Why Do Churches Cover Up Sin?

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We have all seen the cases before, and been left scratching our heads. How did the church miss this? Why didn't they believe the accusations, or the multiple accusations? Where there is smoke, there has to be fire, right? Yes, we have to be careful not to rush to judgment, on the slim chance the accusations are false. But our default appears more often, to be doing nothing.

The reality is, sin and this world are a mess, and our best attempts at justice are flawed. But, we are still called to pursue it, as best we can. So, before you are in the midst of such a crisis, here are some helpful thoughts from Practical Theology Professor David Murray, that we would all do well to consider. 

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Participant

This is an extremely helpful article. Thanks for posting!

 

Community Builder

What a great article, Lloyd.  Murray pretty much covers the gamut, which is excellent (and helpful).  As he says, "there is no one reason that explains everybody."  Having spent a good many years as a practicing attorney, I can echo that (whether as to sins in church or otherwise).  Which is why each case must be approached and evaluated without presuming it is "like that other case a few years ago."

One thing I would particularly point out is this.  I think we, including in the CRC, too often resolve such matters "behind closed doors."  Of course, we call it by a more palatable expression, like "executive session."  I realize that sometimes "executive session" is really the better way to deal with a sin, but I think we overdo it.  And the habit of doing it tends to encourage those would commit violations.  The logic is this: hey, even if I get caught, the matter would be kept and dealt with behind closed doors. 

Thanks for the link Lloyd!

 

Community Builder

Thanks for the comment Doug. I'm unsure that disciplining behind closed doors / in executive session, encourages anyone to sin in this way. But, I agree that it is likely used too often. We have such a high value on privacy, and individual rights, that it undoubtedly hurts our ability to work together as a body. In church discipline, names should be named, and those that are guilty of sin should be publicly shamed, as a warning to others. We pretend that it is out of love for the sinner, that we don't want to create a barrier for their return. But when we do so, we deny our own doctrine, that repentance is a supernatural gift from God, and if and when it is given, it will easily overcome the barrier of public shame. Even in our discipline, we can have a form of Godliness, but be denying the power there of.

Participant

Mr. Hemstreet: Thank you for your comments on this topic. I found Professor Murray's article extremely insightful and informative. It gave me a greater knowledge of a topic I have been very curious about.

I am perplexed, though, regarding your statement "those that are guilty of sin should be publicly shamed." You mention that doing so would serve as a "warning to others." In reality, "research underscores the more significant role that certainty plays in deterrence than severity — it is the certainty of being caught that deters a person from committing crime, not the fear of being punished or the severity of the punishment" ("Five Things About Deterrence." National Institute of Justice, 6 June 2016, nij.gov/five-things/pages/deterrence.aspx). But of more importance is the fact that publicly shaming a sinner may cause harm to a victim if one is involved. Even if the victim would remain unnamed, members of a church could easily "connect the dots" to discover who the victim is. A better warning to others might be the knowledge that the church takes abuse seriously and that the "Christians in positions of power there examine themselves as they make decisions and judgments going forwards" (Murray).

Also, not steeped in church doctrine, I am curious about the doctrine you refer to that states that repentance "if and when it is given, it will easily overcome the barrier of public shame." What particular doctrine is that?

It is my prayer that we be the kind of church God is calling us to be; a church that learns lessons, grows through healing … and demonstrates the love of Christ.

Community Builder

Hi Jane, I'm glad to hear that the article was a blessing to you.

As to the "public shame" comment, I think we are saying the same thing. Doug was talking about how we deal with sin behind closed doors, and one of the reasons for that is to avoid shaming the offender. But when we do so, I would argue that it is not healthier for the sinner, nor does it serve as the deterrent to others that the case should be (increasing their certainty that they too would be caught / exposed, if they fall into a similar sin). Yes, care for the victim may be a valid reason to maintain secrecy in some situations, and so it must be dealt with on a case by case basis. But I would agree with Doug, that we likely default to private proceedings too often.

