Abusers in the Christian Church: The 5 Stages of Biblical Repentance

What true repentance does and does not look like

If an abuser denies their sin, and calls their victim a liar, then he or she is not repentant. If an abuser acknowledges their sin, but blames the victim for tempting them or taking part in their sin, then he or she is not repentant. If an abuser demands forgiveness and full pardon without any consequences for their actions, using such excuses as “If you’re a Christian, you should forgive me, and love me again,” then he or she is not repentant.


One of the strangest and most deplorable phenomena I’ve ever encountered in the Christian church is the tendency of many believers to take the side of the abuser in domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault cases, particularly if the abuser is a pastor or leader in the church. I have personally witnessed the gross mishandling of sexual abuse, child abuse, rape, and domestic violence situations by ministers, ministerial teams, and congregations as a whole.

The ongoing scandals involving Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard have brought this issue grotesquely into the limelight, and many Christians are flocking to defend the abusers, while smearing their victims as liars and even seductresses, as if these women somehow asked to be assaulted or harassed. You may ask, “How could a Christian ever dream of defending an abuser? That makes no sense!” And you’re right. The following are the two main arguments I have personally heard from multiple conservative Christians in favor of abusers:

Abuser Defense #1: King David Did It

The believer reasons,”Only the Lord can judge the heart, and King David committed adultery and murder and God forgave him, so who are we to judge?”

This argument risks comparing an unrepentant predator to a repentant David. It also completely ignores the chaos which ensued even after David repented and God forgave him. For the sin of adultery and murder, God sent Nathan the Prophet to David, who said:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan replied, ‘The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.’” 2 Kings 12:11-14

Even after God’s forgiveness, there was still an incredibly heavy penalty for sin. God didn’t wink at David’s sin. God didn’t give David a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. Later, we read the horrific story of Absalom, David’s own son, who sleeps with David’s wives “in broad daylight,” as Nathan the Prophet foretold: “… they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.” 2 Samuel 16:22

Absalom later and dies violently in battle, much to David’s sorrow. It is obvious upon reading this story in context and in its entirety – and many others like it throughout the Old and

New Testaments – that even after genuine repentance there are terrible consequences to sin. Some are clearly defined punishments from God, while others are simple matters of cause and effect.

Abuser Defense #2: I’m a Sinner Too, So I Shouldn’t Judge

The believer, upon hearing the horrific story of a pastor molesting a child, or a Sunday School teacher beating his wife, shrugs their shoulders and says something theologically vague like, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

I’m not sure which bothers me more about the latter statement: A) The fact that the speaker is implying that they have perverse predatory proclivities too, but that God is keeping them in check, or, B) That they’re taking a wonderful old quote about suffering and martyrdom completely out of context and misapplying it (Google John Bradford), exposing their ignorance of both theology and church history. Ignoring Issue B as being this author’s pet peeve, let’s focus on Issue A:

  • Yes, by grace even unbelievers have consciences (common grace).
  • Yes, by grace the sinful natures of mankind are restrained (common grace).
  • Yes, by grace through faith you are saved.

But you’re forgetting one teensy little thing: SANCTIFICATION!

“What is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the

image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”  – Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 35.

We are the Holy Spirit’s work-in-progress. We are regenerated and have embarked on a process of spiritual growth and renewal. We should, as we continue to be sanctified by God, grow more and more abhorrent of sin and Christlike in our thoughts, words, and deeds. This doesn’t mean we’re not going to sin anymore, or that we won’t be capable of some pretty nasty transgressions. It means that we’ll be enabled by grace to acknowledge and grieve over sin, repent of sin, make humble restitution for sin, actively strive to avoid repeating that sin, and glorify God for his redemptive work in our hearts.

