By Josh Bryant
The last week has been absolutely insane. I’ve been a longtime advocate for adoption reform because of unethical adoption practices I unearthed as an adoptive father and attorney who has helped others through an adoption. Churches rightly promote adoption. James 1:27 requires us to care for the orphan, and Jesus told us that the Kingdom belonged to little children (Mt. 19:14). There are times however that our zeal for the orphan blinds us to the sin of those who claim to help in the process of adoption.
Let me tell you the story in a nutshell. My colleagues and I have been aware for some time now that certain adoption practitioners were preying on a marginalized community in my area. Last week, one of those practitioners was indicted on sixty-two criminal counts in three states related to fraudulent adoption practices. He was transporting pregnant women from overseas whom he’d offered $10,000 to place their child up for adoption, housing them in very tight quarters which required some to sleep on the floor, and overall valuing these women only insomuch as they had a commodity in their wombs that he wanted to put up for adoption to his profit. You can read more here. I’ve had the unhappy privilege of working with the team helping clean up the mess left by his practices and arrest.
The good citizen model of organizational ethics analyzes conduct as ethical or unethical by whether the actions constitute good citizenship. It is controversial because people can disagree, and those disagreements can be come political. This is a case in which I do not think there should be any disagreement. Churches which encourage Christians to be foster or adoptive parents are good citizens. Without people to take care of the orphan and abused children, the state is in a bind. Foster care numbers routinely exceed available beds. To obey Scripture and care for the orphan is not only classically ethical, it is simply good citizenship.
Urging Christians to be cautious in working with attorneys and adoption agencies does not diminish the value of civic service churches do when encouraging Christians to adopt. In a 2016 article, the CEO of the National Council for Adoption Chuck Johnson lamented the jeopardy the institution of adoption was in due to declining numbers and unethical practices. Put simply, people are wondering if the process of adoption can be done ethically.
Some may disagree, but the ends cannot justify the means. Christian ethics is deontological, meaning the rules determine the results, are the basis of our actions, are good regardless of the result, and serve as the framework within which the result is calculated. In short, the rules precede the result; the ends cannot justify the means. Generalistic ethics such as this say that a person’s actions depend on the result of those actions. Under that theory, murder is good if the victim was a serial rapist. Surely we cannot approve of a person taking justice into his or her own hands on any biblical basis. Neither can we approve of the selling of a child that would most likely have a better life being adopted than not. While churches should promote adoption and foster care, Christians must use caution when selecting those with whom they obtain help in that process. Church leaders must urge the same.
By Josh Bryant
In a blog last week, I described five ethical questions for church leaders to ask. As a recap, the first was about as simple as it gets: what would God want? This is the classical understanding of organizational ethics as it applies to the church. The question requires church leaders to develop a systematic or biblical theology regarding the question at hand. What does the Bible say that would help answer the question of how to handle sexual abuse?
The question may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve received two phone calls in as many days about situations in which pastors told victims that it would be best to handle something internally rather than appropriately address an issue of sexual abuse. This conclusion and others like it are usually based on one fallacy: viewing Scripture through a pinhole. Typically, the verse people point me to when arguing with me over whether they can keep an issue of abuse internal to the church is 1 Timothy 5:19, which reads “Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses.”
One verse is not a system. Broadly speaking, systems require more than one moving part working together. Unless the rest of Scripture is totally silent on the topic, we cannot stop with this one verse as a dispositive answer.
We certainly cannot pick this one verse out of 1 Timothy and read nothing around it. Taking verses out of context in this manner is a fatal exegetical error. If we read the entire passage we’ll notice that this verse is set in contrast to “good leaders…who work hard at preaching and teaching” (v. 17) and followed by commands to publicly rebuke those who sin (v. 20) and to be cautious and deliberate in how the church appoints elders (v. 22). Paul reminded Timothy to be impartial (v. 21) and that some people’s sin remains hidden (v. 24). When a church leader’s sin surfaces, we must take steps to deal with it. We cannot say under the circumstances that there are not enough witnesses and dismiss someone alleging sexual abuse against a church leader. Churches must act, but what must they do?
Most leaders who prefer to sweep things under the rug do not consider other passages, such as Romans 13. There Paul instructed the church in Rome to teach submission to governing authorities and explained why they should so teach. “…government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.” (v.4b-5).
