Sheltered but Not Protected is the story of a young man that was raised in an independent Baptist church (probably listed in our database) and who did all the right things just like the preacher said, but nevertheless was the victim of a female predator in his church. The church culture around him not only permitted but protected this sort of behavior, and instead of reporting the abuser as a child molester, the pastor forced the victim to repent in front of the church. Sound familiar? As the author says, not every church is this way, but there are enough of them out there that it deserves serious attention.
Justin Woodbury is the author of the book Sheltered but not Protected (affiliate link throughout), his story of abuse in an independent Baptist church, both sexual abuse from a trusted adult, as well as the emotional and spiritual abuse that was standard behavior from the leadership. The book begins with a foreword from Justin’s wife Emily, describing the pain and struggles that she experienced as a new wife dealing with the emotional trauma that her husband had suffered. While there’s a “happy ending” of sorts to the book, the scars–spiritual, emotional, and even physical–created thanks to a system of abuse that came from or was at least enabled by good intentions nevertheless will remain with Justin and Emily, and innumerable other victims, for the rest of their lives.
The Best of Intentions
Justin’s childhood is described as wonderful, with loving parents and a great sister. Even his church was a place full of (initially) love, people seeking to serve the LORD from a pure heart. Unfortunately, the way in which they went about trying to serve God became more about control and rigid compliance with rules than seeking God’s will. The writer of this review grew up in a church that shared some similarities with the church described in Sheltered, though I can’t remember things being quite so over-the-top with regards to pastoral control.
However, the whole idea of the pastor being “the Man of God” and that his opinions were actually the leading of the Holy Spirit (Justin’s job at the church was threatened continually if he disagreed with or disobeyed the pastor) is very familiar, and is unfortunately a very common aspect in many independent Baptist churches. I personally recall a significant emphasis on “she-bears” and calling down fire from heaven on disrespectful people being part of the birthright of the pastor. While my pastor didn’t go so far as telling people which color of car they should buy, he certainly interfered in family matters and felt that he had some sort of special line to God and knew better than everyone else how they should live.
What also resonated with me was the repeated detail that the pastor didn’t believe that there was ever a good reason to leave the church. I remember hearing that there were only two good reasons for leaving church: getting called out (to a ministry somewhere), or dragged out (a la Ananias and Saphira). This now seems like a parallel universe compared to my current pastor’s opinion on the matter: if you can’t serve God here, then please find a church where you can serve God; we’d hate to be the reason you can’t be faithful. Perhaps nine times out of ten, the reason they can’t serve God here (wherever that may be) is because they don’t really want to serve God anywhere, but there’s always the possibility that someone just isn’t a good fit and the LORD wants to use them somewhere else. That apparently wasn’t acceptable in the church where Justin grew up.
Ultimately, out of a desire to prevent the young people from experiencing the same disappointments and sins that the church’s founders had been through, they put in place draconian rules all with the intention of preventing impurity. As the rules evolved, becoming ever more restrictive, extreme, and ridiculous, most of the church members just followed along, since after all, “the Man of God” apparently knew something that they didn’t.
In his teen years, Justin’s mom became close friends with a woman in church, who was a predator and groomed him for about two years. I’ll let you read the details in his book (again, buy a copy and read it), but the abuse scarred him for life. Of course he felt pressured to keep it secret, since all of those people who had to “confess” in front of the church (whether perpetrator or victim) were publicly shamed and humiliated, and then once he finally opened up to the pastor, he was made to feel as if he were the responsible party. Moreover, the pastor, who is by law required to report sexual abuse, especially involving a minor, did not report, but instead forced Justin to apologize to his abuser’s husband.
So, not only was child sex abuse covered up, but the victim was shamed into admitting fault that was not his. Of course Justin was not the only minor affected by sexual abuse in that church; you’ll read about many other situations of leadership overlooking, dismissing, or mishandling situations to such a degree that it almost seems a caricature of reality. After several years of working in the same church, he faced another public humiliation for a private (and rather chaste) relationship with a girl in the church, and finally left to start a new life elsewhere.
Unfortunately, escaping the place doesn’t change the past, and Justin’s long road toward healing was hindered by the fact that “counseling” in his mind was a series of meetings with the pastor to make sure you were sorry and humiliated enough to be “restored.” He was never encouraged to seek professional assistance for his abuse, partly because the church had no real concept of what damage the abuse inflicted, but mostly because they didn’t see it as abuse, just some sort of adulterous affair–even though the aggressor was an adult woman close to twice the age of the minor that she molested.
God’s Grace is Always More than Sufficient
In the last chapters of Sheltered but not Protected, Justin describes his journey from bitterness to forgiveness, along with the various ways that God stripped away the judgmental, spiteful tendencies that had been inculcated in him throughout his upbringing in a cultish Baptist church. Of course I personally wouldn’t move away from the King James Bible as Justin has, nor would I probably feel comfortable in the church where he believes the LORD brought them, but those are irrelevant points. He overcame the sexual abuse from a child predator, the emotional abuse from a system that was designed to create perfect clones, and spiritual abuse from the men that he should have been able to trust, and has come to a place where he can forgive even the unrepentant abuser in his past.
This brings me to the real point that King James Bible-believing, independent Baptists have to face: why is it that we can have the right Bible (and we do), and the right doctrine (at least for the most part), and yet the fruit of so many ministries is complete destruction of families and individuals that should have been helped? How is it that we, like the Pharisees of old, can have all the right forms and technicalities (even if I disagree with many of the traditions purported to be “Old Time Religion”) yet the end result is one train wreck after another? Where in the Bible does it indicate that every believer should look like, talk like, act like, and sound like “the pastor” or else they should be shunned and ostracized by the church? Where exactly does the Bible say that the “proper” male haircut is a crop-top or a high-and-tight comb-over? Or are we allowing the culture around us to dictate what we do and how we do it, even if it is simply to be opposite of said culture?
Sheltered but not Protected is a gut-wrenching story of abuse, while at the same time a gleam of hope in a world with a church that is “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17) and where churches actively protect child abusers and rapists. There IS something that we can do, and maybe it starts with reading and understanding the truths that Justin Woodbury shares in this book.
Sheltered but not Protected: Learning to Love, Forgive, and Heal After Emotional and Sexual Abuse can be purchased on Amazon, and Justin Woodbury can be contacted through his website or his Facebook Page.
As the author of this book, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this review. It’s so refreshing to see a Bible believing church take a stand against abuse. I would love to talk to the author of this review more about how to get more churches involved, and what you were doing in speaking out against abuse.
I believe this pastor and the abuser need to face prosecution in order to prevent it from happening again.
Thanks for the review. Sadly we are hearing more and more of this happening in our churches. Perhaps the things you pointed out will awaken those in leadership and changes will be made. Thanks again!
Just purchased for my kindle. Thank you for the review & getting this “out there” so others will be aware & read it.