A Pastor's Heart: Shepherding When Tragedy Strikes (Part One)

After a decade or two of high profile charges, cases, and settlements, the church is now only beginning to come to grips with the tragedy of child sexual abuse. Crimes perpetrated by clergy have rightly received special attention, since a bond of presumed trust when violated is particularly heinous.

Scandal is also created, however, when church leaders do not respond properly to allegations of child abuse or even to the sheer fact of its existence in our modern culture. Yes, the subject is not a comfortable one, and its implications are explosive for individual lives and ecclesiastical organizations. But does not the Christian faith call church leaders to vigilance in this matter?

When faced with harsh and uncaring attitudes towards little children, Jesus rebuked His own disciples, telling them: “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). Praying for and blessing the little children with the laying on of hands, Jesus modeled the proper posture and attitude that His followers were to have towards these little ones. If they are counted as precious by the Savior, then should not the church’s attitude towards minors not also be loving and compassionate? Love thinks, and so does not the Lord Jesus by His example call all church leaders to the type of practical kindness that would both tend to prevent and properly respond to the child abuse all around us? Peter was called by Jesus to tend His lambs (John 21:15). In light of that pastoral call, Peter’s own exhortation in 1 Peter 5:1-4 to other church leaders to shepherd the flock of God must be heard. Why should they care enough to look after young and old in the church? “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory,” he reminds us.

Paul’s last words to the Ephesian Elders are also instructive in how this work of the church is to be done. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock…to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Although doubtless primarily directed against doctrinal threats which endangered the life of the church, in principle these inspired words also point in administrative and moral directions. Christ’s commands through His Apostles are to be carried out efficiently to His glory: we must be proactive in guarding little ones. And Paul, having already made two missionary journeys through the Roman Empire, including to the city of Corinth, certainly had seen that doctrine and morals are inseparably intertwined! Child sexual abuse is a grave sin both now and then, which the Apostle was in principle condemning. As shepherds of the flock of God, pastors and other church leaders have a responsibility to protect the flock. This posture requires forethought and planning, which in our own day implies the adoption and careful following of competent Child Protection Policies. Solid, common sense principles such as the Two Person Rule (i.e., always having two screened adults working with the kids at all times) and the Six Month Rule (i.e., requiring a volunteer to be an active member for six months before they work with the children) are critical components of the practical love towards children that Christ calls us to. Our Lord’s children are too important to brush aside as not important enough for the time and trouble. We must love, teach and disciple them, and we must do this good work in a safe and secure environment.

W. Duncan Rankin is a pastor, seminary professor, and board member of GRACE.   Dr. Rankin was introduced to the painful problem of child sexual abuse in the ordinary pastoral ministry.