How does a church come to terms with revelations of abuse by a leader, especially when the accusations have been established as fact?
In 1 Timothy 5:19, Paul writes, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Referring back to an Old Testament law, the expression “two or three witnesses” is a biblical idiom for careful and independent attestation of the truth of the accusations. This acknowledges that false accusations are sometimes leveled at church leaders.
But how should we respond when the accused is found guilty? Of course, it’s of first importance to comfort, love, and help the victims of abuse. And it’s critical to ask what lessons the particular church or institution can learn from the tragic revelation. Are there unrecognized elements within the church or other ministry that have allowed abuse to take place? What can be done to keep this from happening again?
Such vital questions are beyond the scope of this article, but I want to consider three broader ways we should respond when an influential leader whom many respect is exposed for abusing those in his care.
1. We Must Guard Our Own Hearts
Revelations of abuse arouse in us disbelief, then dismay, shock, and horror. We rightly distance ourselves from abusive behaviors and see how terribly wrong they are. And yet the moment we do this, we are in great danger and must guard ourselves:
- Against self-righteousness. There is no place for self-righteousness (Luke 18:9–14). The danger with expressing our horror and revulsion at abusive behaviors is that we slip into a pharisaic smug complacency, thanking God that we are not guilty of serious sin. We must not do this. We have not been guilty of, or complicit in, the abuse that has been uncovered—praise God. But there are many sins of which we’ve been guilty.
- Against an unhealthy interest. In the context of a Christian being “caught in transgression,” Paul exhorts his readers: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). We may not be tempted by the ugly features of any particular instance of abuse. But it’s easy to gossip, and there is a danger of indulging a prurient interest and craving to know more. Sinful behavior of any kind sticks to us like dirt; indeed, knowing about ugly actions is a little like pornography—it lurks in our memories and drags us down in our thoughts and emotions. We may need to re-hear the exhortation: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
- Against a twisted gladness. When Judah came under the judgment of God during the Babylonian exile, the prophets had a special word of condemnation for the Edomites, who cheered on the Babylonians and rejoiced at the disaster that befell Judah. “But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin” (Obad. 12; cf. Prov. 24:17–18). This is a danger for us, perhaps especially when a Christian leader falls.
2. We Must Face Our Disillusionment with Trust in Christ Alone
The shock of all abuse revelations is peculiarly acute when the one whom they concern has been a blessing to many. How can something so good be intimately associated with something so evil? It’s deeply disorienting to find that a man we thought we knew—perhaps a man some viewed as a father figure—is not the man we thought he was. It feels like the foundations are being pulled from beneath us. There is a painful sense of loss, akin to bereavement. How are we to make sense of this apparently senseless confluence of good and evil in one person?
We must remind ourselves of the depth and extent of our own depravity. The heroes of Scripture were flawed people. The great King David committed adultery (if not rape) and was complicit in murder (2 Sam. 11). Solomon had great wisdom yet failed terribly. And we remain deeply sinful even as regenerate people (Rom. 7). Any one of us is capable of committing terrible sins. If we think we’re not, we must take heed lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
All this is true, but it still doesn’t entirely explain the particular tragedy of abuse by a church leader. Sin is incredibly deceitful, and we must grapple with that fact.
To do this, we should begin with a wholesome model of pastoral care. A pastor who’s a more mature Christian takes younger believers under his care. He prays for them. He instructs and encourages them. He keeps in touch with them. He meets with them and exhorts them to keep following Jesus faithfully.
But if we’re not careful, even this kind of relationship can go wrong. Perhaps the loving care is so intense that the friendship becomes a little exclusive. The older believer begins to think of this younger believer as “his”—not only his pastoral responsibility, but even his prerogative, so that no one else is really allowed to encourage this younger person.
It’s not difficult to see how wholesome pastoral care might morph into something much darker, and the younger disciple end up being used for the purposes of the older pastor rather than the older pastor sacrificially serving him. Who knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart in this process? The leader is not likely fully aware himself—such is the deceitfulness of the human heart.
In Christ we see the polar opposite of every kind of abuse.
So what are the warning signs of this dark exchange? Exclusivity might be one. Favoritism might be another. When there is any perception that some are “the favored ones” and others are not, danger lurks.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis explains how the human experiences that most closely imitate the character of God sometimes lead us to confuse those experiences with God. Imagine being almost home at the end of a long journey, Lewis says, only to become stuck at the top of a cliff overlooking your home. We are close to home, but we still have a lot of walking to do.