Classical organizational ethics require the church to turn the criminal conduct of the elder over to law enforcement. We must be able to separate the man from the office. While we may be able to seek grace for not exercising church discipline immediately because of a lack of witnesses (although that would be unwise legally), we cannot do so for failing to hear the accusation against a church leader and to turn it over to the authorities. As Paul said, “the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.” (v. 2). Too many church leaders are experiencing the consequences of their choice to resist submission to authorities by not reporting crime to law enforcement.
By Josh Bryant
In my experience, many people in congregations across America do not understand mandated reporting. This usually is not evident until a volunteer or staff member must make a report to the child abuse hotline. If a parent or guardian finds out that someone from the church made a report to the hotline, it can really cause some hard feelings. Some of those feelings come just from the perception that making the call is immediately a personal accusation of child abuse. Other feelings come from an ignorance of the facts of the situation.
Many people in your congregation probably define mandated reporter only by that title. The think a mandated reporter is someone who must report child abuse. However, they do not usually include in that definition that a mandated reporter is someone who could be criminally charged if they fail to make a report of child abuse. It never crosses their minds that you or another from the church really does not have a choice.
Few people in the church understand that very rarely is a call to the child abuse hotline an actual allegation. You may have only seen inexplicable bruising on a child’s face. Someone may have just told you that they were being sexually abused without disclosing the offender’s identity. Sometimes your report to the hotline may be made on credible hearsay. A report is just that – a report. They do not understand that in many instances it is not an accusation that a person is abusing their child.
Very few people in the church understand the necessity to err on the side of caution. They do not stop to place themselves in the shoes of other parents. They do not consider how they would feel about sending their child to the church if another child was abused and the church did not report it. Most simply just do not understand that church leaders must weigh the evidence they have at the time and determine whether a reasonable person would suspect that child abuse could have occurred. They do not understand how low of a burden that is; most church leaders do not understand how low of a burden “reasonable suspicion” is. In close calls, church leaders must make a report.
What’s a church leader to do?
1. Educate Your Congregation.
Many churches have parent orientation meetings or something similar. If you are not already telling your church that you have a zero-tolerance policy for child abuse, you should take the opportunity to do so. Teach them about what mandated reporting really means: criminal liability for mandated reporters who do not report, reporting and not accusing, and the low burden of “reasonable suspicion.”
2. A Congregational Thought Experiment
Make your congregation think through the scenario before it happens. Ask parents what they would do if a child that was not theirs was abused and the church did not call it in. Most will tell you that they would leave or at least hesitate to put their children in care. Make sure they understand that feeling before a point comes where you may have to make a report concerning their child.
3. Weigh the Alternatives.
Most people would reach a conclusion of concern when faced with that thought experiment. As a church leader, weigh the alternatives of not reporting. On the one hand you could report and maybe lose a family or two that are upset with you. On the other hand, you could not report and lose many families concerned about your failure to report. You could also get a little jail time. When in doubt, report.
by Josh Bryant
Nehemiah had a big task in front of him. Jerusalem was in ruins, its walls battered. "You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach," he said to the Jewish leaders in Nehemiah 2:17. Likewise, it should be clear to church leaders that we have a big task in front of us. The Church in many regards is in ruins. We are in a bad situation. We have become a reproach to many. They say churches do not care about protecting women and children from sexual predators. They say we do not respond appropriately and are more apt to sweep an allegation under the rug. "They" are right; there is no denying that churches and church leaders have done so. We can and must do better; it is time to rebuild our walls.
While they are right that the actions of some churches and the inaction of others have been tragic and reprehensible, I do not think this is the character of the church. The church is the Bride of Christ which He is sanctifying to present blameless before God. That is to say not only must we rebuild our walls, it is a certainty that we will do so. The only question is how.
Many have added their voices to the conversation. Some have called for apologies; others have called for reparations of sorts. I do not claim to have a solution to past problems. What I can add is simply that these events are rather conclusive evidence of the fact that churches as organizations are ethical actors and agents. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion, we cannot afford to assume as much. Only when we start there - at a place where the church and the Church as organizations have moral responsibilities - can we begin to set aside personal differences of opinion for the good of the church and the Church.
