I have been pondering this issue of sexual predators in the church. Much of the conversation has revolved around larger denominational structures, rather than local churches. I think that has happened for at least two reasons. Pedophilia was for the most part perceived as a Catholic issue. It was too convenient to ignore the imagery of non-married clergy and altar boys. Huge court cases and enormous financial settlements only served to reinforce our prejudices. It has now become apparent that issue is an iceberg in the Baptist ocean as well.
The Southern Baptist Convention response has been abysmal at best. My own beloved Baptist General Convention of Texas has responded, but in ways which are insufficient. We have hidden behind the skirt of autonomy and cried foul to those who accuse us of not caring enough. It makes sense that the groups that have raised these concerns go after the big denominational machineries. There had to be a focal point and that strategy has been well served. I suggest that it is time for local churches to be made aware of these issues.
This article is an attempt to help local churches understand their roles in this issue. This approach suggests that the impetus to take action should come from theological reflection and ethical concern, not the fear of litigation or embarrassment. The Bible does have something to say about protecting the vulnerable; more specifically protecting our children.
The Bible calls us to care for the vulnerable in society. James 1:27 goes as far as to call care for widows and orphans a “pure and undefiled religion”. I think to limit this to those two groups is to miss the point. The point is this: religion is judged not on how we treat the powerful or those who can help us, but the weak and those who have little to offer.
The one text that causes greatest pause are Jesus’ words that being tempted is bad enough, but special judgment comes to those who are the tempters. The ones who temp and cause the “little ones” to stumble should prefer a millstone tied around their neck and to be thrown into the sea. [Luke 17:1-2] “Little ones” might refer to all who are vulnerable, but surely children would at the top of this list.
The thrust of Jesus’ ministry was righting the wrongs done to the disadvantaged and leveling the field for those who are without leverage. This goes to the heart of pedophilia. It is exploitation and abuse of those who are least powerful. A child is virtually defenseless when it comes to a sexual predator. We fool ourselves when we think that only weak or ignorant children succumb to such trickeries. As long as there are predators, all of our children are at risk.
What about the issue of forgiveness? Wouldn’t Jesus forgive the molester? Shouldn’t he/she get a second chance?
This is where we have to look long and hard at the nature of sin, the results of sin, and the impact that certain sins have on others. Paul acknowledges the reality of sin in Romans and Galatians. He speaks of the reality of sin when he says that the spirit wars against the flesh. He himself confesses that even at his advanced maturity it is battle that must be won daily. [Galatians 5:16-ff. and Romans 8:6-7]
Paul is not ambiguous as he speaks against the realities and dire consequences of sexual sin in particular. He calls out a couple on Corinth who are living in an incestuous relationship and calls out the church for condoning such behavior. [1 Corinthians 5:1-ff.] Paul states the not even people in the real world would “tolerate such behavior.” Removal for a season for a purpose of purification is Paul’s plan of action. Those are bold steps because Paul understands that effect that condoning sexual immorality in the church.
What would Paul say about a pedophile? Would it be any less forceful? Paul understood that unrepentant sin in the body of Christ can grow and spread like a cancer. Such permissiveness in areas of morality is unacceptable in the body of Christ.
Can God save a pedophile? The answer is yes. The issue that must be addressed is the process of redemption or sanctification. One can be saved, but that does not mean that they are necessarily free from the burdens and temptations of previous lifestyles. I have a friend who is an alcoholic. He will not go to a place or home where alcohol is served. He has been sober for over 10 years.
That leads us to pedophilia. The recidivism rate is staggering. Just wanting to be better or hoping to be better or even praying to be better is not enough. There must years and years of therapy and lifestyle changes.
In light of this I pose this question. If one is a pedophile should they be irrevocably removed from church participation? The answer is no. It is Christ’s church, and all have a place.
If one is a pedophile should they be irrevocably removed from service in a church with children and students? My answer is yes.
Until someone comes up with better diagnostic tools that are able to proclaim someone free from pedophilia they lose the privilege of working with kids and students in a church.
Abusing a child leaves lifetime scars. That is a risk too great to ever be taken by any church at any time.
Ed Hogan is pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church in Houston.