Guest Post - Jim Denison
SBC elects leader focused on reconciliation and compassion: What do we do when we are hurt by church leaders?
“God does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, may make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, he knows what he is about.“
Ryan T. Anderson quoted these words by John Henry Newman while delivering a brilliant commencement address I encourage you to read in its entirety. I would like to use them as a foundation for an essential but hard conversation on this topic: What do you do when you are wounded by a church leader?
What does God’s word say to wounded people?
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting continues to generate headlines. Last night, messengers elected as president Pastor Ed Litton of Saraland, Alabama. He was nominated by Fred Luter, the only Black pastor to serve as president of the largest Protestant denomination in the US. Rev. Luter praised Litton’s commitment to racial reconciliation and told messengers that he has dealt compassionately with the issue of sexual abuse within SBC churches as well.
We need a leader of such compassion in these difficult times.
As I write this Daily Article, I am thinking of Christians who trusted pastors, staff ministers, and other church leaders, only to be abused by them. If you have not been hurt by someone who leads a Christian group or ministry, you may know someone who has.
What does God’s word say to such wounded people?
Before proceeding, let me make this clear: if you are currently being abused in any way, please get help immediately. Call the police, find a counselor, ask for help from a trusted friend, seek shelter—do whatever you must to get assistance now. Do not assume things will get better on their own—they almost always get worse without intervention.
It’s not your fault
Mayo Clinic notes that it is common for victims of domestic violence to at least partially blame themselves for the situation, citing four factors: their partner is considered “nice” or “normal” by other people, people they tell downplay the situation or refuse to believe them, victims believe their partner when he or she blames them, and they may have “acted out” against the abuser on occasion.
In addition, those who are abused by religious leaders may find it difficult to blame their abuser, especially if they previously held this individual in high regard. They may feel that no one will believe their story and may struggle to believe it themselves.
I would add this cultural fact: We have been programmed by our self-reliant, self-centric society to believe that we are in charge of our lives and circumstances. We’ve replaced God on the throne of our hearts. As a result, when things go wrong, we have no one to blame but ourselves, or so we think.
If any of this describes you or someone you know, know this: it’s not your fault. Sin is the fault of the sinner. Anyone who abuses another person verbally, physically, sexually, or in any other way is the person to blame, not their victim.
If you have been the victim of anything on this list: “Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21), know that what was done to you violated God’s will for you. Abuse is sin and abusers are sinners. Full stop.
It’s not God’s fault
When people who claim to represent God harm us, it is understandable that we would blame the God they claim to represent. Not only are they supposedly servants of his, but he by his own self-description is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. Surely such a being would know that his so-called servants are harming others and would do whatever was necessary to stop them and to protect their victims.
And yet he did not do so for you, or so it seems.
One fact relevant to this tragic reality is that God honors the free will he gives us. Every sin is a violation of his word and will. Every person harmed by someone else, from Cain’s murder of Abel to the latest victim of a crime this morning, experiences the consequences of misused freedom. When we refuse and reject God’s plan for us, the results are not his fault but ours.
However, while this theological fact explains the guilty sinner, it does not account for the innocent victim. As we just noted, you did not deserve what you experienced. It would be understandable to blame God for allowing your pain.
Our secular culture is only too ready to help you do so. One of the reasons the recent allegations against SBC leaders are so damaging is that they give religious skeptics ammunition for their escalating claims that religion is dangerous. They judge Christ by Christians and are ready to condemn both.
I wish I had an answer that completely explained innocent suffering. We know that God uses suffering to grow us spiritually (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10); we can claim the hope of a future that helps us understand the present (Romans 8:18; 1 Corinthians 13:12); and we can know that God redeems all he allows, even when we don’t see or understand such redemption (Romans 8:28).
But the bottom line I want you to know today is this: God grieves as you grieve. The One who wept at the grave of Lazarus weeps with your pain (John 11:35). Right now, Jesus is praying for you (Romans 8:34) to “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3).
This Father invites you to “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Note the word all.
What do you need to “cast” on your Father right now?