It is a nightmare scenario for all involved: a man calls his pastor in tears and demands a meeting as quickly as possible. Thirty minutes later, he is in the pastor’s office, confessing that his wife caught him touching their thirteen-year-old daughter in a sexual manner. He seems utterly distraught—until the pastor urges the man to call the child abuse hotline and selfreport. Then, the abuser begins to hedge: “Won’t that destroy my family? Won’t that cost me my job? Won’t that destroy my reputation?” The man refuses and walks out of the office. Two weeks later, his entire family moves out of state to an undeclared location.
What’s the pastor to do? All too often, the pastor does nothing—even though many states have sexual abuse reporting laws that require clergy to report such abuse even when pastor-penitent privilege has been invoked. Likewise, the church’s leadership does nothing, reasoning that the family has run away to another state, beyond the reach of their former congregation. And the result is that a sexual abuser gets away with his sin and crime and will continue to perpetrate that sin until he is finally caught by the authorities.
Think about the child involved—what is the church saying to her in this instance? Think about the wife and other children; the man himself and his immortal soul; the new community to which he has moved his family—what is the church saying to these parties? Think about the church and the gospel—what is the church saying about them?
In each instance that the church fails to confront sin, and especially disruptive sexual sins, we are saying something very straightforward: we love ourselves, our comfort, our reputations more than God, the gospel, and others. That’s what happens when we see no evil.
Of course, there are countless other situations in which our churches and our leadership see no evil:
- When the prominent financial supporter leaves his wife for another woman and the church fails to discipline him, letting him “resign” his membership instead;
- When the cardiologist threatens his wife with a gun, later claims he “was just joking,” and suffers no consequences;
- When the middle-aged mother of three decides to leave her husband, her home, and her church simply because she is not happy and no one contacts her.
In each of these ways and in countless others, when the church fails to pursue individuals with gracious and loving formative and corrective discipline, we do spiritual damage and actually betray the gospel.
So, what do we do about this? How might our churches shine as lights in the middle of admittedly difficult, complex, and messy situations? How do we transition from being people who see no evil and love our own comfort to being people who love Christ and His people regardless of the cost to us?
Churches often fail to do the right thing—both ecclesiastically and civilly—because they haven’t thought through in advance how to proceed in specific situations. We can’t wait until the nightmare scenario unfolds. If we do, we’ll be sure to deal with it inappropriately. Rather, we need in advance to have clear, written processes to follow.
For Presbyterian churches, there is a sense in which that has already been determined for us. In the Presbyterian Church in America, for example, we have our denomination’s Book of Church Order, which lays out a disciplinary process. For independent churches, which do not have denominational rules of discipline, there needs to be a clear, written process of church discipline. Regardless of denominational context, as church leaders we have to be determined to follow the process—no matter who is involved (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Tim. 5:21).
We have to admit, however, that we might need other protocols in place to help guide responses to specific situations. For example, when there is a suspicion or admission of child abuse, church leaders need to have and follow specific guidelines for reporting it to the appropriate civil authorities. In order to develop such protocols, it will be necessary to work with a local attorney to ensure that the church complies with the relevant state reporting laws. Having such a written protocol takes the guesswork out of reporting. In many states, the requirement is that church leaders report the matter as soon as it is discovered, and then allow the appropriate authorities to investigate and determine whether a crime has been committed. Working with the state in these matters is appropriate and biblical (Rom. 13:1–7).
Be Firm Yet Gentle
The Apostle Paul urges us to restore sinners gently (Gal. 6:1). Such gentleness is not opposite to firmness and determination; rather, it stems from recognizing that we, too, are sinners. Such recognition should save us from self-righteous bluster or arrogant anger. To be sure, with sins such as child abuse there is an appropriate righteous anger over the sin and its long-term effects. Still, it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Even as we deal gently and firmly with perpetrators, we are seeking their repentance and ultimate restoration.
Often, though, we fail to show similar compassion toward the victims. Churches regularly make the news for failing to deal compassionately with women who divorce their husbands who are caught viewing child porn or for looking the other way when patterns of child abuse are uncovered. Other churches that refuse to stand up for women who are physically abused by their husbands or for children who are sexually abused by their fathers go unnoticed. Where is the compassion for these victims? As churches, we must be determined to demonstrate compassion to those who have been sinned against by being determined to do to them as we desire others would do for us (Matt. 7:12).
Lead and Engage with the Gospel
Both the perpetrator and the victim of sin need the same thing: the gospel of Jesus. Those who commit sexual sins—whether sexual immorality, adultery, or even sexual abuse—need to hear the gospel. The entire point of discipline is to confront the sinner with the claims of Christ, to call for repentance, but also to seek new patterns of obedience that can come only as the sinner runs daily to Christ.
Often, those who commit messy and heinous sins believe their sins are too great to forgive. They need to be reminded that “there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent” (Westminster Confession of Faith 15.4). Such genuine repentance is drawn out by the “apprehension of [God’s] mercy in Christ to such as are penitent” (WCF 15.2). How great is God’s mercy in Christ? So great that He sent His one and only Son to die for sinners—and that death is sufficient to cover all our sins, even the most heinous ones.
Victims, too, need the gospel of Jesus: that Jesus is a Savior who does not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick (Matt. 12:20); that He identifies with the hurt and broken and grants liberty to those oppressed by sin (Luke 4:17– 21); and that He likewise asked, “Why?” when the pain and godforsakenness was overwhelming (Matt. 27:46).
But victims of sin also need to know that Jesus does more than identify with us in our hurts—He actually has done something about them. Through His resurrection, He is able to bring new life and new hope in the present as well as the future. There is power to move forward through the pain they know. In addition, the gospel provides us with the basis for forgiveness, knowing that we, too, have committed heinous sins against God (Eph. 4:32).
Be Prepared for the Long Haul
This is actually the most difficult thing of all. As ministry leaders, we like to believe that when we intervene, work through a disciplinary process, and engage with the gospel, we’ve “fixed” the situation. But it doesn’t work that way. Especially with situations where there is significant betrayal—as in a long-term adulterous relationship, divorce, or sexual abuse—it might take months and years of gospel application to see healing and hope.
Such situations often involve financial support (if the repentant perpetrator loses his job; if there is a divorce), long-term counseling or therapy (which may or may not be covered by insurance), or sustained, regular accountability meetings. These things cost pastors and ministry leaders time, effort, and emotional energy.
And yet, God through His Spirit not only sustains us to love in these ways but also points us to the final goal of it all: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). To see sinners reclaimed, victims restored, and both on their way safely to heaven—what more could a pastor or church desire?