When the disjointed surges of awakening to the realities of sexual abuse and assault began to gather into a more identifiable #metoo movement, I knew it was only a matter of time before that momentum carried us to something like #churchtoo. The Catholic Church absorbed the lion’s share of the attention for years, but there has never been any doubt that the same nauseating secrets lurked in the shadows of many other Christian spaces. Now the headlines are catching up, extinguishing any lingering hope that we can stand at a distance and shake our heads at the sins of other institutions and groups, religious or otherwise. This week it’s the Southern Baptists, but they won’t be the last.
The reckoning is coming. I propose we say this together: May it come quickly.
That invitation will not land softly for many of us because we are keenly aware of the cost that accompanies exposure of abuse in the Church. Every new revelation cuts into the reputation of Christianity and into the capacity of many to believe. These stories will kick the one remaining leg out from under the fragile faith of some. They will strengthen the resolve of others to never set foot in church again. They will confirm the suspicion of many that Christians—even Christian leaders—are no better than anyone else [spoiler alert, they’re right] leading to the common but rarely properly-labeled theo-philosophical practice of What’sthepoint?ism.
Most Christians who care that the power and significance of our faith is commended well to the world want to avoid and resist these realities. This is not something we feel instead of wanting to protect and care for victims; it is something we feel in addition to wanting to protect and care for victims.
For people who believe Jesus offers real hope to the world, an altruistic desire to keep the news about His Church good is understandable. But I’m also convinced it’s one of the strongest forces at work when Christians make poor choices about how to respond to cases of suspected or confirmed abuse, a dynamic that is fueled by an unarticulated but spectacular error in our understanding of the Gospel we’re trying to protect.
Before I climb behind that particular pulpit I need to make a confession: I understand why this happens. No, I don’t just mean I understand it intellectually. I feel it. It makes sense to me. I’ve thought this way and sometimes still do.
I need to put that confession in writing so that I acknowledge the struggle and temptation. There are real complexities involved in these stories, and our social media diatribes about all the “awful people who let this happen” have to be followed by a more nuanced understanding of the ways good intentions rooted in a subtle but persistent lie are just as culpable as bad ones in this epidemic.
Here’s the lie: Christians—and particularly Christian leaders—are tasked with protecting the work of God, the ministry of the Church, and the reputation of the Gospel from the errors of people inside the Church and the attacks of the world outside the Church.
That’s a lie.
Read it again if you need to. It’s still a lie.
It’s just not true, but if you’ve spent any amount of time in the Church, you’ve almost certainly encountered or absorbed some amount of some version of that lie. I know I have.
Let me be clear that my particular temptation is not to justify the cover up of abuse. Thank God I’ve never been in a position of responsibility for dealing with an adult who was abusing or assaulting someone. So I’m not confessing that I’ve been a part of what you’re reading about in the news.
I am confessing that I’ve worried that people knowing about some sin, some mess in the church will negatively impact what others think about our church or the Church or even Jesus himself. I’m confessing that my worry has made me more likely to hope that certain people just won’t talk about certain things in certain circles. Sometimes those things have been my own mistakes. Sometimes they’ve been the missteps of others.
Too often we crave secrecy as a kind of anesthesia against the pain that accompanies the horrifying revelation that I’m a mess (and so are you). In the in-house vernacular, I’m a dirty sinner. Sure, I acknowledge this theologically, but I don’t want people to actually know it’s true in my day-to-day life. I don’t want you to look at me and suspect that I’m thinking the things about people I don’t like that I’m, you know, thinking about people I don’t like. [Not that there are people I don’t like.]
The worst (and very real) version of that is about self protection and pride. But there’s also voice-of-good-intentions in my head that sounds less like self-interest when it says, “You know Jesus is real. You know he’s changed you, just incompletely. You know there’s power here. But if people see this dark part of you, they’re going to be a lot less sure about those things being true than you are.”
I not only think those things sometimes, I’ve thought them today.
And I don’t just think them about myself. I think them about the whole Church. I hear about a rotten Catholic priest, and I don’t think less of Catholics. I just wish people didn’t have to wonder what it means about God.
