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Why some religions are prone to child abuse6 min read

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The Catholic Church is not the only part of the Christian Church that has problems with sexual abuse. As Kathryn Joyce reveals in her new piece in The American Prospect, Protestant churches have a problem, and Billy Graham’s grandson is on a mission to “persuade Protestant churches to open up about it.”

The question is, what makes these organizations specifically prone to such abuses? My contention is, in addition to having access to children, and the human tendency to abuse power, there are specific doctrinal reasons that these things are happening – doctrines that, in my estimation, are heretical and as we see in their results, dangerous.

What are those doctrines?

  1. Priestly Celibacy – Want a recipe for child abuse or homosexuality? Take a young man, force him to be celibate (by offering no other way for him to fulfill his call to ministry), and put him around young children and other young men in the same situation. Not only is this requirement for celibacy in violation of scripture (such a thing is to be chosen freely, see 1 Corinthians 7), it is the exact OPPOSITE of what scripture arguably requires (you should be a husband, cf. 1 Timothy 3:2).
  2. Works-Based Theology – When religion overemphasizes outer behavior over inner values, it is dying. However, works-based religions, i.e. those that emphasize good works as necessary for salvation, often end up with a myopic emphasis on holiness, which produces just the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of teaching responsible relationship development (i.e. increased levels of commitment before increased intimacy) and enjoyment of sex within the bounds of marriage, they practice prohibition. But such infantilizing doctrines don’t work, they only produce a greater urge to do what one is not supposed to (*cf. Romans 7:5). Not only does Catholic soteriology emphasize works in an improper way, so do Arminian/Holiness protestants, as well as Islam (discussed below).
  3. Young and Overzealous Leaders – In the spiritual life, ambition motivated by insecurity and greed leads to abuses. These unregenerate motives must be rooted out by sanctification over time. While this is not only a problem with young leaders, it is a particular risk with young, untested men. Coupled with the sexual desires of youth, the power of ministry authority can be a deadly cocktail. This is why scripture warns NOT to put such men into leadership (1 Timothy 3:6).

Child Abuse Worldwide

Not surprisingly, the majority of child sexual abuse, as defined by the ICRW, occurs in Muslim and tribal nations (there are exceptions). In addition to works-based theology, however, Islam has other doctrinal distinctives that lend itself to sexual abuse:

  1. Inferiority of Women – when women are viewed as ‘of half the value of a man,’ as property, and as second class citizens without rights, is it any wonder that helpless girls are abused? No.
  2. Blaming Lust on Women – the Muslim practice of female modesty to the extreme misses the point – lust is in the heart of the man, not the dress of the woman. Sure, women could exercise wisdom, understanding the chemistry of men, but they should also have the expectation that in public places, they are pretty much free to dress as they like in a free (and truly virtuous) society.
  3. Mohammed’s Example of Sex with Young Girls – if sex with a 9 year old is good enough for Mohammed, it’s good enough for any Muslim. (Even Muslims admit that sexual abuse is rampant in Islam, but they don’t want to tie it back to its ideological sources)
  4. Sexual Permissiveness for Men – Have you noticed that every culture that allows polygamy ends up devaluing women and allowing men all sorts of dalliances? Islam is rife with practices such as being able to marry a woman for hours in order to have sex with her, and the sexual abuse of young boys.
  5. Suppression of Healthy Sexuality – like every other powerful pleasure, if we are not careful, it can harm us. Sex, alcohol, and food are like fire – if we let the passions for them have free reign, we are harmed. If we prescribe meaningful limits (like sex within marriage, or eating and drinking with balance and moderation), we get to enjoy them without harm. The two extremes with regard to such pleasures are prohibition or extreme restrictions on one hand, and permissiveness on the other. Islam leans heavily on the restrictive side, with the expected results – human desire for rightful pleasures springs up in unhealthy ways when the healthy are hindered.


How do you know you have bad ideas? One way to diagnose it is to view the results – a good tree produces good fruit, and vice versa. Now, it may be that your values or goals are laudable, but your means are not.

For example, while avoiding lust and promiscuity is laudable, harsh punishments and strict limits on what people can wear are merely outward rules for what is essentially an inward problem. This is the classic error of the religious Pharisee – as Jesus characterized this approach:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (From Matthew 23)

Let’s not kid ourselves – bad ideas lead to bad actions. And bad actions can be traced back to the doctrines and ideas that spawn them, be they atheism, Darwinism, Islam, or Christian heresies. I say heresies because I think that many ideas of Christianity, as well as Enlightenment secularism, lead to freedom with virtue. Others, as we see, lead elsewhere.