What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

Counselors and theologians failing to understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse cases often apply the concept of law and gospel incorrectly. When this happens, perpetrators are emboldened to offend again and many victims leave the church. To assist spiritual counselors in avoiding this pitfall, I provide an overview of the dynamics present in many cases of sexual abuse and the impact this has on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I also discuss the characteristics of many sex offenders and the efforts offenders make to manipulate both the victim and the church. In determining the proper application of law and gospel to victims and offenders, I discuss the law and gospel treatise of C.F.W. Walther. In doing so, I include examples of Walther's application of law and gospel in cases of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. Finally, I include practical suggestions for psychotherapists and theologians in applying law and gospel to victims and to perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

"You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach the Law to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins."

--C.F.W. Walther

Members of the clergy, church elders, and lay Christians often struggle with the application of Biblical law (1) and gospel (2) to victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. Partly as a result of ignorance of the dynamics involved in these cases, Christians often apply a heavy dosage of law to victims and gospel to offenders. This misguided, sometimes cruel application of theological principles often drives victims away from the church and emboldens offenders to remain in their sin, if not to offend again.

To assist the church in better responding to instances of child sexual abuse, I present an overview of the typical dynamics present in cases of child sexual abuse from the standpoint of the victim. I also highlight the impact of abuse on children physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In addition, I review cognitive features of child molesters, and the extraordinary steps taken by many offenders to manipulate not only their victims, but also the church as a whole.

In applying law and gospel to victims and offenders, I also present a brief biography of the legendary theologian C.F.W. Walther, whose seminary lectures on law and gospel delivered in 1884-1885 have influenced protestant pastors and church leaders for over a century. More importantly, I analyze one of Walther's central thesis--that the gospel should be pronounced to "crushed" sinners and the law pronounced to "secure sinners." I examine Walther's use of this thesis in a case of domestic violence and in another case of sexual exploitation by a clergy. Finally, I also provide practical suggestions for pastors, church leaders, and laity in applying law and gospel to victims of sexual abuse and to perpetrators of sexual abuse. Although I focus on instances of sexual abuse, much of the principles discussed are also pertinent to cases of interpersonal violence and other forms of child maltreatment.

Overview of the Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse

In order to spiritually counsel or assist sexually abused children in any way, both clergy and laity need to understand the dynamics inherent in cases of familial sexual abuse, as well as many other forms of abuse. Unfortunately, many in the clergy and laity have accepted decades worth of myths about child sexual abuse victims, These myths include the belief that children fantasize about incest and that childrens' allegations of abuse are inherently suspect.

Sigmund Freud and the Historic Skepticism of the Mental Health Field Toward Victims of Child Sexual Abuse

In 1896, about a decade after Walther's law and gospel lectures, Sigmund Freud gave an equally monumental lecture entitled "The Aetiology of Hysteria" in which he discussed 18 male and female patients victimized by sexual abuse as children and the profound impact this had on their mental health. …