Responding to heinous sins as pastors and elders....

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Tim has written a post further explaining how we should deal with sexual abusers in the family of Christ in light of recent criticism of Pastor Douglas Wilson and Christ Church Moscow's work with a man convicted of sexual abuse. Dealing with such issues is a weighty duty of Christ's shepherds--one which we almost always recoil before. Many of the errors we make in this area come as a result of not wanting to face the unthinkable. I remember dealing with a repugnant sexual sin in session many years ago and one elder saying to the rest of us, "I don't think we should deal with this. I'd rather not know this kind of thing." Most of us feel the same when such sins arise.

I would like to add several further considerations to what Tim has written.

First, pastors don't automatically possess deep insights into human wickedness and depravity. We grow into it. Hard experience teaches us it. But grace and mercy are the central subjects of Gospel ministry. Understanding and preaching depravity is important to our witness; more important still is faith in the power of Jesus' blood to redeem and the Holy Spirit to sanctify.

Pastors must preach sin to proclaim Christ. But realism about sin must not trump the power of Jesus. A pastor who is pessimistic about the power of the Gospel is no help to anyone. We must be convinced of a new birth that isn't merely psychological, but spiritual. We must believe we will see repentant sinners set free by Christ. What sin can constrain the new birth or overome the power of the Spirit?

Much of the outcry against Pastor Wilson seems to assume that while certain sins are amenable to Gospel power, others are not. Do we really believe such a Gospel? Do we really hold to a new birth where, "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation--unless his sin was against women and/or children and punishable by death in the Old Testament. In such cases, the old remains; behold, the new has not yet come."

Scripture doesn't stop at the end of 1 Corinthians 6:10....

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 

It goes on in verse 11 to say...

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Second, if we're honest we'll admit that precisely no one handles such sexual sin well. Not the Church. Not the state. Not schools. Not families. There's no gold standard that all others fall short of. And here's an important thing to admit: those of us who think we might have handled the Sitler case better than Pastor Wilson and Christ Church think so only on the basis of prior experience--and, more particularly, prior failures very similar to those of Christ Church.

I cringed reading about the Sitler case at points. In particular, the refusal of victim's families to cooperate with authorities in fleshing out the full extent of Mr. Sitler's crimes might have seemed gracious toward him and sensitive toward his victims at the time, but in all likelihood it allowed the full extent of his sin to remain unexposed.

But I cringed at least in part because of making similar mistakes myself. Failing to assume the existence of other victims is the common result of blinkered, wishful (often cowardly) thinking in these cases. It's not particularly the result of desiring to look good before the world. It's the result of not wanting to believe the worst of others, not wanting to look deep into the darkness ourselves, not wanting to confront the perpetrator, his family, the victims and their families--all of whom often just want the mess to disappear. The perpetrator's desire for a shallow investigation is obvious. Less obvious but no less real is the frequent desire of victims and their families to control the results and limit the flow of information from investigations.

So we seek to quickly cauterize the wound at the expense of failing to realize the extent of suffering caused by the perpetrator. In this regard the close-mouthed approach to authorities which led to Mr. Sitler being charged with only one instance of abuse was a mistake that probably led to Mr. Sitler receiving a lighter sentence than he would have otherwise. Despite the stated desire being to prevent further suffering, I suspect this approach brought little relief to Mr. Sitler's victims. But this is a conclusion I come to reluctantly as a result of personal experience with such situations. Those unfamiliar with the patterns of abuse and sexual sin are quite unlikely to suspect the depth of deception and depravity surrounding it, at least initially.

Third, striking by its absence in the current hullabaloo is the voice of any victim. We can't assume happiness from silence. But neither can we assume unhappiness. The lack of victims' voices in the current debate makes the accusations of Pastor Wilson's critics seem disingenuous--less concerned with this case than with other defects they perceive in Pastor Wilson and Christ Church. 

Fourth, according to Guttmacher Institute figures, fifty percent of women receiving abortions between the ages of 15 and 44 have had at least one previously. Recidivism among mothers who murder by abortion is close to fifty percent. Are critics of Pastor Wilson truly motivated by concern for victims of abuse? If so, do they stand equally against churches extending mercy and hope to mothers who have had abortions? Against churches accepting such women into membership? Against churches performing marriages of women with abortions in their past? Against churches permitting mothers who have had abortions to become pregnant? 

Mothers who abort victimize their children no less than fathers who abuse. I grant that abortion by its nature is a singular crime, but is the sin of abortion less heinous than that of men who abuse children sexually? Are men morally culpable for abusing their children in ways women are not? Are women moral agents in the same way men are?

I read this last point to several of my children and in-laws earlier this afternoon and they pretty much all went, "Hunnh?" So I've rewritten it, but I don't know if I've made the point more clear. Still, I think it's a legitimate and serious concern. Sexual sin leads victims into lifetimes of sexual turmoil and temptation in ways that abortion doesn't. I don't deny it. Sexual abuse is horrible and I'm not arguing otherwise. It deserves the kinds of penalties God specified for it in the Old Testament. But sexual crimes weren't the only offenses for which the penalties included death. Nor are sexual sins the only crimes involving victims in which recidivism is common.

Should the possibility of lapsing back into a sin lead us to write off whole categories of sinners from acceptance and love, or the pursuit of marriage and intimacy? If so, which sins should lead us to do so and which shouldn't? Ultimately, I think any approach which isn't cautiously ad hoc is likely to do the work of a scalpel with a meat cleaver. The calling of elders isn't the work of referees. It's not all rules and lines with no room for interpretation and little for judgment. Elders must wait upon the Holy Spirit. This is true in every judgment we make, especially those involving penalties for sin and the offer of God's grace.