Sex Offenders in the Church

Several folks have asked me what I think of this article about the place of sex offenders in the church, so I thought I would say a few words about it.

Let me say first what I appreciate about Jimmy Hinton’s article. First, I admire his courage. When he found out about his father’s offenses, he did the right thing. Second, I admire his insistence that the practical price of the dislocations in the church be borne by those who caused the dislocations in the first place — the offenders. When there have been grievous offenses, the church must not help the culprit gang up on the one who was wronged, in order to heal the wound lightly. Demands for superficial reconciliation would fall into that category. And third, I agree with him that molestation of children is common in the church, and that putting another coat of whitewash on the sepulcher doesn’t deal with the stench.

That said, I do think he has arbitrarily limited the boundaries of this kind of offense, and consequently, the hard line taken can’t really serve as a hard line, and won’t provide the kind of practical help that pastors and boards of elders need in this kind of mess. For example, he limits his discussion to pedophiles, and draws very precise lines for it:

“The medical definition of a pedophile is (1) someone who is aroused by, has intense, recurring fantasies, or is involved in sexual behaviors with prepubescent children (13 or younger), (2) someone who is aroused by, has sexual fantasies, or is involved with a child for at least 6 months, (3) someone who is at least 16 years old, and (4) at least 5 years older than the child(ren) he or she is attracted to.”

But a pastor could easily find himself in a snarl where the victim was 14, where the offender was aroused by a child for only 5 months when he was caught, where the offender was 15, or where the offender was only 4 years older than the child he was molesting. Any or all of these conditions in this paragraph are capable of making a mess every bit as big as the paragraph before it. Dealing with this kind of tragedy is not like rating a movie, where all you have to do is count the gunshots or cigarettes.

There are other considerations. Suppose a young teenage couple start going at it when she is 14 and he is 16, with some school official primly supplying them with the condoms. They have an ongoing relationship for several years, and after he turns 18 they have a big fight, the thing turns ugly, the parents find out, charges are brought, and he finds himself a registered sex offender. He is now 30 years old, married to somebody else, and wants to join your church. Do we really want to say that this situation is comparable to a 50-year-old man caught molesting 3-year-olds at the park?

Now I know that there is a certain kind of watchblogger who will take the distinctions I make in the preceding paragraph, and magically turn them into my supposed approval of the fornication. Not at all — I can distinguish first-degree murder from third-degree murder without approving of either, and I was the one getting called a stupid Puritan for objecting to those public school officials who get their kicks by pimping the condoms.

Everybody wants to start ministering to the down-and-outers because soup kitchens are romantic, and everybody wants this until the sex-offenders and meth addicts start showing up at church. Now what? We can’t have it both ways.

I believe that the church should be open to anyone in principle. “When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17). In order to do this right, prudence of course dictates that the church require trained chaperones as appropriate, with policies in place that will actually protect the vulnerable. The parents of young children should know that those policies are in place and are operative. The door of the church should always be open — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch the door.

If we try to close the church off to a certain class of sinner, I am concerned the logic will work its way out, and more and more categories of sinner will gradually be excluded. Pretty soon you will be there all by yourself, playing the role of both pastor and congregation for the Really Pure Church (RPC).

But on the other hand, if we make the mistake that many other Christians make — that of confounding forgiveness and trust — we will throw open the doors of the church blindly “because Jesus,” and will unwittingly create a climate that favors the creepers, and which excludes and punishes the vulnerable. Churches that do this are really good at blaming the vulnerable whenever something goes wrong — because the vulnerable are the only ones who will put up with that crap. Churches that specialize in superficial reconciliation do this in numerous ways — demanding that the spouse who was sinned against pay all the practical consequences (“no divorce, sorry”), or, on the basis of one “sorry about that” email, requiring a molested niece to look at her uncle continuing to serve communion.

Never forget that Jesus Christ came for the screwed up people. We do have the raw material to work with. In fact, that’s all we have to work with.

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26 thoughts on “Sex Offenders in the Church

  1. Doug,

    You agree with him on pretty much everything but then say his line of reasoning falls apart because there might be 1% of this group that aren’t actually pedophiles but would meet the criteria based on their age at the time of offense and so you disagree.

