As Christians, How Do We Respond to Abuse Allegations in the Church?
No, Lord, not another one! My stomach feels sick every time I see the headline of a Christian leader accused of sexual misconduct.
Over the years some of you have reached out to ask me what I think about high profile accusations of Christian leaders. You’ve wondered why I don’t write a timely blog or talk about specific situations on our podcast. I’d like to share my heart with you as I process recent headlines and why I don’t publicly address allegations pertaining to specific Christian leaders.
Behind every story are individuals. Victims who need healing. Families grappling with what might be shocking accusations against a parent, a spouse, a child. Ministries scrambling to figure out how to respond with integrity. Having been a witness to this individual pain, I tread very carefully. But mostly, I’m aware of the unseen spiritual battle that swirls, the enemy determined to mock the name of Jesus Christ and dissuade people from trusting in Him. Every scandal, whether the allegations prove true or not, leaves in its wake shipwrecked faith in God. And my heart grieves.
In response, I’ve been personally challenged to ask the question, “God, how can I bring glory to your name right now?” Even as I contemplate the integrity of a leader who I may have never met, the Lord asks me to examine my own heart. While the actions of a Christian leader may cause great damage to the name of Christ, that carnage will be multiplied by thousands of Christian bystanders who do not react in a God-honoring way to such news. I can’t change or even fully know what someone might have done behind closed doors, but I can choose to align my own heart with Christ, even in how I respond.
In Proverbs, we read of seven things that the Lord absolutely hates. They may surprise you: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plans wicked schemes, feet that are quick to follow evil, a false witness who tears people down, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
The abuse of spiritual power and sexual immorality are horribly offensive to God. Jesus indicated that the worst of judgment would be against people who cause little ones to stumble in their faith. But we must also ask God to search our hearts as we steward the news of such accusations. I am asking Him to give me wisdom and discernment in how I process my own feelings and response to very difficult situations in the church. Here are five things He is showing me.
Let it humble you.
Paul wrote, “The one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall.” Paul then wrote that every temptation is common to humanity. In other words, the very sin that my brother or sister may have fallen into is also knocking at my door. As Peter put it, the enemy is a roaring lion, seeking to devour. May each sordid headline develop in us a holy humility and fear prompting us to repentance and transparency. Even then, we have nothing to fall on but the righteousness of Christ. If I for a moment think that I can resist sin in my own strength and resolve, I’m done. The warning of a Christian leader’s fall is not meant to make us paranoid, but to make us desperate for a holiness that we can never manufacture by resolve or self-discipline. One of my favorite reminders is from the end of Jude, “To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!”
Pray for the body to do its work.
One of the most fascinating things about the human body is its capacity to fight sickness and heal its own wounds. When the body identifies an infection, it releases specialized white blood cells to fight against what threatens to destroy health. The rest of the body conserves the energy needed for the fight. Unfortunately, many of our illnesses (like autoimmune diseases) come from the body attacking its own healthy tissue. The same can be said of the body of Christ. God has placed within Christian communities people that He has equipped and called to shepherd, investigate, confront, discipline, and mediate situations involving allegations of abuse. This is sober work that should be undertaken with prayer, fasting, and absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit. For the body to be healthy, we must have men and women of integrity willing to confront evil, refusing to look the other way for the sake of keeping the peace. Paul often called out destructive leaders and exposed hidden sin in his letters to the early church and so must today’s shepherds. Unfortunately, the rest of the body often wants to join in the fight, sometimes attacking what may be healthy tissue. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “If you keep on biting and devouring one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.” Unless you are directly involved in a situation and called to be part of the ministry’s response team, your role in the body is intercession. This means praying day and night for the Lord to give discernment, wisdom, and grace to the parties involved. If you hate what is happening in the church, battle in the spirit on your knees. Your prayers will be much more effective than your tweets.
Don’t gossip or slander.
“Do you think he did it? Did they cover it up?” These are questions I have no right to answer. In all but a few situations, my knowledge of church accusations and fallen leaders has been just like yours; I’ve read about them on a blog or social media post. I have, at best, third-hand knowledge of facts that one individual chose to highlight for the sake of a news story. Are accusations against a church leader credible? Certainly many of them are. Even so, I must acknowledge that often I form personal judgments and opinions on very little information. Jesus knows everything. Nothing is hidden from the Spirit of our God. It is His job to exonerate the falsely accused and to judge the one who has done evil. Slander is tearing down someone by passing on information that is not true. I have done this, even unknowingly, by repeating stories and news about God’s servants that may have been false. Gossip is passing on information that is true for our own personal gain or to hurt another person. It’s sharing a juicy morsel of information to be seen as “in the know” or to punish someone for wrongdoing. I also have found myself doing this. Even my most innocent-sounding words can be mean-spirited and self-promoting. Sometimes we assume that public figures are “fair game” for our opinions and judgments about their lives without realizing that they are also made in the image of God. God’s judgment on them as leaders is a serious thing, but so will be His judgment upon us when we thoughtlessly attack His people. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Comfort those who mourn.
In any situation where there are allegations of abuse, people are hurting. Most obvious are those in the “eye of the storm,” but the ripple effect of pain is astronomical. If you have been sexually or spiritually abused by someone in leadership you are likely triggered by every headline of alleged abuse in the church. It’s yet one more proof that you can’t trust God or His people. You may experience post-trauma systems like flashbacks, nightmares, or body memories, finding parallels in your own story with the victims’. If this describes you right now, please seek out the help of a friend or counselor who can process your hurt and doubt. The Church is called to be a healing agent, ministering to those who are wounded and speaking for those who have no voice. Proverbs says that our words can either be like wounding someone with a sword or healing and life-giving. The power of our words is much more aptly directed toward speaking comfort and hope for the hurting than speculation and condemnation about the accused.
Remember the one name that really matters.
Jesus warned, “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant.” The greatest tragedy of the fall of Christian leaders is not what they may have done in secret, but one person’s power to sully the name of Christ. This was never God’s intention for His people. There should be no Christian superstars, no men or women we think are too spiritual to fall. In our American megachurch/best-selling author/ Christian-guru mindset, we can set up a pastor, speaker, author, or podcaster as the cornerstone of our faith. When Cornellius first met Peter, he “fell at his feet in reverence.” Immediately, Peter made him get up and said, “Stand up. I am only a man myself.” Our faith must never be even loosely tethered to the name and behavior of another human being. A person may lead you to faith, but cannot keep you in faith. There is only One who is trustworthy and righteous to His core. His is the name above every other name. “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
I believe that God can be glorified even through the disheartening headlines about His church. The Lord desires to refine not only those “in the eye of the storm” but also His people who are watching from the sidelines. The power of the Gospel to a watching world is not only what may have been proclaimed from a stage, but how God’s people react in a crisis of faith. We can choose to respond to God’s conviction and comfort in our own lives or feed on speculation and anger. Through our disappointment, we can invite God to strip away our dependence on the structures, systems, and people that we unknowingly build our faith upon. In our groaning and sorrow, may we only be satisfied by the promise of His return.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!
You may also find the following resources helpful:
Longing for Hope When Leaders Fail (blog)
Java with Juli #232: When Sexual Abuse Happens at Church
Java with Juli #166: We Are All Sexually Broken