This past week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on a disturbing pattern of sexual abuse and cover-ups in independent fundamentalist Baptist churches across the United States. I feel the need to address a few things about this problem.
First, the church I serve as pastor, First Baptist Church of Fargo, North Dakota is not an independent fundamentalist Baptist church. We are affiliated with the American Baptist Churches of the Dakotas (ABC-D) and the American Baptist Churches-USA (ABC-USA). This affiliation certainly does not guarantee that abuse cannot happen (as no oversight or affiliation can prevent all abuse), however it gives the people of our congregation additional outlets to remedy instances of abuse should they occur. If one has been victimized and the local church chooses to ignore it, they would have the ability to go to another level for assistance. Though it is a standard Baptist belief that each church functions autonomously, there is still organization outside of our local church that can address concerns. Independent fundamentalist Baptist churches exist in a near vacuum. What happens at that church, stays at that church; aside from law enforcement involvement (which tends to be discouraged at these churches), there is no option for remediation outside of that local church. First Baptist Church of Fargo does not subscribe to this philosophy. No one, not a council member, not a deacon, not a pastor, no one, is immune from the legal and moral consequences of abhorrent behavior such as sexual abuse.
As a pastor, as a Christian, and as a civilized human being, I cannot condemn this behavior more strongly. To abuse someone is to take the humanity away from them. It turns them into an object instead of the unique human being God created. And when a church, an organization that exists for the sole purpose of spreading the love of God to a fallen world, blames the victim, it further diminishes who they are.
I don’t believe anyone in their right mind believes sexual assault is an acceptable thing. Yet, powerful organizations and powerful people sweep these problems under the rug frequently. How many Roman Catholic priests have been reassigned after credible allegations? Now we are hearing of many independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors quietly leaving their church after years of abuse to simply be hired by another church in another town, perhaps to victimize many more people.
(Some will bring up the issue of false allegations, which can be considered. But the vast majority of the people that come forward saying they are being abused are truthful. We cannot dismiss allegations because someone else may have lied at some other time. Investigation must take place. The problem we are seeing is not regarding the minute number false accusations, it is regarding the cover-up of known instances of sexual assault.)
As Christ-followers, we must stand against this dehumanizing act of sexual abuse. God has created each of us as a human being in His own image as a unique person. To sexually assault someone is to turn them from human to object, from someone that has a unique contribution to give humanity into a tool to be used and then tossed aside. There is nothing Christian in this behavior. Christ does not condone abuse or its cover-up. God does not make us sin. Society today has difficulty separating the mistakes of humans from the actions of God. The Church, His Church, Christ’s Church, does not commit these horrendous acts. People, human-led churches, a fallen world, is what commits these atrocities.
My prayer is this: that we would live up to Christ’s command to show our faithfulness to Him by loving one another. (cf. Luke 13:35) In doing so, that we remember the humanity of the women and men, girls and boys, that have been victims of sexual abuse and have been re-victimized by the people that have dismissed or covered-up these acts. I pray for comfort of the victims, that they would be able to feel the love of God once again.
Finally, I want to say that I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. I can condemn these acts all I want, but in the end, my condemnation doesn’t change the fact that countless victims of sexual abuse are still suffering. Honestly, I don’t know what else I can do other than believe if and when someone comes to me telling me they have been assaulted. And promise to you today that, as your pastor, I will not ignore you, I will not allow you to be re-victimized by covering-up the abuse, and, I pray, be able to show you the love of Christ shining through me back to you.
Pastor Michael Lehmann