What Should Independent Churches Do in Response to the Sexual Abuse Problem?

Over the last several years we’ve seen steadily-increasing attention to the problem of sexual abuse in independent Baptist (or baptistic) churches and ministries. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation into independent fundamental Baptist churches last December was big news. The Houston Chronicle series on Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches two weeks ago was huge.

Given that the problem can no longer be ignored, how should independent churches respond?

1. They should not cease to be independent.

Independent churches are free of denominational control for a reason, and it isn’t because they want to get away with poor ethics or because they see no value in connecting with other churches and ministries. At some point in time—though possibly long, long ago—each of these congregations examined the Scriptures and came to the conclusion that they must retain the power to govern their own affairs and control their own relationships with other entities. I’ve written previously on why churches believe the New Testament requires this kind of autonomy.

Agree or disagree, this is not a matter for casual dismissal or vague disparaging of churches’ motives. It’s a matter of conscience and conviction.

Of course, churches can easily overvalue self-reliance and operational elbow room. They can lose sight of the biblical attitudes of independence and embrace a cranky contrarianism in its place, shunning ties to external ministries and services that would enhance their congregational health and effectiveness.

In dealing with the sexual misconduct and abuse problem, there are ways to enhance accountability without surrendering autonomy to some denominational body.

2. They should educate themselves in ethical best practices.

A number of ideas are in circulation for helping mitigate or end sexual abuse in independent churches and ministries. The SBC is considering some kind of misconduct database churches may report to when dealing with personnel problems and consult when looking for new leaders. It’s also looking at standards and procedures for removing churches from the Convention that show disregard for known sexual abuse problems in their ministries.

I’ve suggested some kind of certification that would allow independent congregations and church leaders to be credentialed after meeting standards. I’m sure I’m not the first to voice that approach, and perhaps there is already an organization formed to serve that purpose. Could a body with a slightly different purpose, such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, expand its scope to include a separate sexual ethics certification?

Or maybe someone should form an “Evangelical Council for Ethical Accountability.”

3. They should require seminaries to improve pastoral training.

“Require” may seem too strong, but it isn’t. Independent churches view the seminaries as existing for the purpose of serving local churches. In most cases, the seminaries also represent themselves as an extension of the local church mandate to prepare “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (ESV, 2 Tim. 2:2).

If enough churches communicate to ministry-training institutions that they want to see an enhanced, comprehensive training in ministry ethics—especially as it relates to preventing and responding to sexual abuse—they can make it happen.

I’m persuaded that churches should go further than that, however. Pastors, lay leaders, and perhaps entire congregations, should send letters to the seminaries they draw personnel from encouraging them to partner with one another to establish a basic ethical standards and procedures curriculum-certifying body. Along the lines of the ministry-certifying entity described above, this body would evaluate the sexual ethics training programs of participating schools and confer some kind of approval or rating.

Again, maybe something like this is already happening. If so, let us know in the comments section.

I’ve heard from various naysayers that a collaborative effort of this kind can’t be done. Maybe so. But “can’t be done” is often just a way saying, “It would be hard.” The better question is whether it should or shouldn’t be done. If it should be done, it probably can be. I accept that it would be difficult.

4. They should correct and clarify their own beliefs and attitudes.

When church leaders become aware that a sex crime has occurred then choose not to report it to authorities, what are they thinking? I have no personal experience with this. I’ve never been on the inside of that kind of response to known sin or crime. As far as I know, there has also been no study of what motivates this.

I also can’t say with any authority why churches fail to do criminal background checks on potential pastors and youth/children’s workers, or why they would think it’s a good idea for youth and children’s workers to be alone with kids behind locked doors, or doors without windows (if they must be alone with them at all).