Lewis applies this point to both erotic love and also patriotic love for one’s country, both of which are like God’s love—yet far from it. Similarly, the kind of close, affectionate pastoral care that approximates the care of Jesus may begin to claim the prerogatives of authority and influence that belong to Jesus alone. And so, by a diabolical alchemy, something wholesome and nourishing transforms into something abusive.
But even if we slowly begin to grasp something of how the abuse might have happened—and such a grasp will be tentative, for we cannot see another’s heart—we must face the frightening reality that the blessings we thought we’d experienced through this leader might not be true blessings at all. Might they not be in some way invalidated by these revelations, tainted beyond recovery by the sin with which we now know they were associated? These are truly sobering questions, for these blessings relate to salvation and eternal destiny.
Paul encouraged Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14), presumably meaning Timothy’s godly mother and grandmother, and the apostle himself. As Timothy remembered the godliness and integrity of those from whom he learned faith in Christ, he was encouraged to continue on the path of faith. But what if we discover that one from whom we learned the things of Christ didn’t have the integrity and godliness we thought he had? Is that not deeply disturbing? It is.
And yet, we must come back to the fundamental truth that all our blessings come through Christ alone, the Savior in whom there is no sin, in whose life we see pure goodness, sacrificial service of others, and the polar opposite of every kind of abuse.
Scripture repeatedly warn us not to put our trust in people other than God and his Christ. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” the king warns in Psalm 118:9. “Put not your trust in princes,” the psalmist warns, for blessing comes only to the one “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Ps. 146:3–5).
Writing from prison to the church in Philippi, Paul is sad that some “preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” And yet he takes comfort that, whatever their motives, “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:15–18). The channels through whom we hear the good news of Jesus will never be perfect; sometimes they will prove deeply flawed, whether through bad motives or even through the horror of abuse. But the blessing comes from Jesus Christ, and no flaws in the channel can remove from us the sheer goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in Jesus.
No flaws in the channel can remove the goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in the Source.
Suppose someone came to faith in Christ through the ministry of this now-fallen leader, or someone else looks back to a signal time of growth in grace through his preaching, or another is in ministry because of his encouragement. How are these now to view their conversion, their growth in grace, their being in ministry?
The answer, I think, is this: They may be grateful to God for his overwhelming kindness to them, that he appointed a channel through whom they heard the gospel, through whom they grew in grace, through whom they entered ministry. Nothing about any of those blessings is invalidated by the sad discovery of the leader’s flawed behavior. All these blessings rest on Christ; not one rests on the character of this or any other leader.
For some, there may need to be a period of painful readjustment. We may need to hear afresh the admonition not to put our trust in “princes” (including dynamic Christian leaders). We may need to repent if our trust has become mixed between this leader and the Savior. But in the end, we should take fresh comfort from all we have in Christ.
3. We Must Lament, Repent, and Be Humbled—Together
When the Old Testament people of God came under judgment in the Babylonian exile, those who were true and even blameless were caught up in judgment with those who were arrogant idolaters. We hear the voices of these true believers in a number of places. In Psalm 79, for example, provoked by the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem, the Spirit-inspired psalmist grieves when the surrounding nations taunt them with the mocking question, “Where is their God?” (v. 10). It’s spoken to the idolaters and to the psalmist.
In his prayer in Daniel 9:1–19, the godly Daniel laments the “open shame” that has come “to us” (vv. 7–8), for we have all “become a byword among all who are around us” (v. 16). The godly Nehemiah laments that, because of the people’s ungodliness, “we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). In other words, all of us fall under the shadow of God’s discipline, whether or not we have personally been guilty of covenant-breaking and idolatry.
Mockers Will Mock
When a church leader’s abuse is exposed, the whole church of Jesus will be reviled by the world. We’ll be taunted as hypocrites. We’ll be laughed at when we speak of biblical virtue and the law of God.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
Some who are lifelong enemies of the gospel will use these sad events as a vehicle to make life miserable for Christians. Others—and this is more tragic—who might have had a genuine interest in the Christian faith will be driven away from a message whose messengers now appear to them as hypocrites or worse.
All this is desperately painful, but we must expect it. As God’s people did after the exile, we too must learn to lament together for the sad state of the church. We grieve for the victims and seek to love and care for them as best we can. We grieve for the honor of Christ.
And yet, even as we lament and repent afresh of our own sins, we cling to the invincible promises of God. For Jesus promised he will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt.16:18). That promise stands even on our darkest day. So let us encourage one another to hold firmly to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is our only hope.