Confronting abuse in the church – reforming towards a culture of grace

I’ve written from time to time about the issues of bullying and abuse within the church. That is because recent serious scandals relating to high profile leaders that include sexual, emotional and physical abuse, and sadly the accompanying failure of the church to deal with such issues over many years raise challenges about church culture.  I’ve been struck since reading it by Ray Ortlund’s call in “The Gospel” for us to not just preach the doctrines of Grace but to live a culture of grace.

Ray’s call chimes with things I felt challenged to speak on about 5 years ago concerning the need for a culture of grace to replace something I referred to as “The Guilt Driven Church.”  Sadly, whilst we may be alert to 3 or 4 high profile cases, we also see evidence of different forms of bullying and abuse seeping into local churches. This includes churches where the pastor bullies but also where the other leaders and even members can together create an abusive and bullying culture so that as I mentioned here, it may even be the pastor/church staff who become the victims of abuse.

Whilst we are just beginning to see some of the recent high profile reports and await others, Ollie Lansdowne pointed out that we already had two reports available concerning John Smythe dating from 1982 and 1993.

Ollie also shared them. The first has been typed up, and includes the editor’s own notes in brackets.

I wanted to highlight a few things from the report for comments. The first thing to note is that the abuse dated back to 1978, MR, the report composer suggests that it started then, although it would be more accurate to say that it started in the case of those victims that he was able to speak to. We do not actually know if the abuse only started then or if JS was the first perpetrator.

At point 2, MR says that the first known victim was offered the choice of a beating from JS or for his parents and the school to be notified that the lad had been involved in shop lifting.  I want you to notice that  JS here usurped the roles of the child’s school, his parents and indeed of the justice system. Notice too that this went against proper justice as a crime went unreported. You will also recognise that this reliance on shaming and guilt goes against the Gospel. JS creates an environment where there is an accusation and a shared secret. The accusation is used to control someone, just as Satan uses his accusations against people to bind and control them in slavery.

MR observes that the beatings inflicted on a number of students were “technically all criminal offences under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861.”  I must admit I struggle with the redundant use of the word “technically” in that sentence. These were criminal offences and we need to be aware of inserting the word “technically” in a way that might suggest that the law wasn’t really broken or that it was reasonable to do anything other than hand over the suspects to the police.  That one small word.

From paragraphs 5 and 21 we know that there were at least two others involved in administrating the beating.  One of those was identified as Simon Doggart, who died in 2017 but went on to be the headteacher of a prep school. We therefore know that two of the offenders continued to have access to boys under 18 for many years to follow.

In paragraph 5, MR states that he believes the motives of the perpetrators to be good, commenting “I believe this but cannot really understand it.” That should have been a warning light for him. As a minister of the Gospel, he was expected to have a good knowledge of Scripture, wisdom and discernment. If he is saying that he cannot understand claimed motives, then I struggle to see how he could really believe them.  If something is beyond our ability to compute as pastors, then we need to recognise it for the horrific evil that it is and not try to rationalise, justify or excuse it.

Notice that other aspects of abuse include grooming, manipulation and later activities that have been identified as suggestive of homo-eroticism. And remember that the events have been reported in a fairly dry, understated matter of fact manner.

We should be horrified at the misuse of scripture for this purpose. MR indeed goes on in paras 12-19 to identify why this is so wrong. He links this mishandling to cult like behaviour, he observes the insertion of JS not just into the role of parent, school-master, policeman and judge but between the individuals and Christ. He recognises that these actions deny human dignity going against the doctrine of Creation and are a rejection of the Doctrine of Grace.  To be explicitly clear, JS was a false teacher and cult leader.  It would have of course been reasonable, indeed essential to ask  whether this wicked twisting of Scripture was JS’ own doing or whether he too had been influenced by the wrong teaching of others.  It concerns me that we don’t ask those types of questions because we do not want to  know the answers.

In the last paragraph, MR comments that Smyth displays “blindness.”  OL in his twitter comments observes that it was not blindness, it was willful and I agree completely with Ollie. Too often we are told that people were/are not intentional in their abuse. However, when you can see the physical and emotional affects of what you are doing and when your victims are pleading with you to stop, when another person can immediately say “hold on, this is actually breaking the law.” Then I struggle to see how the excuse of ignorance works. If it is blindness then it is a wilful blindness, a deliberate turning of the eye.

There of course then is the challenge because those who knew, those who investigated a little, those who received reports also displayed a level of wilful blindness. What is true in the Smyth case is of course true for other recent scandals including those relating to RZIM and as Matthew Mason highlights here, those relating to antisemitism in the church.

The report is uncomfortable reading material and even more uncomfortable thinking material for those of us involved in pastoral ministry but if we are serious about the Gospel and serious about renewal and reformation then we must engage seriously, others may have chosen to turn a blind eye in the past, we cannot.

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