Clergy Misconduct, Clergy Sex Abuse, Failure to Report Crimes, Mandatory Reporting, Sexual Abuse/Assault and Churches, Spiritual Authority, The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition on When to Report Pastoral Sin

-by Kathi

Note: Kathi and Julie Anne are tag-teaming here. Kathi wrote the article, and Julie Anne chimed in in green font.

The Gospel Coalition recently posted, “When Should You Report Ministerial Misconduct?” I fully understand the need to ensure that pastors are not wrongfully accused of harming members of the church. There are heartbreaking stories of pastors who have poured their lives into ministry only to be wounded by their church. When it comes to pastors who abuse their power and influence, this article leaves me with more questions than answers on how to report sin by a pastor.

Three types of sins are identified as reportable: persistent sin (sins committed multiple times after being spoken to in private); public sin (sins known to more than a few people); and scandalous sin (heinous sin). Of scandalous sin, the following is noted:

Some of these sins, of course, will need to be reported not only to church leadership but also to civil authorities. If a minister ever violates a lawful command of the state, and the violation is something the state identifies as a crime, both the church and the state should be notified.

The following instructions are given for how to report the sins of a pastor:

First, be able to prove the sin from Scripture. Show you are dealing with actual offenses, deeds that can be shown to violate God’s law. If it can’t be proven to be sin, it mustn’t be reported; and if reported, it mustn’t be admitted as a matter of accusation (Matt. 18:15; 1 Tim. 5:19).

In order to report a sin, the sin must be in the Bible? What about crimes identified by state and federal authorities that are not be in the Bible? Are these considered actual crimes even if the Bible does not address them? If a church member reports how she is harmed by the pastor, does the elder need to take a moment to look in the Bible to make sure it’s a real sin?

Julie Anne: This quote contradicts their earlier statement, “If a minister ever violates a lawful command of the state, and the violation is something the state identifies as a crime, both the church and the state should be notified.” Which one is it, obey the civil laws, or the Bible, or both?  

Second, obtain at least one other witness. Paul warns Timothy, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This doesn’t necessarily mean eyewitnesses of the sin, but anyone who is able to credibly testify that the sin has been committed.

I understand that this statement is providing some leeway for an individual to report an experience that no one else has witnessed, but this can also work against them. Think of how many victims have not been believed because there hasn’t been another witness. For the support person who comes along side a victim, who determines credibility, and how is credibility determined?

Julie Anne: Wait a second, in this case, if the victim reported a sexual incident to church leaders, they are saying there needs to be at least one more individual to credibly testify (1 Tim 5:19). Again, by doing so, they are putting a higher precedent on Biblical rules; however, they are neglecting Hebrews 13, which says that we are to obey our civil authorities. Civil authorities do not require another credible witness when reporting a crime.

Some side issues are important to consider when reporting to civil authorities: only a dozen or so states consider clergy sexual misconduct (with an adult) to be a criminal offense. However, all states have laws regarding sexual abuse against a minor. But not all states have mandatory reporting laws for clergy when it comes to abuse of a minor.

In my state of WA, a child can report to a church leader that they are being physically abused at home, but the clergy is not obligated by law to report this to authorities. This means that in many states, clergy are given more power than civil authorities on how to handle these cases. Obviously, this allows for more crimes to be hidden and stay “legal.”

Third, report the sin to some other leader in the church and follow up. Depending on the church’s government structure, this will vary. But here’s the principle: Sin committed by a minister mustn’t be reported to any layperson (so as to avoid gossip) but only to someone who has authority to deal with it.

If the pastor has committed a criminal offense, the first step should be encouraging the victim to report it to authorities. My opinion is that a victim should report to authorities first, and not church leadership, so that a proper investigation is conducted. Despite the notation of involving civil authorities when a crime is committed, there is no mention in this point or in the remainder of the article that church leaders should report a crime. The article also fails to mention that some states require members of the clergy to report child abuse to authorities.

Julie Anne: This article is talking about a variety of pastoral sins: lying, pornography, alcoholism, gambling, etc. I agree with Kathi, the author is not very clear on what is reported to civil authorities. We read more about how the sin is handled in-house. 

I also like how we are warned to “avoid gossip.” Is warning other church members of a pastor’s sinful behavior considered gossip? If a blog such as this can be accused of gossip when exposing truth, then you know a victim would be accused of gossiping when talking about his experience.

