By George Sayour | June 7, 2022
The church should be a sanctuary for victims, a training ground to prevent assault, and a facilitator of emotional, spiritual, and physical healing. (PCA AIC DASA Report, p. 2402)
The Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Ad Interim Committee (AIC) on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Abuse (DASA) recently released its Report to be presented at the 49th General Assembly later this month. Given everything that has gone on in the news and online with other denominations releasing reports of abuse in their ranks, there has been much confusion over this PCA document; what it is, what it is not, and what place it has within our polity.
First, What the Report Is NOT:
- It is not an analysis or investigation of allegations of abuse in the PCA.
- It is not binding on PCA Churches in any way.
- It is not going to be either “approved” or “adopted” by the PCA.
Second, What the Report Is:
In 2019 the 47th General Assembly of the PCA adopted an overture to form an Ad Interim Committee to study the topic of Abuse, which the Report defines as “persistent maltreatment that causes lasting damage”(p. 2306). Additionally, it states “for the purposes of this report, all forms of physical and nonphysical (emotional, psychological, spiritual) abuse will be considered equally sinful” (p. 2307). The Assembly directed the Committee to fulfill a number of tasks, chief among them being that:
The Committee shall report regarding best practices and guidelines that could be helpful for elders, Sessions, Presbyteries, and agencies for protecting against these sins and for responding to them. However, no practice, policy, or guideline will be proposed for adoption or approval. It is simply information, which shall not be binding or obligatory in any sense. (p. 2301)
The result is a 220-page technical yet pastoral document that has two main parts:
- Biblical and theological foundations of understanding abuse (Section 1)
- Practical pastoral aspects of abuse in the church (Sections 2 – 6)
What the Report Does Well
- It is both Biblical & Confessional
The first section of the Report does a wonderful job of upholding our understanding of what is required in the Moral Law, both in what is forbidden by the Ten Commandments and in what is positively required of them. Westminster Larger Catechism questions 129-151 provide the framework for this section. It would be difficult to come away from Section 1 without agreement that not only is abuse a grave sin, but that it is our duty as Churches, Church officers, and a denomination to proactively create a safe environment for those in our care and to love and protect victims well when abuse comes to light.
- Body & Soul
The Report convincingly makes the case that abuse is not just physical, affecting the body, but that it affects the very soul and being of a person (p. 2311). This is meant to show how emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse truly are abuse.
- Matthew 18 vs. Romans 13
Churches need to understand that there are times when a faithful application of Romans 13 takes precedence over a well-intentioned but mistaken approach to Matthew 18 (pp. 2332, 2399). Many cases have been botched, pain increased, and future abuse facilitated because the heart of Church leadership was to confront the accused (Matthew 18) rather than report the alleged crime to the governing authorities who are ordained by God for such a task (Romans 13). Additionally, in the United States of America, there are unique legal reporting requirements that pastors and ministry leaders must obey in each State or civil jurisdiction.
- Case-by-Case & Step-by-Step Guidance
While pastors and ministry leaders should read the entire first section of the AIC Report in order to understand the basis for the subsequent sections, it is very helpful to be able to turn right to sections 2-6 for guidance related to specific types of abuse, how to care for the victims, and how to proceed with investigations procedurally in line with BCO 31-2 (p. 2338). The Attachments aid with this. Attachment 6: Comprehensive Child Protection Policy is particularly helpful.
- Gospel Hope
While the Report is sobering, it is full of gospel hope. There are multiple sections on shepherding, for both the victim and the abuser. There are sections on the subjects of forgiveness and repentance.
What about “False Reports?”
False reports are always a concern when discussing abuse in broad or general terms. One only need think of the false accusations made against three members of Duke University’s men’s lacrosse team in 2006, or of Jussie Smollett who staged a hate crime against himself in 2021. News outlets are all too eager to share partial clips of videos which seem to present a politically advantageous narrative which the whole video reveals to be completely untrue or deceptive. Social media too is full of unverifiable customer and employee complaints against businesses, schools, churches, and other institutions. These incidences of falsehood actually make it more difficult for abuse victims to come forward. Further complicating this, every counselor and pastor has worked with people who have lied to them, told partial truths, exhibited projection and/or transference, and even DARVO (pp. 2371, 2449). This podcast discussion between Kevin DeYoung and Jim Newheiser (Director of the Christian Counseling Program at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC) treats the subject of how to deal biblically with this issue, given the reality of these issues of truth-telling in our cultural moment.
