Church Cultures That Crush the Weak

In the last several months, Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of Reformed churches, has been in the news as the result of a sexual abuse scandal and allegations of a cover up. Although there is much we don’t know for sure, some of the adults accused of abusing children at two different SGM churches are now serving time in prison.

What makes the crimes especially disturbing is that pastors allegedly required the victims to meet with their abusers and forgive them, rather than report the crime to the police. The victims also allege that their abuse was part of a large, church-wide cover up to protect church leaders and the SGM institution.

This past week, a class action lawsuit against SGM was dismissed by a judge due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. It remains to be seen whether the victims will file criminal charges against church leaders.

The SGM legal battle is still unfolding, which makes it difficult to state much with certainty. Even so, it recalls similar cases of serial abuse–such as the Catholic Church and Penn State abuse scandals–and presses us to ask what we can learn from them. How do we prevent this from happening in our own churches?

Now, the sad reality is that churches (and any institution on earth) can only do so much to prevent abuse. Churches can put into place every rule imaginable, but predators will still find a way to abuse children. It is a tragic fact of sin. The only thing churches can do is to minimize the opportunities for abusers to prey on victims, and usually they are able to.

However those protections sometimes fail and abuse does occur. In those situations, what speaks to the integrity of the church is not always the abuse itself (though it can certainly be a sign of a larger community dysfunction), but how the church responds to the abuse. Do the leaders call the police? Do they ensure the vulnerable are safe? Do they prevent the accused from accessing more victims? Do they stamp out it immediately?

If the answer is no, then there is more going on than the acts of abuse themselves. There is also a cultural sickness in the church or institution.

This is what we have seen in the Catholic Church, with the Penn State scandals, and in the lesser publicized Independent Fundamental Baptist tradition. In each case, the abuse was not random or isolated, but facilitated by a cultural dysfunction, and when the problem is cultural the repentance must be cultural too.

I will not speculate about what SGM did right or wrong because I am in no place to do so. I have no idea which claims are true, or who might have been complicit in any wrongdoing, and I would never be so reckless as to guess. Instead, I will simply offer two lessons that we all can learn from cases of serial abuse.

1. Unhealthy church cultures are the fertile soil out of which serial abuse can spring: We can all agree that abuse is evil and condemn it in the strongest terms. But such statements ring hollow in the abstract; they must be accompanied by ownership. Put another way: just because you are not abusing someone does not mean you are contributing to an environment that is safe for the vulnerable.

How can you contribute to a culture that is safe? First, be sure that your church has stiff regulations for child-adult interactions, and abide by them. If your church does not have these, it is a MAJOR red flag!

Also, church communities are ripe for abuse when the members engage in a hero-worship of their pastor, the pastor has king-like power, or the community is committed to protecting the church’s reputation at all costs. These cultural  characteristics may seem relatively harmless, but when mixed with abuse they can produce sinister results.

2. Accountability is complicated by relationships: The SGM scandal hits close to home, so it has reminded me of the complicating factor of friendship. Though we look upon the Catholic Church and Penn State scandals and wonder from afar, “How on earth could people allow this to continue?” I suspect there was more to the story than blind allegiance to an institution. Institutions are also composed of relationships–even friendships–which complicate our reactions all the more.

As Christians we believe in redemption. We hope that abusers can be healed and restored, and we pray for that. So when an abuser (or one connected to an abuse) is a friend or a revered leader, I suspect there is a desire to respond with grace. Or at the very least, to wait. You want to have all the facts, or give them a chance to change. Maybe it’s not what it seems, you hope.

But this inclination toward grace is misguided in its timing. It delays justice and subjects the victims to more abuse. So as important as it is to find out the truth, we must–MUST– make sure the victims are safe, and that the accused is in no position to abuse others.

According to Scripture, sin has a corporate component to it. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul rebukes the entire church on account of one man’s sexual sin. Rather than single out the offender, Paul states that the entire church is complicit in the man’s sin. Likewise, any time that abuse occurs in our ranks we must humbly search ourselves and examine our communities for corruption. How did we fail the victims? How did we contribute to a culture in which leaders became too powerful, too invincible, or the church’s reputation became too important? And how can we, as a community, support the victims of this evil? How can we ensure that the weakest and most vulnerable among us are never marginalized?

When serial abuse occurs within an institution, it implicates more than the abuser. Sometimes, we can participate in a culture that enables abuses to continue. The combination of bad theology with the most basic sin of idolatry can produce communities that crush and marginalize the weak. So I urge you, brothers and sisters, to do more than condemn the abuse that is “out there,” belonging to somebody else. Instead, examine your hearts and examine your church community for “any offensive way” in you (Psalm 139:24). In this simple act before the Lord, there is so much at stake.