Central Seminary has just finished its 2013 Fall Conference. The title was “Gospel Restoration: The Church’s Response to Abuse.” Several speakers provided help for church leaders who are trying to learn how to minister to victims of sexual abuse.
Of course, this conference was far from the last word on the subject. It could have included competent women among the presenters. It could have offered more guidance for dealing with the legal conundrums that pastors face in dealing with sexual abuse (pastors are often caught in a double-bind between legal protections for confidentiality on the one hand and mandatory reporting on the other). The topic is a huge one, and not everything can be discussed at once. Nevertheless, the presentations at this conference made a real contribution.
At least one other important question was left untouched. In fact, I do not know of anyone who has addressed this question effectively. It is this: how can autonomous churches (such as New Testament churches are) implement real accountability in the face of sexual predation?
The question is important for two reasons. One is that, if unchecked, sexual predators can drift from church to church, creating significant damage in multiple congregations. Churches owe it to other churches to ensure that abusers are dealt with properly and adequately, and other churches have a right to know that instances of abuse are being rightly addressed. Church leaders who do not deal correctly with sexual abuse (for example, by covering it up) ought to be held accountable morally by the community of New Testament churches, even if they are not liable legally.
The second reason is that outsiders can easily make unfounded accusations against church leaders, even when predators have been dealt with correctly. Half-truths and innuendos can make innocent and responsible church leaders appear very guilty. Those who are not in a position to get the facts will be unable to tell a legitimate accusation from a false one. The community of New Testament churches has an interest in knowing how likely accusations of a cover-up (for example) are to be true.
A community of New Testament churches does, or at least should, exist. Churches that do not reckon themselves to be part of a community (that is, churches that consider themselves to be Independent with a capital “I”) are not New Testament churches. They have rejected the order of the New Testament, in which churches regularly communicated with each other, helped each other, counseled each other, and held each other accountable. No New Testament church believed that it was an island unto itself.
On the other hand, the New Testament mandates no particular form of organization between churches. While New Testament churches are never Independent (in the sense of being isolated from the concerns of other churches), they are always autonomous. No authority but Christ has the right to enforce decisions upon the individual local congregation. This includes external authorities such as synods, presbyteries, and councils. It also includes internal authorities such as pastors/elders/bishops and deacons.
In other words, the relationship between New Testament churches is always fraternal and advisory. Churches cannot issue fiats to one another, but they can offer counsel and pursue enquiry. Just as Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to ask about certain false teachers that had come from Judea (Acts 15), and just as Jerusalem responded by clarifying its own position and offering exhortation to Gentile congregations, churches that follow the New Testament pattern today should have mechanisms for mutual help, advice, and accountability. In fact, one such mechanism is regularly employed among Baptist churches. It is the church council.
Councils are most often held for ordinations. They are held less commonly for the purpose of mutual recognition, and least commonly for advice about other matters. A council can be called only upon the authority of at least one church. It consists of pastors and brethren from sister churches who come together to hear a matter of concern to the host church or churches. After listening to the appropriate evidence (for example, the testimony and doctrinal defense of a candidate for ordination), it will render its decision in the form of at least one recommendation to the congregation.
The church is not obligated to accept the recommendation from the council. Still, the recommendation carries with it the weight of consideration from many individuals who are thought to be both learned and pious. Consequently, ignoring the advice of a council almost necessarily places a strain upon that church’s ability to fellowship with other churches. By disregarding the council, the church is effectively exempting itself from the community of New Testament churches.
Importantly, councils, though temporary organizations, operate as autonomous entities. They are not under the control of the church that calls them. Each invited church selects its own messengers for the council, and the messengers together decide who will chair the meeting, who will keep the written record, and who will be seated as members of the council. If a church gives evidence of inviting only those which will support a foregone conclusion, the council should be avoided by all invitees.
It would seem that the council system could readily be adapted to address at least some of the problems related to sexual abuse. For example, a pastor who is falsely accused of covering up an abusive episode could use a council to clear his name. To do this, the church would call a council of messengers from sister churches, and the council would listen to both the accusations and the defense. While a council does not have the powers of a judicatory, it could still offer public advice as to the suitability the accused pastor’s conduct. It could also recommend any useful changes to the pastor’s or church’s way of dealing with sexual abuse. Not only would be episode be useful to the pastor and church, it would also be instructive for the messengers who participate in the council.
The situation is more complicated for a church that refuses to address abuse properly. Since it is sheltering abusers, the accused church will not want to subject itself to public inspection. Given our present knowledge of sexual abusers in churches, however, no one should want to cooperate with a church that will not hold itself accountable in this area. Sister churches could call the council, and if the offending church refuses to participate, the council could advise that the sister churches publicly withdraw their fellowship from it.
The above are suggestions, not a formal proposal. The fact is that New Testament churches have rarely or never had to deal with an issue like sexual abuse—especially when the abuse is sometimes perpetrated or covered up by trusted leaders. Biblical churches have to find a way, not only to do right in this area, but to be seen to do right. They have to find a way of addressing the problem. The church council may provide a legitimate structure for doing just that.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Christ Hath a Garden
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Christ hath a garden walled around,
A Paradise of fruitful ground,
Chosen by love and fenced by grace
From out the world’s wide wilderness.
Like trees of spice his servants stand,
There planted by his mighty hand;
By Eden’s gracious streams, that flow
To feed their beauty where they grow.
Awake, O wind of heav’n and bear
Their sweetest perfume through the air:
Stir up, O south, the boughs that bloom,
Till the beloved Master come:
That he may come, and linger yet
Among the trees that he hath set;
That he may evermore be seen
To walk amid the springing green.