Devastating recent news of abuse has shown that wickedness can seep into any movement, whether the most developed hierarchy or movements characterized by autonomy. There is no silver bullet. Polity alone is no protection against evil and sin. Too often those who have committed abuse move to new churches and ministries with little personal consequence.
While some church plants belong to denominations with clear accountability structures for churches, pastors, and other leaders, plants from free church or baptistic traditions that value local church autonomy must be thoughtful and intentional to have clear accountability structures in place from the earliest days.
Establishing systems of accountability will prepare churches to protect people, and to pursue justice should abuse occur.
Clear Policies and Procedures
From the earliest days of planting a church, policies and procedures for accountability and church discipline ought to be expressed—with clarity and precision—in a church’s bylaws and policies. In my experience, existing churches are often open to sharing their policies with new church plants. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on these matters, especially for church plants with a direct relationship to a sending church.
These policies and procedures ought to include, but not be limited to, the following:
- Conduct criminal background checks on all staff and ministry leaders. This is essential for all volunteers who serve in children’s ministry—for anyone who participates in church nursery/child care on any level.
- Develop and enforce a child safety policy for adults serving in children’s ministry and nursery/child care. This is the type of policy that states two adults must be present with minors at all times, etc.
- Train children’s ministry volunteers to recognize signs of abuse, and give them clear channels for reporting abuse.
- Know your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. These are a baseline minimum for reporting. If you have any doubt at all, report to authorities, and tell the victim that you intend to do so.
- Require mandatory reporting on any child abuse. Have a clear policy on how to handle adult victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse as well. Be prepared to contact authorities and to help victims through the difficult process of reporting to police and considering whether to press charges.
- Have a clear policy on how the church will handle registered sex offenders.
- Never guarantee confidentiality. In our discipline policy it is explicit that appeals will be made to authorities when necessary (Rom. 13:1–7).
- Develop relationships with local counselors and therapists for the sake of referrals and a resource to get advice.
Even with the best policies and procedures in place, it is essential that accusations of abuse be addressed with seriousness and sobriety.
Plurality of Elders
In autonomous churches, the importance of a plurality of elders and meaningful membership is heightened. A true plurality of elders is a necessary and biblical form of accountability at the highest level of church leadership.
From the beginning, a focus on cultivating a broader leadership culture of elders and deacons—and other ministry leaders, including both men and women—will help to foster greater openness and accountability throughout a church.
For church plants at early stages that do not yet have a plurality of elders or covenanted members, it’s helpful to have a direct relationship with a sending church that provides accountability and support for the planter. Even with an emphasis on autonomy, we see the importance of interconnectivity in the early church and in the work of church planting (Acts 13; 15).
With or without that connectivity, it’s crucial that a church plant know to whom appeals can be made if clear sin or abuse is exposed.
Every member of the church is a member of Christ’s body, so their sin and pain affects the rest of the body (1 Cor. 12:22–26). Even pastors are first and foremost members of the church, and therefore subject to the discipline and policies of the church.
A church plant must thoughtfully implement clear and documented standards for membership, what decisions members will have a voice in, how leaders will be held accountable, and what mechanisms (i.e., regular members’ meetings) will be used to report on church matters. Moreover, all child safety policies should be shared with the entire congregation, to communicate to parents and non-parents alike that this is something the church takes seriously.
There will be times when matters of unrepentant individual sin and church discipline must be brought to the whole membership of the church. But these times of sorrow and mourning together offer opportunities for corporate repentance and a reminder of the gospel. Clear pathways for discipline and reporting will also help protect the church from ongoing sin.
Protect the Flock
The call to pastors and elders is clear: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The church was bought at a great price. Therefore, when any sin—especially the grievous sin of sexual abuse—is committed, we must take it seriously. God will hold leaders accountable for the souls entrusted to their care (Heb. 13:17).
The newness of a church plant is no excuse to leave God’s sheep unprotected from those who would do them harm. Church planter, pastoral ministry requires the courage to confront sin and protect God’s people. We must take this responsibility seriously, especially in the most severe cases. The glory of God’s name and the good of Christ’s bride are too important to do anything else.