A few months ago the elders decided to write an update on two actions by the pastors at our annual SG pastors conference. But since that time much more has happened in SG that we need to speak to. This post will therefore speak to a good number of issues. If I don’t address your specific concern, please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the elders about these matters.
Two Significant Statements by the Council of Elders
The first two items have to do with our pastors conference last fall. The Council of Elders approved a new section of our Book of Church Order, “Reporting the Sexual Abuse of a Child (or a minor under 18 years of age)” (BCO-12.4, p. 57 in the BCO). It opens by stating that our churches and elders “have a moral obligation to protect children.” In addition to our commitment to follow all relevant state laws on this, to protect our children we have also determined as elders to be mandatory reporters to civil authorities whenever we have “cause to believe that a child is the victim of sexual abuse”—whether the perpetrator is a staff member, pastor, or anyone else in the church. Further, when someone reveals he or she was abused and we have reason to think a child is currently at risk by the same perpetrator, we also see this as a mandatory reporting situation. The final commitments in the BCO are to train workers in “sexual abuse awareness” and to create safe environments for children. This includes background checks, a practice we have utilized in SGC Apex for close to twenty years. More will be added to our BCO along these lines, but this amendment is a good next step.
Second, last fall the SG elders also made four affirmations regarding child abuse. The first of these expressed the need for compassion for survivors. The second was about the importance of justice for abusers. This involves the reporting mentioned above and cooperating fully “with all law enforcement efforts to bring perpetrators of abuse to justice.” Third was a commitment to “healing” for the victims and to work with “sensitivity, skill, and compassion” in that goal. Each church is also to utilize experts in the field to help with that. Finally is a commitment toward the “protection” of our children and youth in our policies and training.
Speaking of such matters, for those of you who don’t know, our church has had a fairly stringent child protection policy for many years now. This includes careful accountability practices and also background checks on all youth volunteers. Recently we’ve added training by MinistrySafe for our volunteers. Our desire as a church has been to be as proactive as is wise and helpful.
Recent Comments By and About SG
We also wanted to let you know of certain comments made in the last two months by those inside and outside of SG. Given the length of all these comments, I can’t go into the details of all of them. But suffice it to say that these mentions don’t include any new information or any new accusations. From everything we have read, these are simply old situations that continue to be discussed because some are unsatisfied with how things were handled. Given the nature of these issues, in fact, it’s fair to say no one is 100% satisfied.
Some of the comments being made concern the sinister category of child abuse and covering up child abuse. To alleviate any undue worry here, please know that in the 30+ years SG has been a family of churches, the authorities have never seen fit to prosecute a single SG pastor for child abuse. That being the case, obviously none have been convicted.
Unfortunately, we live in a day in which “to be accused is to be guilty,” so for some, pastors even mentioned with reference to such accusations are guilty. But we need to resist such a response—the Bible would call us to resist such a response. To be “innocent until proven guilty” is not simply the tradition of American justice, it is also the Bible’s teaching on justice.
Of course, the other side of this is that the Bible condemns those who protect the guilty and refuse to deal appropriately with them. The Lord’s call in justice is—among other things—for us to treat the innocent as innocent and the guilty as guilty.
In February, SG was mentioned in statements by Al Mohler, the Houston Chronicle, and J.D. Greear (in his role as President of the Southern Baptist Convention). These issues concerned CJ Mahaney and SG Louisville, which affiliates both as a SG church and as a Southern Baptist church. The church responded with a statement in mid-March, but the matter is still being processed. They have expressed sincere eagerness to speak honestly and openly with any from the SBC commissioned to deal with the situation. None of these voices presented new information but were speaking about past issues we have all heard about. Of course, this comes at a time when the SBC itself is working through its own wave of allegations. Once again, the current climate is that “to be accused is to be guilty.”
In April the SG Leadership Team released two statements about these matters. The first was a response to the appeals for an “independent third-party investigation” into concerns about the past. Their recommendation is that we not do such an investigation as a denomination.
One thing to remember on this is that their recommendation is just that, a recommendation. It has no binding authority at all. The Council of Elders is the governing body in SG with the authority to require or forbid such an investigation. The Council could therefore decide to go ahead with such an investigation or to receive their recommendation. The Leadership Team is an important voice in SG, but when the LT speaks, it is not the same thing as “Sovereign Grace deciding something.”
Their rationale for recommending that we NOT do an “independent third-party investigation”—one where an external body is given comprehensive control to investigate and adjudicate suspicions and accusations of wrongdoing—has to do with concerns for (1) justice and (2) our church governmental structure (ecclesiology). In some ways, justice is the prevailing concern, but integrity in our church governmental structure is no small issue either. Again, please see their statement for a detailed look at their rationale.
Their second statement was a lengthy FAQ document on a host of related matters. Many specific questions get answered in the eleven topics they consider. Given the nature of certain accusations made about SBC churches in Texas, it’s worth quoting their second question and the answer:
Have SGC pastors been involved in abuse? No.
To the very best of our knowledge, not a single pastor or staff member in Sovereign Grace has ever been guilty of sexual abuse or covering up sexual abuse. We are certain that no Sovereign Grace pastor or staff member has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, sexual abuse or covering up sexual abuse, in our entire history.
In the civil lawsuit mentioned above, two pastors were included in the allegations of abuse.
These allegations had never been reported previously, and we are not aware of anyone who knew of these allegations prior to the civil lawsuit.
These pastors immediately and publicly denied these accusations without qualification or reservation.
These accusations were investigated by the police.
None of these claims have ever been substantiated.
No criminal charges have been filed.
Put simply, we have no reason to believe, based on the biblical and legal standards of evidence, that these accusations are true.
