On the Difference Between “Sexual Immorality” and Abuse

At her Patheos blog, Libby Anne has written an important article entitled “The Southern Baptist Abuse Coverup is Ongoing”. She details the obfuscations and half-truths in the vocabulary used by the IMB to defend its response to missionary Mark Aderholt’s predatory behavior. Her article is important because it draws attention to the way that language can be used to downplay the seriousness of abuse and the consequences of an inadequate response.

One example is notable. Anne says this:

On top of everything else, the IMB repeatedly says “sexual misconduct” and not “sexual abuse”. This matters because groups like the Southern Baptist Convention frequently lump premarital sex and sexual abuse together as though they are the same thing, when they are not. As a result, abuse can be treated as no different from a consensual moral lapse, erasing any consciousness of abuse as abuse and eliminating the need for precautions to prevent known abusers from abusing again in the future.

Sexual abuse of a minor is a type of sexual sin that is qualitatively different from other forms of sexual sin. A minor is unable to meaningfully consent to a sexual relationship or understand the consequences of it. For Anne Miller, it was not until about ten years after her abuse that she began to understand how Aderholt had manipulated and taken advantage of her vulnerability.

Christian organizations frequently use terms such as “sexual immorality,” “moral failure,” “inappropriate relationship,” and “a fall into immorality” to describe consensual extramarital affairs. While an extramarital affair is surely a sexual sin with serious consequences, it is not the same as sexual abuse of a minor; the serious differences necessitate that our language differentiate them. Employing vague euphemisms in reference to sexual abuse is deceptive and harmful because it downplays the uniquely predatory nature of abuse and glosses over the unparalleled magnitude of wreckage its leaves in its wake.

Wade Mullen notes well how language can be literally true yet still sinfully deceptive:


So, let’s hold Christian organizations accountable for the language they use to describe sexual abuse. We must name sexual abuse of a minor for what it is so that it can be exposed and confronted directly. Muted and nonspecific language enables abusers and bears false witness to the gravity of harm done to the victims. Honesty demands specificity when naming sexual assault.

One thought on “On the Difference Between “Sexual Immorality” and Abuse

  1. Annie Froelich Abernethy

    The qualitative difference between sexual immorality and sexual abuse is clearly delineated in the words of Jesus about those who abuse minors: it’s better that a heavy object be wrapped around the perpetrator’s neck and he be led off a short pier into deep water. This from the One who told many simply to go and sin no more. Jesus said these words about child abuse. Do we really believe that?! Or do we think he was kidding?

    Liked by 1 person

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