Rape: what should the church do?

The church must minister to rape victims and help them regain dignity and personhood.

D. Robert Kennedy, Ed.D., is an associate professor of theology and ethics at Atlantic Union College, Lancaster, Massachusetts. He also has served as a pastor and church administrator for nearly 20 years.

After a hard day's work, a woman leaves her office late in the evening and walks to the parking lot. She opens her car door. Suddenly a stalker forces his way in side with her and orders her to drive to an empty lot, where he rapes her. She is stunned and crushed.

A young woman jogs in a public park. A group of boys pounce on her, gang-rape her, and leave her unconscious. When she awakens, her world will never be the same.

How does society react to such horrors? At first there's some sympathy for the victim. But then come the questions that border on blame. Why didn't she ask for security to walk her to the car? Why was she jogging alone at such an odd time? Was she dressed provocatively? Why didn't she yell for help?

Rape, a tragedy

Rape is a tragedy. Our attitude to ward rape victims is no less a tragedy than the crime itself. As a pastor I have ministered to rape victims, and each time the crisis has compelled me to participate in the hurt and the pain of the victims. Often I wished that my church had prepared me better to deal with such critical moments. Even among my congregation, I can't re member anyone ever talking about rape in any constructive manner, except to note the event as a "sign of the last days."

Nothing can justify such callousness. Rape is the ultimate expression of sex abuse, with 3 million cases reported each year in the U.S. alone. Add to this other sexual acts that are often passed off as legitimate, but in fact are violent sexual acts, and we have a pathetic picture of a chronic tragedy that plagues our society.

Rape is not always the act of a stranger. In their book License to Rape, David Frinkelhor and Kersti Yllo argue that rape can happen even within marriage. A husband often feels free to force his wife to submit to him. He might tie her up or even threaten her with a knife at her throat. In most of the United States, a man cannot be prosecuted for marital rape. He may face charges for other violence connected with marital rape, but not for sex without consent. 1

Then there is date rape. This describes sexual activity without the con sent of a social partner. The majority of such cases go unreported because it involves one's word against another's. Like child abuse, date rape is a "hidden crime." Nancy Gibbs, writing in Time, captures the contrasting views of men and women toward date rape. Men "complain it is hard to prevent a crime they can't define." Women respond that date rape as a crime "isn't taken seriously." Men say "it is a concept invented by women who like to tease but not take the consequences." Gibbs concludes that while men and women argue among themselves about this "gray area" of sexual relations without consensus, the heinousness of rape is not being resolved either in the courts or on the campuses.2

In most date rape cases, the tragedy shatters the promise of an innocent evening with someone who supposedly can be trusted. What starts out as pleasant conversation and enjoyable activities ends in the violation of the rights and dignity of a woman (and sometimes of a man, as Gibbs reports).

Thus rape of any kind marital rape, date rape, or rape involving neighbors, casual friends, or strangers violates the personhood of the victim. Then there is the added tragedy of unfair judgment on victims as if they caused the crime by dressing in appropriately or behaving in "a come hither manner," thus inviting the violence perpetrated against them. 3

Rape and society

Rape is a judgment on our societal norms and mores. We promote a culture that regards sexual activity more as an outlet of passion than as an expression of love. Movies and telecasts portray sex as a biological function indulged in casually i without commitment. Even when speaking of freedom and equality of women, we still harbor the myth that women are subordinate to men, they being the weaker sex. Such social and gender-oriented myths contribute to manipulation of, and sexual violence against, women.

Rape, as an act of violence and humiliation, causes in the victim an overwhelming fear for her very existence and an equally overwhelming sense of powerlessness and helplessness. This fear and helplessness are made even more threatening by the complex process of reporting a rape. Elaine Hilberman, chief editor of The Rape Victim, speaks of the trauma that a victim goes through when reporting her case. She may perceive the hospital and criminal justice system as in sensitive, confusing, and alienating. Beyond that she faces possible isolation even from family and friends. The crisis is not limited to the victim's person only; the act of reporting makes the case public and puts the victim on public display.4

Biblical perspective

The Bible speaks forcefully against sexual exploitation. Throughout Scripture, sexual relations are portrayed as holy, ordained of God at the time of Creation, not to be indulged frivolously, and certainly not to involve violent trampling of the rights and dignity of the marriage partner.