Julie Anne: Many times, the gossip word is used to control the narrative. It is used to squelch conversation. The reality is that all pastors sin. This should be no surprise to anyone. If the sins make the pastor unfit to serve, this is something the congregation should be told, and transparency is important.

Given the timing of this article coming out after the Houston Chronicle’s report on sex abuse within the SBC, I would hope that The Gospel Coalition would offer better advice for reporting criminal behavior by a pastor. Their three-step solution is how many churches have operated over the years which left abusers exonerated and victims devastated.

15 thoughts on “The Gospel Coalition on When to Report Pastoral Sin”

  1. “Their three-step solution is how many churches have operated over the years which left abusers exonerated and victims devastated.”

    Exactly! It may sound well enough in theory, but the practical reality often leaves much to be desired. My own personal experience is just one example of this. When two of us raised concerns about the bullying and abuse we were experiencing at the hands of a fellow leader and peer, our grievances were dismissed and we were ‘advised’ to resign from leadership ourselves. Clearly, even “the evidence of two or three witnesses” means nothing if those in power choose to protect an abuser.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. First, be able to prove the sin from Scripture. Show you are dealing with actual offenses, deeds that can be shown to violate God’s law. If it can’t be proven to be sin, it mustn’t be reported;

    This is where everybody goes wrong on Domestic violence, child abuse and rape. Ooops, we can’t prove it ‘biblically’ because we weren’t there. Ho Hum.

    Terrible advice.

    But here’s the principle: Sin committed by a minister mustn’t be reported to any layperson (so as to avoid gossip)

    Um, no. Take it to the church anyone? Pfft. This is a handy guide to continue covering up offenses in church.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. There’s no Webster’s Biblical Dictionary definition of gossip, so, not surprisingly, the church leadership is going to define it in the way that makes them feel most comfortable, and that is… shut up when we tell you to shut up and talk when we tell you to talk.

    There are good reasons why the “don’t ever talk to lay members about sins” definition of gossip doesn’t stand against the Bible. First of all, God “gossips” – he shows prophets here and there the hidden sins of the leaders. Jesus “gossips” against the Pharisees. Then the Bible says, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

    At one point, my wife and I talked about it and came to a different conclusion. Gossip is telling someone else’s story without their permission. So, as an example, when we had our first child, we called our family to tell. Then we started to call friends. Somehow our friends already knew our news. Why? Because our family had turned around and excitedly shared OUR NEWS. We were very upset about this, but the church would not consider it gossip because it’s “good news”. In that way, I don’t think the church can ever punish someone for telling their story, or forcing a “gag order” unless it is simply reminding people not to share other’s stories without permission.

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  4. Gossip is telling someone else’s story without their permission.

    I agree mark. Telling your own story is NEVER gossip.

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  5. So imagine a pastor does something really horrible, makes an unwanted and vulgar sexual run at you, harasses you. It’s not specifically criminal, but it proves that not only is the pastor not qualified to lead anything, but that they’re a predator. So, following TGC advice, you don’t say a word of this to anyone who’s a mere “layman”. You don’t want to gossip. You go straight to “some other leader” in the church, someone with “authority to deal with it”, you tell them, waiting for them to get back to you with a report so you can “follow up”.

    Now, think about what’s likely to occur. The dynamics of the situation. Does the pastor have friends? Sure. Who are his closets friends likely to be? Probably the other leaders. I used to be an elder–twice. Both times at abusive churches, one of them a nasty little neocalvinist. Leaders go to retreats together, have dinners together, kids play together. The whole camaraderie thing. It’s actually fun, in a way, to be part of the leadership team, to feel a little more important than the laypeople in the folding chairs, to have this group of friends with whom you push the pieces on the chessboard around, calling shots, exercising authority, the movers-and-shakers, whose opinions are just a little better because by gosh they’ve been CALLED BY GOD.

    So the layman, the one who hasn’t been called by God, when she brings a complaint about the ugly harassment to an elder, what’s the elder going to do? After dinner at pastor’s house he’s going to get a tone in his voice all easy and nonconfrontational, say something like “Hey, Brother Matt, that lady So-and-So, she said you did X. Now I’ve known you, bro, for years, what in the world you think she’s talking about?” Of course, if Bro Matt’s a predator, he knows how to play this up really good, he’s coming back with something like “Brother, you know that ain’t me! Sister So-and-So’s having a rough time, marriage problems, kid problems, a little unstable. We need to pray for her.” And so they pray and feel very pious indeed.

