The Harm of Identity Traps in the PCA

I graduated as a homeschooler. I now have eight children who have all been homeschooled from the beginning of their education. We just graduated our eldest this summer. I feel strongly enough about the benefits of homeschooling for our family that I invest a large portion of my time and energy to it.

But that doesn't mean I think it is without flaws or pitfalls.

Any system, no matter how good, comes with its own issues. Partly because all systems are run by fallen, fallible human beings, and partly because, as my husband would say, in a fallen world, "There are no solutions, only trade-offs."

Harm in the Name of Homeschooling

I follow the Coalition for Responsible Home Education and I know quite a few adult children of homeschool families whose upbringing was neglectful at best and downright abusive at worst.

Several women I know had to virtually wage war just to get a birth certificate and other legal documents so that they could get a driver's license or a job. Oldest siblings share how they had to educate themselves while running the household and homeschooling all of the younger children.

Sometimes when those who have been harmed by homeschooling share their stories, homeschool parents show up angry and defensive. "That isn't a homeschool problem! That's an abuse problem!" While there is some truth to that, we're not being honest if we don't admit that yes, there are aspects of the homeschooling dynamic that allow for abuse in ways that other systems don't.

Homeschooling is Not Our Identity

Every system of education comes with drawbacks and dangers. And just because we've decided homeschooling is the best solution for our family right now doesn't mean we're convinced it has no drawbacks. But seeing flaws (or potential flaws) in the system doesn't have to rattle us because we don't place our hope in homeschooling to save our children, nor do we build our identity on it.

Seeing harm done within the structure of homeschooling can break my heart and spur me to action without tugging on my insecurities or toppling my dedication.

In fact, I believe as a homeschool parent, I should be the most aware of the inherent cracks in my own chosen form of education. If we find value in homeschooling (which we do) we should be committed to working for a system that is as safe as possible for all children, even if that means some sacrifice or additional oversight for us.

It is to our shame when those outside the homeschool world have a clearer view of our failures than we do.

Address the Problems from Within the System

There are those who believe the solution to the problem of abuse in homeschool families is to eradicate homeschooling and require public school for all children. I disagree. But even those who hold a final conclusion that I reject have valuable insight to offer about how homeschooling can go off track and harm those it was designed to bless and protect.

The same attitude and approach is appropriate in the church setting.

In order to be a church that is safe for everyone - especially the most vulnerable among us - we have to have the emotional stability to honestly admit the inherent flaws in our system and face them with courage. We are best equipped to do that when we root our identity not in the specific features of our system (no matter how Biblical and godly we believe them to be) but in our perfect righteousness found only in Christ.

There are those who would argue that in order to be a safe church, we have to eschew male-only ordination or become credobaptists (baptism of believers only). I don't agree with those conclusions.

I also don't agree with those who assert that by following a Presbyterian system of government or ordaining only men, we have nothing left to worry about and no cracks or vulnerabilities to monitor.

Start at Home, Find the Logs

Jacob Denhollander says that it's a shame for the church to be following after the #metoo movement in the culture. Why? Because the church should have led the way in fighting abuse, not trail behind in acknowledging and addressing a problem that exists everywhere, including right inside our own churches.

We make ourselves odious to the world and we shame the name of the Savior we claim to represent when the outside world sees our failings more clearly than we do.

Here are some statistics from the DASA (Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault) report presented to the 49th General Assembly of the PCA in 2022. These statistics are ubiquitous - the same inside and outside of the church.

"As many as twenty people are assaulted by their partners every minute. Up to 85% of the victims of domestic abuse are women and/or young girls, while 2% are men. One hundred thirty-seven women are killed each day by acts of familial violence. Statistically, there is no difference between the general and Christian population." DASA p. 2343
"According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted). About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime." DASA p. 2388
"According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, an American is sexually assaulted every nine minutes." DASA p. 2390
"In an older survey by the Center for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Abuse, nearly thirteen percent of clergy said they had sex with a church member. In another survey, approximately fourteen percent of ministers admitted to engagement in sexual behavior that was considered to be inappropriate for a minister." DASA p. 2390
"Eight out of ten sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Thirty-three percent of assaults are committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend." DASA p. 2390
"Only nineteen percent of adult sexual assaults are committed by a complete stranger." DASA p. 2391
"Approximately 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser. Only 10% of sexually abused children are abused by a stranger. About 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by people the family trusts." DASA p. 2412
"Approximately 30% of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members. The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. Of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17.157 Approximately 77% percent of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect are the parents of a victim.158 Family members159 make up one-third to one half of the perpetrators against girls, and 10% to 20% of the perpetrators against boys. Men commit 90% of these cases." DASA p. 2413

From Baylor University's 2015 Survey on Clergy Sexual Abuse (DASA p. 2439)

  • Only 4% of the perpetrators were prosecuted;
  • Only 8% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that their church supported them after the abuse occurred;
  • Only 8% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that the perpetrator apologized to them;
  • 50% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that their experience with the church after the abuse negatively affected their relationship with God;
  • 80% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that their experience with the church after the abuse negatively affected their spiritual life;
  • Only 9% Agreed or Strongly Agreed the church was helpful when they reported the abuse;
  • Only 15% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that their church/denomination thoroughly investigated the report;
  • Only 11% Agreed or Strongly Agreed that their church openly communicated with them during the investigation." DASA p. 24

Where is Your Identity?

Over the last couple of years we've heard a lot of talk about identity in the PCA and discussions about basing an identity on something sinful. But basing one's identity on something good can be equally sinful and just as damaging.

Because of its history, specifically leaving the mainline Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) over disagreement in theology and polity, we can begin to define ourselves as "not that". We are the denomination that doesn't ordain women. We are the denomination that doesn't capitulate to the culture or liberalization.

And if that is where we find our identity, then we will certainly feel threatened by anything that appears to test that identity. Listening to the voices of women and seeking their input on matters of church discipline or policy development? Learning from the secular research about the prevalence and impact of abuse?

None of these have to be scary or intimidating unless they threaten our security. Our fears reveal where we place our hope. And if that hope is in our denominational polity - no matter how Biblical that polity is - we will find ourselves tied up in knots of self-defense and self-preservation rather than wise, mature, humble reflection on our own flaws and the responsibility we have to address them.

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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