What I can do is combine some clues I’ve observed with some imagination, then make a few informed guesses. Here’s a short list of likely culprits:

  1. Naivete/innocence: To good people who haven’t encountered this kind of behavior, it tends to be unthinkable. It seems unreal. As well, there’s the attitude that people who do really good things can’t possibly also do really bad things.
  2. Procedural randomness: Due to lack of knowledge of ethical best practices and legal requirements, procedures are invented ad hoc. Sometimes they work OK. Sometimes they are a disaster.
  3. Reputational panic: Leaders feel that if word of serious misconduct gets out, the ministry’s standing with the community (and donors) will be harmed and it will lose effectiveness—better to deal with it quietly.
  4. Pastorolatry: A pastor is a higher order of human being and has a special calling that puts him above criticism; he’s a “man of God” to be obeyed without question, accountable only to God.

Most of these errors are part bad theology, part human nature, and part cultural influence. I hope to share some analysis and potential remedies for each in a future post. In the mean time, look tomorrow for a post on resources for preventing and responding to sexual abuse.

We’re never going to see a day when 100% of independent churches are properly diligent and wise in their handling of sexual abuse—any more than we’re going to see a day when 100% of them have their teaching straight or their finances in order. But independent churches can certainly do more to collaborate and coordinate, helping one another adopt better beliefs, better practices, and better-prepared leaders.

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There are 17 Comments

RajeshG's picture

I believe that one contributor to the problems that we have is a widespread lack of preaching about Christ as God's Avenger who will punish those who in His churches engage in immoral behavior. In my opinion, this lack has stemmed in no small measure from a flawed emphasis on certain aspects of the grace of God: https://apeopleforhisname.org/2014/02/has-a-flawed-emphasis-on-grace-fos...

We need much more preaching in our churches about Christ as God's Agent of judgment who avenges immorality among His people.

Joeb's picture

Bert and I have conversed about this matter before.  It seems to me a non profit could be created or organization linked to the organizations Aaron mentioned.  Maybe connected to a well known Bible College or Seminary with no big baggage of prior scandals and history of handling such matters correctly.  A entity acceptable to the SBC and IFB Churches and others.  

Obviously this Certifying entity will be charging a fee to cover reasonable costs but this certification could be extended to Christian Schools and Churches and Mission Organizations.  Your Trainers/Auditors could be retired Christian Police Officers teamed with a Pastor.  Makes sense of having standard response and it trains people how to handle the matters when they come up. We should pray that someone has a call to do this ministry.  Maybe it could be tested at a Regional Level.  

There are several groups of Christian Police Officers that could be contacted for assistance.  The Fellowship Of Christian Peace Officers is the one I was involved with in the past.   In many instances current Police Officers in the community could be brought in for some of the training especially if were talking about a large church with a Christian School. 

Bert Perry's picture

...is that GRACE has exactly what Joe refers to, and Boz Tchividjian's books on the matter discuss a lot of best practices.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

GRACE investigates and reports, which is fine. But that would not be the purpose of the entity (or entities) I've suggested. I'm not talking about a victim advocacy group at all. Also, there are some significant incompatibilities between GRACE's theology and that of quite a few evangelical ministries. I wrote about these a few years ago here.

I think this body would have to grow organically out of the church fellowships and educational institutions it intends to serve, with a focus, not on anything historical at all, but on positive solutions for the future.

Joeb's picture

I think Aaron’s has a good point.  The organization is going to have to be acceptable to all or within their group   However the organization is going to have to be steadfast in telling churches or organizations that these problems are absolutely not ones solved within the church alone.  How acceptable is the ECFA with churches and para church organizations. Seems like a good outfit to branch off and do this with.  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Rajesh wrote:

I believe that one contributor to the problems that we have is a widespread lack of preaching about Christ as God's Avenger who will punish those who in His churches engage in immoral behavior. 

I disagree ... I think. If you're speaking about the root cause of sexual abuse within the church, then perhaps you're onto something - judgment isn't a popular topic in pulpits. But, if you're referring to why sexual abuse allegations are not handled or reported properly in churches, I think the reason is really pretty simple (in line with Aaron's #4, above) - some "leaders" are really just incompetent, moral cowards.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

RajeshG's picture

TylerR wrote:

Rajesh wrote:

I believe that one contributor to the problems that we have is a widespread lack of preaching about Christ as God's Avenger who will punish those who in His churches engage in immoral behavior. 

