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“Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls” ~ Wendell Berry[1]

One of the top stories of the last year, no doubt, was the number of women who came forward sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. As someone who wants to think Christianly at all times and about all things, over the last several weeks I have asked myself: What’s the Christian response to this? Here’s where my mind goes.

First, we start with the image of God.

Unequivocally, the Bible makes plain that human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The necessary entailment of this truth is that humans must receive dignified and humane treatment. Christians, therefore, do not view image bearers as “living tools,”[2] mere objects to be used anyway one desires. “The moment we begin to see others in terms of what they can do rather than what they are,” Eugene Peterson reminds us, “we mutilate humanity and violate community.”[3]This leads to the obvious conclusion: Abuse in any shape or form is sinful.

James informs the congregations to whom he is writing that when they show partiality they “are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). Their behavior, he points out, is not in keeping with the Bible’s “royal law”—that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (2:8; cf. Lev. 19:18). Furthermore, violating another person’s humanity is a breach of the golden rule enunciated by Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

Viewing image bearers as less than human nearly always leads to inhumane treatment.[4] Contrariwise, a Christian vision of humanity promotes sacrificial love, placing our neighbors’ needs above our own, requiring that we give special attention to those who are lonely, harshly treated, and subject to exploitation (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 14:28-29; 24:17-18; 27:19; Ps. 68:5).

Secondly, we look to the Law of God.

Left to our own devices, we will shut everyone else out and focus solely on ourselves, our wants, our needs, and our lives. “The human heart in its natural state is not generous to competitors,” as one writer put it.[5] Into this desperate situation, however, God comes. He speaks to us. He gives us a word from himself. He addresses us, calling us “to loving attention and fellowship” as he communicates to us in Scripture—all with a view to communing with us.[6]

This God calls us to love our neighbors. Thankfully, however, he hasn’t left us to our own devices in this matter. No, he tells us how we are to love our neighbors; in his kindness, he defines what love is in the law of God. It begins, first of all, with loving and reverencing God above all others (Ex. 20:3). After all, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). I am to worship God alone (Ex. 20:4); I am to respect God’s name (Ex. 20:7). In short, I am to affirm my dependent status. And (as the Second Table of the Law discloses), if I “do not wish to violate the image of God” I must regard my neighbor as “sacred.”[7]

This is what the law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments teaches us; namely, that “we have no right to follow the mind’s caprice wherever it impels us.”[8] Just as good works “are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word (London Baptist Confession, 16.1), the same can be said of love: “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8). Paul states it a bit differently in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Theologian Sinclair Ferguson draws our attention to a significant truth here: “Love is never said to be a replacement for law in Scripture,” which means that love is not self-interpreting.[9] God defines love.

Love counts others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). Love is sacrificial, summoning us to lay our lives down for others (Jn. 15:13). Of course, as the Apostle Paul memorably put it:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

God is love. He is bene volere (benevolent); that is, good willing (he wills the good to us). As many have said, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. And since God has been anything but indifferent toward us, we, his people, who are called to “imitate God” (Eph. 5:1), must imitate him in this matter.[10] Thus, indifference toward image bearers transgresses God’s commands.

Given this reality, it should be obvious as to why sexual harassment and sexual abuse are wrong. We do not have a right to someone else’s body. We are to love and serve our neighbor, not abuse them and disregard them. People are sacred. Let’s treat them as such.


[1] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays (New York: Random House, 1994), 173.

[2] Aristotle spoke of slaves as “living tools” (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. F. H. A. Peters [New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004], 8.11.)

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 71.

[4] David Livingstone Smith, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 15.

[5] Owen Strachan, The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 2.

[6] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 7, 8.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 2. 8. 39 (p. 404-405).

[8] Ibid., 2. 8. 2 (p. 369).

[9] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 168.

[10] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, God, Scripture & Hermeneutics: First Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 75. In calling us to imitate God, I’m not suggesting that we can do everything God can do. Here, I follow Jason B. Hood: “[In] neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament is imitation a matter of identical action or exact duplication. Imitation is a matter of mindset, such as a willingness to forgive and readiness to stoop in humility” (Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013], 74).