  • If an abuser denies their sin, and calls their victim a liar, then he or she is not repentant.
  • If an abuser acknowledges their sin, but blames the victim for tempting them or taking part in their sin, then he or she is not repentant.
  • If an abuser demands forgiveness and full pardon without any consequences for their actions, using such excuses as “If you’re a Christian, you should forgive me, and love me again,” then he or she is not repentant.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 87 states, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

Let’s unpack that. You’ve heard of the Five Stages of Grief?  Well, here’s five stages of genuine repentance as demonstrated and described in Old and New Testament:

The 5 Stages of Biblical Repentance:

1. Sorrowful Recognition of Sin

Ezra and those with him are horrified and “disgraced” by sin:

“When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice. Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God and prayed: ‘I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.’” Ezra 9:3-6

Job is so distraught by his sin that he despises himself:

“’… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know … therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’” Job 42:3&6

A sinful woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and costly perfume:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” Luke 7:37-38

Peter weeps bitterly out of remorse for denying Christ:

“The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times. And he went outside and wept bitterly.” Luke 22:61-62

2. Admission of Guilt & Confession

Isaiah, upon seeing how holy God is, dramatically confessed his fallen nature:

“’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’” Isaiah 6:5

Paul does not mince words when admitting his sin to God:

“‘Lord … I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’” Acts 22:19-20

John explains that failure to admit guilt is a sign that our hearts are devoid of God’s sanctification:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10

3. Humble Acceptance of Sin’s Punishment & Consequences:

Ezra declares Israel deserving of God’s wrath and punishment:

“What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant … Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.” Ezra 9:13&15

King David affirms God’s right to judge him after Nathan confronts him with his sin:

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” Psalm 51:3-4

The Psalmist thanks God for chastening him, yet sparing his life:

“The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” Psalm 118:18-19

4. A Desire to Reconcile & Make Restitution:

King Hezekiah seeks reconciliation and restitution by sacrificing sin offerings:

“Early the next morning King Hezekiah gathered the city officials together and went up to the temple of the Lord. They brought seven bulls, seven rams, seven male lambs, and seven male goats as a sin offering for the kingdom, for the sanctuary and for Judah. The king commanded the priests, the descendants of Aaron, to offer these on the altar of the Lord.” 2 Chronicles 29:20-21

Jesus requires reconciliation between believers:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

Zacchaeus pays back all he has stolen and then some:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ Luke 19:8-10

5. Regeneration & The Glorification of God:

Jonah promises to change his ways and glorifies God from the belly of the fish:

“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” Jonah 2:8-9

King David promises to use his own sin as an example to bring others to repentance:

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.” Psalm 51:13-14

Paul says we were created and predestined to do good works:

“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved … For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:3-5 & 10

John explains that a repentant sinner may sin, but will not persist in sin:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” 1 John 1:5-7

What Then Should We Do With Abusers?

If an abuser does not exhibit these Biblical traits common to those who, by the grace of God, truly repent, then it is wise to question the authenticity of their repentance, and whether God’s sanctification is actively working in their hearts. Surely, repentance is a process, but it is one that must be completed in order to fulfill the requirements exemplified and defined by God’s Word.

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world … Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:1, 7&8

Based on clear New Testament requirements (such as those in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) and basic common sense, it should be glaringly obvious that a leader in today’s church who is discovered to be living in or guilty of unrepentant sin or abuse, should not be allowed to continue in a position of power or authority. This is true for four practical and moral reasons:

  1. For the sake of Christ, the church should never risk the appearance of winking at sin. The scandals involving priests and young boys in the Catholic Church is a horrifying example of how devastating such appearances can be for the body of Christ as a whole, let alone for the victims involved. A truly repentant abuser should, through abhorrence of their own sin and concern for the honor of Christ and reputation of the church, willingly and humbly step down, thereby clearly and publicly defining their actions as un-Christlike and deplorable.
  2. We cannot risk further victimization. Even in the case that we believe an abuser is genuinely repentant, they have proven that they have difficult-to-control sinful proclivities, and that they cannot not be trusted to restrain themselves.

For the sake of the victim, we must take a clear stance against abuse, acknowledge that they were grievously wronged, and not hold them guilty or responsible for

  1. being victimized.
  2. For the sake of the abuser, we cannot risk enabling them to commit further sin, or putting them in a position where they may be tempted.

Jesus said, “’If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’” Matthew 18:5-7

Christ is very clear about His wrath towards those who cause His “little ones … to stumble.” Not only has the abuser caused “little ones … to stumble,” but by allowing even repentant abusers to carry on in positions of authority and trust within the church, we risk putting them in a position where the abuser is liable “to stumble” again, and what does that say of the church?

“’From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they saw when there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:13-14

Jennifer Grassman Greenberg, an award winning recording artist, has produced, designed artwork for, distributed and promoted four full length CDs and one EP. She has designed multiple websites, product packages, and coordinated campaigns for numerous artists, companies, and non-profits. This article is used with permission.


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