Pastoring with a millstone around the neck?

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It has become an almost weekly occurrence: Another long-time pastor of an evangelical church has been arrested in the US on child sex abuse charges.
I don’t want to speculate on whether this is a peculiarly American problem; I suspect not, as we’ve had the massive R.C. clergy child abuse scandal [1] over here a few years ago. If we hear less of such scandals in the evangelical camp over here it probably is for sociological reasons such as the comparative size of the movement and its minority status in most of Europe, not because the European church is holier than the American church.
Nor do I want to point the finger at these men; we all have our temptations and if mine are not as abhorrent as theirs it is purely by the grace of God.
But I want to comment on something I cannot get my head around, not in a judgmental way but because I am mystified by it.
If I had even once committed, and especially if I were continuously committing, such acts I could not stand in front of the church on Sunday morning, preach the Gospel, and lead the congregation in worship. I would consider myself disqualified, constantly aware of and pulled down by the millstone hanging around my neck that Jesus talks about (Matthew 18:6)[2]. In fact, I have always considered myself disqualified from preaching and been reluctant to lead worship because of my own struggles with humanly speaking minor and more socially acceptable temptations and my failures to resist them.
In 1 Timothy 4:1-2 Paul talks about “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron,” and perhaps that explains it.  And everyone of us whose conscience has not been seared, or at least not to that extent, should thank God for His gracious preservation.
There is a quote attributed to the English Reformer and martyr John Bradford who lived in the 16th century. While watching criminals being led to their execution Bradford is said to have exclaimed, “There but for the grace of God go I!”
  1. This rash of abusive pastors should also give pause to those who blame the R.C. scandal on the celibacy requirement for Roman Catholic clergy — all these evangelical pastors are married.[]
  2. The passage talks about giving offense to children, and the most recent case I was referring to is about child abuse, but I do not want to in any way imply that the abuse of adolescents or adults is any less abhorrent[]
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A Cancer in the Body of Christt

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The Roys Report writes about the arrest and charges against several present and former leaders of a Christian fraternity at several universities in Texas, for “continuous sexual abuse of a child.”

Some people call her a muckraker who craps into her own nest, but I believe that the investigative journalism of Julie Roys and her collaborators, as well as of others in the Catholic and Anglican context, is extremely important for the health of the church of Jesus Christ.

Situations like the ones described in this article are not harmful to the victims alone but are like cancerous growths in the Body of Christ: ignored and untreated they damage the health of the whole body.

A few years ago some Evangelicals looked almost gleefully at the Catholic Church when more and more cases of abuse and cover-up by clergy, all the way up to prominent Cardinals, came to light; but there have always been problematic free church groups like the extreme wing of the Exclusive Brethren[1]. A few years ago massive historic abuse situations were revealed in Protestant and Anglican schools in Germany, Canada, and Australia, and a year ago a series of investigative reports by some Texas newspapers uncovered not only a massive clergy abuse problem in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention but also an abject failure on the part of the denominational leadership to deal adequately and appropriately with this problem, all under the cover of “local church autonomy.”[2]

Today we know, not least through the work of Mrs. Roys and the Roys Report, that these cancerous growths flourish in all church traditions, including Pentecostal churches, the predominantly Charismatic independent churches, and even in the most prominent megachurches.[3] For much too long and much too often leaders in all traditions and denominations have looked the other way, have sometimes shown more empathy with the perpetrators than with the victims, and have worried more about the reputation of their respective institutions than about the well-being and safety of the flock entrusted to them.

I cannot tell to what extent this problem also exists in free churches in Germany and Austria; but statistics tell us that churches with a very conservative theology were men rule their families and pastors rule their churches, and dissent and criticism are discouraged, are particularly vulnerable and prone to both domestic abuse and violence as well as clergy abuse. And we do have such churches on the fringe of the Evangelical movement in the German-speaking countries. But even if everything were in order in our own circles and churches we cannot disclaim all responsibility: the church is, despite its sadly divided state and despite its geographic spread, one body, and “if one member suffers, all suffer together[4]), the whole Body suffers.

So it is high time for us to no longer look the other way but to intercede for these situations and for the victims, and where necessary, have the courage to speak up.

  1. particularly the Raven-Hale group in England, North America, and Australia[]
  2. Fortunately Southern Baptists have now begun, not without some internal opposition, to acknowledge the problem and to take measures to deal with it and prevent it in the future.[]
  3. I am not commenting here on the Eastern Churches (Orthodox and Uniate) because I have no information. But I don’t suppose that they are entirely free of this problem.[]
  4. 1 Corinthians 12:26 (ESV[]
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