I will never forget an email I received one Sunday morning. I sat down at my desk after our first service and read a note from one of our members. It was one of those! The sin she’d uncovered and was reporting was bad – really bad (did not take place at church). It took my breath away, but I knew how to proceed. We had written a set of policies that told me exactly what I was supposed to do and I worked the plan. Those policies had been written with expert input from insurance companies and other sources that have done extensive work to advise us on how to react.
If I’d gotten that email in my first pastorate (well, telephone call – we didn’t have email back then), I’d have had no such gameplan. What was I supposed to do? How should I react? I hope I would have behaved with honor, with decency, and with godly compassion. I don’t know because it never happened. But if it had happened back then I’d have had to fly by the seat of my pants and figure things out on the go. It is possible that I’d be one of those pastors who is under fire today for how badly issues of sexual predation in the church were handled back then.
I write today with great trepidation, diving into shark-infested waters knowing that the possibility of misunderstanding and misapplication exist. But with heart pounding and knees knocking I attempt to say what I believe needs to be said.
It is unfair to judge the pastors of my generation and earlier by the standards we have come to understand and accept today.
Permit me to make some clear statements before I dig into my theme.
- I am in complete agreement with Bart’s resolution on Sexual Predation, posted here yesterday. I hope it passes unanimously. In the future, I hope the churches and structures of the SBC will handle this matter properly.
- I know all too well what the victims of sexual abuse, and even sexual abuse in churches, experience. How I know that is no one’s business and I’m not saying, but my words here are not academic or theoretical.
- On the other hand, I have no skeletons in my closet as a minister. As I look back on my 35 years of ministry I see a couple of situations which I might approach slightly differently if I were handling it today, but I am not writing this to keep some dark episode of my past buried.
- Pastoral abuse is among the most despicable things I can imagine. Too long we looked at it as sexual sin. It is an abuse of power, of trust, and of our sacred duty to God. People come to us to be discipled, to be instructed in the ways of God, to receive counsel – not to be used to satiate our base urges. To use those we are called to serve is worse than debauchery.
I would contrast two responses to evil that we witnessed in the twentieth century, both of which were, at the time, wholly appropriate. At the end of the Second World War, Nazi war criminals were brought to Nuremberg to be questioned and tried, and to receive justice. Many received the ultimate justice. Jewish Nazi hunters continued to seek out those who perpetrated the Holocaust for decades thereafter. When they captured 80-year-old prison guards they brought them to Israel, tried them and imprisoned them.
The Holocaust was a crime against humanity that cried out for such a response. If you’ve ever walked through Yad Vashem you understand why they cannot just “let it go.” It’s not a matter of forgiveness, but justice. The blood of innocents cries out.
There was another tribunal, though, many years later that I learned about through the vivid story telling of a dear friend who used to work for the Law Offices of Wolf & Pravato. The way this tribunal took place, it likely prevented a holocaust on a smaller scale. After South Africa did away with apartheid in the 90s, there were great fears that the black population which had been so oppressed and even cruelly repressed by the white minority would strike back. Instead, Bishop Desmond Tutu led the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which gave apartheid’s victims a chance to air their grievances and gave those who committed transgressions a chance to confess. But they granted amnesty for all but the worst of offenses. The offenders had to admit and confess their offenses, which had to be political in nature. Other violent crimes were dealt with through normal channels.
The goal was to prevent “victor’s justice” which would have resulted in a bloodbath.
It need hardly be argued that Southern Baptist pastors and churches have sinned against women and children by engaging in clergy abuse or covering up other forms of abuse. I sat with a woman recently who walked away from the Lord, became an atheist, and fell into deep sin, all because of how she was treated by a Baptist church when her husband fell into immorality and pornography addiction (caveat: I’ve only heard her side). We’ve done wrong. We hurt innocents and the consequences are manifold and evident.
The question we cannot answer is how widespread the problem has been and is today. Some would have us believe that we have an issue as systemic as the Catholic clergy abuse scandals. As far as I know, no scientific and impartial study of the issue has been done. Advocacy groups have stated their case with an understandable tendency to be prosecutorial and some in the denominational structure have reacted with an equally defensive position. Agendas overwhelm facts
What are the facts?
- Every single instance of clergy sexual abuse is awful.
- It is a something that we hear about too often.
- None of us knows exactly how widespread the problem is.
I can tell you that in my experience, in 35 years of ministry in 4 churches, in 3 states, I’ve known of several instances of pastors having “affairs” with people in the church (it’s not an affair, pastor, it’s an abuse of pastoral authority!), and I’ve not known of a single instance of pastors or staff abusing children. I’ve heard stories but not in the churches I’ve been part of, in the churches in my associations, or any that I knew of – maybe it happened and was kept silent, I do not know. In my experience, the problem of sexual abuse of authority is all too common while child sexual abuse is common in churches but rare among pastors. My experience is not a scientific sampling.
