It seems that sexual abuse is rampant in the Evangelical church. Whether this perception is reality is unknown. Perhaps the internet, where reports of sexual abuse are widely and quickly disseminated, gives us a false perception of the depth and scope of the problem. Since there is no government or religious body that collect data on sexual abuse in churches there is no way to how big the problem actually is.
Evangelicals, when confronted with horrific stories of sexual abuse within their ranks, are quick to say that the abusers are outliers and their actions, while regrettable, are not reflective of Evangelicalism as a whole. Simply put, Evangelicals want the public to believe that when sexual abuse occurs in their churches it is perpetrated by rogue individuals and not a systemic problem.
In this post I will contend that sexual abuse in the Evangelical church is a systemic problem. What Evangelicals believe and how those beliefs are put into practice make Evangelical churches havens for sexual predators. Unless fundamental changes take place, predators will continue to roam the halls of America’s Evangelical churches.
Inerrancy and Bible literalism
Most Evangelicals believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God. Most Evangelicals, to some degree or another, are literalists.
This is an important point to understand. It is the foundation of Evangelicalism. The Evangelical mantra, God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me, is not a meaningless catchphrase. Evangelicals sincerely believe this. They pride themselves in being people of the book.
Evangelicals are taught from an early age that God requires obedience. A person can not be a good Christian (or perhaps a Christian at all) unless they obey the teachings of the Bible.
Church Government structure
Almost all Evangelical churches have a congregational form of church government. Congregational government, in theory at least, grants the congregation the power to make church decisions. I say in theory because in most churches the day to day decision making is done by the pastor and/or a church board or elder board. The congregation trusts their leaders to act on their behalf.
In many Evangelical churches, business meetings are rarely, if ever held. One large church I attended while in college didn’t have one congregational business meeting in the three years I attended the church. Yet, as a Baptist church, they proudly stated they had a congregational form of government. Evidently, the congregation consisted of only the pastor and a few church leaders.
Most Evangelicals believe the Bible teaches a hierarchal form of authority. In the church, the pastor is the God’s spokesman. He leads, guides, and directs the church. He teaches the church what God wants them to know. He is the de facto head of the church, the CEO. (under God, led by the Holy Spirit)
This model of authority is found throughout the church. Assistant pastors, youth pastors, principals, and teachers all have authority over their respective ministry.
In the Evangelical home, the husband is the head of the home. The father and mother are the head of the children, and the children, well…….they are head over no one expect the family dog.
Teachings on obeying those in authority are prominent in Evangelical churches. Church members are reminded of authority God has given the pastor. (obey those that have the rule over you) Wives are reminded that they are to obey their husbands. Children are taught from an early age that they are to obey their parents (and other adults) without question.
According to the Bible, God takes great pleasure in the Evangelical’s obedience. To obey is better than sacrifice, the Bible says. As the old song goes, Trust and Obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to Trust and Obey.
It is this notion of Trust and Obey that enables sexual abuse to take place.
Naïve Trust and Forgiveness
The Evangelical gospel is all about having new life in Christ, old things pass away and all things become new. No matter how vile a person is, Jesus can forgive them, cleanse them from sin, and give the repentant sinner a clean slate, a new start.
Evangelicals are trusting people. When a person testifies that Jesus has changed their life they tend to believe them. When someone new comes into the church and tells them about how Jesus changed their life they rarely doubt the person’s testimony. People are taken at face value.
One former pastor friend of mine believed that his church should not do criminal background checks on church leaders and teachers. After all, what is in the past has been forgiven by Jesus. It is under the blood, my friend said.
Many of us are shocked when we see church congregations supporting members, pastors, or church leaders who have been accused of sexual abuse or other criminal behaviors. Can’t they SEE what is clear for all to see? Sadly, they can’t. Their heightened trust of their fellow Evangelicals and their willingness to quickly forgive causes them to ignore or dismiss even the most vile of behaviors.
Protect the Ministry at All Costs
Sadly, many Evangelicals churches are willing to sacrifice individual church members for the sake of the perpetuity of the church. The church MUST be protected at all costs. After all, if the church is closed who will be a witness for Jesus in their community? God surely, for the sake of lost souls, wants the doors of the church to remain open.
Since Evangelical churches tend to be Independent churches, even if they are part of a denomination, the members have a vested interest in keeping THEIR church open. When confronted with matters that could hurt the church, Evangelicals tend to circle the wagons to protect the church from attack.
What about the individual? What about the young boy abused by his Sunday School teacher? What about the teen girl seduced by the youth pastor? While most every Evangelical would say these are terrible acts, they don’t think the ministry of the church should be destroyed because of the actions of one person. Rarely, does an Evangelical congregation consider their own culpability in the abuse.
I am of the opinion, based on what I know about the Evangelical church, that parents should NOT entrust their children and teenagers to Church leaders, pastors, and teachers. The potential for abuse is too great. Even church nurseries are fertile grounds for abuse.
Evangelical churches, due to their commitment to what the Bible teaches, are not prone to change. They often are monuments to arrogant intractability. That said, there are some things I think Evangelical churches can do to lessen the risk of sexual abuse.
