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Is God Really Here and Now in the Scandal-Ridden Church?
Church Abuse and the Judgment of God
About the author: Sara Mannen recently submitted her dissertation at the University of Aberdeen on the concept of divine personhood in Karl Barth. Sara is passionate about theological study, especially modern and contemporary doctrines of God, and its import for the life of the church and world. She currently lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her husband and two daughters.
Where is God here and now? I suspect that is a question many of us ask as we watch the world seemingly crumble before us—a pandemic, cost of living crisis, war, increasing political chaos and division, regular school shootings, continuing racially motivated violence, and the world burning as the climate crisis rages while the church stands by in shambles due to a crisis of its own making. As I ask, “Where is God?”, it feels like nothing other than a lament.
As I turn to ask where God is here and now in the American church in general, where no denomination is untouched by abuse scandals (see: here and here) and falling attendance, the answer appears rather bleak. The attempts of leadership to hide or ignore claims of abuse is a repeated theme throughout the various scandals in different denominations. Unfortunately, in a series of soul-crushing and confidence-destroying experiences, I know all too well the reality of the church’s desire to silence those who speak up whether related to abuse or other problems. I was repeatedly told, explicitly and implicitly, by church and Christian leaders that my speaking up was problematic. The idea that I, as a woman, would consider pursuing a theological vocation was anathema. I had no voice—not one that mattered.
Even more concerning, I have watched countless leaders tell victims of spiritual and sexual abuse to just forgive and move on with their lives while making zero attempts to enact justice and ensure abuse does not happen again. Instead, the gospel’s call for forgiveness was used as a weapon to coerce forgiveness while ignoring justice. This is nothing other than making the gospel into hell for victims of abuse. This practice is similar to the way victims of domestic abuse are coerced and controlled by their abusers. Recent examples in the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches demonstrate how this phenomenon is widespread and not isolated to Roman Catholic or Evangelical churches. Although the details of the type of abuse and serious problems vary amongst the different traditions. Is God anywhere in this mess?
One of the most compelling aspects of Karl Barth’s theology, and a reason I return to him over and over again, is his conviction that we must speak about God because God is active here and now. I am slowly finding my own voice as a theologian through Barth’s example and sharing his conviction that God does not regard it as too small a thing to use human words to witness to Godself (CD II/1, 204–54). Barth’s belief that Jesus Christ, who is eternally living and active, is both the source and the subject of the gospel of God’s grace means that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel is here or now, or “living, practical, and effective.”1 When Barth was faced with this God—the one living and active in Jesus Christ—Barth could not help speaking (as attested to by his collected writings filling well over fifty-five volumes).
Much to his amazement, Barth stood in awe that in a miracle of divine grace, God was pleased to use Barth’s human words to witness to Godself. Our human words can witness to the Word of God—Jesus Christ. God’s use of our human words to witness to the Godself is never automatic, a given, a possession, or the result of some process that human beings control—it is always the result of divine grace. Since this miracle is never a given, Barth viewed theology as a risky venture of obedience: “These then are the terms on which I may and must risk being a theologian—in obedience, equipped with these powers of my thought.”2 Barth, however, deemed theology worth the risk because of his confidence in the living and active God encountered in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. If I have encountered the living Jesus Christ, I must dare or risk to speak of God. I must also dare to have confidence that this God is here and now.
I ask again: where is God in the church? The church is facing a reckoning. A reckoning that I would contend is the result of its failure to listen to the Word of God. In no way do I intend to lessen the horror of what has been endured, nor do I aim to somehow explain or give meaning to deep pain and suffering. But I am convinced that those victims of abuse in the church who have spoken up are, in fact, witnesses to the Word of God in the church, because they are calling the church to genuine repentance by exposing the church to its sin.
By silencing the voices of victims, the church was silencing the Word of God. The gospel of Christ includes repentance and does not tolerate ignoring injustice and sin, and it is a message the church and each Christian must hear continually. Barth’s theology does not understand the church as a given; rather, it is an event of the coming together of a community in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the “condemning grace and the gracious judgment of God.”3 The being of the church is inherently missional, or for others and not itself.4 However, when the church refuses to listen to the Word of God through human witnesses and is for itself and not others, it ceases to be an event and loses its living relationship with Jesus Christ. It ceases to be a living church but becomes an apparent church.5 One that is “only an institution, dogma, program, and problem.”6
Where is God here and now in the church? I am taking a theological risk by claiming this, but I see God in the judgment the church is rightfully facing in its exposure as an apparent church—a church refusing its living Lord. This is a judgment that ultimately is grace. God is using the voices of those calling the church to repentance for its sins. Instead of adopting an attitude of self-righteousness, may we, may I, be willing to repent, seek justice and grace, speak about the living God, and have confidence that God is here and now.
Repentance and action will look different for each of us. For me, as a theologian, it takes the form of carefully reflecting on how the understanding of God’s power and authority have been misconstrued in ways that are not informed by Christ and have supported inappropriate power and authority structures in the church. As a member of the church, it has taken the form of speaking out against church leadership when needed and supporting victims in various ways so that they receive the healing and justice needed. I could and should do more. For others, repentance and justice may require working on changing the structures of church leadership, enacting practices that make abuse more difficult, and joining protests and petitions when change is resisted or justice ignored.
The one thing we cannot do is remain silent and inactive.
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Karl Barth, “The Christian Proclamation Here and Now,” in God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. van Buren (New York: Routledge Classics, 2003), 11; cf. Church Dogmatics II/1, §28.
Karl Barth, “Fate and Idea in Theology,” in The Way of Theology in Karl Barth, ed. H. Martin Rumscheidt, trans. George Hunsinger (Allison Park: Pickwick Publications, 1986), 59.
Karl Barth, “The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ,” in God Here and Now, 77; cf. 76–83. This is an excellent overview of Barth’s doctrine of the church.
Barth, “The Church,” 81–2.
Barth, “The Church,” 88–92.
Barth, “The Church,” 89.