(BNC) by F. Meredith — Editor’s Note: The following article is written by a sister in Christ who uses a pseudonym. We know who she is, as do the spiritual guides in her congregation. Her experience and perspective need to be heard, especially today.
I recently read an article detailing the stories of two women who were victims of pastoral abuse as teenagers. When a church leader learned that the youth minister was in physical relationships with them, he instructed them to be quiet in order to protect the church and supposedly their own reputations.
These women are now in their thirties, and the same minister is being considered for a top position in a different congregation. The women have raised concerns to a leader in that congregation and have now gone public. The original youth minister invoked the teaching from Matthew 18:15–17 in his defense, saying that he wants to make amends with them but they are unwilling to meet with him. As a Christian and a survivor of sexual abuse, allow me to share my insights into this situation.
Context of Matthew 18
Matthew 18 begins with Jesus calling a child to him and saying that we adults must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He then gives a severe warning against causing a child who believes in him to sin, saying, “It would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” Matthew 18:6 ESV.
The exhortation to first go to the person who sinned against you is not addressed to children. Furthermore, the implication is that the sin committed is not public in nature but rather only against the one person instructed to go and address it. This progressive response to sin prevents unnecessary public embarrassment; however, it is not a model for addressing publicly committed sin.
In 1 Corinthians 5, we read about a man who was committing sexual immorality by having his father’s wife. Paul sternly commands the church to remove this person from among them because he is claiming to be a Christian while openly committing sin. In 1 Timothy 5:20, regarding elders who persist in sin, Paul says to “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
Both of these examples more closely resemble the current situation. These girls were under this abuser’s position of authority when his sin began, thus removing their ability to confront him directly. Furthermore, the position of youth minister is public by nature, so any sin committed in the context of that position is inherently a public matter, not a private one among individuals. Matthew 18:15–17 simply does not apply here.
Forgiveness and fellowship do not necessitate restoring the position of trust
The same chapter of Matthew makes it clear that we are commanded to forgive and that we have committed greater sin against God than any individual has committed against us. When Jesus Christ paid the debt to cover my sin, He paid the debt to cover my abuser’s sin as well. Forgiveness and fellowship can be given to committers of abuse, but they are predicated on repentance.
Let’s pretend that the current situation played out differently. Let’s say that when confronted with his sin, this youth minister publicly confessed before the congregation and asked for forgiveness. He stepped down from his position, attended a different congregation and refrained from any position of authority over youth. He offered to pay for counseling for the girls involved. These actions might have shown repentance.
However, even if this person had taken these steps, that does not mean that he should be restored to his role as youth minister. Positions of authority require more than just repentance but the demonstrated ability to withstand temptation and be trusted completely. If Jesus so warns against those who harm children, then we as his followers must take reasonable steps to assure that such acts are not committed again.
It is foolish to put someone, even a repentant, forgiven Christian, back in a position that is potentially tempting and in which he has previously shown that he cannot withstand the temptation nor chosen to take the way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). We must not restore someone to a position of trust which he is too weak to handle—it will damage his soul and the souls of his victims if he is tempted and chooses to sin again.
We must reflect God’s character in our response to abuse
One of the most disturbing parts of this narrative is how the leader of the local congregation responded to the youth minister’s sin. When these women were still teenagers, the local church leader knew about the sinful behavior of the youth minister, and he told them to be quiet. The youth minister was allowed to leave, and he went to another congregation. Some may see his leaving as obedience to Paul’s command to remove the sinner, but the sinner was not removed; he just relocated to another congregation. Paul didn’t say to send the sinner to Thessalonica; he said to remove him.
Friends, the people around us are watching the horror of sexual abuse by religious authority figures unfold before their eyes. The world does not need another excuse to turn from the God of creation; evolution, materialism, and false religion already abound! The abuses continually uncovered in the Catholic church and other religious institutions is giving the lost souls around us a reason not to seek the Lord—when the Lord in actuality condemns the abuse and is angry about it.
Unless the Lord’s faithful consistently cry out against such abuse, we let the world around us draw the false conclusion that God does not care—or worse, that he approves of such abuse of authority. How can we not defend his holy name, his justice, his goodness—to a world that so desperately needs it? Where are the Christians reminding the world that God loves children, called them to himself, and warned against one who would cause them to stumble?
We must listen to victims, be angry on their behalf, and show them that God is still good and that they are valuable to him. We must demand that perpetrators be held accountable, be removed from authority, and be prevented from causing further harm. God is forgiving and merciful, but he is just and so must we be.
If you know of a child who is being abused, report it to the proper authorities. May God help us to protect those who cannot protect themselves by removing abusers from authority in the hope that their souls—not their jobs—will be saved. May we defend God’s justice to the many souls who might heed the call of the gospel if only shown God’s complete and unfailing goodness.
Randal and his wife Vicki have lived and worked in Brazil since Nov. 1984. They have three married children and six grandchildren. He sometimes writes “7 Points.” http://randal.us