Abuse, Video, 1992; GRACE report pg. 87, footnote 23.)

Dr. Wood stated that he used this model to counsel victims of sexual abuse. When teaching counseling, he also encouraged future counselors to use this model and stated in his counseling training video, “My friends, if people who have been sexually and physically abused can see this model and understand what is going on inside of them and understand how they’ve been affected in their soul and in their mind and they are willing, you can immediately release them from the effects of these failures in their lives.” (GRACE report pg. 87, footnote 25.)

There is so much wrong here, I hardly know where to begin. First of all, this is not a biblical teaching. There is nothing in scripture that even suggests such a profound disconnect between a person’s body and soul. Second, for someone to claim that sexual abuse is only perpetuated against one’s body is outrageous. These counselors have literally shut their eyes and ears to the reality of abuse. To illustrate…

I was molested at 8 years old by a trusted adult. Someone I loved and had a good relationship with. Someone who not only called themselves a Christian, but who had a responsibility to protect me. When the abuse occurred, my understanding of this person and our relationship were radically altered. This person who was supposed to provide safety and comfort had now become a source of constant, imminent danger that I was powerless to escape. He also introduced me to a physical reality that I was not emotionally or developmentally prepared to accept. And though I was now aware of this reality, I was not permitted to talk about it. My abuser forced me to carry his shame, in silence, for years. This caused me mental, emotional and even spiritual distress. My body was probably the least thing affected by the abuse. And for a counselor to suggest that my natural response of fear, sorrow, anger and confusion was a failure on my part, that I was somehow in control of this reality, is simply asinine in the extreme.

Lest you think these views are limited to the counselors of BJU, let me draw your attention to an article entitled “Counseling Children Who Have Been Molested,” written by Steve Gallagher, the BCM’s sexual addiction ‘expert,’ and published in 2007. Keep in mind that Gallagher holds a master’s degree from an unaccredited seminary (where his books are used as course materials) and has no discernible medical or professional counseling training. There is probably more wrong with this article than I have the knowledge to articulate, so I will only address the following parts:

In many instances, the courts become involved and the offender is sent to jail. When this happens, the youngster will need your emotional and spiritual support throughout the legal process. You can set the child’s mind at rest—that he or she is now safe without overstating it. One of the worst things that can happen to a child is to be led to believe that the abuser is gone forever, only to show up after his six-month stint in jail. While you want to comfort and allay the victim’s fears, be honest and explain this possibility to him or her.

Let me say this: If you are a parent and someone has abused your child, it should never be a possibility that said abuser could show up in your child’s life again. Get a restraining order, move away, divorce, whatever it takes. DO NOT let that person near your child again as long as that child remains a minor, no matter how repentant the abuser is. Even if the abuser swears to never abuse again, the damage has been done. Your child will likely never feel safe or comfortable around this person again. Please, DO NOT subject your precious child to the psychological torture of having to endure the presence of their abuser. It is simply too damaging. If you are a counselor, communicate this to the parent.

As indicated in the examples above, there is much emotional damage done to the sexually abused victim that must be addressed. You must diligently seek to establish a rapport with the child whose trust and respect for adults has been shattered. While it is good for you to demonstrate love to the child (i.e. giving them a hug), you should always ask permission before touching the child in any way.

Um, NO! If you are counseling a child who has been sexually abused, touching them should never even enter your mind. The amount of power and authority a counselor holds in the eyes of a young counselee is simply too great for the counselee to feel free to refuse. When my abuser molested me, he did not hold me down and violently force himself on me. He asked if he could touch me. I let him because I had been taught that if an adult asks for something, I, as a child under authority, had no right to refuse. Refusal was displeasing to God and could be (and very often was) punished. This lead to me being assaulted again by a missionary at age 11.

Coincidentally enough, Gallagher follows with this statement:

Along with instilling trust, respect for authority must also be reestablished.

Yeah, because heaven forbid a child ever resist an adult who is attempting to hurt them.

Avoid falling into humanistic pity which does nothing more than empower the child to use his or her newfound “victim” status for selfish purposes. The wise counselor will show love and encouragement but will never allow a child to control the relationship or use it as a way to manipulate others.

I just want to mention here that Gallagher is now about one and a half pages into this two-and-a-half-page article, and he has yet to discuss addressing the victim’s pain. Second, I have no idea what anything in this paragraph means. What is “humanistic pity”? How does a disempowered child use their “victim status” for selfish purposes? How can a child control a counseling relationship or use it to manipulate others? Gallagher doesn’t explain or offer any examples.

As the proper relationship between you and the child is formed, you can now begin to address other deep-seated issues resulting from the abuse. Fear is perhaps the most common reaction a child abuse victim will face. There is a place for proper fear and a healthy respect for danger. However, when a child becomes preoccupied with the idea that someone may harm him or her and protecting self becomes an obsession, it is displeasing to God.

No scripture to back up this statement. None. Gallagher just states it as fact. And guess what: if you’re a child in a situation where you might encounter or still encounter your abuser on a regular basis, you’re going to naturally be preoccupied with the idea of being harmed again. That is indeed a “proper fear.” Most abusers don’t abuse just once.