Given the above, this AIC Report speaks extensively about the reality, potential, and “perniciousness” of false allegations of abuse, while maintaining that they occur in only 2-8% of cases (pp. 2338, 2341, 2399,2428, 2481,2482). While the Report applies this statistic broadly, it should be noted that the 2-8% statistic refers only to allegations of sexual abuse which were officially made to police authorities. To illustrate this in hard numbers, the more extensive of the two American studies which the AIC Report cited analyzed data from eight communities over a two-year period, and it found that of the 2059 sexual assaults analyzed, 140 (7%) of them were false reports. While 140 is extremely serious, it pales in comparison to the almost 2000 that were legitimate. The AIC Report informs,
While false reports are rare, the best way to protect against them is to undertake an investigation to discover the truth (p.2338).
Given the serious nature of abuse, the pain and harm that it causes, our duty as Shepherds, and what BCO 31-2 says regarding investigations, there should be no question that abuse allegations should be taken seriously.
A Concern on Attachment 11: Divorce and Domestic Abuse
Attachment 11 of this AIC Report begins, “For Christians, perhaps the most controversial topic involving domestic abuse is the subject of divorce” (p. 2492). The Report goes on to provide justification for allowing divorce and remarriage in cases of abuse, appealing to the Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Divorce and Remarriage for support (pp. 2492, 2495).
This AIC Report on Abuse presents an exegetical rationale from 1 Corinthians 7:15 that many PCA Elders will likely reject, summarizing that when Paul speaks of an unbeliever abandoning a believer, that “the determining factor is the act of abandonment,” and not that the person doing the abandoning was an unbeliever (p. 2495). That is a remarkable statement. Every person seeking a divorce is in effect abandoning the marriage. Yet, Christ doesn’t uphold abandonment as freeing the abandoned spouse from the marriage (Matt. 5:32).
In writing this last section, I am not at all addressing the specific issue of whether abuse is a valid reason for divorce. In that, I agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 24, Paragraph 6, and with the AIC Report on Divorce, that Sessions are to work with those who are in these situations to help them understand if they have biblical grounds for divorce given their situation. I am simply questioning the exegesis in this specific section of the Report as well as the wisdom in including this disputable section in a Report which otherwise seems to be indisputable. This Report should not have sought to re-cover ground in just a couple of pages that an earlier Report had covered extensively. The AIC Report on Divorce has already dealt in detail with the issue of physical, sexual, and child abuse as it relates to divorce and remarriage. Additionally, the AIC Report on Divorce also included two appendices related to this issue, one of which which disagreed with the position being advocated here.
- The AIC Report on Domestic and Sexual Abuse will be presented to the 2022 General Assembly in Birmingham, AL later this month.
- While it will not be “approved or adopted,” it may be “received with thanks,” “commended for study,” or (less likely) “declared biblically faithful” as was the AIC Report on Human Sexuality.
- “Advice” throughout the Report could inspire the drafting of Overtures to future General Assemblies for the purpose of amending the PCA’s Book of Church Order or other parts of our denominational Constitution. There is already one related overture on this year’s docket.
- Churches and Presbyteries can (and hopefully will) implement much of the advice in this report.
 BCO, Rules of Assembly Operations, Article IX.
 It is unclear how this principle of equality plays out in the Report. At times in certain sections of the Report, the word “abuse” is used broadly, as in this quote on page 2307. At other points in the Report, “abuse” is used in a limited way to denote the type of abuse being discussed in a given section. However, even the Report acknowledges that our doctrinal Standards (i.e., WLC 151) do not count all sins as equally heinous (p. 2309). Yes, all abuse is sin deserving of Hell. Yes, emotional abuse is really and truly abuse (and therefore, sin), and as such it inflicts damage upon souls and calls down God’s just judgement upon the perpetrator(s). However, rape and child sexual abuse are clearly more heinous sins than non-physical sinful abusive patterns and behaviors that men and women commit in their various relationships. Our doctrinal commitment to understanding gradations of heinousness of sin from one instance or kind of abuse to another is not clearly articulated in the Report.
 Each section includes unverified case studies that allegedly happened in the PCA, described for illustrative purposes.
 This is in line with how Calvin understood the soul, as is reflected in his Institutes.I.15.
 DARVO is an acronym standing for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.” This term is recognized in current literature on abuse to describe a common manipulation strategy of psychological abusers.
George Sayour is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Meadowview Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lexington, NC.