Both here and in America, there have been a number of cases of evangelical church leaders caught in, or accused of, sexual sin. There have been allegations of affairs, cover-ups, cases of abuse and hypocrisy. Some of them have been proven. Others not. It’s all very sobering and heartbreaking.
All sin is serious. But as the Bible says, sexual sin is especially serious because it is a sin against one’s own body, and sometimes a sin against someone else’s body. Sexual misconduct is notoriously difficult to prove because it generally takes place in private. Unless there is corroborating evidence, it usually comes down to a case of somebody’s word against another’s.
This leads to a cycle of claims, denials and counter claims which, if they take place in public, can destroy reputations before anyone has proven anything. In an age when allegations can spread virally on social media, Christians must resist the temptation to trawl the internet for salacious gossip.
We must not rush to judgment
There are those who would say we must always believe the person making an allegation, otherwise no victims will ever come forward. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for a victim to pluck up the courage to talk about such things. We must take credible allegations seriously. Yet at the same time, we must not rush to judgment. We have to hold on to the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
We must also be aware that a church leader is in a vulnerable position. His high profile may make him a target for false allegations. A disgruntled church member, or one who feels rejected because the church leader isn’t showing enough attention, may very well make mischief by falsely claiming sexual misconduct. And a church seeking to protect its reputation, or one which wants to get rid of a church leader, may well arrive at a hasty finding.
Having said that, we must also be aware that a church leader may also be in a very powerful position. Leaders are, by definition, competent and charismatic figures who receive a lot of respect and loyalty from the people they lead. Therefore, leaders can often find themselves in positions where they can use the strength of their personality to take advantage of others and use their authority to make sure it stays undiscovered.
Beware of those pushing an agenda
The radical feminist movement is also using this issue of sexual sin amongst church leaders to challenge the evangelical idea of ‘patriarchal hierarchies’ (male leadership to you and me). They say the idea of male leadership breeds an atmosphere that protects men in power and marginalises women who have been taken advantage of. We must be aware of those who are jumping on this issue to push their own social agenda.
A great deal of trouble could be avoided if church leaders adopted some personal policies to safeguard themselves and others. Avoid being alone with another woman; take care when having contact with children; think about situations which are open to misinterpretation. Such things may sound draconian, Victorian even. But they can save a great deal of heartache down the line.
That’s not to say church leaders can’t develop appropriate pastoral relationships with women and children. Our Lord was close friends to several women in the Bible and welcomed children to come to him. But it is to say, church leaders must recognise their weaknesses and their vulnerabilities. Use some sanctified common sense.
Take appropriate disciplinary action
When cases of sexual misconduct have been established, churches should take appropriate disciplinary action, commensurate with the seriousness of the offence and the office held by the guilty party. Churches should resist the temptation to protect their reputation by brushing things under the carpet. This is both unbiblical and cruel to those innocent parties who have been hurt by the misconduct.
As for this newspaper, Evangelical Times is not interested in gossip or muck-raking. We will not publish a running commentary on mere allegations and counter allegations. But nor will we engage in any cover-ups. If things need to be said, we will use our editorial judgment in consultation with our board of directors to decide what we publish.
The prophet Ezekiel censured the shepherds of Israel, the priests and the other leaders, for feeding themselves from the flock instead of caring for the sheep (Ezekiel 34). When church leaders use their positions to feed their own sexual appetites, they are doing the same. A true shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus is the true shepherd, and church leaders should look to him and seek to follow his sacrificial attitude.
Mike Judge is pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church. He is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times.