Another typical feeling the child will have to deal with is guilt. […] This becomes especially true when they experience physical pleasure as their bodies respond the way God created them to respond. However, even though the perpetrators are 100% at fault for everything that has occurred, young people sometimes do have things that they are legitimately at fault about. As the counselor, it is important for you to understand that guilt is not primarily a feeling; it is culpability for a violation of God’s Word. […] As a biblical counselor you must help the young counselee distinguish between true and false guilt.

Every time I read this paragraph, my vision gets blurry and my thoughts become incoherent. And this is the abridged version for the sake of brevity. Here’s how I translate Gallagher’s words: “Help the counselee distinguish between true and false guilt. But guilt is, in itself, an indicator that the counselee has sinned in some way. So, really, there’s no false guilt to speak of.” Classic BCM bait and switch on display right here.

And to say that a child victim may be at fault for something in the context of sexual abuse, whether or not that’s what Gallagher meant, is disgusting, outrageous and unacceptable. The likelihood that a counselor-in-training would take that statement in the worst way is high – and, if the GRACE report is any indication, has frequently happened.

In other materials, BCM leaders have attempted to explain what they mean when they say that a counselee may be at fault for something. Perhaps the counselee had cheated on a test at school, or rebelled against their parents, or responded to the abuse by becoming sexually active with other people. These leaders then say that the counselor should deal with this guilt, because that’s really the source of the counselee’s bad feelings. But that’s like going to the doctor for an amputated limb and he or she saying, “I see you have an infected cut on your hand. As soon as I treat that, the pain of the amputation will go away.” Hogwash.

Gallagher ends the article with these words:

What a joy it is for the counselor to comfort young victims and help them to respond in a way that pleases God!

Basically, in two and a half pages, Gallagher never gets around to dealing with the abuse victim’s pain or describing ways of offering genuine comfort. He never even mentions the victim’s healing. It’s all about helping the victim to avoid sin and respond to the abuse situation “in a godly way.” Funnily enough, for all this talk about encouraging a godly response, the article contains only one scriptural reference (Romans 12:21) and an allusion to the story of Joseph. Would-be counselors reading this article have to take Gallagher’s assertions on faith.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how hurtful and dangerous this counseling method is for survivors of sexual abuse. These counselors, in their willful ignorance of trauma and its effects, are systematically re-traumatizing victims and leaving them devoid of hope. Pages upon pages of survivors’ stories in the GRACE report testify to this. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse or the parent of an abused child, I warn you to stay away from these counselors. They are blind guides without compassion.

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6 responses to ““Biblically” Counseling the Sexually Abused

  1. So, on top of being a victim, the abused now has the onus of responding and healing only in a godly way. Nice. It is so hard to fathom such ignorance exists.

  2. Clifford, after reading this, I know first hand how it is so important as a Pastor, that what these are not doing is adding more harm and guilt on the victim. After reading , my heart and spirit are breaking. I don’t understand how someone, especially those that are Christians, can in anyway blame a child for what an adult has done too them. You and I were taught at SBC that ungodly counseling was not counseling.

    • Who is Clifford? The SBC is so screwed up that I have ceased to listen seriously to anything it has to say. It has long pushed the notion that no Christian should see a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who is not a Christian because they will tell you to do sinful things and reject the things of God. First of all, this is a pet notion that was most likely borrowed from the “hayseed ignorati” at some IFB church or some place like BJU. Second, it displays a total ignorance about how the psychotherapy process works. Third, no nonChristian psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or therapist has ever told me to do anything unGodly or to abandon my faith. They have all been respectful of my religious beliefs and inclinations.

      If you are having troubles and need to see someone for professional help, do some calling around to find out if they are good at what they do, disregard whether the person you plan to see is a Christian or not, and get the help you need. You will find excellent care if you do your homework.

      No wonder Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches are sliding into the ash can of history. They are bringing it on themselves with their own stupidity and ignorance.

  3. I’m a dad of a girl and a boy. The idea of sexually abusing my children is not something I would ever want to do. “They are just not my type.” But seriously, it is hard for me to fathom how any dad or mom would or could? Perhaps I just do not understand the psychological dynamics of it all.

  4. “Dr. Berg tells would-be counselors, “What happened to you affected your physical body. It does not have to affect your spiritual soul…I say, ‘Please understand how I am saying this. I understand how this can be contrived if you don’t understand my tone of voice and what I am saying. But because there is a difference between physical and spiritual, this happened to just your body.’ I am not saying that to minimize what was done, only to accentuate what was not touched without my permission, my soul, my spirit. My will has to be involved in rebellion and in anger and all of these things for my soul to be touched by what happens to my body. (From Crisis Counseling I, Understanding and Biblically Overcoming Childhood Sexual Abuse, Video, 1992; GRACE report pg. 87, footnote 23.)”

    What say if I was to ram a red hot fireplace poker up his hind end? I wonder if he would still be dancing to this tune.?