I disagree ... I think. If you're speaking about the root cause of sexual abuse within the church, then perhaps you're onto something - judgment isn't a popular topic in pulpits. But, if you're referring to why sexual abuse allegations are not handled or reported properly in churches, I think the reason is really pretty simple (in line with Aaron's #4, above) - some "leaders" are really just incompetent, moral cowards.  

I'm speaking about the root cause.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"However the organization is going to have to be steadfast in telling churches or organizations that these problems are absolutely not ones solved within the church alone."

This would also not be the role of the organization I've proposed. It's posture would need to be 100% "we're here to help you adopt best practices and communicate to others that you have done so."

As for root causes...  they're all pretty speculative, but Rajesh, to make a strong case for that explanation, one would have to show that a. this should be preached (is "punish" what Jesus does to His own?), b. this is not being preached, and c. there is a cause-effect relationship. (c. Is perhaps the easiest point to refute: there are many millions in America alone who believe sex between unmarried consenting adults is perfectly fine. Very, very few of them think it's OK to commit sexual abuse. These are acts on a completely different moral plane.)

Bert Perry's picture

Lessee...we have the "standard Christian approach" which is clearly implicated in punishing the victim instead of the perpetrator in a lot of organizations, including BJU, or I can listen to a guy who's actually learned the psychology of both abusers and the survivors well enough to put hundreds of abusers in jail.

Tough call.  Not.  Sorry, Aaron, but Boz is NOT just an advocate.  He's a guy who, unlike Jim Berg, has actually learned the terrain well enough to avoid having dozens of them point out he was punishing the victims instead of the perpetrators.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

The Roman Catholic, Conservative Evangelicals, and Independent Baptist rarely mention the word repentance when it comes to this problem.  When someone in the church, pastor or parishioner, commits abuse, they should be confronted and if guilty, there should be a call for genuine repentance and proper calls to law enforcement when a crime is suspected.   When a ministry/minister has been clearly covering up abuse to avoid public embarrassment, they should simply repent.  Repentance and accepting the lawful penalties of this type of sinful behavior is the only way people can clear themselves before God.  Yet, we rarely hear, "I repent," "We repent." True repentance is driven by godly sorrow over what happened.

With this, there should be policies in place to attempt to prevent this type of behavior in God's Church that include background checks, policies about how adults act and speak in the presence of children, etc.

On top of this, churches need to stop the stupid elements of independence where churches are so detached from one another that a guilty man applying to a new ministry is simply none of their business as it is out of their hands cause "we are independent brother."

 

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

"As for root causes...  they're all pretty speculative, but Rajesh, to make a strong case for that explanation, one would have to show that a. this should be preached (is "punish" what Jesus does to His own?), b. this is not being preached, and c. there is a cause-effect relationship. (c. Is perhaps the easiest point to refute: there are many millions in America alone who believe sex between unmarried consenting adults is perfectly fine. Very, very few of them think it's OK to commit sexual abuse. These are acts on a completely different moral plane.)

A. We have strong biblical evidence to support the need for preaching on this matter. In a short span of time, Paul not only warned young Thessalonian believers in person about the Lord avenging sexual immorality on their part but also he wrote under inspiration to warn them a second time about the same subject (1 Thess. 4). The glorified Jesus fiercely confronted two of the churches in Revelation 2-3 about His judgment of those who are sexually immoral in His churches.

B. In my personal experience as a believer for almost 30 years, I do not remember hearing a single message that focused on this subject in the thousands of messages that I have heard over that period. Maybe it is being preached elsewhere, but I have my doubts given how unpopular strong preaching about judgment is in Christian circles.

