The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The ministry is the work of God and we cannot “protect” His work by trying to conceal our sin. The Lord calls us to confess and be transparent.
In the last few weeks, several churches have had to deal with a similar problem: sexual abuse by religious leaders. Southern Baptist churches in the USA have had to acknowledge many cases of sexual abuse by pastors and the fact that several churches have been accomplices employing ministers previously accused of sexual offences in former ministries. The Vatican has defrocked a Cardinal charged with sexual abuse (something very unusual in the Catholic Church) and the Pope led a meeting of Catholic leaders from around the world to deal with the protection of minors because of the abuses committed by Catholic priests.
The charges against the Catholic Church have been well known for quite a few years. This has led some Evangelicals to claim that the problem has to do with Catholic doctrine, particularly the celibacy of priests. (I also question some Catholic doctrines, but that is another matter.)
But now, the Evangelical secret is being shouted from the rooftops. Sexual abuse by religious leaders is also a problem in our churches. Evangelical pastors are also prone to be abusive because of their spiritual authority or to assume that their sin has minor consequences.
Sadly, many Evangelical churches have dealt with the sin of their leaders in ways very similar to that of the Catholic Church.
- Negation and concealment. Sexual abuse by pastors is not something new in Evangelical churches. It usually only becomes public when the pastor “runs off with the secretary”. But there have been many cases of sexual abuse of minors, of manipulation of vulnerable people and of imposition of spiritual authority that have never gone public. Evangelical churches have also concealed similar cases and have allowed perpetrators to stay in ministry or move to other churches without consequences.
- Attacking the victim. When abuses have been discovered a defensive response is to blame the victim. Instead of confronting the abuser, the victim is blamed as the temptress that “made the servant of the Lord fall”.
- Pressure on the victim. When a victim has the courage to speak out, he/she has been under pressure to shut up in order to “protect” the ministry or because one should not “touch” the servant of the Lord. She/he is threatened being told that “no one will believe you”, or “that was a long time ago” and one should not expouse of the past.
This moment of painful discovery has to be a time for our churches to take action. God calls us to confront the sin that is in our midst. He invites us to confess, once again, that the church is a community of sinners, justified and sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit, but prone to sin. The ministry is the work of God and we cannot “protect” His work by trying to conceal our sin. The Lord calls us to confess and be transparent.
It is time for Evangelical churches to confess that we have secrets that must be dealt with. It is time to ask the victims for forgiveness because of all the hurt they suffered. We must not to wait for “new secrets” to be made public by the victims or by people that want to hurt the church.
Right now there are victims that are living with hurts and secrets. There are people in our churches who are fighting with an ethical contradiction: concealing the sin of a leader in order to “protect” the ministry. And there are pastors and leaders who are living the lie that “all is fine.” It is time to confront the truth and to begin the ministry of helping those who have suffered, to develop about systems to protect others from suffering this pain and to confront and help the pastors who have fallen into sexual abuse.
The Catholics and the Southern Baptists are struggling with the fact that their “secrets” are being proclaimed publicly. Tomorrow other churches will face the same reality. May the Lord help us understand that the way of healing and holiness must pass through repentance and confession. And that will never happen if we continue on the path of negation and concealment.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Juan Francisco Martinez, Professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, USA.