This weekend Revelation 20:11-15 came to mind when I read the “Abuse of Faith” (HERE) article in the Houston Chronicle. The passage speaks of a coming day of the Lord where “Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13). There are a lot of Southern Baptist (SBC) congregants who have not experienced justice in this world, but a day is coming.
On Sunday the Houston Chronicle published an excellent, yet heart breaking, article about sex abuse in SBC churches over the years. You can read JD Geear’s article (HERE), Albert Mohler’s article (HERE), and Russell Moore’s article (HERE). As your pastor, and because we are a SBC church, I also want to take a moment to speak to this issue. I pray my words help you better understand the issue as well as help us all learn and improve and heal.
First, we should be rattled by the fact that this issue impacts our area. This is not a problem that others experience yet we do not have to face. Sunday’s article opens with abuse that happened in Sanger. Further, I know of two churches in our zip code where pastors have abused children. One of those churches is in our local Denton Baptist Association. I have observed firsthand the carnage that has come from that pastor’s sin. That particular abuse has deeply wounded friends of mine. I have watched brothers I love and respect not handle that situation appropriately. I have also seen how those incidents of abuse have caused friends of mine to not trust the church, not trust pastors like me, and not trust the God we teach or his gospel. It has also led to over a decade of fruitlessness in the life of that particular church. Recently it came out that a third church in our area had an incident where a children’s pastor was accused of abuse. Wrestling with that incident has deeply wounded friends I dearly love. Saints of Redeemer Church, this is a genuine problem we need to acknowledge understand and face.
Second, we need to begin with a posture of truthfulness and empathy. This is a problem in our camp and thus we have to acknowledge the truth of the problem. Our posture must always be that these incidents are sinful and wrong. Victims must hear that we know these crimes committed against them are evil. We cannot justify the problem or diminish the issue. If abuse is reported we much create a safe space for the victim and immediately contact the police. Sex abuse can be difficult to prove; therefore we need to mercifully give deference to the claims of the victim. However, because sex abuse can be difficult to prove we also have to understand that people can be falsely accused. But, we must maintain a posture where we graciously hear, empathetically help carry burdens, help advocate healing through the gospel, and fight for justice.
Third, we must embrace our individual responsibilities. When this issue comes to your doorstep, you cannot run from it. I was on staff at a church one time and a pastor began attending who we were exploring hiring. We were not a SBC church but he had previously been on staff at a SBC church. He communicated a reason as to why he was no longer on staff and our leaders confirmed the reason with the previous church. However, it was not the full story. By God’s grace, one of their deacons courageously reached out to one of our leaders in order to communicate they were suspicious of the pastor abusing minors in the church. If he had not communicated then we would have likely hired him. Individuals who know of abuse or are suspicious of abuse must report what they know to church leaders as well as the police.
Fourth, we must acknowledge how our doctrine of local autonomy exacerbates the problem.I am grateful the Houston Chronicle highlighted the role our ecclesiology impacts this issue. The doctrine of the priesthood our Roman Catholic friends espouse is a factor in their abuse scandals. Similarly, Southern Baptist must acknowledge how our ecclesiology affects this problem. I believe the doctrine of the autonomy of the local church is biblical and thus right and good. However, it also enables predators to bounce from church to church. Additionally, we are a 5-year-old church plant. Smaller and newer churches are especially vulnerable to people easily coming into our fellowship and quickly establishing trust. Over the past 5 years I have learned to be slow to hand over leadership. We are also very particular about who we allow to teach in our children’s ministry. We do not call for volunteers, but rather only recruit people after a season of watching their character.