We must stop using sexual predation as a weapon in our internecine political battles. For instance, in the Calvinism wars, it has been a common practice. Instances of pastoral abuse (authority, sexual abuse, pedophilia, pastoral malpractice) are brought out in our soteriological battles. The problem is that neither side is pristine and so it becomes an exercise in mutually-assured destruction. The church is degraded and no one benefits. This must stop. The pain is too real and the topic is too painful to use this way.
Now, To Make My Point
Times have changed. Sometimes I agree with C.S. Lewis who said in one of the Narnia books that he’d seen progress in an egg – it was called “going bad.” A lot of what we call progress I call decay. But on this issue, we’ve made tremendous progress in the last 10 years or so, and its good progress.
- Churches today understand that they need to have written policies about issues of sexual predation and clergy abuse.
- We understand that we must side with the victim, not the abuser.
- We understand that the way we did things in the past was wrong!
I don’t know of a single pastor or denominational leader arguing for a return to the “good old days” when we swept things under the rug and blamed the victim for their abuse. The fact is that Bart’s resolution will likely pass unanimously and that might not have been the case a few years back. Things have changed.
But some seem to want to reopen Nuremberg and hold trials for all the pastors who handled things wrongly in the past. That is unfair and unproductive. Again, I’m not protecting myself – by the grace of God I didn’t face one of these tragic situations until after we had written policies (it was outside the church and even then there was a minefield of tough choices).
Here is my conclusion.
To prosecute leaders for actions in the past based on the mindset of today is unfair.
There may have been men who acted with ill-will and malice, but the fact is that we didn’t know what to do. We thought it was in everyone’s best interest to keep it quiet. Such things were not made public and were not discussed in polite company.
I had a friend in ministry who left his two young daughters with a family in the church while he and his wife went off for the weekend. When he returned, he found out that this man and his son had done unspeakable things to the girls. He took a gun and went to their home, but no one was there. He told me if they’d been there, he’d be in prison. Instead, he went to the authorities and reported the men. The church was furious when they found out! No, not at the men who molested two precious little girls. They were furious at the pastor who reported his 3 and 5-year-old daughters’ rapists to the police. That’s how things were in the late 70s and early 80s. They were angry that he “embarrassed the church.” The prevailing mindset was “turn down the volume.”
Times have changed (maybe I should say they are changing) and that is good. This is an area where progress is true progress.
There was a different mindset back then and thank God it is changing. But it was real and pastors had to live with it. It was believed that everyone was better off if a giant cone of silence was dropped over a situation and nobody talked about nothing never nohow. Going to the authorities? That wasn’t something the church did.
Good men did things back then that when we look at them with our modern lenses look inexplicably, even evil. but they had no playbook, no policies, and they were just doing what everyone thought was right and good.
Permit me some clarifications.
1. The perpetrators of sexual offenses or pastoral abuse should not be excused.
What I am talking about is those pastors and church leaders who mishandled reports of abuse, not the abusive pastors or leaders themselves. If a pastor hurt a child, whether it was a year ago, ten years ago, or 50 years ago, that should come into the light and he should be brought to account for his sin. If a pastor or church leaders create an atmosphere of unrestrained authoritarianism in which abuse can occur without consequence, these leaders ought to be held to account and disqualified. The abusers must be exposed. There is no statute of limitations on moral sin. I am not calling for turning a blind eye to sin.
The blood of innocents cries out for justice.
2. Pastors who mishandled such offenses should be repentant but not disqualified.
Time travel makes for good movies but it is only fiction. Taking modern sensibilities back to 1976 or 1986 or even 1996 (2006?) is not fair. The world has changed and our mindset has changed. The way things were done was unhealthy and wrong, but it was a general cultural consensus. You young whippersnappers may not realize how different things were or how fast things have changed on this issue.
I would guess that there were fewer than 5% of churches that had any kind of policy on dealing with sexual predation even 15 years ago, even 10 years ago – probably much less than 1%. (If you don’t have one now, get one by June 1!) There was no playbook back then. We did not know what to do and often what we did we did badly. Many pastors put “protecting the church” ahead of helping the victim. We damaged people. It was wrong.
I’m not making excuses, just appealing for grace.
I grew up in a pastor’s home and around pastors. They were not evil men wanting to hurt women and children. But often when they did what everything thought was best, women and children suffered (I wish I could share stories, but I can’t and I won’t). That was the world, the culture, the way. But they were not cartoon villains; they were good men doing what they thought was right (for the most part). Going back now and humiliating such men, seeking to disqualify them, besmirch their memories, or nullify their ministries because 25 years ago they didn’t follow the 2016 playbook – it’s just not fair.