We have an ethical responsibility to respond appropriately to sexual abuse claims in the church. We owe it to God who grieves at every sin committed against His children as anyone reading this would grieve at such sins against their children. We owe it to each other to love one another enough to protect one another. We owe it to the victims and the vulnerable who are far more likely to struggle with their continued walk with Christ as a result of an assault. We owe it to our community: to our neighbors and friends, and to law enforcement and the justice system. We owe it to our mission. Too many seem to believe that sweeping conduct under the rug protects the church. That's myopic. When the accusation becomes public (and it will become public) it will do more harm to the church than had we dealt with it immediately.
Jerusalem's walls were made of rock. Nehemiah did not patch their gaping holes with spackle. He had to tear them down and build them back up again. We must do the same. We must tear down our old paradigms and systems and build new ones that are more secure. This week on the Law and Church podcast, our guest is Gregory Love from Ministry Safe. We all need to go listen. Pay attention to his description of the list - a piece of paper with a checklist on it that serves as our defense against child sexual abuse in the church. At the foundation of that list is a background check, despite statistics that of all abusers in the church in recent history only four percent would have failed a background check and statistics that offenders will offend an average of 150 times before they are caught. Our paper list is mere spackle. We need to get some hewn stone.
Ministry Safe is one such stone. Their training materials and processes are key in putting systems in place that protect children from sexual predators. We'll never know this side of heaven how many children have been protected because of their work. The Church Law Group (Church General Counsel) hopes to be another such stone. Our desire is to train church leaders in how to appropriately respond to claims of sexual abuse in the church in a way that protects the victim and the church. We help investigate claims. We help document prevention practices online so that everyone who needs to know how the church works together to prevent abuse has access to it. We make ourselves available on a day's notice to answer church leaders' questions about what to do in a wide variety of circumstances.
After Nehemiah told the people what God had done to bring him to Jerusalem, their response was "Let us arise and build" and Nehemiah records actions that followed their words, "So they put their hands to the good work." (Nehemiah 2:18). It wasn't just a work - it was a good work. Ours is a good work as well. Let's get to it!
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me." It is a sad state of affairs that given such a command we have to talk about a policy that protects kids. Nevertheless, year in and year out, the abuse of kids and vulnerable adults is the top reason why churches end up in court. Since churches get sued most frequently on this issue, the question isn't "why have an attorney review our child protection policy?" The question is, "why wouldn't you?" Here are a few good reasons your church needs a child and vulnerable adult protection policy written by an attorney.
- Your church needs a policy that protects children and vulnerable adults from sexual predators.
Let's start with the main reason you need a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy: sexual abuse in the church hurts the cause of Christ, especially when its victim is a child. The church should be a beacon of hope that points to Christ, not the object of criticism because church leaders did not have a good policy in place to protect kids when they know how prevalent sexual abuse in the church has been up until now. Your church must have a robust policy that does everything it can to prevent abuse from ever occurring.
Secondly, you need a policy that aligns with what most liability insurance companies want. Josh Bryant has experience working with insurance companies on obtaining supplemental sexual incident coverage that is not covered by most general liability policies. Insurance companies are in a great position to know how sexual abuse in the church has occurred in the past, and know exactly what kind of policies they want to see before underwriting an insurance policy.
Third, your church needs a policy that perseveres evidence that a defense attorney will want to present to a judge or jury in the event your church is sued after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, churches in which sexual abuse has occurred are more likely to be guilty until proven innocent, and the only things that proves innocence is evidence. You must preserve evidence as best you can, and Josh Bryant has experience in litigation such that he knows what kind of evidence is necessary.
Fourth, your church needs a policy that is as legally defensible as it is operationally manageable. No policy is worth the paper it is written on if the pastors and volunteers responsible for enforcing that policy don't do it. Most pastors and volunteers don't want to be insubordinate to church policy - they simply don't have the time to do much of what a policy requires sometimes. That is why it is important to have an attorney with experience not only in law, but in ministry as well. Josh Bryant can help balance the ministry needs with the legal best practices.
Finally, you need someone to help with your child protection policies like Josh Bryant, who has the experience necessary to get the job done well. When you sign up for our attorney access plan, this is usually one of the first policies that Church General Counsel will review.
It is so important to have a good child protection policy. Members can see more tips on drafting this policy in our members only area, or you can contact us for more information on how we can help you draft a good child and vulnerable adult protection policy.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.