In answering the question posed by the title, let me begin by saying yes and no. The contingent response depends on a number of factors. Safe from what? How safe? What tools may we use to establish that safety?
Yes, of course, we should take every lawful precaution to keep the church safe — safe from dishonest pastors, false teachers, con artists, pedophiles, and so on. A good portion of the New Testament is devoted to warnings delivered to the churches about people and practices that would disrupt their safety and stability.
“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).
So yes, we should be constantly on our guard against threats to the body. Provided safety is biblically defined, the task of the elders is to maintain the church as a safe place for the people of God to be.
But things are never quite that simple. The man who warned the elders at Ephesus to keep the flock safe against wolves was once a wolf himself.
“But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3, ESV).
So the man who warned the Ephesians elders about savage wolves had been a violent predator himself at one point. “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter . . .” (Acts 9:1).
It is not at all unreasonable to suppose that the church in Jerusalem had widows in it who were widows because of rage of Saul.
“Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:10–11).
This explains why it was not all that easy for Saul to find acceptance in the church there.
“And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:26–27).
One of the central tasks of shepherding is that of protection. A shepherd, a pastor, is charged to feed the flock and to protect the flock. There are two things that the church must be protected from. The flock must be protected, as much as it lies within our power, from current threats. But when former threats cease to be threats, and the threat professes repentance, now what? It is reasonable for the saints to be wary, but the goal should be to open the doors in true welcome if the repentance proves genuine.
If this is the biblical pattern, and it is, we have no biblical basis whatever for exiling a particular kind of sinner forever. I am thinking here of a pedophile who has professed repentance. Should we make him wear a scarlet P on his baseball cap?
The fact that some in the church still feel nervous or threatened cannot be the standard– because when we abstract the principle from that action we cannot make it applicable to other comparable situations. And in a world full of sinners, there are many comparable situations.
Suppose someone says “church should be safe” and “I don’t feel safe with him or her present.” The apostle Paul is not only in the church now, but is a leader in the church, an apostle. Is that triggering to some who are widows because of him? Or suppose the problem is a sexual one, but not pedophilia. Suppose we have a young woman with a history of promiscuity. Do the mothers of nineteen-year-old boys feel safe with her around? Should I as a pastor tell the congregation about all the instances of adultery in the past that I happen to know about? After all, if someone did that in the past, it might happen again. Can’t be too careful.
Right. But if I were to be so foolish, I could say that I was protecting the congregation against future adulteries when I would be actually leading the congregation into a state of unprotected vulnerability to pharisaical accusations. Recall that this is a danger also. When Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more,” why did He say that? It was because it was possible that she might sin again.
A shepherd must guard against current threats, and he must also anticipate future threats. Part of what you use to gauge future threats would be past behavior. This is why the saints in Jerusalem were (reasonably) wary about receiving Saul of Tarsus into their midst, and it was why Barnabas had to walk Saul’s application through (also reasonably). It might be a trick, the people thought — and they could have right. It might have been a trick. Turns out it wasn’t, but it could have been.
So yes, church should be a safe place. But our safety is in the gospel, and in shepherds who love the gospel, and who love what the gospel does in the lives of people who have been transformed by it.