When I was in Jr High, someone very close to me told me they had been sexually abused by a prominent member of their Church. When this person told their minister, the response was to the effect of “that isn’t true, don’t lie about such a good person.” I knew the response was wrong. I knew because abuse is illegal. In Matthew 19, Jesus defends children and throughout the Bible, sexual immorality is condemned. I’ll be honest, this was a struggle for me.
What happened was clearly wrong, but the minister was an authority, not just in the community at large, but within the body of Christ. The abuser was also an authority within the community and the Church. Number one, in my mind was, this should not have happened! Number two, when reported, the minister should have investigated, gotten help for the abused person, removed the abuser from church leadership, and turned that person over to police. I can’t tell you that I didn’t also wonder what this person’s life would have looked like if even one of these events had occurred according to God’s Word and the law’s requirements.
A short time after this information was shared with me, news began to break of the pervasive abuses, and cover-ups of abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. I was rocked, as are our students when this news breaks. The young people of the LCMS have observed the mistakes made by the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention in dealing with instances of abuse. Our students are looking to faith leaders in our communities for their response.
What do we do when a congregation or denomination mishandles abuse? How do we continue to tell students that Jesus is good when the establishment that purports to espouse His teachings, hurts people? When we see the news of Catholic priests abusing children? Or ministers covering up abuse allegations? Our students see these and other events like them and, having been raised in the Church, know that they are wrong. Our students have been taught that Jesus loves us all and wants salvation and only the best for us.
We remember and remind that God is good and perfect; People are not.
So many things in our current culture are also just wrong. The ways in which we, as humans have just barreled full speed ahead towards our own annihilation, is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, we have not limited this sin to the secular world. Our sinful human natures have infiltrated the very institutions we set up to glorify God. This is inevitable. We are sinful people. Without God’s grace and forgiveness we will never be what we are supposed to be. The second that we think that our sin is somehow less bad than someone else’s, is the second that the Devil shows up with that fruit in the garden and then we are really in trouble. Thank God that He sent Jesus for us church people too!
As ministers and lay ministers working with students, I hope that we can use the experiences of others as cautionary tales. First, with God’s grace, we avoid those same mistakes! Next, we endeavor to point youth to God’s Word and Sacrament which tell us of God’s goodness. While we should not minimize or attempt to make excuses for a sin within the church, we should acknowledge the pain caused by institutions similar to our own. We need to look to Jesus for forgiveness and impart His peace to those who have been harmed.
Let’s conduct ourselves in a professional manner. Get the background checks. Investigate the questions and concerns. Keep the doors open, literally and figuratively. Communicate well and often with parents, students, and other volunteers. Keep your eyes and ears open and never make the mistake of thinking that “it can’t happen here.” Take a note from Hippocrates, “first do no harm”. Please take time for some introspection. Honestly examine if you are conducting yourself in a manner beyond reproach.
Let’s be really clear with students that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That includes churches and their leadership. I pray to God that you never know abuses in your congregation. I pray that we only ever have to answer questions about other denominations and their failures. Let’s not forget that any abuse in a Church is exponential because it’s in a Church. Sexual abuse in a Church is sexual abuse and spiritual abuse. Emotional abuse in a Church is emotional abuse and spiritual abuse. I don’t know about you, but spiritual abuse has got to be the most heinous of any abuse. Spiritual abuse involves deep manipulation and a fundamental twisting of the sanctity of God.
The Bible exhorts us as teachers that we will be judged with greater strictness. I believe the reason for this is the position of power that spiritual leaders have in our society.
So, we’ve established guidelines of how we should conduct ourselves, but what about the questions that arise when students see other churches acting contrary to the Bible? As with anything else, we go back to the Bible.
Listen to the concerns of your students. Are they speaking in generalities or are they alluding to specific instances in their own lives? You may need to draw inferences in order to respond appropriately and compassionately.
Empower righteous anger. Anger in and of itself is not a sin; it is what we do with that anger that matters. Jesus overturned the tables in the temple. There was a reason behind his anger and His actions had a positive impact in His world. An appropriate response to abuse in a Church might involve removal from leadership or even reporting to law enforcement. As leaders we can come alongside our students and assist them in proper reporting. Volunteer to sit with them when they call their school counselor. Ask if they would like the pastor or other trusted adult to lend support and then set up the appointment. Recognize your role as a facilitator and resource, while humbly acknowledging your own limitations as someone not in law enforcement.
Encourage grace. When we are speaking in generalizations, remind students that ALL have sinned and fall short. Grace, where appropriate, should be given. Forgiving because Christ forgave us first is a good thing. A lesson in what forgiveness may be prudent depending on the situation. Consequences for inappropriate actions are critical, but we can also forgive in Jesus’ name.
Of course, abuse is not the only way things go wrong in religion. Lies, broken promises, failures of stewardship, and Biblical “truths” that sinful human minds have twisted into comfortable platitudes are all wrong. This is where we need to be familiar with the true and inerrant word of God. It is always possible for sinful humans like you and I to get things wrong, but when we know the actual Truth of our God’s good and perfect Word, we are able to discern His Truth and ﬁnd comfort, grace, and healing.