Today I’m attending an online conference organised by Church As Refuge. The organisers want to encourage pastors and church leaders to think about how we make churches safe and welcoming refuges for victims of abuse. However, the context is also that sadly we have seen too many cases of abuse within the church. We’ve seen some pretty high profile cases recently but there will also be lots of cases that don’t make it into the eye of a media storm and wont involve names we’ve heard of. Furthermore, there will be lots of cases where the accusations turn out to be false and in fact the accusation and investigative process will itself feel abusive to the victim of slander. There will also be cases where it isn’t so much that one person has done terrible and criminal things but that one or two people have found themselves in a bullying and abusive environment leading to them experiencing serious emotional pain and trauma. Stories where there isn’t one obvious bad guy are less likely to grab the headlines too.
So as we go into the day, I wanted to make a couple of comments on what I think our responsibilities are when we become aware of abuse and bullying cases.
Our first and driving responsibility should be to help victims get justice. We believe in a God of justice and so our concern should be to see them vindicated, the truth come out and the perpetrators confronted. This is not just for the good of the victim but also by doing so, we want to make sure that the church is protected from a potential wolf in their midst but we also want to see perpetrators confronted because through this, our hope is that they will hear the Gospel.
This means that there are things that we should be seeking to avoid as they will be detrimental to this. So, we should not get drawn into speculation. Occasionally, I’ve been asked to share reports via my blog or social media that contain speculation about this or that person. I cannot confirm the veracity of the claims and I’m not sure what benefit there is in me promoting them. So I don’t. I also get asked about reports about what this or that person has done. I think in such cases we have to say “I simply don’t know if it is true or not.” If we are in a position to do so then we should help the victims take the matter to those people and to the place where there is competency to assess truthfulness.
Now, all of these cases have come to light following investigative journalism, social media reporting and then articles picked up in the secular press. This has led some people to suggest that those reporting these issues are doing the devil’s work by bringing the church and the gospel into disrepute. My first response to that is to say “no, it is the perpetrators that have done the devil’s work and brought the Gospel into disrepute.” Secondly, we should be equipped as believers to say “yes, we know the church is imperfect, we don’t claim to be perfect We claim that Christ is. We are sinners who need grace.”
I’m not comfortable with this process of secular press reporting and social media speculation. That’s not because these things should be kept away from the public eye. I’ve heard people accusing others of airing our dirty washing in public. May I let you in on something? The nature of church discipline is that it puts matters out in the public domain. It enables the church to respond publicly to an issue to show that it is responding in line with the Gospel. However, I’m just not convinced that this is the best way of seeking truth. The media is primarily there to make money and so it leans towards sensation first and foremost. However, here’s the point. Responsibility here lies not with desperate victims seeking truth, justice and healing. Rather, it lies with us as church leaders. If people have had to go to the Daily Telegraph and Twitter to get their voice heard then tha tis because we’ve failed to listen and failed to provide a means for their cry to be heard. So our responsibility is to ensure that people can safely report bullying and abuse knowing that their grievance will be heard and not swept under the carpet.
Our second responsibility is to help the victims of abuse to find healing and restoration. This means that we need to be better informed about the affects of trauma so that we can know how to help. That’s one of the things I’m hoping will come out of the Church as Refuge conference.
Thirdly, our responsibility is for the culture of our churches. Abuse breeds within cultures that allow it to. Rotten apples do grow on trees. So I want to encourage us again to keep looking at our whole church culture both in the local church and in our networks. Is there a culture of grace, compassion and integrity? Are we characterised by gentleness, kindness, self-control? Are we teaching our churches about what healthy Christian living looks like and also how to spot danger?
The history of the church going right back to the Bible shows us that we will constantly be facing those who seek to come into the church and exploit weaknesses for their own selfish and evil gratification. That doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility. Rather, it reminds us all the more to take responsibility to not just provide for the flock, feeding them with God’s Word but to protect them from wolves too.