Please hear me. I’m not arguing that the old ways were better. They weren’t. I’m simply saying that the pastors who handled things wrongly in the past were often good men with a bad battle plan. You are without excuse – you’ve got resources that weren’t available back then.
Don’t judge yesterday’s servants by today’s policy documents. The word of God doesn’t change but cultural ethos does.
3. Amnesty presupposes change.
The only reason the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked is because it was clear that things had changed in South Africa. Apartheid was gone and a new day had come. I am arguing for a general amnesty – an application of biblical grace – to pastors who in the past didn’t know how to handle some of these issues. But the key to this is making sure that things have truly changed. That’s why Bart’s resolution is so important.
Women who have been mistreated in churches – I am sorry. I truly am. When I hear stories it infuriates me and I pray you find grace and healing. But there is nothing we can do to change the past. I commit to you that I will advocate with those who seek an SBC in which sexual predation of any kind is unacceptable and is dealt with appropriately. We will not be silent when pastors abuse their authority to prey sexually on their members. We will not recommend them to other churches to get them out of our hair. We will call the authorities when the authorities need to be called. And, as I stated to my church when we were working through our policies, we are going to be on the side of the victim, not the victimizer. We will protect the child and the abused woman, not the person who inflicted the abuse.
I am asking that we show grace to men who wandered in confusion because they did not know what to do. We’ve changed now – thank God. But good men made dumb mistakes based on faulty battle plans and as we are going forward let us not punish them, but reach out a hand to them and say join us in doing better in the future.
4. God’s grace and forgiveness cannot be ignored.
I’ve had conversations concerning sexual abuse that left me scratching my head.
- Victims have told me that God’s demand that we love our enemies and forgive those who have sinned against us does not include this sin – as if God granted a waiver of exemption for this particular issue.
- Others have reacted harshly to the idea that certain types of sexual sinners can ever receive forgiveness and be brought back into the church. Are we really to tell certain people that their sins are beyond the reach of God’s grace and restoration?
We cannot receive a grace we are unwilling to extend. To ask for forgiveness while refusing to forgive is pointless – Jesus made this clear over and over, and he granted no exceptions. But perhaps the unwillingness to forgive has been partially motivated by the sense that the sins have been covered over, that repentance has not been genuine.
The greatest weapon against abuse is grace – God’s grace, marvelous grace, matchless grace, amazing grace! This is something we often forget when evil hits our lives.
My pastor friend whose daughters were abused? He developed a genuine (and understandable) hatred for the people he was pastoring (by the way, not SBC). Sunday after Sunday he would preach to a people who had betrayed him in his greatest hour of need and he was angry. He struggled, knowing that his angry spirit was not of God’s Spirit, but finding no freedom.
One Sunday, as he preached, God answered his prayers. He said it came on him suddenly – his anger left him and God gave him a spirit of love and forgiveness for the people who had betrayed him. He stood in the pulpit knowing that a miracle had taken place. The man I knew was a gentle spirit, with no trace of bitterness.
Here’s the part you may or may not believe. On the way home, his daughter asked him a question. “Daddy, why did the man in white clothes come and stand by you in the pulpit?” My friend was confused. “No one stood by me.” She described how a man clothed in white had appeared and stood by him in the pulpit. He realized as they talked that it was at the moment when the forgiveness came.
Do with that as you will – he didn’t know what was going on either. He never wrote a book about it. But the fact is that God freed him from anger and hate that day. And his daughters had gone on to healthy lives because they were not mired in vituperation and bitterness. They broke free in God’s grace.
Some criticized Tutu and his commission believing that the path of vengeance was the only way. But Tutu stuck to his guns and South Africa healed. Light must shine in the darkness and pastors or church leaders who abused their authority, who hurt children, who wreaked havoc on the Body of Christ – they must be called to account. Pastors and church leaders who fostered an environment of abusive authority that allowed sin to thrive and go unchecked must account for their unbiblical view of authority and their sins against their people. But pastors faced with explosive situations they weren’t trained for, were surprised by, and who botched them badly, their failures should be met with grace.
As we attack the problem it is more important that we expose the darkness, change the mindset and establish a new template for dealing with sexual predation than it is that we go back and settle scores with pastors who mishandled tough situations in the past.
Even as we deal with heinous sin, let us be about grace.
No matter what I’ve done
No matter where I’ve been
No matter how I fall
You pick me up again
You have removed my shame
You take me as I am
You call me justified
Now I am covered by your grace
Covered…..covered….covered by your grace