On the evening of May 26, the Executive Committee (EC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released a list of alleged church-related sexual abuse offenders. You can read the list here. This action comes in response to a third-party investigation published on May 22 that revealed a widespread coverup by top denominational leaders of such abuse.
The EC promised earlier in the week to release this list. Their action comes fifteen years after sexual abuse survivor Christa Brown began sounding the alarm that Southern Baptists needed to create such a list to prevent abusers from transferring from church to church. She first told SBC leaders in 2004 that she had been abused by a youth minister who then went on to serve in other Southern Baptist churches in several states. However, when she suggested this idea in 2007, she was met with hostility.
Brown was emotional when she learned that the man she alleges abused her was listed in the database. “This means so much to us survivors,” she said. “It’s a reflection of how cruel it was to stonewall any kind of validation for decades. For survivors to heal, this kind of validation is an acknowledgment of the truth of the horror of what was done to us.”
Let’s discuss the SBC list in the larger context of accountability and church discipline. How should churches and ministries respond to victims of clergy sexual abuse? What steps should be taken to prevent such horrific sins?
I am writing this paper as a biblical theologian, not as an attorney or a professional counselor. As a result, I will focus on biblical guidelines and their application to this issue. In addition, as I will explain below, I encourage every church and ministry to enlist professional guidance with regard to legal issues, best practices for staff training and responding to allegations, and ministry to victims.
While this is a much larger subject than we can cover completely in a single article, I will set out four biblical imperatives that can frame our response.
One: Prepare proactively
The sin of sexual abuse can affect any church, large or small, in any community. No minister or member is exempt. Because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), all of us are broken and fallen people. In addition, Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Sexual sins committed by Christian leaders are especially damaging to the cause of Christ. Ministers do their work on the basis of credibility. If we cannot trust their personal character, we cannot trust their words or actions.
As a result, we should expect the Enemy to attack Christian leaders with regard to their personal integrity. We are naïve if we believe that what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention cannot happen in our denomination and local church. Now is the time for churches and ministries to prepare proactively and biblically.
Every church and ministry needs clear guidelines regarding moral conduct and potential sexual abuse. These guidelines should set out expectations for leadership, employees, and members and provide a structure for individuals to respond if they become victims of clergy abuse. I would encourage churches and ministries to enlist legal and counseling expertise in this regard.
We should also be proactive with regard to the related sin of pornography. Given its horrific prevalence among ministers, we should take steps to protect our staff and those they serve. Tools can help to block pornography from church computers and other technology; counseling resources can be made available for those dealing with this often-addictive sin.
If clergy abuse occurs, we want to respond rather than react so we can serve its victims as effectively and compassionately as possible.
Two: Respond to sin immediately
Jesus set out a clear strategy for responding to sin: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17).
Jesus’ guidance offers us a four-step church discipline strategy:
- We confront the person who sins against us.
- If the sinner does not repent, we confront him again with the help of “one or two others.”
- If the sinner still does not repent, we make the matter public before the entire congregation.
- If the sinner still does not repent, we remove them from our fellowship (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).
This strategy prevents gossip and slander since it requires us to speak to rather than about people. It also provides a clear way to protect the church from those who continue in their sin.
However, a single text is seldom all God’s word says about an issue. We are to interpret Scripture in the context of Scripture and respond to specific issues with biblical wisdom. Such is the case with regard to clergy sexual abuse.
There may be occasions where victims can safely and effectively respond to their abusers. But this is often not the case. Forcing victims to confront their abuser could further victimize them. They deserve to be protected and to be granted anonymity if they wish.
In such situations, the victim should be able to go to other trusted ministers and leaders. These are the “two or three others” Jesus specified. These individuals can respond to this allegation on behalf of the victim. And they can protect the accused in case the allegation is false. Such a structure is part of the framework every church and ministry should develop beforehand (as noted above).
When churches and ministries become aware of potential clergy abuse, the worst thing they can do is to ignore, attempt to silence, or even vilify the accuser. Protecting the institution from those abused by its leaders further victimizes the very people the institution was intended to serve.
On the contrary, such victims deserve our greatest compassion and support.
Three: Protect innocent leaders
So far, we have focused on abuse committed by ministry leaders. But it is also the case that leaders can be the victims of false claims as well. It is vital that we define what it means to be “credibly accused” in a way that protects both victims and innocent leaders.
When Joseph was enslaved in Egypt, his master’s wife sought to have sexual relations with him (Genesis 39:6–10). When he refused, she falsely accused him of attempting to rape her (vv. 11–18).
The famous “Billy Graham” rule was created in response to this possibility. The great evangelist refused to be alone with a woman who was not his wife, not only to avoid possible temptation on his part but also to preclude someone from falsely accusing him of impropriety. He knew that such a lie would make global headlines and become a harmful distraction to his ministry.
This is another reason Jesus’ counsel is so wise. As I noted earlier, the “two or three witnesses” he prescribes can act not only on behalf of the victim but also to investigate the allegation and, where necessary, protect the innocently accused.
In this spirit, before releasing the list we are discussing today, attorneys for the SBC said they would redact survivors’ names and try to ensure that the list includes only people who were “credibly accused.” According to the Washington Post, this includes pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, or volunteers who have confessed to abuse, been convicted in a court of law, or had a civil judgment rendered against them. In addition, an independent third party could determine that someone was “credibly accused” by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Both victims of clergy abuse and innocent clergy must be protected.
Four: Hold the guilty accountable
As we have seen, when a leader is credibly accused of sexual abuse, the church or ministry must respond immediately. However, it is not enough to remove them from their ministry position. As those calling for the SBC to release its list of alleged abusers made clear, this can permit the person to continue abusing others in other churches and cities.
When a sinner refuses to repent, Jesus’ strategy for the church is clear: they must be removed publicly from our fellowship (Matthew 18:17). This action protects the faith community from further sin and sends a clear signal to the culture that we reject such sinfulness.
Paul reinforced the urgency of this response: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1–2).
Jesus and Paul addressed relational sins within the body of Christ. In addition, clergy sexual abuse is a crime. With regard to crime and criminals, Romans 13 teaches that the “governing authorities” exist to respond (vv. 1–7). As a result, sexual abuse allegations should be reported to the authorities.
What about grace for those who repent? Scripture teaches that God forgives all we confess and will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, my emphasis). However, the consequences of sin remain. Victims of clergy sexual abuse will live with the scars of their abuse for the rest of their lives.
In addition, the Bible clearly states that ministry leaders “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; cf. Titus 1:6). One of the consequences of clergy abuse is that even repentant abusers lose the credibility by which to minister. Paul testified of himself, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). I therefore agree with the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board policy declaring any registered sex offender to be “permanently disqualified” from church leadership.
We must balance grace for sinners who repent, protection for the innocent, accountability within the body of Christ, and the witness of the gospel to the world.
I believe these biblical guidelines to be a foundational response to the issue of clergy sexual abuse. As noted earlier, I encourage you and your congregation or ministry to enlist professional support with regard to legal issues and best practices for responding to allegations and to victims.
Billy Graham stated, “Our world today is looking for men and women with integrity, for communicators who back up their ministry with their lives. Our preaching emerges out of what we are. We are called to be holy people—separated from the moral evils of the world.”
I pray that this discussion helps us be such “holy people” to the good of those we serve and the glory of God.