A Pastor's Heart

By W. Duncan Rankin 

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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?

The Call to Vigilance

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” (cf. 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 (cf. 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” (cf. 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.

The Call to Defend

Fair, just, and serious steps for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse must be thought and prayed through in advance of reported trouble. The Church which waits until the pressure of the moment to face such questions is arrogantly presumptuous, inviting the rebuke of the Holy Spirit. Procedures for hearing allegations and reporting them to the proper authorities should be written down in your competent Child Protection Policy. Mishandling an allegation of child sexual abuse can make a tragic situation more bitter, alienating lives from Christ’s Church for years to come.

The Call to Care

Finally, church pastors and other leaders must be shepherds who mend the flock of God. Pastoral care should always be offered to both victims and perpetrators, as well as their families. But the table is not level in this regard. Victims must be given priority rather than short shrift.

All too often, the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and reconciliation is misused and applied clumsily to the area of child sexual abuse. When dealing pastorally with a victim and her family, the first matter is to make the Church safe for her to attend. Misguided ministers and counselors who foolishly force victims and their families to be constantly re-exposed to and, thereby, emotionally re-victimized by their perpetrators commit a grave sin. Victims deserve priority: the church must be made safe for them to attend. Therefore, it is the Christian duty of perpetrators to remove themselves to another local fellowship, after making full disclosure of their situation, so that they no longer are a source of spiritual confusion and harm to victims and their families. It is also the duty of church leaders to see to it that this protection is provided.

Perpetrators need pastoral care too! But, that care cannot be provided at the cost of further victimizing harmed children and their families. A sister church, perhaps even across a geographic or denominational line, will need to provide ongoing pastoral care and advice. Often, child abuse does not strike in a vacuum, and the family in which it arises has complex issues which require professional counseling on a broader scale. Churches intent on following Christ’s command to “suffer the little children to come to Him” must be ready, willing, and able to require such professional counseling care along side and in coordination with ongoing pastoral care.

Ignoring this elephant in the Church will not bring honor to God! Church pastors and other leaders can glorify God by prayerfully developing Child Protection Policies which help fulfill the call of Christ to shepherd the flock of God which He purchased with His own blood!

Are you and your church ready to receive an unfading crown of glory? Make it so!

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