Several churches within the Churches of Christ denomination have come under fire for allowing sex offenders to attend services. Critics accuse those churches of failing to care for the victims. Defenders claim that those who are truly repentant should not be turned away. Most likely, this is a debate that is going to find its way into all denominations because the problem of sexual abuse is baring its ugly soul across denominational lines.
The sexual abuse of minors is especially heinous. There is something about the betrayal of a child's trust and the violent disruption of innocence that causes most of us to respond in extreme ways that we don't generally respond in the face of other crimes. As a society, we understand that children are to be protected and nurtured. Shamefully, over the last few years, report after report about sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of pastors, youth pastors, and other church staff members has surfaced. As we rush to examine policies and practices to help ensure the safety of our children, little thought is being given to what becomes of those guilty of the crime and yet are truly repentant.
Obviously, if someone sexually assaults a child (or an adult, for that matter) that individual should be handed over to the civil authorities and he or she should be punished according to the law. It's also important to ensure that children are protected from sex offenders. Policies and procedures should be implemented that help protect children. But if a convicted sex offender is truly repentant, do churches have a responsibility to minister to them, too?
That's a question that the Churches of Christ denomination is grappling with. A story published by The Christian Chronicle, an international newspaper for Churches of Christ, lays out the brewing battle between churches that have welcomed repentant sex offenders back into their fold and those that believe sex offenders should be prevented from attending services. I encourage you to read the story, linked to above, but for the purposes of this article, I want to drill down into one aspect:
Jimmy Hinton, a certification specialist with the advocacy organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), blames “bad theology” for congregations allowing abusers to remain in the pews alongside victims and their families.
If Hinton is talking about churches covering up abuse and allowing known abusers to hide from the authorities while allowing them to participate in the life of the church, then I agree 100 percent with Hinton. However, I'm not sure that's what he means. So for the sake of clarity, let's assume that the abusers covered by Hinton's "allowing abusers" are those who have been convicted, served their time, and have repented of their sins and are seeking accountability and discipleship. Under that assumption, then it's bad theology to ban repentant sinners from the church.
According to Jesus, the only unpardonable sin is "[speaking] against the Holy Spirit" Matthew 12:32. That's a notoriously complicated verse to interpret, but what's not complicated is that sexual assault is not included in Jesus' warning that the person who commits it "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." As awful as the sexual assault of a child is, it is not a sin that is out of the reach of the forgiveness found through repentance and faith in Jesus. Because that's true, churches have the responsibility to do the hard, messy work of ministering to both abusers and the abused. A biblical understanding of repentance and forgiveness demands that.
I do want to add one caveat: the repentant abuser should attend a different church than the abused, if at all possible. While it is true that repentance and restoration can be had through the blood of Jesus Christ, we also want to be mindful of the impact our actions have on others. However, because Jesus came to save sinners, it's imperative for his Church to be willing to do the hard work of loving, serving, and ministering to a variety of repentant sinners, including convicted sex offenders.