Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims. That’s certainly true “out there” in the world. But it’s just as true “in here” in the church.
Last week, the Fort Worth Star Telegram released a series of articles reminiscent of the Pennsylvania grand jury report from earlier this year. You remember—the report that outlined rampant sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. I say “reminiscent” because of the similar details: clergy who used their position to harm the vulnerable, decades of intentional coverup of the crimes by those in authority, reassigning perpetrators to other churches and allowing them to harm more victims, and the emotional manipulation and even shaming of victims to protect the institution.
Even so, the Fort Worth report differed from the Pennsylvania report in one significant detail: The churches and clergy being exposed this time were on the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum. One hundred sixty-eight leaders of independent fundamental Baptist churches, known as the IFBC, have been accused of a litany of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The victims included young children and teens, and stories included some of the most prominent IFBC leaders and churches in America.
This Fort Worth report hit me hard, maybe because I grew up on the outskirts of the IFBC movement. What I mean by “outskirts” is that my church followed Jerry Falwell out of the IFBC when he founded the Moral Majority and built a large university. Still, we had a bus ministry run by a group of really good men and women, who would get up extra early on Sunday mornings and pick up hundreds of mostly women and children who did not have a ride to church.
The reason we had a bus ministry is because Pastor Jack Hyles of First Baptist Church of Hammond (IN), invented the concept and used it to grow his church into one of the largest in the country. First Baptist, Hyles, and Hyles’ son David figure largely in the Fort Worth Star Telegram report, and more than once.
What on earth are we supposed to do with yet another report of even more sexual abuse within the church? Well, I hope that we’ll learn.
Over the past year, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the larger culture has been reckoning with consequences of the sexual revolution’s worst ideas, especially the elevation of sexual desire above moral boundaries and the divorce of sexuality from marriage and babies. In response, Christians are tempted to wag our fingers and shake our heads at the scandals from Hollywood and D.C., as if somehow we’ve been better than all that.
Clearly, we haven’t. The reckoning is happening not just “out there.” It’s also happening “in here.” And God, let it come. Let victims be heard. Let judgment, as Peter wrote, “begin at the house of the Lord.”
Just like the bad ideas of the sexual revolution have victimized many, our bad ideas about sin and the Fall can also victimize. In particular, I suggest we need a better theology of humanity, sin, and the Fall.
It’s not uncommon to hear free church folks, like those from IFBC churches, critique the corruption of hierarchical churches. And it’s quite common to hear hierarchical church folks critique the lack of authority and accountability found in free churches. We now sadly know that both corruption and the lack of accountability span the ecclesiastical spectrum.
The reason, as Scripture teaches us, is that sin is not some disembodied reality “out there.” Sin is in every human heart. If we diminish this reality, we’ll be tempted to think that somehow our extra rules or ceremony can keep the bad people on the far side of the church door or the other side of our denomination. But neither historic hierarchy or being “the Lord’s anointed,” a phrase I’ve often heard used of pastors in IFBC churches, is ample protection from ourselves.
And without an adequate understanding of the Fall, we’ll be tempted to mishandle sin once it’s discovered, believing wrongly that our institutions or our ministries are too important to fail. Thus, we’ll fail to hear victims, we’ll cover up wrongdoing, and we’ll ship priests or youth pastors across the country, only so that they can victimize others.
Sin is personal, but it’s not private. In fact it can become structural, embedded as much in our institutions as in our hearts and minds.
Let’s be clear, no precious image-bearers should be sacrificed on the altars of any institution.
I’m grateful for the IFBC pastors who have chosen to face this crisis head on. I am grateful for the reforms we are seeing in Roman Catholic circles and other hierarchical churches.
But we’re a long way from where we need to be.
I want to invite you to listen to a special BreakPoint podcast interview with Boz Tchividjian, founder of G.R.A.C.E., or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. In the interview, we discuss how churches must face abuse head on and what we can do to create a culture in our churches where the vulnerable are protected, victims are heard and helped, and abuse is never tolerated.
You can listen to this special podcast at BreakPoint.org or wherever you download podcasts.