C. I'm not understanding this point very well. Regular preaching of God's judgment on sexual immorality undoubtedly would be used by God to convict people of such sins and to warn others about such sinfulness. Sexual abuse is a very heinous form of sexual immorality on the part of the perpetrators. Such wickedness should be strongly denounced from the pulpits in God's churches and people should be solemnly charged to repent of such sins.

Mark_Smith's picture

Most people are seeking to screen the leaders exclusively. I think it is a good idea to do background checks. I also think churches need to be honest when they fire someone due to an assault. However, what about training kids and youth to recognize bad actions and to report it. Mums the word on that. Out in the secular world preschool kids are introduced to the "good touch bear." Kids are taught about what touches are good, and which are bad and need to be resisted and reported. As kids get older, we need to be frank with them to not trust leaders and family members who seek to abuse them. Yes, we need to say that even if a person is a youth leader, and they seek to abuse you, to report that. We need to be clear that sex outside of marriage is never ok, not even from a pastor or youth pastor. My point is, teaching kids what is wrong and how to report it is as important as screening and monitoring adults.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Rajesh, it's a large topic of its own, but I would just ask, what did Jesus do on the cross? If indeed He "paid it all," as we sing, because "the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6), what is left to "punish"? I realize this raises the question, what does 1 Thess. 4:6 mean? Some thoughtful work is required to explain how 1 John 4:18 and 1 Pet. 1:17 are both true.

In the interest of finding points of agreement, I'm sure we agree that there will be a Judgment Seat of Christ, and that we are supposed to take that quite seriously--and this should be preached.

Sexual abuse is a very heinous form of sexual immorality on the part of the perpetrators. Such wickedness should be strongly denounced from the pulpits in God's churches and people should be solemnly charged to repent of such sins.

A major reason I don't see it quite this way is that the evil of sexually abusing someone (which is sexual immorality, yes, but much more--it's violence) is obvious to all but a very few. Sure, preach it, but do so understanding that we are telling people what they already know.

To Joe's point about repentance... I've been trying to sort out the matter of "group repentance for the acts of some" ever since a member of my church asked me about it almost 20 years ago. Still haven't got it figured out. Why should we all "repent" for what a few have done? Can we even do that? What could it possibly mean? Yet we have examples in the OT of people doing this. What are they actually doing?

Certainly sinners ought to repent. I'm not ready to join the voices saying "we" collectively all need to repent for what some (relatively few) have done. If someone can talk me into why we should do this (or how it's possible), I'd like to be persuaded... one way or the other.

Another reason I hestitate to frame the issue that way is that sometimes (often?) passionate rhetoric actually drains away problem-solving energy... paradoxically. I just think "let's fix this" is a better focus than "let's mourn about this." But maybe more of the latter must happen before the former can happen?

Bert Perry's picture

Perhaps the way to frame it is simple; not every person in the church is guilty of whatever sin is being discussed.  However, in many cases, those particular sins become extremely likely because the church culture creates the environment for that to happen.

In this case, we have a culture of "not talking about the bad things."  For example, I'm finalizing a child protection policy, and one of our deacons took out everything he deemed objectionable--a reference to the # of people on Megan's List, a definition of sexual abuse and a link to state laws, that kind of thing.  The trouble with that is that if we can't mention it even discreetly in a child protection policy, good luck dealing with it when a predator comes to call.  

More or less, Dr. Bowdler still lives in our minds, and that is, in my view, a strong case for corporate repentance.  It's repentance, really, from cultural assumptions that lead to disaster.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Rajesh, it's a large topic of its own, but I would just ask, what did Jesus do on the cross? If indeed He "paid it all," as we sing, because "the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6), what is left to "punish"? I realize this raises the question, what does 1 Thess. 4:6 mean? Some thoughtful work is required to explain how 1 John 4:18 and 1 Pet. 1:17 are both true.

