Enabling Abusers or Protecting the Vulnerable?

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually. -Psalm 74:18-23

Let me just come right out and say something that this article is about: leaders and churches need to review their theology on mercy, justice, repentance, forgiveness, church discipline and trust. We need to stop enabling perpetrators of injustice and sexual predators while doing nothing serious to protect the abused and vulnerable.

First of all, I know all too well as a former pastor the pain of most people siding with abusers or predators OVER the abused and vulnerable. I had to deal with several sensitive situations in the church I pastored. In each case, many people were appalled at my “lack of grace” and felt (without knowing what I knew) I, or leadership, was being “judgmental.” The focus always got shifted to people feeling sorry for, and rallying around the person being dealt with as if they were the victim rather than seeing or trusting leadership was taking steps necessary to protect the flock from potentially dangerous situations and people. While this was personally very painful, I do not regret in hindsight taking the steps I took to protect those potentially vulnerable or the church at large from destructive people or those living in blatant sin that needed confronted for their good and the health of the church. I have been deceived before by manipulative people and know the damage it does.

But let’s talk about why so many of us as leaders today are so timid in this area. I believe it is due to a faulty theology and fear of what people will think of us. For example, a common misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:1-6 is about not judging. Out of context the first two verses seem to indicate this very thing, that we should not “judge” others. But in context, (and in light of other passages) this is not what Jesus is teaching. Jesus is rebuking the judgmental hypocrisy of the Pharisee’s who could identify lesser “sin” in others while they had greater “sin” in their lives that they were not dealing with. Jesus calls them to first deal with their sin SO THAT they can properly deal with the sin in others: You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5).

It is not possible to live life without making judgments. We make judgments every day about everyone we meet. The issue is making wrong judgments or being hypocritical in our judgments. In John 7:27 Jesus directly says, Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly. Notice, he did not say to not make judgments. He said to judge correctly.

Secondly, let’s talk about justice and mercy. It seems to me we have emphasized God’s mercy to the exclusion of God’s justice. This has resulted in perpetrators of abuse being enabled, instead of victims protected. The #MeToo Movement and #ChurchToo movement have done much to expose this shameful reality and how wide-spread this problem truly is even in our churches.

We need to recognize that Scripture talks A LOT about God’s justice and that He is in fact a God of passionate justice; not just a God of mercy. Just read through the Psalms and Prophets and note how often his justice is referenced and how many tearful prayers there are for God to defend the oppressed, the victim and the abused and bring perpetrators to justice.

Secondly, while mercy triumphs over judgment; it is vital we note that mercy is conditioned on true repentance. Proverbs 28:13 clearly says, Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

At the same time, it is important we understand that mercy for our sin is not the same as being spared from the consequences of our sin. When King David repented of his sin with Bathsheba, God forgive him. But there were still certain consequences that played out in tragic ways in his family as a result (see 2 Samuel 12).

Thirdly, let’s talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. At the cross Jesus did say, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. But the extension of forgiveness is not the same as the experience of forgiveness or reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation can only be received where there is godly and genuine repentance (2 Corinthians 2). We are not forgiven and reconciled to God until or unless we repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ (Acts 2:36-41). In our eagerness to show “grace” we often run ahead of even the Lord in this area. When was the last time you even heard a sermon or evangelistic call that emphasized “repentance?” Yet, this was the very first message and core response Jesus emphasized when he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:27). Forgiveness and reconciliation is conditioned on repentance.

Likewise, in human relationships, we are to forgive as God has forgiven us. But for a relationship to be reconciled there must be confession and repentance on the perpetrator’s part.

Additionally, we need to distinguish between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness is to be freely extended, but trust needs earned and discerned. Manipulative people prey on our lack of discernment and shame us into trusting because our theology is faulty in this area. Proverbs is full of verses that help us discern different people and warn of trusting the wrong people.

While I long to see and rejoice in even the most wicked repenting and experiencing God’s redeeming grace, the church today in the US has a problem that is leaving people vulnerable, enabling predators, and preventing healing for the hurting, abused, victim and oppressed. Jesus has become more of a “Mister Rogers” nice-guy than the zealous, whip making, over-turning tables, infuriated by injustice, Savior that He is.

In fact, I will end with this very passage. Read it again carefully. Note the impact and result of Jesus’ actions in the temple. Apparently his righteous rage did not scare away those who needed his healing touch; on the contrary it created a place of “safety” for them to find the healing they needed, while dealing with those abusing and taking advantage of the vulnerable. The blind, the lame and children found shelter because Jesus dealt with abuse and injustice. Can the same be said of our churches and leadership or are we unwittingly having the opposite effect?

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” -Matthew 21:12-16