Everyone that has ANY contact with the children and youth must have an ANNUAL background check. This includes nursery workers.
Background checks are not a cure-all. Many predators do not have a criminal record. Bob Gray, former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, was a sexual predator for 50 years before he got caught. Aaron Thompson, of Grace Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, was a sexual predator for years before he was caught. Neither of these perverts had a criminal record at the time of their arrest.
Adherence to the law
Most states require complaints of sexual abuse be reported to the police or child protective services. Evangelical churches routinely ignore this legal requirement. Surely, our pastor would NEVER do THAT! Again, church members can be quite naïve.
Often suspected abuse is reported to the pastor or a leader in the church. These reports MUST be immediately turned over to authorities. Let the authorities, trained in investigating these matters, determine the validity of the complaint. Church leaders who do not report abuse should be criminally prosecuted. The pastor of Grace Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma should be in the same cell as Aaron Thompson. If more pastors ended up in prison for failure to report then maybe, just maybe, pastors will be more willing to report sexual abuse. (or abuse of any kind)
New Church Members
Sexual predators KNOW that churches are fertile grounds for them to ply their seductions. Way too many Evangelical churches give new church members quick and easy access to the church’s children and youth. Volunteers are hard to come by and predators know that. So they join a church, wait a few months, and then volunteer to work with the youth. All the church knows is that the secret predator is a Christian who is “called” to work with youth.
Evangelical churches should institute a waiting period for all new members. At least a year. During this time the new member should be carefully observed. Church leaders should make multiple visits to their home. Maybe, an unannounced visit or two. Church leaders MUST know the person who may be working with the children or youth some day.
Youth Programs and Groups
I think youth groups should be abolished. The opportunities for abuse and temptation are too great. Teen girls often become infatuated with the youth pastor and this infatuation can have terrible consequences. Parents, seemingly ignorant of teenage hormones, trust their daughters and sons with the good looking, personable, sold out for Christ, youth pastor. Sadly, more than a few teens end up being taken advantage of. (and regardless of the infatuation, people in places of authority are ALWAYS responsible for what happens)
Any program that gives adults intimate access to the children and youth of the church should be stopped. These programs are a modern invention. Children used to sit in church with their parents. It is not uncommon these days for children to NEVER be in church with their parents. They have their own classes, their own programs. Personally, I think this is an abdication of the responsibility parents have for their children.
Pastors have too much power, control, and authority in the Evangelical church. I realize things are the way they are because churches think the Bible teaches pastors are the head of the church. (and it does, depending on how you interpret the Bible) It is almost impossible for Evangelicals to ignore what the Bible teaches, but, in this case, they must. They must tell the Apostle Paul to take a hike.
I am not sure what kind of government structure is best for the church. The Catholic church with its Episcopal form of government has its own sex abuse scandal. If leaders are moral, ethical people then it doesn’t matter what form of government a church has. Good people will do the right thing.
Evangelical pastors should be stripped of their autocratic, CEO power. Pastors are supposed to be preachers and teachers and care for the general welfare of the church body. Let a church board, comprised of a cross-section of the church, govern the day to day affairs of the church. This board should hold regular church-wide business meetings. Everything MUST be made public. No secrets. Not like the one church I pastored, where my fellow pastor said, How much does the church need to know? My reply then and now is EVERYTHING. Light dispels darkness AND exposes cockroaches.
Pastors will surely fight this loss of power but for the sake of the church this must happen. When only the pastor knows of a claim of abuse he can easily ignore or bury the claim. However, when a large number of people know it is not so easy to bury abuse complaints.
Pastors and churches who refuse to do right by sexual abuse victims should face criminal prosecution. Of course this why churches incorporate. To avoid personal liability churches incorporate. This makes the corporation responsible rather than the individual. Fortunately, in many states individuals can,in some cases, be criminally prosecuted and if individuals in a church hide, dismiss, or fail to report sexual abuse they should be criminally prosecuted.
On a personal note, I had many faults as a pastor but when it came to matters of abuse, I reported every claim of abuse that I knew about. I felt I owed it to the children of the church to protect them from abuse. (even though I now know my teaching on corporeal punishment helped promote abuse)
I have always been a cynical person, not very trusting. I have always thought that true change is not easy. Just because someone got saved didn’t mean they were instantly a good person. Bad behaviors before Christ often remain bad behaviors after Christ. I know Evangelicals want to think otherwise but, after pastoring thousands of people, I know better. Evangelicals are not special or different from the rest of humanity. They have the potential to do very bad things just like the rest of us.
I am quite cynical that the Evangelical church will do what is necessary to combat sexual abuse. I suspect criminal prosecutions and million dollar lawsuits will do more good than anything else. But, even then, look at the Catholic church. Has there really been much change in the church when it comes to matters of sexual abuse? Church leaders continue to stymie police investigations and deny the pervasiveness (and the reasons for it) of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Leaders remain in power and life goes on.
Here is what I know for sure. Children and teenagers deserve to be protected from abuse. I feel a personal obligation to speak on behalf of those who most often have no voice at all.