Something We Still Need in Post-Christendom

Photo by Ken Bosma

Photo by Ken Bosma

Last week, right before Thanksgiving, I experienced one of the darkest moments of my church life. I read this article in The Presbyterian Outlook about accusations of sexual abuse directed against a (now) former Presbyterian pastor and actions from several presbyteries to tighten our church rules regarding ministers and sexual abuse.

Any case of sexual or other abuse perpetrated by clergy against children breaks my heart and fills me with rage. And I have seen firsthand the way this kind of abuse causes ripple effects of damage beyond the original victims. But what hit me like a sucker punch in this case is the fact that I know the accused abuser. I have enjoyed his company at national youth worker gatherings. I’ve had dinner at his house. These things have a different impact on us when we know those involved.

When I read the things he is accused of, that he renounced his ordination in order to avoid a church trial, and that an administrative commission of the Greater Atlanta Presbytery nonetheless investigated the cases and determined that the charges are credible, I held back tears and felt like throwing up. I never would have expected this from a trusted pastor and youth worker. Clearly, I wasn’t alone. Even more troubling were the many missed opportunities to put an end to his behavior and protect additional victims. (Read more here.)

What elevated this to something of an existential crisis for me is that I was right in the middle of last week’s ruminations on the nature of post-Christendom. I tend to find the institutional and bureaucratic elements of Christendom to be a hindrance to the gospel. I am sympathetic to post-denominational and/or congregationalist ecclesiologies. In my most extreme moments I think of Christianity as more of a movement than an institution and wonder if the gospel would be better served without churches and professional clergy altogether.

But thinking about this awful case, involving a pastor I knew and trusted, was a reality-check slap to the face. Maybe there are better ways to organize and carry out mission than denominational bureaucracies. There are definitely better uses of our time than denominational battles over theology and polity. There are surely ways to make our congregations less institutional. And I’m convinced that most of us—Presbyterians included—value connectionalism grounded in relationships and shared vision more than strict governance. But if there is one thing we still need in post-Christendom it is rules and regulations to protect victims against all kinds of potential abuse. Non-denominationalism, congregational ecclesiology, or loose networks of house-churches simply cannot provide the same level of protection as a networked system like a denomination. We need the accountability and checks-and-balances provided by this kind of connectionalism.

Clearly, as this case and far too many others demonstrate, our systems of accountability are not perfect, especially when the system works hardest to protect the institution itself and/or beloved individuals. But I would rather work to strengthen these rules than jettison them altogether.

Whatever the post-Christendom church looks like, I strongly believe that boundaries and safeguards aimed at protecting children and others are still essential features of what it means to be a community of faith.

Comments

  1. Laura M Cheifetz says:

    The structures of denominations like ours that have the potential to provide accountability and protection are exactly why I would never be post-denominational. Post-denominationalism or post-Christendom would work probably pretty well for those on equal footing with one another, but not for those who experience marginalization or vulnerability. Because we’re human, and so are our structures (even the ones trying to not be structures).

  2. The keystone is accountability to a rule (in the wisdom sense). What are the norms and boundaries of the community? Whether it’s the pre-FOG Book of Order or the new, the rule of St. Benedict, or 1 Peter 2, or the Decalogue, human beings need boundaries. Yet we strain against them. Ten years ago when serving on COM (pastor/church relations), I was asked to rewrite the ministerial ethics guidelines with an emphasis on leaving a cong. or retirement. I cleaned up the old policy, clarifying bits, adding some references from the GA’s 1998 ethics guide. I wrote it to be more descriptive and less narrowly prescriptive. I was on vacation when the chair presented it to Presbytery for approval. He said, what seemed obvious (particularly to elder commissioners) became a tense debate. He said it was mainly the clergy members arguing about being held to any standard.
    Next I will note that in my experience Presbyterians are terrible about evaluating and holding each other accountable in love, and worse when bad behavior, malfeasance, or evil are visible. Our structure of working via committees that rotate is admirable and provides some good checks, but it also diffuses authority. Add to that an observed tendency in three urban Presbyteries toward passivity and diminished resilience results in measured actions such that the manipulators and self-justifiers are left undisciplined.
    In the end it usually takes a strong leader in a key position, such as chair of COM, Executive, or Clerk who like the widow before the judge will not back down. Please correct me if I’m overstating it, but it took the GOVERNOR of PA to hold Penn State accountable. And as the NYTimes reported it, he did because it was personal to him and the Attorney General.

  3. I had missed this news and am now similarly sick and horrified that someone who was so well known to be amazing and gifted, someone with whom I too have shared meals and ideas, has apparently been misusing authority so grievously, hurting so many people.
    Thanks for writing this, and reminding us that not everything about the institutional church is restrictive and outdated–sometimes we really need that structure. Of course, we also have to use it appropriately, or else it’s all useless…as this story highlights. sigh.

    • and now, having had a conversation with the pastor and another friend, it also appears that one of the difficulties of an institution is that it’s possible to misrepresent any number of things. he says he’s never been allowed to speak to any of the task forces or committees that have dealt with the accusations. Which is a serious issue in its own right. Sigh. So much pain all around.

      • He could have done just that had he not renounced his ordination. I’m glad Atlanta went ahead and investigated so that it didn’t get buried even more.

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