Christianity Today is not exactly known for its progressive stance on, well, anything. However, I was pleasantly surprised to read Jen Zamzow insist that churches shouldn’t handle cases of sexual abuse “internally”; that is, have the offending staff member sent on sabbatical without ever notifying the police, as was the case with pastor Andy Savage who assaulted a teenage girl decades ago (but whose story went public only recently). Savage’s church, as we know, is far from the only one to do this, and the practice not only further traumatizes victims but puts other congregants in danger.
Zamzow rightly points out that while it’s easy to assume the worst of strangers, many of us are hesitant to do so of people in our inner circles. And this is something more Christians need to come to terms with.
We’re all familiar with our tendency to evaluate our own moral failings more leniently than the moral failings of others. When someone else does something wrong, we condemn; when we do something wrong, we rationalize.
The problem is, this bias doesn’t stop at ourselves.
There might be an even greater danger of rationalization when it comes to judging church leaders than non-religious leaders. Church leaders are not only working for us; they are working for God. Precisely because working for God’s kingdom is a noble goal, it can lead us to justify any sins committed by those who have made it their career. Indeed, this is one of the ways people often try to rationalize keeping leaders accused of sexual abuse in power.
This is a precarious road, however. Many terrible injustices have been rationalized in the name of “God’s kingdom.” Power without accountability is dangerous.
While corrupt Christian leaders don’t necessarily “create” atheists, they do give non-Christians more justification to avoid churches altogether.
This is why judges are supposed to recuse themselves when they know one of the parties involved in a case, or when they have an economic interest that might be affected by the outcome.
We would never let a judge preside over a sexual assault case where the accused was a friend or a business partner. Yet, not only is [Andy Savage’s colleague] Chris Conlee judging his close friend, but he is using this friendship as a reason we are supposed to trust his judgment: “As one of my closest friends and partners in ministry, I can assure you that I have total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through under his leadership in Texas.” On the contrary, this friendship is one of the reasons we should doubt his ability to uncover the whole truth, to be fair, and to carry out justice for all parties.
Zamzow concludes her piece by advocating that churches take sexual abuse more seriously, which is both obvious and important to say, but I wish she wouldn’t have left out two other incredibly important pieces of advice: Church leaders need to believe the victims to the point of taking their allegations seriously, and they have to teach their congregations about the importance of consent.
The problem isn’t just that church leaders are hesitant to punish each other. It’s that evangelicals condemn sex before marriage (and anything leading up to it) to the point where many victims of abuse are hesitant to come forward lest they get blamed for their supposed complicity in the act.
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