Ephesians 5:3-6 “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
Shortly after becoming a pastor in 2016, I received a question from the denomination, of who was the Safe Church contact for our congregation (Coopersville CRC)? I don't remember if I ran that question by just the Elders, or the whole Council; but whoever it was smiled at me, and said “that must be you.”
When I was entering ministry, being on the Safe Church team wasn't exactly a priority of mine. Sure the idea of Safe Church, and its work in the denomination, was probably a good thing. But is this really a gospel issue? In the fall of 2017, the #metoo movement exploded, demonstrating the wide impact that sexual abuse and sins had in our nation. But still one could ask: Is this really an issue for a church to prioritize?
Then in May of 2018, I had the privileged of hearing Rachael Denhollander speak at an OPC church in Grand Rapids (watch below). Rachael's name is probably familiar to many of you as she was the first victim to speak out and bring public charges against the former team doctor at MSU, Larry Nassar. Not only is Rachael an abuse survivor, but she is also a passionate and articulate reformed Christian. At her speech in Grand Rapids, Rachael challenged the audience to consider how Christians ought to pursue both grace and justice, and how God has not designed the two to be in conflict in this fallen world. Yes, we extend grace and forgiveness when we are wronged. But that doesn't eliminate the need for the State, and those in authority, to punish evildoers, and restrain sin in the world (especially in cases of sexual assault).
Sadly, while we may acknowledge such sin exists in Hollywood, in the work place, or on a public college campus like MSU, we can not be ignorant of the fact that sinful human beings, and even predators, can also be found in the church. For decades now, the Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in scandal, especially surrounding the abuse of children. Just recently, their highest ranking official to date, a Cardinal, was convicted of such crimes in Australia.
But it also happens in Protestant churches too. For more than a year, Rachael Denhollander has been speaking out against the misdeeds and cover ups that took place at Sovereign Grace Ministries, a small Protestant denomination centered on the East Coast. In 2018 we saw a prominent church leader, Bill Hybels, resign from his mega church in Chicago because of examples of moral failure and abuse of power. And in February of 2019 a report on the Southern Baptist churches in Texas was published, detailing cases of more than 700 victims, and over 200 perpetrators, over the last two decades. Over 200 Pastors, Youth Pastors, Elders, Sunday School Teachers, and other leaders, that used their position in the church, to harm the flock. Some of these leaders are now in prison, but others are even still in ministry.
The Church is not immune to sexual assault and misconduct. But as Ephesians 5:3 says, it should be. There should not even be a hint of such sexual immorality among the people of God. Thus when it is found, it must be dealt with; both by the church, as well as through the civil authorities that God has ordained. That is why I am now thankful for the Gospel calling I have received, to play a role leading the Safe Church team here at Coopersville, as well as in Classis Zeeland. Dealing with sin is always a Gospel issue, and central to the work and calling of the people of God. Further, as Ephesians warns, God will not let such sin go unpunished, thus we must always take these matters seriously as well.
Since becoming the Classis Zeeland Safe Church coordinator last fall, I have learned that Safe Church has three primary areas of focus.
- Awareness. Sexual sin and abuse are very real, and present in our churches and world. So we must make sure that we are open to hearing accusations, and that victims feel free and safe to come forward, and tell their stories.
- Prevention. Safe Church helps churches think about, institute, and follow wise policies, that can head off opportunities for such sin in our midst.
- Response. When there are allegations of misconduct, how do we handle those faithfully, and in a God honoring way? I can tell you this, when such things surface, it is too late to begin to form a team.
And so, we organize and train teams and leaders, to ensure that we are ready to deal with situations that come to light. A little like a fire extinguisher in your house, or wearing a seat belt in our car, we hope it never needs to be used here. But no church or place is immune from sin. We know the danger, and pray that through good preventive and awareness work, this sin is not even named among us.