However, fifth, the problem of local autonomy requires courage from the gate keepers. When an institution, like a church, experiences moral failure by one of their leaders it calls into question the message and mission of the institution. In the Houston Chronicle article one victim explained that these abuses murdered the faith of the victims. Church leaders feel conflicted when someone they love and admire is accused of these types of crimes. However, leaders must act with moral clarity. Abusers must not be allowed in positions of leadership including serving as paid pastoral staff, or teaching Sunday School classes or small groups or preaching from the pulpit, and they must not be allowed alone in the children’s ministry areas. Church leaders should communicate how the abuser will be observed, the boundaries of their behavior, as well as the consequences for violating the boundaries. Finally, those making decisions about these issues need to understand abusers can be “nice” people and operate successful businesses and be a kind friend who gently listens when someone is hurting. We need to remember that the BTK serial killer (Dennis Radar) was a leader in his church, a Cub Scout leader, and a seemingly good father. The gate keepers need to protect the flock even when rendering judgment about their buddy. Sadly, one of the incidents of moral failing in our area was only made worse because the gate keepers did not act with clarity and courage. Many people in our area were hurt by those actions and our churches and leaders lost credibility and thus our gospel message fell on hard hearts.
Therefore, sixth, the leaders of Redeemer Church must act with wisdom and clarity. We have a series of commonsense rules for our pastors. We never want them to even be in a situation where abuse could happen. Therefore, our pastors are never alone with a minor. We have private conversations with minors (like at youth camp), but always where others can see us. We also do not ride in cars by ourselves with a female. Thankfully our offices are in a public facility. Therefore, if any of our pastors need to meet one-on-one with our female administrative assistant we either do it over the phone, in a public place (like Starbucks), or with the office doors open. Our pastors do not counsel ladies by themselves. This all might sound strange but I would rather our pastors be awkward around ladies then ever be in a compromising situation. Even if you think these are outdated approaches, please respect our convictions. I am forever grateful that Dr. Jeff Williams of First Baptist Denton, my first pastoral mentor, helped me think through these commonsense guidelines.
Further, seventh, the leaders of Redeemer Church must demonstrate wisdom and courage when hiring and firing staff members. One of the ways these articles are helping me is to see that our doctrine of local autonomy makes us vulnerable during the hiring and firing stage. If a church is suspicious of a staff member there is pressure to sweep the problem under the rug and move the staff member out as quickly and quietly as possible. Leaders do not want to dive into investigations that might not be resolved. Churches do not want to face the fallout of a scandal. We continue to improve our due diligence processes and documentation for hiring a pastor. This improvement includes written references and follow up contact with previous employers. Previous employers are asked if there were any disqualifying incidents or suspicions of incidents. We will not allow another church to manipulatively move a predator from their church to ours., if we are ever suspicious of a staff member or know of an incident, we will not allow them to take a position at another church without communicating what we know. By God’s grace, we have never had an incident or a suspicion of an incident with a staff member. Redeemer Church’s pastors and elders take seriously our role in protecting the flock.
Eighth, our church should advocate for reform and cultural changes in our denomination. As individuals we encourage you to educate yourself on these issues and vote your convictions at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting. We should also be transparent about the role local autonomy plays in the problem. I am eternally grateful for the investigative reporting by the Houston Chronical including their listing of offenders. I also support reform efforts in our denomination to make it harder for predators to abuse women and children. My conviction is that outside entities need to be brought in rather than allowing the SBC to police ourselves. As I see specific proposals I am more than willing to publicly lend my support. I am also supportive of the SBC disassociating with churches who display patterns of not addressing issues of abuse or hiring known predators. J.D. Greear correctly explains, “The Bible calls for pastors to be people of integrity, known for their self-control and kindness…A convicted sex offender would certainly not meet those qualifications. Churches that ignore that are out of line with both Scripture and Baptist principles of cooperation.”
Finally, ninth, we need to pray for healing and be equipped to heal. I fervently pray against any type of abuse in our church. I also pray that none of your experience this type of abuse. I also pray we would be the type of church where people can heal from abuse. God will only bring us people to love if we are equipped to serve them. If you have been abused or you have a friend who has been abused please take some time to read David Powlison’s article “I’ll Never Get Over It” (HERE). Further, I recommend the counselors at Covenant Biblical Counseling (HERE) and North Texas Christian Counseling (HERE). Biblical counselors provide space to heal from people who care and provide expertise and wisdom.
These issues are heartbreaking, heavy, and complex. However, I pray we all learn lessons that enable our church to be a safe place for the vulnerable to experience the love of God. In the face of this pain I find hope and purpose in 2 Corinthians 1:4, “God comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”