The seventh commandment is not simply a prohibition of adultery; it is a divine commission governing sexual relationships. Directives uplifting this model relationship abound in the Old Testament. A man who seduced a woman was required to marry her (see Deut. 22:13-29). To have sexual relations with an engaged or married woman was a capital offense (see Deut. 22:22, 24). Seducing an unengaged girl was a crime (see Ex. 22:16, 17). Incest was prohibited (see Lev. 19:29). Many Old Testament stories illustrate the intense rage expressed against rapists (see Gen. 34; 2 Sam. 11:12-14; 13:14-33; 16; Judges 20:5ff).

Although the New Testament does not speak specifically about rape, Christ's teaching on adultery defines for us the high road of sexual relation ships. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus defined adultery not just as an act, but as a thought that precedes the act. "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully," said Jesus, "has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28, NIV). This pronouncement affirms the highest value and dignity of a human being and precludes the passions and lust that motivate rape.

Consider also how Jesus dealt with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:2-11). He turned the table on the men who likely were responsible for her act. Jesus focused on the thoughts of men toward that woman rather than on her actions or the accusation against her. As James Hurley points out: "It is not the presence of a woman, but the sinful thoughts of a man, which makes the situation dangerous." 5

Rape and the church

What can the church do? I suggest two main strategies.

1. Provide a ministry of support. Catching and punishing the rapist may be the objective of law enforcement, but that hardly restores the dignity and personhood of the victim. Rape victims need empathy and a sense of control over what has happened to them. The church has the responsibility and the capacity to assist victims in dealing with hospitals, law enforcement agencies, and perhaps the media. The church can also find help and healing in crises of confidence and self-worth that victims of violent crimes frequently experience long after the event, but remain unable to recognize them as such.

2. Conduct educational program in rape awareness. Given the society we live in, the church owes its members an educational program that facilitates awareness of rape and its personal, psychological, sociological, legal, and moral consequences. Rape generates tremendous traumatic reactions for victims and their families. The church can guide them to available support systems.

Rape education should teach church members to take the crime seriously. Rape is not a subject for jokes. The violation of a person's most precious right is not to be taken lightly, nor should it evoke condemnation of the victim.

Rape awareness programs also should dispel certain myths perpetrated about rape, such as:

1. The rapist is a sexually unfulfilled person, carried away by a sud den uncontrollable urge.

2. Rapists are sick.

3. Rapists are usually strangers.

4. Most rapes occur on the street, and so long as a woman stays home, she's safe.

5. Rapes occur because the victims ask for it by dressing seductively, walking provocatively, etc.

6. Only women with "bad" reputations are raped.

7. Most victims have been in trouble with the law in the past.

8. Only women in the lower social classes get raped.

9. Women can't be raped unless they want to be.

10. Rape is an adult crime; children are not involved.

Further, a church-conducted pro gram of this nature should recognize that rape can happen even within a "Christian" marriage relationship. A marriage in which one partner is submitted to abuse is a "violent marriage." 6 Spouses should know the rights and privileges of marital love and also be aware of its responsibilities. Abuse, threats, and violence have no place in a Christian marriage. As Ellen White warns, "the bedchamber, where angels of God should preside, . . . [should not] be made unholy by unholy practices." 7

To summarize: Rape is an act of violence and humiliation that brings tragic confusion to both the victim and her family. The church can connect them with crisis intervention counseling and help them deal with hospital and law enforcement services. More than that, your congregation can as sure the victim in more than words that they love her and that God cares for her too.

1 David Finkelhor and Kersti Yllo, License
to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives (New York:
The Free Press, 1985), p. 1.

2 Nancy Gibbs, "When Is It Rape?" Time,
June 3, 1991, pp. 48-54.

3 Linda Marie Dellof, "Rape and Abortion
in America," Christian Century, Oct. 20, 1982,
pp. 1037, 1038.


4 Elaine H. Hilberman, M.D., ed., The Rape
Victim (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976).

5 James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in
Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1981), p. 109.


6 R. Emerson Dobash and Russel Dobash,
Violence Against Wives (New York: The Free
Press, 1979).

7 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home
(Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 124.


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D. Robert Kennedy, Ed.D., is an associate professor of theology and ethics at Atlantic Union College, Lancaster, Massachusetts. He also has served as a pastor and church administrator for nearly 20 years.

February 1995

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