I see some famous bro-dude claim to be a Christian, and I cringe knowing sooner or later he’s going to say or do something foolish and the word “Christian” will appear in the first line of the TMZ story.
Someone leaves our church over some disagreement in belief or personal offense, and I don’t worry that them telling their story will make our church unpopular. I grieve that we couldn’t see the reconciling power of the Gospel realized, and I hate that it might cause others to wonder if that power is real.
The voice-of-good-intentions says, “If people see these ongoing imperfections in professing Christians, they’ll become What’sthepoint?ists. How can we keep these things quieter so that people don’t get the wrong idea?”
What the voice doesn’t say is that every single one of our attempts to maintain perceptions that don’t reflect reality eventually prove malignant. They may produce a semblance of external peace for a while, but the roots of a false reality will always grow something false. And then what do we have to offer the world but a silly false god of our own making?
It’s a toxic and self-defeating cycle. Our efforts to protect God and his Church from the truth, when exposed, are the best evangelists available for What’sthepoint?ism. If the Church is a place where terrible things can still happen and the Church’s answer is to pretend they didn’t happen so everyone will think the Church is a place where terrible things can’t happen…I mean really, what is the point?
Our belief that we should work to protect or salvage God’s image or His Church’s reputation from human sin needs to find Jesus.
I mean this in two ways. First, the Gospel upends the lie that the mission of the Church is to establish and protect the credibility of the Church. The Gospel insists that the mission of the Church is to point to the cross, which is a nagging reminder that the Church has no credibility except the credibility of Jesus.
The exposure of my sin, no matter how heinous, doesn’t erode the integrity of Jesus or his cross; the exposure of my sin is an ongoing case for humanity’s inability to remedy what ails us without Jesus and his work on our behalf. The Church is the colony of people gathered around Jesus, and our power and uniqueness is God’s presence, not the presence of moral perfection. When the Church acknowledges that there is still darkness within us, we insist, “This is the point! We need a rescue and a redemption that can’t be sourced from our own spirit.”
Then there’s this: When abuse happens and we decide that we shouldn’t risk public exposure of sin in order to “protect the ministry” or “not damage God’s work,” we sacrifice the vulnerable on the altar of reputation. Abuse in the Church is ferocious wound upon wound, and when we silence victims or minimize the evil at work in and through perpetrators, we misrepresent God and his response to those who do harm to his kids (more on that momentarily).
How much have we bastardized our concept of “God’s work” when we find ourselves more concerned with how things will look than with protecting and honoring children and women who have suffered the kinds of evils we struggle to even make ourselves read about? What do we think God’s work is again?
What version of Jesus do we imagine would work to avoid bad press for the Church even if it meant the possibility of other women and children having their bodies and souls violated?
Why do we believe that the priority of Jesus is protecting the reputation of particular leaders or ministries when he demonstrated time and again his indifference to our frantic need to defend our institutions and reputations and his particular interest in seeing and lifting up the broken and bleeding?
“Don’t get in the way of children; let them come to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them,” Jesus says.
“You have great faith,” Jesus publicly tells the woman whose presence is an embarrassment. “Your daughter is healed.”
“Whoever does harm to one of my little ones is better off getting the Tony Soprano treatment in the river,” Jesus says. [loose translation]
True religion, James says, is caring for vulnerable women and children.
Are we getting it yet? There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that doesn’t join Jesus in the protection and healing of the broken and vulnerable.
In a time that demands we be specific, let me be clear: There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that lets grown-ups who we know or suspect will do harm to other vulnerable people become someone else’s problem in order to spare ourselves or our church or the Church trouble or embarrassment.
Our temptation to believe otherwise is just bad theology. I’m not talking about theology I don’t agree with; I’m talking about bad theology. About forgetting that the Gospel frees us from needing to hide sin and compels us to readily confess our individual and collective sin and need for divine intervention.
The problem is not simply bad people. The problem is any people who have fallen prey to the slow creeping lie that we are expected or able to save God or his reputation.
If we’re going to turn from the sins that got us here, our sins have to come into the light and encounter Jesus, who always saves and redeems us and who never needs us to save or redeem Him.