Disgusted…Outraged…Grieved. Those words describe the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 when he addresses news about sexual misconduct happening within the church at Corinth and how the church dealt with it. The situation Paul addressed involved a man sleeping with his father’s wife—which would make her his step-mother!
It seems that Paul couldn’t believe what his ears heard. A so-called professing believer sleeping with his father’s wife and the church failing to confront him. This was so taboo in the 1st-Century pagan world that Paul states, “[This kind of sexual immorality] is not even tolerated among the Gentiles.” In other words, the pagan Gentile community would not even put up with this, yet the church failed—up to that point—to do anything.
It is sad to say, but the church has been rocked by sex scandals since her inception. In fact, prior to the birth of the church, we see a plethora of sex scandals in the Old Testament Scriptures involving the people of God. So, the sex scandals involving televangelists over thirty years ago and the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church and now the Southern Baptist Convention shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. In short, sex scandals find their way into every kind of church and denomination. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t numb ourselves to the depravity that exists within the church.
When hearing news of such sinful behavior, the people of God should be filled with both disgust and grief. But more than an emotional and spiritual response, the people of God should also respond with actions that deal with the sin and in cases of abuse protect the innocent and vulnerable. Southern Baptists are learning that the hard way.
It’s not enough to shake our heads in disgust and disapproval; it’s not enough to repent and grieve at the sin within. Action must be taken to authoritatively express such behavior is not befitting of the people of God as well as to defend the weak and vulnerable that are susceptible to sexual predators that are wolves among sheep.
I’m grateful for the leadership of J.D. Greear, current President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He recently released “10 calls of action for the SBC”. I believe these ten action items are a good start to authoritatively express that such sexual activity is not befitting of the people of God and that as the people of God we will take steps to ensure the protection of children and the vulnerable.
While the “10 calls of action for the SBC” is an institutional step for the SBC, I believe every local church bears the responsibility in taking personal action in such matters—regardless of church polity or governance. Paul, when addressing the church in Corinth, didn’t tell them to wait for a denominational head to make some recommendations for how they can deal with such sinful believers. No, Paul told them they had the responsibility to take action.
In these few verses in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul provides —at the very least—a description for how church leaders and believers should engage and respond to such horrid news in their faith community. Paul’s exhortation outlines at least four steps local churches—regardless of church structure, polity, or governance—can take today to authoritatively express such sinful behavior (particularly in sexual abuse cases) is not befitting of the people of God and to proactively work towards the protection of children and the vulnerable?
How many of us have uttered some kind of version of these words, “This would never happen to…?” Maybe you’ve said, “My wife and I would never get a divorce; My children would never do this; I couldn’t imagine my neighbor going all homicidal maniac on people.” The list could go on and on. But the point is, we don’t want to think that deep depravity can happen around us—not to mention even through us.
Churches cannot afford to be ostriches with their head stuck in the sand. They must be rational when it comes to this area. Sexual abuse, sexual misconduct can happen in their faith community.
Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, people who have been part of God’s faith family have descended into the depths of sexual immorality.
Being rational about such matters allows churches to be responsible in dealing with such matters.
I remember the day I turned 15, I couldn’t wait to arrive at the local DMV to get my learners permit. But before I received my learner’s permit license, I had to pass a test. Guess what? I failed. To get the license I had to pass the test. Truth be known, I didn’t study for the test. I thought I could wing it and pass. Boy was I wrong. Being humbled by my failure, I went home and studied. And being educated made all the difference.
The church in recent days and years has been humbled by their failure in the area of sexual abuse.
This failure has led to a fractured trust in the institutional nature of the church, which directly effects our missional mandate.
In our humbled position may we seek to be educated on the basics of what we need to know with regards to sexual abuse so that we can earn the right to be trusted once again.
This doesn’t mean church leaders and members need to become specialists in this area, but they should learn the basics of how to handle an allegation, minister to survivors of sexual abuse, and handle situations where sex offenders attend or join a church. Being educated on the basics prepares us to be able to pass the tests when they come.
I’m a simple, down-to-earth, practical guy. I never much cared for the complexities of calculus. I just wanted to know the simple steps to take to arrive at the answer. Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that everything can be condensed into simplicity, especially in complex and messy waters such as sexual abuse and misconduct. However, I believe there are couple of practical steps churches can take to protect the vulnerable and prevent sexual predators from attacking.
First, churches need to strengthen their hiring policies and procedures. Having been a lead pastor, I’ve been amazed at the lack of calls I’ve received from sister churches hiring staff members that worked for me. In the last church I served, I had four staff members transition to new assignments, and only one church reached out to me to discuss the staff member.
I’m sure most people realize that prospective employees only put references down that will give them a good recommendation. Therefore, churches must go deeper to find out more information about a person. For example, if a church is hiring a person to be the Student Minister, wouldn’t it be a good practice to talk with a couple of adult leaders and even parents from the previous church?
Second, churches need to delegate at least one, if not a few, people in their fellowship to be special advocates for sexual abuse victims and survivors. These special advocates would minister and serve the victims and survivors in three primary ways: (1) be the contact for someone who needs to make an allegation, 2) be someone a victim or survivor could trust, and 3) journey with the victim or survivor through their darkness so that they do not feel alone.
The last, and most important, step local churches can take in authoritatively expressing the sinful nature of such behavior and proactively working towards the protection of children and the vulnerable—and thus preventing sexual predators from attacking—is to be biblical.
First, deal with public sin publicly. For this article, I don’t have the time nor space to address the various degrees of sin and when to practice church discipline, but church leaders should never sweep public sin under the rug. In each of the cases where the Apostle Paul addresses public sin that shames the name of Christ, he talks about handing them over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).
The goal of such discipline is to expose sin, demonstrate God’s judgment against sin, save the soul of the offender, protect the church’s holiness, and be a good gospel witness.
Second, exercise wisdom and discernment when desiring to be redemptive and restorative. I understand churches who want to be redemptive and restorative to those who’ve either faced sexual abuse allegations or have been tried and convicted of sexual abuse. But to hire or place leaders with a tainted past in similar environments in which they failed isn’t redemptive or restorative, it is reckless. Moreover, to hire or place leaders with a tainted past in similar environments without disclosing their past to the appropriate people is not only reckless, it is criminally negligent. It is incumbent upon leaders in the church to be wise, discerning, and above reproach.
Third, seek to be places and people that are invitational safe havens—especially for children and the vulnerable. Jesus exclaimed, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them…” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus also uttered, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Over the past 2000 years many have answered Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and join His kingdom and God’s family. The church is the vehicle by which Jesus continues to extend His invitation. But if churches become people and places that aren’t trusted, then we will fail at our mission mandate.
JD Greear expressed, “If we don’t get this right, our churches will not be a safe place for the lost.”
In closing, these are not the end-all-be-all steps that churches should take. I’m sure there are many more. Truthfully, there’s a lot of work to be done by the church in this area. However, churches must be willing to make huge commitments to taking small steps.
It’s simply not enough to be sickened and grieved by such sinful behavior. But, as the Apostle Paul exhorted the Church in Corinth, we must proactively do something about it. When the church meets their emotional response with action steps, they will create systems and cultures that deter predators and protect children and the vulnerable, and thus be healthy missional vehicles that advance the good news of Jesus.