“It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you look good doing it.”
A fruitless Bible challenge would be to scour the gospels and find where Jesus says that. It’s not there.
Yet, very often when churches or Christian religious organizations are involved, the “image over substance” argument tends to prevail. As nationwide reporting on church scandals has revealed, systemic pressure is placed on the victims not to report abuses because it could compromise the public image of the church. This is where we start hearing phrases like “let’s handle this internally” or “keep it in the family.”
Christians sometimes view media reporting or police investigations into abuse complaints as outside agitators attacking their faith.
This idea that keeping quiet on potentially criminal church scandals will preserve church integrity is wrong-headed, dangerous and hurting the church.
A LifeWay Christian Resources study in 2019 showed one-in-10 Protestants under 35 are leaving church because they believe sexual misconduct allegations are not being taken seriously. That’s not an “outside agitator” study, either. LifeWay is the publishing house for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Taking just that example, it seems more transparency where abuse in the church is concerned might actually help build an individual’s faith.
Pastors, implicitly or explicitly, take on a vestige of moral authority in regard to their congregations. They are often marriage counselors, prayer leaders and, in small churches, sometimes even Sunday school teachers for adults or children. On the most basic level, these are the people who stand behind pulpits on Sunday mornings and instruct dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people on myriad subjects involving faith — not the least of which is what constitutes “sin.” For many, when it comes to understanding the will of God in their lives, their pastor is on speed dial as part of that conversation.
In the story reported in today’s paper, the accused pastor was also the employer of his accusers. As the person responsible for both guiding their faith and signing their paycheck, he had an outsized influence on their lives.
Vigorous debate surrounds how, when or if sexual misconduct allegations should be reported. That debate too often seems to favor the abusers and marginalize the victims. This fact results in victims who are scared to come forward. Hopefully those who do will continue to give courage to others in their shoes.
Reporting instances of credible sexual indiscretion by church leaders is not intended to be an attack on faith, or God, but to shine light on the dangers of the misuse of religious power and to help ensure victims have a voice.
The era of using religion as a catch-all veil for tolerating misconduct is ending. The LifeWay study provides some evidence of that. Using presumed moral authority to sweep misconduct or illegal activity under the rug, for some “greater good” or to save face, must also end. If faith is indeed an enterprise centered on the wellbeing of people, then organizational public image needs to always take a backseat to making sure abuse allegations are investigated with integrity and transparency.