    Then you take the slipper-slope argument as another reason to say he missed the mark. You are taking the exceptions (which are very obvious…and wouldn’t be hard to figure out by any competent minister or elder) and then saying that his position has less merit because you can think of minute particulars where his reasoning might not pan out. If you asked him or anyone in leadership if what he is saying would apply to those cases I am certain they wouldn’t take as hard of a line as someone who has molested 500 children and continue to be attracted to 5 year olds.

    Jimmy would agree…Jesus came for screwed up people. That is why he continues to minister to them.

  2. Very insightful.

    However, Jimmy’s article specifically addressed pedophiles. I understand the argument about the married thirty year old, who has somewhere to go for sexual fulfillment, his wife.

    But what about a pedophile who is in the church surrounded by young people? How can any good possibly come from that?

  3. Why do we feel the need to have a universal policy for this sort of thing? Is it not the job of the local pastor to use some discernment between Wilson’s 30-year old example and Hinton’s father? The elders and pastor need to have some leeway in making these decisions locally. The pastor needs to know his congregation, and make proper decisions as appropriate. If a pastor does not want a pedophile in his church, he should have the freedom to exclude them. If he does include them, the local members are free to leave.

    Now I would agree that it is a pastor’s job to protect his flock, so I would recommend a separate “church” altogether. It might sound a bit like a leper’s camp, but until repentance is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt or a cure is found it seems to satisfy the needs of both sides. The fact is this is a plague and until the plague is cured (relatively speaking), it needs to be controlled.

  4. What makes these situations challenging is that often the correct civil penalty is not applied to the sex offenders. Historically, a man who raped a child was likely to receive a capital sentence, and in those situations, repentance and closure are more obtainable for perpetrator and victim alike. However, in our day and age, despite the epidemic of sexual offenses against children, it is difficult to obtain the appropriate criminal justice. This coupled with the fact that many families where the molestation occurs are exceedingly reluctant to prosecute the perp, and you have a recipe for very dangerous people mixing all too frequently and casually with the general population. Which of course results in more crimes where the damage takes years to play out and address. By contrast, we’d never let a known murderer who’d killed multiple people and had evinced a predilection to doing it again to get out of jail within a couple of years and then just waltz back into a congregation. Jimmy’s solution may sound clunky, but given the state of the culture, I don’t know that Doug has outlined a better solution (pointing out the areas where Hinton has gaps is fine, but no plan is perfect).

  5. Or, Pastor Wilson, you could just marry a convicted pedophile to an innocent young woman in your church. That would solve all those pesky problems, no? Oh, wait, you’ve already done that. How’s that working out so far?

  6. Pastor Wilson, is your slippery slope argument that it’s OK to keep a certain class of repentant sinner out of church (namely, pedophiles) but that we shouldn’t do it because it might lead to others being kept out who don’t deserve it? Or do you think it’s wrong to keep pedophiles out of church, regardless of what other people are excluded from fellowship down the line as a result?

    I don’t understand the slippery slope arguments you sometimes make. For example, I’ve heard you say that we shouldn’t allow gay marriage because it will eventually lead to polygamy. This seems to assume that polygamy is the real problem, not gay marriage. Likewise, saying we shouldn’t force pedophiles out of church because it might lead to other people being forced out seems to be saying that the latter is the real problem. But if gay marriage is inherently wrong, and if excluding repentant pedophiles from fellowship is inherently wrong, why not denounce them on the basis of their own merits (or demerits) without suggesting that they’re only wrong because of some other sin they might lead to?

  7. I am a middle aged man who has never married.  No sex offender or anything like that, but since my last relationship ended,  other than the occasional dinner at the elder’s home

  8. I haven’t been invited in 3-4 years. I don’t want to attribute motives. These are just my impressions. With a young man, there is a sense of the host of almost parenting or coaching. You especially see that with older women and their contacts with much younger men. When I was in a relationship, I was considered part of a couple. Alone, people don’t really know how to relate to me. I have no children, so there is no contact there, which is huge in church. Other than Bible Studies or the occasional work crew, people just don’t connect well with me. Everyone is sincerely polite. I don’t feel persecution, but in this word, a man without a woman will not be invited into a home nearly as often as a woman without a man will be. Just the way it is.

