Maintaining Hope in the Church in Light of Sexual Abuse Scandals

Maintaining Hope in the Church in Light of Sexual Abuse Scandals

Growing up in an evangelical church, I often heard leaders and fellow evangelicals malign Roman Catholicism as a corrupt expression of Christianity in light of pervasive sexual abuse scandals. 

After the release of a report regarding the decades-long systemic silencing of sexual abuse victims in the Southern Baptist Convention (North America’s largest protestant denomination), it is clear that similarly evil institutional forces have also found safe harbor in the evangelical tradition.

While I knew that the independent investigation into the SBC’s response to sexual abuse allegations would unveil troubling truths, about which abuse survivor advocates have been warning us for years, the scope and depth of depravity contained within its 288 pages were nothing short of breathtaking. 

For years, sexual abuse survivors were not only ignored but actively silenced, and sexual abusers within church leadership were often allowed to quietly move from one congregation to another within the same denomination, re-entering leadership and posing a threat to an entirely new community of believers.

While survivors and advocates have long called for a centralized database of known abusers within the denomination, SBC leaders consistently rebuffed the idea on the grounds of legal exposure and a violation of local church autonomy. At the same time, legal counsel to those very same leaders had compiled a private database for their own use, should they ever face litigation. 

The goal was to protect the institution, not victims and potential victims of abuse. 

The measure to which we should be grieved cannot be overstated. While certain Christian leaders have publicly spoken about justice and the protection of the most vulnerable among us, those very same leaders were actively involved in subverting justice and enabling abusers to continue victimizing women and children.

In light of this revelation, it’s easy to lose hope. Thoughtless platitudes like “nobody’s perfect” and “not all churches” fail to bring any measure of solace and often result in an even lower level of trust in the church as a whole. 

However, if we take Jesus’ words seriously that the “gates of hell will not prevail” against his church, then we are not able to simply give up on the idea of the church entirely. 

If you, like me, are continuing to reel from the seemingly ongoing stream of revelations regarding abuse and cover up, here are a few things to keep in mind as you seek to continue in faithfulness not only toward Jesus but toward his church. 

Institutions Built up Around the Church Do Not Constitute the Church Itself.

Looking at the SBC, it is staggering to think that the denomination represents over 47 thousand churches in North America. The Catholic Church, which also continues to grapple with a decades-long legacy of sexual abuse, represents over 221 thousand local parishes worldwide. 

The enormity of these institutions and the power they wield make the abuses that have been allowed to take place within them all the more frightening and disheartening.

Be that as it may, and without minimizing the scope and scale of abuse, these institutions—and particularly the institutional leadership—do not reflect or represent the church as a whole. 

The church has never done well when it wields earthly power. Speaking historically, from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, the abuse of indulgences, and the current sexual abuse crisis, the larger any one Christian institution gets and the more centralized its power, the more corrupt it becomes. 

Every new expression of the church has reformed or abandoned the corrupt institution that came before it for these very reasons. However, as those new movements became institutions themselves, they have always eventually succumbed to systemic abuses within their own midst. 

The point being that if you are suspicious about large, powerful institutions that have been built up around the church, Jesus stands with you.

Furthermore, the movements that rise up in the wake of failing institutions are often themselves rife with built-in sins and shortcomings, even as they act as a corrective to other abuses. 

For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has been responsible for the training and sending of thousands of missionaries, resulting in millions of people coming to a life-changing knowledge of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the denomination’s founding was accompanied by an affirmation of chattel slavery, and later segregation. This is something that the Convention has since denounced, but the fact that it took until 1995 to officially do so is telling.

Without minimizing the gravity of the abuses, we must concede that every expression of the church has had to grapple with the demons of its cultural and historical moment. Not all have done very well, and some have done worse than others. 

Further, where those demons become institutionalized and systematized, faithful Christians are called to reform those institutions or abandon them. 

Nevertheless, fleeing from a Christian institution does not require abandoning Jesus’ church. Rather, it requires being a part of a generation that seeks to build a fresh movement more closely aligned with who Jesus is calling the church to be. 

Even Within Corrupt Institutions, Pockets of Faithfulness Remain.

At the risk of committing the “not all churches” fallacy, it is important to note that even within systems where the institution has become incredibly corrupt at the highest levels of leadership, there exists within that system local churches and spiritual leaders who either have nothing to do with those abuses or in fact stand diametrically opposed to them. 

It is worth noting that while SBC leaders were at the heart of silencing abuse survivors and enabling their abusers, SBC leaders were also at the heart of exposing such systemic injustice and pushing for reform—often at great personal cost. Furthermore, there is a myriad of churches and pastors within the denomination that would never tolerate abuse in their local congregation, were they to become aware of it.

While I didn’t grow up as a member of an SBC church, most of the churches I have been a part of have been culturally and theologically adjacent to it. And I can say from firsthand experience that I have seen church leaders stand against sexually predatory behavior. 

For example, a number of years ago, a church of which I was a member dealt quickly and decisively against a leader who acted in a sexually predatory manner. The leader, who was a married, female worship leader for the church’s young adults ministry, was discovered to be in a sexually inappropriate relationship with a young man who was a senior in high school. While the relationship did not technically break any laws, as the student was 18 years old, the behavior on the part of the worship leader was nonetheless predatory.

The leader was immediately removed from leadership and the matter was made known to the church after the leader opted to leave the church rather than publicly apologize and come under discipline.

Given that the church was a part of a denomination that also emphasized local church autonomy, there were not robust systems in place to prevent that leader from rising through the ranks at another church, something that potential SBC reforms would seek to amend. But I can tell you, based on the character of the pastor at the church, that if she had become a leader elsewhere and he learned of it, that church’s leadership would be hearing from him.

I am certain that stories of decisive leadership and discipline in light of sexual abuse are multiplied throughout local churches across the nation. Indeed, throughout the world.  

This isn’t to say that all is forgiven because God still works through broken systems or to demotivate wholesale reform. It is to say that not all is lost. There is still hope. God is still moving, and not everyone is entirely corrupt. 

It Is Time for Judgment to Begin With the Household of God. 

There’s no way around it: American evangelicalism is experiencing a reckoning. 

In light of that reckoning, many leaders who have a vested interest in the strength of the institution are fighting to maintain the status quo. They are no friends to the church, and they will experience a reckoning of their own. But the church of Jesus Christ will endure. 

In his first epistle, the apostle Peter encourages Christians with the fact that suffering and persecution are not only an expected part of following Jesus, but also a means by which God purifies our faith. 

Only, we must not count ourselves righteous when we have brought that suffering upon ourselves. 

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:14-17)

There will come a time when all evil is accounted for and cast out, even—and especially—within the church.