Opinion | After the Southern Baptist Report on Sexual Abuse, How Can Churches Do Better?
I think there are really two important parts to that question.
There is the policy question: On a very practical level, what am I to do? You need to report that allegation to the police if it is child abuse. As soon as the police have been notified and the alleged perpetrator knows that the police have been notified, you need to notify the church and protect the identity of the survivors. Let your congregation know in as many ways as possible: “These are the allegations that have been brought. Here is the information. If you hold a piece of this puzzle, here’s where you go.”
Notifying the congregation is not rendering a judgment. It’s not accepting an allegation as if it is true. You’re not taking this person out of the church just because there’s been an allegation, for example. What you are doing is opening the door so that due process can happen, so that all sides of the story can come forward.
In addition to that, much of the time, the church is going to need help to reach some type of factual determination. The average length of time it takes to get a conviction is between two and three years. So what is the church going to do in the meantime? Does it allow the perpetrator to continue coming to church with no restrictions? Does it assist the survivors? If you take steps to assist the survivors, to help them get therapy, to shepherd them, then you’re making some level of determination, right? If you’re going to put restrictions on the person accused of abuse, then you’re going to have to reach some level of determination in order to do anything meaningful. So it is very helpful for churches to get outside consultation or an outside investigation by a qualified firm with expertise in sexual abuse and church dynamics.
That being said, when it comes to what churches really have to do, we have to start with understanding our theology and knowing how to apply it well to abuse and abusive dynamics. For a very long time, evangelicals have been incredibly sloppy about obtaining any kind of outside help or expertise to understand abuse and abusive dynamics. And they have been incredibly sloppy in their exegesis of passages related to biblical justice. We have not understood our own theology of justice and forgiveness. The gospel has to impact how we relate to those who have been wounded, who have been oppressed, who are victimized, who are vulnerable.
We often have a very twisted understanding of authority and unity, and it is wielded in a way that keeps whistle-blowers silent and turns them into the bad guys for telling the truth. Church dynamics are a little bit unique, because when you start talking about these things, a significant portion of the time, the response is that you want to destroy God’s church. You must be out to destroy men of God. And so the immediate presumption is “You’re attacking my theology.” And my response to that is, “No. I’m not attacking Scripture, I’m not attacking theology. I’m calling you back to it.”
But if we don’t start addressing the theological errors that are driving the actions we see in the church, we’re going to continue making the same mistakes, no matter how many times we lay out the practical steps that need to be taken. Our ideas drive our actions.