Church Abuse and the Lies We Tell Ourselves
Last week an atomic bomb hit the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with an estimated 14 million members across more than 47,000 churches. An in-depth investigative report demonstrated that the Executive Committee of the SBC was aware of pervasive sexual malfeasance in their ranks over the past fifteen years and refused to act. The Executive Committee swept sexual abuse allegations under the rug, perpetrators were moved from one congregation to another to hide their abuse, and earnest appeals for reform were denied.[i]
Yet somehow, the Executive Committee deceived themselves into believing the enemies were those calling for an investigation and reform. This was gaslighting on a grand scale. The Executive Committee forgot that the Enemy does not expose darkness to light. God is the one who shines light into darkness.
This exposé ought to make every Christian mourn and every Christian leader reflect on how he or she can heed the warning of this egregious institutional failure.
I don’t presume to know the hearts of the men who amplified and multiplied the sin committed against these victims. It appears, though, that these leaders’ motivation was to protect the reputation of the SBC. Such folly! What is the reputation of a denomination when the reputation of Christ is at stake? What is the world’s perception worth when the hearts of the vulnerable are on the line?
One of the sternest warnings Jesus ever levels at his disciples involves the protection of the weak. In response to their bickering over who will be “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1), Jesus draws a child to him and tells them that “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). With shock still likely registering on the disciples’ faces, Jesus then sternly says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Consider with me the horror of this image. Have you ever been pulled under a wave and sucked salt water through your nose into your lungs? Fear clamps your chest as you flail your way to the surface, coughing. Drowning must be one of the most fearful ways one could die. Being dragged to the bottom of the sea by a stone (that weighed nearly a ton) sends shivers down my spine.
We think our secrets are so damning and shameful that we must cover them up at all costs. Jesus believes that the hearts of children and the vulnerable are so valuable that there is no cost we shouldn’t pay for their protection. The exposure of our secrets will not damn us, but hiding them might well do just that.
What are the secrets that I have convinced myself are better to be swept under the rug of my heart? What are my justifications? How have I persuaded my heart that this secret can’t get out? Such folly! Run to the light, oh heart! In his first epistle, John captures his message this way,
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 Jn 1:5-10).
Could John be any clearer? To hide our sin is to deny Christ. To protect our shame is to ally ourselves with the enemy. To bring sin into the light is to experience the hope of Christ’s forgiveness.
Jesus, forgive us for covering our sins. Forgive us for being whitewashed tombs. Expose our sin that you might receive glory. Root out the wicked, deceivers, and hypocrites from our leaders’ ranks. Protect the little ones.
Who are you confessing to, Christian? Come out of the dark so that you might experience the healing and hope of Christ.
[i] Kate Shellnut, “Southern Baptists Refused to Act on Abuse, Despite Secret List of Pastors,” May 22, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/may/southern-baptist-abuse-investigation-sbc-ec-legal-survivors.html.