“Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:18). Lately, it’s as though a glaring spotlight has been placed on the issue of sexual abuse. In every sphere—whether Hollywood, politics, or youth sports teams—victims are gaining the courage to come forward. Many who had come forward in the past and been ignored are finally having their voices heard. Things that have been hidden down in deep, dark corners are being exposed, and the church has not been immune.
Last week, the Houston Chronicle ran an article detailing a pattern of sexual abuse within churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. The journalists claimed to have uncovered 700 victims over a span of 20 years. It was full of heart-wrenching and infuriating stories of sexual abuse within the SBC. Yet, we know that the SBC is not an island among church denominations. Abuse continues to be uncovered in churches and Christian organizations globally. It seems like every other week we are hearing about another scandal. One of the hardest things to comprehend about this whole situation is how rather than facing the consequences of their actions, many of these individuals remained in their current positions or were simply sent to other churches. And in many cases—far, far too many cases—the abuse continued. It seems that this was often done as an attempt to cover up what had occurred and protect the abuser or the church they were involved with. But as I’ve dug a little deeper into these stories and discussed them with people in the church, I’ve realized that many went along with these decisions due to a misunderstanding of the nature of grace. Specifically, I think there are at least 4 popular misconceptions in the church that we must correct if we are to have any hope of protecting the vulnerable among us.
Misconception #1: Since there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, there should be no consequences for their sin.
About a year ago, a video surfaced of a mega-church pastor standing before his congregation and admitting to sexual misconduct with a minor when he had been serving as her youth pastor. He was not currently working at the same church where the abuse had occurred, but was now pastoring another congregation. The girl had come forward to the leaders of his current church and explained what happened. The accused man disagreed with some of the details, but basically admitted that her story was true. When he confessed the abuse to his current congregation, the reaction was not exactly what one would expect. There was no stunned silence or questions from the crowd. Instead, the man received a standing ovation. The comments on the video were likewise filled with words of support for him. Many argued that since there is no condemnation from God for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1), then who are we to punish this man’s sin? If he is repentant, there is no reason he shouldn’t maintain his position as a pastor.
Let me be clear—I am a firm believer in the Bible and I particularly love Romans 8. It tells us that Christians are free from condemnation because God has released us from the burden of the law and the power of sin and enabled us to walk by the Spirit rather than the flesh. Yet, we must understand that condemnation and consequences for sin are not the same thing. Romans 8:1 does not mean that there will be no consequences for our sin here on earth. In fact, because an individual’s holiness and salvation are of much greater importance than their temporary position or feelings, sometimes grace would even demand that we allow them to experience such consequences. Hebrews 12 reminds us that the God of grace disciplines His children BECAUSE He loves them and desires that they would share in His holiness. According to John Piper, there are three reasons why we still experience consequences for forgiven sins: "(1) to demonstrate the exceeding evil of sin, (2) to show that God does not take sin lightly even when he lays aside his punishment, (3) to humble and sanctify the forgiven sinner." Grace does not mean withholding the consequences of sin.
Misconception #2: All sin is equal.
Another common argument I heard for why the man from the video should remain in pastoral leadership went something like this: “If everyone who sinned was disqualified from ministry, we wouldn’t have any pastors! You can’t expect to have a sinless leader!” We’re afraid to give consequences for sin because we hold to a false belief that all sin is equal. And if all sin is equal, then how can we say that one sin warrants a severe consequence (such as disqualification from ministry leadership), but another does not?
It’s true that all sin is equal in the sense that all sin separates us from God and leaves us in need of a savior. No one is closer to earning his own salvation than anyone else. But all sin is not equal in degree of heinousness, depth of impact, or level of appropriate consequence (see John 19:11, Ezekiel 16:51-52, Matt. 18:6, Matt. 11:21-24, James 3:1, Luke 20:46-47, or refer to this article by Michael J. Kruger for more on this topic). We must be willing to acknowledge that some sins may warrant more severe consequences than others.
