A church’s forgiveness is not enough for sexual abuse

Churches must address sexual abuse from the bottom-up by considering our practical and theological failings.

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A church’s forgiveness is not enough for sexual abuse

Logan Zeppieri, Opinions Editor

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On Feb. 10, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News released an investigation which surveyed the past 20 years of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention—a collection of 47,000 protestant churches. The findings included accusations and charges against church leaders ranging from possession of child pornography, attempted sexual enticement of a minor, sexual assault and child rape.

Despite the Southern Baptist Convention’s resistance to institutional change from the top down, given its autonomous church structure, it is time for all independent churches to reconsider our fundamental failings that intertwine practical and theological—initiating change from the bottom-up.

THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST SEXUAL ABUSE – 700 VICTIMS

Over the past six months, journalists from both newsrooms interviewed victims and reviewed over 20 years of court, prison and police records. The results of their investigation include the following:

  • “About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals.”
  • “100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, California, to Hillsborough County, Florida.”
  • “At least 35 pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades.”

The Houston Chronicle also compiled a searchable database.  

PRACTICAL CHANGES

Having worked at several churches and camps, filling leadership and counselor roles, I can attest that addressing sexual abuse must begin at practical levels—if you have all the right ideas, but no way of executing them, have you helped anyone?

First, you must be willing to talk about sexual abuse. Hermione Granger of “Harry Potter” said it best: “Fear of a name only increases the fear of the thing itself.” And when you fear the name of something, you either hide it or hide from it. In both cases, sexual abuse goes unreported.

Second, you must have clear, non-negotiable guidelines. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where direct, clear communication is often understood as being mean, but we often fail to understand that direct, clear communication is how we keep people safe. A direct, clear rule can be something such as, “You are never allowed to be alone with a child.” This seems obvious, but if it has not been clearly and directly stated, it is likely no one is thinking about it.

Third, appearance is everything. As a former homeschool debater, we laughingly recited the maxim, “It is not what you say, but how you say it.” In the same way, it is not what you do, but how you do it. Sitting next to a child or having a conversation about life is not something to be ashamed of. But imagine having that same conversation while inappropriately touching that child—it is how you are having the conversation that becomes the problem.

The motivation behind practical considerations is not to, off-the-cuff, indict church volunteers and employees, but to provide a structure that they can freely operate, knowing their expectations to prevent sexual abuse and avoid even the appearance of such.

THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

There are fewer more damming doctrines in church discipline than imagining that forgiveness mitigates punishment concerning sexual abuse. The argument stems most naturally from a view that forgiveness means forgetting, and that forgetting means not being punished. Conversely, the argument is that punishment implies not forgetting, and therefore not forgiving. This is wrong.

Recall 2 Samuel 12:1-19. David had taken Bathsheba as his wife, having her former husband killed. God responded by sending the prophet Nathan to present David with the parable of the rich man who stole the only lamb from the poor man. David repented, but his son died nonetheless.

If you cheat in your relationship, you may be forgiven by God, but you may never restore trust in your relationship. You may repent and break from your drug addiction, but you may be required to live the rest of your days through bodily ills suffered from your addiction. You may have driven under the influence only once, but if you hit and kill a pedestrian, you will suffer the consequence of your action. The point is that forgiveness does not entail mitigating the consequences. And by trying to defend this corrupted view of the doctrine of forgiveness, you are running in the face of biblical and practical truth.

MOVING FORWARD

Unfortunately, sexual abuse will be just as problematic for the church as it is for the world—perhaps even to a greater degree because of our concern for creating community. However, the church must begin moving in the right direction practically, willing to set direct and clear guidelines, and theologically, not distorting Christian doctrine. It is harmful not only to our own reputation, nor the church’s reputation, but also God’s reputation. As Paul articulates in 1 Timothy: we must study the Word of God so we may teach true doctrine, we must teach true doctrine so we may act righteously. And we act righteously so we may adorn God’s Word.