  9. Pastor Wilson take this for what its worth, I find your article troubling. I have a question if you had a member of your congregation that held to the validity of the theory of evolution would you discipline them? Sir, would you agree that there degrees of “sin”. For example a church member has a psychological issue and was taking medication for said issue, but was convicted that his issue was caused by sin and repented of it, so he stopped taking said medication. The person involved in this story began to manifest symptoms do to his condition and was asked to leave the fellowship. Partly for safety reasons for the people in the fellowship. Granted that is prudent but I think you see my point.

    A person who holds to the ToE is not a danger to anyone, I guess they could be in a spiritual sense given the world view I think you hold. I mean differing behaviors require differing responses dont you agree?

    Honesty demands I state that I cant stand your view of the Christian religion so that might taint my view of what you are saying but I do want to understand your view despite my PoV. I hope you and your family had a nice Easter.

  10. Eric, reasonable question. I live in a studio apartment and have no where to seat a guest. I do invite people out for coffee, dinner,etc. when I get the chance.

  11. From a practical perspective, would it be advisable to make all of the deacons/elders aware of the identity of a church member who is wrestling with this sin?  This seems like an area where strict pastoral confidentiality gets trumped by the safety of the rest of the congregation.

  12. Churches ought to “require trained chaperones” to guard against wolves? Yes! Hinton worries most churches have more wolves than they know. Doug — can you share if or how your chaperones (deacons) are trained to identify, capture & remove the pedophiles?

  13. “they marry them to”

    You mean if a professing Christian man and a woman with no biblical barriers to their union want to get married, they do it? Horrors! We mustn’t let these poor girls make their own decisions like that!

  14. One thought that comes to mind is that I’ve been trained in protecting kids from predatory people, and the gist of the statistics I received is that about one in thirty adults is an offender–I inferred this from the fact that the median abuser of girls abuses about eight girls, the median abuser of boys over 30. 
    So if your church has 30 adults or more, congratulations; you are about 60% likely to have at least one adult attendee who has molested a child–meaning everything from inappropriate touch to full intercourse.  OK, so let me know exactly how we are to prevent any abuser from being there? 
     
    It seems to me that the way to comfort and protect victims is to create a culture where “grooming” behaviors are not tolerated–and where leadership knows the difference between grooming behaviors and innocent affection. 

  15. I agree with Brett. Having a ‘known’ creep is in some ways easier than the unknown creeps out there. At least you know to keep an eye on the guy and to keep him away from the kiddos. If your church is big enough, statistically you probably have a creep or two that you do not know about. Every church should take care and have reasonable procedures in place to protect kids. Parents and pastors should always keep an eye on all the children to make sure that nothing weird is going on, youth group leaders should go in pairs (and preferably female adults helping as they are the least likely to abuse), and nurseries and Sunday school rooms should have windows. Vigilance should be everyone’s job and there will be less risk for potential victims. If, God forbid, there is an accusation, it should be dealt with promptly. Law enforcement should be called and that person should be removed from any contact with children during the investigation.

  16. “Linda”, what do you take this intelligent young woman for, an idiot? She was fully briefed on who he was, and SHE *chose* to marry him. Apparently you don’t think much of women and their cognitive abilities. What kind of a sexist pig are you?

  17. “So if your church has 30 adults or more, congratulations; you are about 60% likely to have at least one adult attendee who has molested a child”

    Before I’d make that statistical declaration, I’d want to know how offenders correlate with church attenders. But your point is taken.

  18. Jane, absolutely; it assumes that offenders are fairly randomly distributed to make that claim.  I would hope on the positive side that sex offenders would be underrepresented because of the ministry of the Counselor and the Word, but on the negative side, churches offer easy access to children.  
    Major point is, however, that keeping offenders out of even the smallest churches is going to be very, very difficult, and is going to require a degree of pastoral care that churches rarely get.  On the bright side, while heading the nurseries at a church in Colorado, I was told by the pastor that he did know of certain people that he’d not allow to be on the schedule.   People were watching out.

  19. Bert, I understand. I’m not even claiming that people who go to church are less likely to be offenders for any spiritual reason (though we can hope there is *some* effect that way) but offenders tend to live more on the fringes of society then the average person and while some of them present as normal people, a lot don’t. Mostly, though, I was just calling for caution with assuming that in any situation, a distribution in the general population is the same as the distribution in some subgroup. But your point is taken — the possibility of an offender in a church should not be assumed to be remote.

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