Last week as a series of articles outlined a detailed history of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. I have friends and family affected inside what was reported. I am affected.
My whole life, I’ve watched faithful men and women in Southern Baptist churches and seminaries love God, serve the church, and lovingly teach me to do the same. But I’ve seen the other side, too. I’ve observed the lengths people will go to protect themselves, gain power, and dominate in the church. I’ve seen the politics and the handshaking. I’ve witnessed the collapse of conviction for the sake of “keeping the lights on.” I’ve experienced that a big church is more important than individual members. The sin within these church experiences has, in many ways, caused my faith in Jesus to be more authentic, but also my heart to ache deeply.
The recent exposure is grievous, but it absolutely gives me hope. I lament over the sin within churches I love. But, I’m hopeful because the One I love more is disciplining them.
God’s Righteous Discipline
In the wake of these scandals, much of the SBC history of spiritual and sexual abuse will no doubt be blamed on Satan. And by all means, let’s give him some credit. But quite frankly, I don’t think Satan should take the bulk share.
The blame lies with us.
God will not sit idly while men build personal Towers of Babel and call it church. God will not allow women and children to be rampaged by evil, camouflaged with charismatic personalities and closed-door meetings. God will not let pastors flatter his people instead of taking responsibility for the many forms of abuse in his church. He will not permit pastors to stand on church legacies built with bits of corruption and not admit the shame in creating earthly kingdoms.
Our God is the one who brings justice (Ecc 3:17). He brings light to darkness (Job 12:22). He heals the hurting and redeems the broken (Ps 103:3-4). The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed (Ps 103:6).
The exposure of evil deeds and sinful victimization of God’s people is not an act of Satan attacking the church, but an act of God’s discipline (Heb 12:6). Satan loves a good cover up because when true sin is exposed, Christians get to repent (Rom 2:4).
What’s lost when any of us don’t do the right thing is a holy fear of God.
To fear God is to have a reverence for all capacities that exist within him. It’s a whimpering at his horrific wrath and rejoicing over his perfect grace. It’s awe over God's shocking holiness and obedience in response to his beautiful righteousness. God is all encompassing and when we meditate on these realities, appropriate reverence shapes our choices and guides our convictions.
Fear of God directs our hearts. It’s the beginning of wisdom that keeps us on the right track (Prov 9:10; Ecc 7:18). God’s kindness keeps me from a hard heart. His love brings me to repentance. His grace helps me grow. His omniscience leads me to pray. His peace keeps me seeking him.
These gifts are what God brings when light shines into the dark. He knows human kingdoms are tainted and people are just like grass, we eventually die. He knows we must be reminded to fear his holy name. If leaders and church members alike don’t fear God more than they fear the consequences of standing up for the abused, the possibility of church scandal or the threat of personal conflict, if we don’t fear God in light of what he promises is to come—abused sufferers will continue to get silenced and dishonestly characterized.
Demons shudder at the holiness of Jesus. Will we?
The SBC has made inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of God’s Word its war cry—with good, biblical reason. But with this, a problem has developed. It’s birthed leaders claiming to stand upon God’s authority guiding churches as if they are inerrant. An unhelpful conflation has been made between humbly teaching the inerrant Bible and wielding the Bible’s authority to project personal sufficiency. Everything is wrong when we control as if God’s inerrancy makes us without error. As if God’s authority is our authority. As if God’s sufficiency makes us ultimately sufficient.
This kind of attitude breeds people who “flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin” (Ps 36:1). People who claim to stand on and teach the authority of God’s Word must live by it even at the expense of themselves or their position. It’s exactly what Jesus did (Phil 2).
The Lie of Self-Preservation
The world hates Christians as Jesus warned us it would (Jn 15:17-25). Suspecting the world would love us to fail tempts us to protect ourselves at any cost. But if our fundamental goal is self-preservation, Jesus isn’t in that “spiritual” equation. Self-interested pastors aren’t the only people at fault, or the only people who are self-interested. Cover-ups also happen with the help of well-meaning Christians valuing false peace over justice. They happen because faithful Christians want to live in harmony with all people and rightly so until it’s not so right. They happen because we’d rather have comfortable churches instead of the righteousness of Christ.
The blame lies with us when we believe preserving ourselves or a pastor’s position is more important or equal to loving people inside the church. Christ came to free us from all sin, not so we could defend our depraved selves.
Returning to The Lord
To be wounded and not know where to turn.
To be marginalized because someone else made a choice to hurt you.
To be heard in a suspicious light because you’re a woman.
To be violated by a man who simultaneously preaches God’s Word.
To be trapped without a way to replay the facts for the world around you.
These are just the beginnings of what victims in our churches experience. There’s plenty more to be scared of when men who have forgotten to fear the Lord gain a pulpit and a crowd. But our holy God says not to “fear anything that’s frightening” (1 Pet 3:6). Not out of naive foolishness, but because Christians get the privilege of entrusting one another to the One who judges justly. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov 15:3). So, we entrust ourselves by fearing him alone, knowing he offers eternal security, perfect trustworthiness and ultimate healing to the casualties of abuse.
And, God offers serious correction and kind discipline to those who repent of staying silent in the wake of abuse, who repent of not listening to the abused, who repent of covering up the abuse, who repent of employing abusers, who repent of endorsing a hierarchy and political climate in our churches that reek of mistreatment.
We must recognize our everyday depravity and confess. We must see our weaknesses and ask for help. We must take responsibility for abuse in our churches and repent. Because God will not silently stand by. He loves us too much for that. He fights for the weak. He rules with a righteous hand. And he absolutely will bring what’s dark into the light.
What is God’s message of hope in the wake of uncovering sickening abuse?
It’s that a holy fear of God will ultimately lead to all that is right, comforting and honorable. He’s a God that will not leave you even when it feels like he has. He’s a God that keeps his promises even when we’re blind (Gen 28:15). He fights for all his children. No matter what.