We used to think that the problem of child molestation belonged to other people, but not to fundamental Baptists. Now we are learning otherwise. We are hearing more and more reports of sexual predation, pedophilia, and cover-ups on the part of fundamental Baptist leaders. The resulting impression upon the public is that the clergy of Baptist fundamentalism is unusually goatish, thuggish, and corrupt.
This is not the place to evaluate the truth of individual claims. In a few instances individuals have probably been accused unfairly. Over the past five years, however, too many of these episodes have been verified for us to dismiss them all. Men have gone to prison. More should. The problem is too widespread and has affected too many of the different networks of fundamentalism to permit us to believe that it is merely anomalous or that it is limited only to one branch of fundamentalism.
What is being exposed within fundamentalism is heinous. Pastors, missionaries, and deacons have preyed upon the powerless. Even worse, Christian leaders and Christian organizations have covered up the commission of these crimes. The effect has been to protect the perpetrators. Those who have suffered most—the victims—have been denied justice and have seen their abusers keep their freedom, their livelihoods, and sometimes even their positions of leadership.
So what are we supposed to do? If we are interested in truth and right, if we want to see Christ’s name exalted and not besmirched, and if we care about people, how should we respond to these reports? I wish to provide part of the answer to that question. More needs to be said, but fundamental Baptist leaders, churches, and institutions absolutely must adopt certain core responses.
Of course, certain responses are simply wrong. First, we should not blame the secular media for their reports on these scandals, nor should we dodge their questions. We are witnessing events that are not only newsworthy but salacious. We know in advance that the reporters neither understand nor sympathize with us. We must go out of our way to avoid any appearance that we have something to hide.
Furthermore, we must reject any temptation to blame the victims. An adolescent of thirteen or fourteen is an unequal match for an adult of thirty, especially if the adult is wrapped in the mantle of authority. Yes, the adolescent ought to know what is right and wrong—but our job is to protect youngsters from having to make adult choices. They are not yet prepared for those choices, and we must not treat them as if they were.
Nor should we blame the victims for going outside the fundamentalist network to seek justice. The whole reason that they have been forced to this extreme is because they could not find justice within the structure of the churches and other institutions that were supposed to help them. Our anger (and we should be angry!) should not be directed against the victims who have appealed to other authorities, but against those spiritual authorities who abdicated their responsibility to defend the powerless.
We must also refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted by extraneous considerations. Accusers should never be dismissed just because someone thinks they seem odd or neurotic. Those are actually behaviors we might anticipate in someone who was molested as a child. On the other hand, simply because the accused has a reputation for successful ministry does not mean that he is above accountability. The same character traits that can make a man a visibly effective preacher can sometimes make him an efficient sexual predator.
Those are responses that we should never make. We do have an obligation to respond, however, and that obligation includes certain right reactions.
Our first response must be to refocus upon personal integrity. Many accusations are true, but in the present atmosphere the possibility of false accusations ought to strike fear into every minister. All it takes is one, unsupported claim to end a ministry. Consequently, we have a duty to live our lives such that no credible charge can be leveled against us. We must go out of our way to ensure that we avoid even the appearance of impropriety. How? By common sense precautions. We will install windows so that people can see into our offices. We will never be alone with any female other than our wives and daughters. We will never be alone with a child, even of the same sex, other than our own children. We will never touch a minor in any way except in full view of other adults—and we will guard those touches carefully against misunderstanding.
Just as importantly, our second response must be prevention. We cannot change what has already happened, but we can do our best to ensure that it will not happen again. Every church needs a child protection policy. The policy should define when and where adults are allowed to have contact with minors at church activities. It should prohibit adults from being alone with minors in an unsupervised environment. It should require everyone involved in ministry to minors to receive specific training aimed at avoiding abusive relationships. Very importantly, it should require a background check for every church member who works with minors. It should specify procedures for pursuing complaints and suspicions. It should be widely distributed so that every parent knows its provisions. For a good example of such a policy in a secular organization, churches might look at the Cadet Protection Policy of the Civil Air Patrol.
Our third response should involve prosecution. When pastors and church leaders become aware of abusive situations, they should report these situations to police and child protective agencies. In fact, they should do more than to report. They should demand that the authorities take action. Concerns over confidentiality are badly out of place here, as are concerns over 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. Paul was not writing to the Corinthians about situations in which crimes were being committed or the powerless being victimized. In most states, pastors have a legal obligation to report any situation that they even suspect of being abusive. Justice and protection for victims requires action against abusers. Christian leaders have a duty to protect the powerless. Too often have they adopted the role of shielding the abuser.
The fourth response is more systemic, but just as necessary. Baptist fundamentalists absolutely must repudiate those models of leadership that foster abusive and predatory behavior. Too many fundamentalists equate spiritual leadership with bluster, demagoguery, egotism, authoritarianism, and contemptuousness toward deacons, church members, and especially women. We must stop tolerating such attitudes.
Pastoral authority extends no further than the right to proclaim and implement the teachings of Scripture. Pastors must recognize the God-ordained authority of the congregation, and congregations must hold pastors accountable. Churches must seek pastors who focus upon the exposition of Scripture, who are gentle in their dealings with people, who are open and transparent, and who welcome criticism and accountability. Most of all, churches must reject numerical and financial growth as a measure of success and realize that the very first qualification of any minister is that he must give evidence of knowing and loving God.
Baptist fundamentalism has endured dark episodes in the past, but none has been blacker or more ugly that the present hour. We have no one else to blame. We have been too lax for too long. If the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God, then we should welcome the purifying effect that the exposure of sin will have upon us, and we should respond rightly.
The Descent From The Cross
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Is this the Face that thrills with awe
Seraphs who veil their face above?
Is this the Face without a flaw,
The Face that is the Face of Love?
Yea, this defaced, a lifeless clod,
Hath all creation’s love sufficed,
Hath satisfied the love of God,
This Face the Face of Jesus Christ.