We must not think that Jesus’ death on the Cross to pay the penalty for our sins exempts us from any divine judgment/chastening in this life even when we persist in sin. God judged many in the church at Corinth because of their sinfulness when they unworthily observed the Lord’s Supper: many were weak and sickly among them and many had died (1 Cor. 11:30-32).

When a believer sins by sexually abusing someone else and then suffers criminal penalties for his sinfulness, he is experiencing God’s punishment of his sinfulness mediated through the civil authorities that God has ordained to be His ministers to be “revenger[s] to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). The Greek word for “revenger” here is the same Greek word for “avenger” in 1 Thess. 4:6.

Putting all these passages together, we must maintain that God does chasten/judge/punish believers who persist in certain sins, and that He does so through health problems, including even death, and through civil penalties that they may experience.

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

 

Sexual abuse is a very heinous form of sexual immorality on the part of the perpetrators. Such wickedness should be strongly denounced from the pulpits in God's churches and people should be solemnly charged to repent of such sins.

A major reason I don't see it quite this way is that the evil of sexually abusing someone (which is sexual immorality, yes, but much more--it's violence) is obvious to all but a very few. Sure, preach it, but do so understanding that we are telling people what they already know.

Yes, of course, the vast majority of those who commit such vile acts know that what they are doing is evil. The preaching of God's Word is not just to inform people about what is sinful so that they will realize that they have sinned. God's Word preached by Spirit-filled ministers is the divinely ordained means of bringing people who know that they have been sinful to repentance through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts (Heb. 4:12; John 16; etc.).

Consider that it was the ministry of the prophet Nathan that finally brought David to repentance of his adultery and murder. David knew that what he had done was wrong, but he only acknowledged his sin after he had been confronted about it by the ministry of a man of God. Similarly, in our churches, God's people need to hear God's own words preached by Spirit-filled ministers who solemnly preach against such immorality, including sexual abuse.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's probably not actually relevant to the topic, for reasons I'll get to in a bit, but it's clear that God disciplines His own, as in Heb. 12, and that His own stand in grace (Rom. 5:2) fully justified (5:1) and are not recipients of wrath (1 Thess. 5:9). Also clear: God's discipline can be severe. I'm not sure off-hand if those judged in Corinth or avenged in Thessalonica are actually believers. Perhaps God's fatherly discipline is sometimes referred to as "judgment." Heb. 12 is clear that it's not really punitive. It's corrective. It's teaching.

But, really,  though I'm all for accurately preaching judgment, I don't see it as a particularly fruitful approach to fixing the sexual-abuse-in-churches problem. I've pretty much already explained why, but a little bit different angle on it:

  • The conviction that comes about through preaching is not independent of the human heart and mind. That is, it's not a "conviction on-switch." Rather, God brings conviction of sin by means of truth (Romans 10 somewhere, if memory serves). So hearers receive information they didn't have or are brought to see the truth of information they had but weren't facing. Telling people who already abhor sin A that sin A is wicked, will not help sin A stop happening.... also because...
  • Though it sounds huge when it's compared to what ought to be (zero) the number of people actually doing these things and the number of churches tolerating it, is actually quite small as a percentage. So preaching that sin A is wicked to the vast majority of people who already abhor sin A will not put much of a dent in sin A.

I do think there is a preaching and teaching approach that can make a big difference, but it's a matter of the right truth reaching the right people.

  • Believers: preaching and teaching about protecting children, keeping conduct honorable among the Gentiles, loving neighbor, and more.
  • Unbelievers: the gospel.

So, if everybody preaches alot more against the evil of sexual abuse, will some be convicted and saved? Well, assuming the preaching includes the gospel, yes. So, in my kind of rambling way, I'm trying to say that when it comes to preaching judgment the best impact would be preaching the gospel, which of course includes that.

But not every unregenerate predator who hears will believe. On the other hand, every unregenerate predator who is prevented from having contact with a child in the first place, will not harm a child.

I'm for preaching the gospel and preaching and teaching to believers about responsibilities and wise steps that ought to be taken.

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