Last week, news broke about the findings of a long investigation into the way that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention handled sexual abuse allegations against its pastors. If you haven’t read about it, start here, and then go here, and finally here. Now that you are caught up - and sufficiently disgusted, let’s talk about how not to end up in this situation.
First, let me just say right up front that it’s easy to have clarity from outside of a situation - devoid of the emotions and relationships that can skew our decisions. I don’t want this blog to come off as holier than anyone, I’m as capable of the stuff these guys did as they are. It’s pure grace - and I mean it - that I have not done what these men have done.
But, I do think that there are some things we can do in our churches to avoid these situations, and it’s easier to deal with those things before the pressure is on us.
Second, we have to actually forgive and reconcile with the people that repent. When repentance is a death sentence in our churches, we have a culture of damnation, not grace. Genuine repentance has to be met with forgiveness and there must be a process of reconciliation and restoration that matches the severity and impact of the sin.
Giving grace doesn’t always mean restoring people back to their jobs or positions, but it often should. The Law condemns and removes, grace redeems and restores.
As a pastor, if you aren’t regularly confessing your own sin to your elders and congregation, you are setting yourself and everyone else up for failure down the road. A culture of grace has to begin with repentance. Naming your sin and areas of temptation normalizes it, which is a good thing because sin is normal. It’s not good, but it is normal.
If you go months talking about “sin” but never about your sin, you are setting expectations for your congregation, whether you intend to or not. Over time, your people will think of you as someone without temptation and certainly without sin - a demigod. But you are not a demigod and eventually, your humanity will leak out.
The disappointment and betrayal that your congregation may feel will become anger and resentment. But if you regularly talk about your own lust, anger, desire for power or need for approval, you will establish your humanity and with it will come human-sized expectations for you.
The truth is, some of you like being thought of as demigods. You like the way your people look up to you and respect you for your godliness and strength in the face of the sins of lesser men. But you aren’t better than those lesser men and its only a matter of time before you are found out.
Witness is a word that comes up a lot in situations like the one the SBC finds themselves in. Leaders will use the witness of the church or the denomination as an excuse to hide sin. The idea is that if the world finds out that we have sinned, they will think less of us and it will “hurt our witness to the world”. This is not just wrong, it’s flat-out backward.
What is the gospel? That Christians are the smart, holy ones that figured out Jesus and now live in permanent harmony? No. Is it that our perfect sinlessness is what attracted Jesus to us and will attract the world to our churches? Of course not. The gospel is the good news that we are desperately wicked sinners in need of redemption and then by grace will spend the rest of our lives repenting and begging the Spirit to remake us.
So how would publicly confessing sin and applying grace hurt our witness? Isn’t that what we should be witnessing to? Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing that might actually attract nonChristians to our churches? Don’t you think the people in our cities who sense that the world’s idea of the good life is just another law-driven rat race might actually be attracted to a place that names the darkness and is committed to grace?
Let’s be honest, no one believes that talk about preserving our witness. It’s all just a bunch of excuse-making to cover the butts of powerful people. It’s easy enough to see from the outside, but from the inside, things can get murkier. These situations are genuinely scary because the losses are real. There is a real temptation to hide the truth, or at least reveal as little as possible in order to preserve the status quo.
So we have established from the beginning that the truth matters the most. What is infuriating to me in these scenarios is that it is often pastors who talk so much about the truth of the scriptures and rail against liberals who bend the truth to win the affection of the world who, in the end, obscure the truth of a situation in order to preserve the affection of their churches.
You have to fight for the truth in every sphere because eventually you will be tempted to shave the edges off of it for your own benefit and you need to be prepared to stand firm.
Lastly - and this one is for the pastors - we’ve got to figure out how to make space for our staff to be able to confess sin without the risk of losing their jobs. A friend once told me that his Senior Pastor regularly told the staff they were “paid to behave”. Think about that for a moment. Think of what he is communicating. If you are paid to behave, you don’t get paid if you don’t behave.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to enable a bunch of drug dealing or adultery. What I am trying to do is encourage you to create a culture where a staff member can confess the beginning of an inappropriate relationship and not be immediately fired for it. I want to tell you that even if you don’t tell your staff they are paid to behave, your culture is probably implying it.
If a pastor on your team is being tempted sexually and one night goes down an Instagram model rabbit hole but comes to you and confesses his sin, this is not a crisis, this is conviction at work. I want the people on my team to be willing and able to confess sinful desires and temptations to me without fear. I want my single staff members to admit that they went too far with their girlfriends.
Do you know why? Because if you address sin when it’s at step 1 or 2, you are far more likely to prevent steps 8, 9, and 10. I don’t want people cheating on their wives or becoming an alcoholic but it will absolutely happen if they can’t publicly deal with the temptation long before it becomes realized.
If the churches in the SBC had committed themselves to the truth above all else and really cultivated cultures of honesty and grace, thousands of people would have avoided the atrocities outlined in that report. Instead, the leaders hid, lied, obscured the truth, and in the process, hurt the witness of the church.