A person or church that covers up or ignores abuse often has a pattern of allowing other, smaller sins to go unchecked. Nobody wakes up one morning and thinks, I feel like blackballing a congregant today, or Molestation isn’t that big of a deal. Rather, subtle sins are layered upon each other to callous the heart and pave the way. As God said to Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7).
Note how he says, “if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching.” There are smaller wrongdoings that precede greater wrongdoings, and a process of corruption that we can either resist or help.
In my work with church leaders and abuse victims, I’ve noted patterns of sin that precede almost every crisis. Had someone repented sooner, nipped sin in the bud, or held colleagues accountable, most abusive situations could be handled responsibly in a God-honoring way, rather than escalated or exacerbated.
Here are six sins that—by themselves—are common, garden-variety problems but have led many to remain silent in the face of evil. They may also serve as “gateway sins,” enabling the sinner to move into more serious sins. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” My hope is that if we can recognize smaller sins before they take root, we can do what is right and give no foothold to the Devil (Eph. 4:27).
Pride is a sin we’re all sometimes guilty of, but it can lead us down treacherous roads. I can’t think of a church-abuse case in which pride was not a factor. Often, church leaders can’t believe they’ve been fooled by the perpetrator. Surely, they think, if our friend or colleague were an abuser, we’d have noticed.
Surely, they think, if our friend or colleague were an abuser, we’d have noticed.
And this isn’t just a problem for church leaders. Congregants hate to be wrong, too. We consider ourselves wise and discerning. We are overly confident in our ability to judge character. This overconfidence makes us easy prey for those who flatter and manipulate.
And so, when a victim tells someone their friend is an abuser, they refuse to believe it. They may explain away the behavior, saying, “That’s doesn’t sound like the man I know; you must be mistaken!” They’re too proud to consider that they might have been conned, that the person they trust is dangerous. And because they’re unwilling to admit they’re wrong, they cover up abuse and it continues.
Congregations with prevalent gossip are playgrounds for abusers. Everybody is already talking about everybody, so it doesn’t strike anyone as odd when an abuser spreads rumors about the victim: “She’s unbalanced! She’s a liar! Pray for her anger and mental-health struggles!” When the victim finally seeks help, everyone assumes she’s lying or delusional.
Another tactic of many abusers—particularly those in leadership roles—is to manipulate Christians to “confide” in them. A pastor, counselor, or ministry leader may encourage the congregation to go beyond the bounds of propriety and gossip about their fellow congregants to him. He may even express false concern for the victim and ask people to “report back” should the victim say anything critical about him. This way, as soon as the victim seeks help from anyone at church, the abuser is notified and can go into damage control.
It’s important to establish a culture in your church that discourages gossip but encourages speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Discerning between the two requires spiritual maturity, and for that we need to seek the Holy Spirit’s help.
When a church-leadership team covers up the sins of an abuser, it’s often because they love the abuser—or their church brand or personal reputation—more than they love Jesus. The same is true in families. When a wife covers up the pedophilia of her husband, or a parent the crimes of a child, it is often rooted in idolatry. When we love anyone or anything more than Jesus, terrible things happen.
When we love anyone or anything more than Jesus, terrible things happen.
It is genuine love for Jesus, and a fervent desire to honor God no matter what the cost, that protects us from becoming complicit in abuse. In words often attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Whether we’re lying to ourselves or to others, deception is perhaps the most delusory and common of all the sins I’ve listed. Too often, when we encounter clear cases of abuse, we explain them away, thinking, I’m sure it was a one-time fluke, or He said sorry, so we don’t need to report, or Perhaps the alcohol, stress at work, or a mental illness made him do it. In our desperation to disbelieve that our friend is an abuser, we do mental gymnastics—telling ourselves lies—to avoid holding him accountable.
We lie to ourselves and to others, saying, “We should forgive them 70 times seven times,” as if forgiveness negates justice or helping the oppressed. We fail to hold others accountable, thinking, We all struggle with lust, or Lots of people have hot tempers, or, This guy is probably just having the same struggles I have—who am I to call him out? We see the battered man on the side of the road, but we keep walking (Luke 10:25–37).
We claim, “As Christians we extend grace to sinners,” yet we neglect to extend grace to traumatized children and heartbroken wives. We justify our silence, saying, “Love covers a multitude of sins,” as if Jesus would ever fail to protect the innocent or pursue justice.
We justify our silence, saying, ‘Love covers a multitude of sins,’ as if Jesus would ever fail to protect the innocent or pursue justice.
The sins of the repentant are covered before God by Christ’s righteousness, but there are still consequences for evil in this life. Even after King David genuinely repented, the kingdom ultimately fell into war and his family was devastated. God forgave David, yet did not spare him the consequences of his sin (2 Sam. 12:10–12).
Sometimes when we see red flags, we reason, That’s none of my business. Like Cain we ask, Am I my brother’s keeper? (Gen. 4:9b). We don’t want the stress, heartache, or blowback of intervening. We’d rather remain blissfully ignorant, or pretend we didn’t notice the man on the side of the road, rather than be the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Selfishness and deception work together, enabling abuse or the toleration of it.
In my life, I’ve had family members, friends, and even an entire church blackball and shun me because I reported child abuse. This is the risk we take when we pick up a cross and follow Jesus. Crosses are not fun. They’re certainly not easy. But at the end of the day, we should be able to say that we loved others more than our relationship with them, that we loved our community more than our standing in it, that we loved Jesus more than this life.
A failure in some churches to call out lust and sexual sin paves the way for all manner of perversion. For example, when a church leader looks at pornography, he may become desensitized to sin and begin to objectify and dehumanize people. Then, when he encounters abuse, he is complacent, unconcerned, and unoffended. Perhaps he minimizes this sin or feels hypocritical for calling it out, since he has lusted too. His eyes are acclimated to darkness. His mind is accustomed to deviancy.
And because these sins no longer trouble him, he will fail to call them out or protect his congregation from wolves. He becomes like the poor souls whom God “gave over” to their evil: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
There are, no doubt, many other sins that may lead to abuse or enable its tolerance. As individual Christians, we must be careful to guard our hearts against even the most socially acceptable sins. As the church, we must hold each other accountable, so that sins don’t take root in our hearts like seeds and grow into evils that destroy. The toleration or covering up of abuse in the church doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of repeated sin and chronic unrepentance—layer upon layer of unchecked transgression—until wickedness and folly overtake us.