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.