Regarding church leadership, of course the Bible does not maintain that a leader must be sinless, but it does give standards for character which leaders are required to meet. The very first requirement listed of a church leader in 1 Timothy 3 is that he must be a man above reproach. A man who has used his power to sexually abuse someone under his care is no longer able to meet that standard. I agree with Russell Moore that “no one who has committed such offenses should ever be in any ministry arena where such could even conceivably happen again.” If a man claims to be repentant, yet is determined to stay in leadership, we should strongly question his repentance. A truly repentant person will loathe his prior sin and accept that it may come with earthly consequences. He will humbly acknowledge that the protection of the vulnerable is more important than his own right to exercise his leadership ability. He will put the good of the church above his own desires. He will be willing to love others by letting go of his power.
When it comes to the sin of sexual abuse, some of the consequences should include disqualification from church leadership, police involvement, permanent boundaries regarding children and other vulnerable parties, and excommunication. (We will discuss the topic of restoration in point #4.) No, not all sins warrant such a severe response, but this is one that certainly does.
Misconception #3: We should perform a cost benefit analysis before reporting abuse or implementing consequences.
In many of the sexual abuse accounts I’ve read, victims are told to consider all of the good things their abuser has done. Look at how many people he has helped, how great of a teacher he is, or how he has advanced the gospel. They are made to believe that his good deeds outweigh the bad, and if they tell anyone about what happened, they will ruin this person's ministry. Now, typically, this kind of reasoning is used as a tool of manipulation by the abuser himself or someone trying to cover for him, but sadly many believe it.
In a similar way, we may be tempted to defend an individual because we have personally seen them make an impact for the kingdom of God. We have seen them preach passionately and share the gospel zealously. We may have learned a lot from their teaching personally. We believe they have done good work for the cause of Christ, and we don’t want to see that work discredited. Yet, we know that kind of logic doesn't hold. That's why we don't accept the defense from Planned Parenthood that "abortions are only 3% of what they do." Sure, they've done some great things for women, and if they keep their doors open some good will probably come out of it. But it would come at much too high a cost.
The church is called to walk in the light as God is in the light (1 John 1:7). We should never purposely keep something in the dark as a means of protection, and if someone has done something to disqualify themselves from ministry, it is good and right that they be exposed. If you have hesitated to disclose an incident of abuse due to the fear of ruining someone’s ministry, I urge you to please come forward. Rest assured that you will not hold back God’s kingdom by telling the truth. No matter how gifted a leader may be, God does not need him for His church to flourish (Acts 17:25). And you are not responsible for any resulting shame brought upon a particular church or ministry organization. That is the abuser’s weight to bear, not yours.
Misconception #4: Forgiveness means immediate trust and a lack of boundaries.
We should not assume that someone is truly repentant simply because they claim to be. It’s crucial that the church understand that predators are often master manipulators. They are experts at gaining the trust of others. “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Ravenous wolves know how to look and act like sheep, but make no mistake, their intent is to devour (Matthew 7:15). We must be on guard. We must be sober-minded. Jesus acknowledged that He was sending His sheep out in the midst of wolves. He instructed them to not only be as innocent as doves, but also as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). We cannot afford to be naïve. Too much hangs in the balance.
God’s grace is scandalous. The death of Christ is sufficient to atone for even the most heinous of sin, and even the guiltiest sinner can be restored into fellowship with the body. But that restoration needs to be carried out in wisdom. When we bring someone into our congregation who has a past of sexual abuse, there must be boundaries and parameters, both for the good of the individual who may be tempted and the good of those who have been or may be impacted by them. To argue otherwise is neither loving nor wise. (For ideas on healthy boundaries, see this statement from Sojourn Church in Louisville, KY.)
I realize that in real life, things are not always clear or simple. There are times in which we may not know exactly what happened or what the consequences should be. I’m certainly not saying that every accusation should lead to the downfall of the accused. Sometimes, in a difficult situation, we have to do the best we can with the limited information we have. (See my post on Brett Kavanaugh for more on this point) What I am saying is that the church has been given the responsibilities to defend the vulnerable, to help the hurting, and to protect the sheep. We must take these responsibilities seriously, and as long as we buy into these false views of grace, we will continue to enable abuse and endanger those in our care.
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4 Misconceptions About Grace That Enable Sexual Abuse in the Church