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.
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.