As for the "doctrine," I was just generally referencing the Calvinist/Reformed understanding of salvation, namely that we are not able to save ourselves, and that we rely upon the work of God, granting repentance, as He draws us onto Himself. Such salvation is supernatural in nature, and will cross any earthly barrier, even shame and hard feelings from the past, to restore a sinner to God and His people.

Hi Lloyd.  Lots of wisdom there from Professor Murray.  I will push back against your characterization that "our default appears more often, to be doing nothing."  I don't think you can rightly make that judgment, and Professor Murray seems to disagree substantially with you in the article that you posted:

"Fifth, many (I hope most) churches do the right thing. We only hear of the bad examples and the media only expose the cover-ups (as they should). However, there are many Christians who bravely and courageously stand up against evil and protect the innocent."

The answer to concerns about abuse cover-up is not to broadly impugn our brothers and sisters in Christ without warrant, lest we fall into sin ourselves by breaking the ninth commandment. 

 

Community Builder

Hi Eric, thanks for your comment and challenge. Honestly, I was not intentionally trying to make any such broad statement, to infer that most are getting it wrong. But, as Professor Murray said, we often only hear about the failures, and so that could certainly lead to the appearance that churches fail to act when confronted with these issues. Also, I think Doug's comment above, regarding our tendency to handle all discipline behind closed doors, also plays a roll here. So, if the churches handling it well all do so in secret, and the churches that fail are the only ones we hear of, it is understandable that things might appear on a surface level, different than what is actually taking place in practice. But I was not trying to make any such charge, just make the case that all of our churches should read and consider what Professor Murray wrote.

Guide

Thanks for the article Lloyd! So thankful for all the voices that are continuing to give more perspective on these issues. While the article doesn't mention "abuse" specifically it does go to lengths about naming why and how some churches end up covering for their leaders when there is misconduct, I think we could probably assume misconduct/abuse is within the broader term of sin.

I especially like how the Prof. Murray gives perspective of the victim in these situations. Often victims are left uncared for, unbelieved and as a result isolated... even if there is no specific "cover up" it may feel like it to them... 

Rachel Denhollander has been really helpful to so many churches on this issue (and she'll be sharing at January Series on the 22nd - info on that at this link here)

As she said after giving her victim impact statement (link to article):

"My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse, it was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me.... Often by those who should have been the first to support and help, and I couldn't even do what I loved best, which was to reach out to others."

Community Builder

Seeing Rachel speak this past summer, was one of the things that inspired me to get involved in the work of Safe Church. I would highly recommend catching her for the January series, to all that might be able to.

Participant

Thank you for letting us know about Rachel Denhollander's upcoming event at Calvin College.

While only indirectly related to the Murray article, I would also like to pass on another resource regarding abuse and the response to it. Michigan Radio has produced an outstanding podcast titled Believed. "Believed is a story of survivors finding their power in a cultural moment when people are coming to understand how important that is. It’s an inside look at how a team of women — a detective, a prosecutor, and an army of survivors — won justice in one of the largest serial sexual abuse cases in U.S. history. It’s also an unnerving exploration of how even well-meaning adults can fail to believe" (Michigan Radio). You can access it at believed.michiganradio.org. Ms. Denhollander is featured as are other courageous women. I highly recommend listening to all the episodes beginning with number one.

Eric also provides a link to a Network article, Justice, Grace, and Worth: Rachael Denhollander's Victim Impact Statement, I believe it is worth the read. This article contains a link to Ms. Denhollander's complete witness impact statement. Her passion for justice and her demonstration of her faith radiates hope and God's grace.  Here is the link to a video of Ms. Denhollander's victim impact statement: https://youtu.be/7CjVOLToRJk.

Shalom

Participant

I have also listened to two of the segments on NPR Michigan Radio - a part of their series entitled "Believed". It's very good, and so insightful in answering the question of how could this have gone on, hidden fo so long? A great fear of anyone who has survived sexual abuse is, who will believe me? And those fears are well-founded, as it is our natural tendency to not believe. It's much easier to refuse to believe that these kinds of allegations are true. However, research shows that well over 90% are in fact true. It takes effort to shift our paradigm to truly listen, and to believe.