If anyone is aware of abuse in any SGC church, we urge them to report it to authorities.
These two statements have not gone unnoticed. Rachael Denhollander, Christianity Today, and Douglas Wilson have all weighed in on them. Once again, on such complex and controversial issues, no one is likely to be 100% satisfied.
8 Biblical Principles on Justice Relevant to these Current Issues
The statements for and against can be dizzying to people without direct knowledge of the people and events described. In other words, people like us. For that reason it’s a good time to remember some of the Bible’s teaching on justice and due process. This is not at all exhaustive on this topic, just a quick primer on certain key ideas on justice.
- The Bible condemns those who protect the guilty and oppress the innocent — God strongly (and often) threatens those who would intentionally protect the guilty and oppress the innocent: “Woe to those...who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” (Isa 5:23). Christians must be work hard to treat the guilty as guilty and the innocent as innocent. When there is potential for harm to the most vulnerable among us—our children—these issues are all that much greater. A pastor and a church must never be seen protecting a leader who has done harm to our children. This is the grossest of injustice and a total misrepresentation of a holy God who has committed to care for "the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow" (Jer 22:3; Deut 10:17–19).
- A fully biblical justice means both punishing the wrongdoer AND ministering care and compassion to the victim — One way to say this is that a fully biblical justice requires both the arm of the law ("the sword" in Rom 13:1–8) and the loving and committed compassion of the church. Justice is not only about the victimizer. We also need to make sure we are aware of and alleviating the damage done to the victim. This will often involve professional counselors whose expertise brings invaluable insight into this care. This is part of what it means to minister to "the least of these" (Matt 25:35–45) and to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2) and to "weep with those who weep" (Rom 12:15).
- The Presumption of Innocence — Many of the texts below speak to a presumption of innocence, i.e., innocent until proven guilty. We are all “guilty” in the categorical sense of being fallen in Adam. But when it comes to a particular sin or a particular act, it takes real evidence and testimony to establish someone’s guilt. See the next point.
- “Two or Three Witnesses” — One of the most important principles is the requirement for “two or three witnesses” to establish guilt for serious crimes and sins: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut 19:15). Jesus and Paul both cite this idea in speaking of justice and due process (Matt 18:16; 1 Tim 5:19). Even here the waters can get choppy fast, since testimony that satisfies you might not satisfy me. This principle does not at all mean a child who speaks of his own abuse will not be believed, only that the Bible requires that a charge be substantiated carefully and fully before proper justice can be enacted. The fact that a charge is being made is not sufficient grounds to prosecute someone. Given the potential for harm in the case of child abuse, the church (and all the Sovereign Grace churches) are committed to treating vigilantly and carefully any suspicion we have that a child of ours might be at risk.
- The Place of Civil Authorities — Because sexual abuse is an act that is both a sin and a crime, it’s important to recognize the God-given role of civil authorities (Rom 13:1–7). They are God’s “servants” (deacons, in the Greek) to punish the evil and reward the good. Imperfect as they might be, God has set civil authorities in place for the broad cause of justice.
- The Place of Ecclesiastical Authorities — Alongside the civil authorities above is the place of ecclesiastical authorities. When Paul gives guidance to Timothy about charges against an elder, he assumes that elders will prosecute these charges (1 Tim 5:19-21). There is no mention of an outside party that comes in to judge them. This strikes us as backwards in a day when organizations are generally seen as self-protecting and unable to judge themselves. However, we don’t want to casually throw this idea out because it is unpopular. This isn’t to say a third-party cannot be utilized, only that it’s not wrong to have elders judge other elders. Third-parties can provide much needed assistance at many points along the way, even in an ecclesiastical trial. This in no way replaces the role of civil authorities, however. One way to say this is that, while an ecclesiastical trial can remove an elder’s ordination status and perhaps his livelihood and excommunicate him, it is the civil authority that is required to label him a criminal and put him in jail.
- The Need to Hear Both Sides — One of the most important issues in a culture like ours—a culture that generates so much web traffic by giving one side of a story in order to provoke instead of inform—is that we simply cannot adjudicate a matter without hearing both sides fully: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). Sometimes we have to discipline ourselves not to hear one side simply because we don’t have access to the other side of the story.
- The Power of Gossip — Related to this, in a day of unedited blogs, unhindered tweets, uncensored FB posts, and newspapers that increasingly feel like editorial pages, it’s critical to remember that gossip is “a thing” (to use today’s jargon). Sometimes we justify our public words, because the cause is so just or the matter so clear (to us) or the six blogs we read all said the same thing. At some point it no longer feels like gossip but objective reporting. However, gossip is real and it is a sin—and it is unhelpful.
Here are four Proverbs about gossip that discuss the “whisperer”—that person who sees it as their business to whisper lies or unsavory facts or unsubstantiated accusations about people to others. We are wired to respond to injustice, so these whispers can have a profound effect. Everyday the internet seems to confirm the truths in these Proverbs on gossip:
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. (Prov 16:28)
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. (Prov 18:8)
For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. (Prov 26:20)
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. (Prov 26:22)
The above is why we need to be careful about what we take in online (and offline!) and how we process what we take in. Most authors have made a judgment on guilt and innocence and present their material accordingly. Even those pretending to present unbiased reporting are typically far from it.
Say Little, Open to Meet with Anyone
The approach that the SGC Apex elders have taken on the above has been to say little publicly unless necessary but be eager to speak to anyone with concerns or questions. Some people would like us to say more, but our sense is that this isn’t always helpful. Often, for every question you answer six more return in its place. This post is an attempt to address at least some of the issues. Please contact any of the elders if you’d like more information on the above.