    So when elder gets back with Sister So-and-So and brushes her off and she quite naturally gets indignant, she’s now the problem. And then the gaslighting and discipline and slander and eventual excommunication and destruction begins.

    That’s the way it works It’s about the only way it’s going to work. And TGC’s twisting and selective quoting of the Bible isn’t going to make it one bit different. That attitude is the one that got TGC in this mess in the first place. And they’ll never get out of it until they humble themselves and stop being stuck on stupid.

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  6. As a former NAPARC member, I think the article deserves a more specific rebuttal.

    “Persistent Sin” – a persistent sin may not be executed solely against ONE member. For example, in a former church, there was an elder who persistently was in contempt of court because he commanded members to obey his personal desires that were not necessarily what the elder board had decided. It was not until some lay leaders in the church complained that the pattern was discovered, and EVEN THEN it was held in secrecy. Thus, when that elder went around and badgered others, they couldn’t have realized that this was a persistent sin – only those who had already been made aware. I wasn’t told until I complained about this person and the response was “we know and we’re dealing with it…” well, obviously not because this person had, in front of the other leaders, told me that he had the divine right to order my children around.

    WLC as “wonderful help”. As I’ve stated numerous times, the Westminster Larger Catechism does NOT define domineering (lording it over the flock) as a sin of elders. So, the #1 sin Jesus mentioned for leaders is generally not going to be accepted because it “can’t be proven to be sin”. I’m certain that the PCA, as it’s fellow NAPARC churches, in essence, holds the WLC to be higher than the Bible – not because the Bible isn’t higher, but because the Bible isn’t codified in the sense that the WLC is in enumerating sins – just as the author says “A wonderful help for determining if something is sinful is Westminster Larger Catechism questions 102 to 148, which lay out in great detail the duties required and sins forbidden in the Ten Commandments.” What he doesn’t say is that something not listed in those questions will almost certainly not be considered sin.

    Mr. Myers willfully negates the PCA book of church order. He says, “Second, obtain at least one other witness.” Yet, the rules of discipline say: “35-3. The testimony of more than one witness shall be necessary in order to establish any charge; yet if, in addition to the testimony of one witness, corroborative evidence be produced, the offense may be considered to be proved” – thus he is publicly guilty of “contumacy” by saying that two HUMAN witnesses must be sought, when the PCA says one witness + corroborating evidence is enough to establish a charge.

    Also, as with other NAPARC churches, the accuser has no right to be heard. If th

    Also, interestingly, “34-2. As no minister ought, on account of his office, to be screened in his sin, or slightly censured, so scandalous charges ought not to be received against him on slight grounds.” — “on account of his office” so, this means somehow that Biblically, the pastor gets a “pass” on sins which other members would be censured for? Yet, as Mr. Myers says, “Ministers are to possess the highest moral character”. So, ministers are to possess the highest moral character, but the church will not accept any charges against them for ‘slight’ sins that they would only charge to ordinary members??

    Also, Mr. Myers says, “If, in the unfortunate case it isn’t dealt with properly, then the one(s) who made the accusation can (in Presbyterian circles) either file an appeal or a complaint to the next higher court” This is not true. A member cannot complain against the action of a court if the court has taken no action. So, let’s say I catch my pastor in a scandalous sin. I talk to other pastors about it and they refuse to do anything, there is NO APPEAL. I can only appeal or complain if a court fails to act, and since I’m not a “member of presbytery” I cannot initiate a charge against a member. Thus pastors are explicitly shielded from charges brought by their non-pastor membership.

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  7. Just some background. In “classical” Presbyterianism, the pastor is not considered a member of the local congregation. He is appointed at the request “call” of the local congregation by the Presbytery. This was to prevent the elders, who ARE members of the local congregation, from manipulating the pastors and punishing them if they don’t submit. However, it also means that the pastors is essentially immune from accusations from the local congregation, UNLESS, that congregation (the elder board, primarily), brings charges against the pastor to the presbytery. The only way around this is if another member of the “boy’s network” (another pastor) can be convinced to bring charges, since another pastor IS a member of the Presbytery and able to be heard by the court.

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  8. Fine ‘Christianese Biblical’ legal points all, but here’s the thing:

    a) The sex-abuse of minors is a crime and also a felony in all 50 States.

    a) The courts are rapidly losing their patience with the good-ol’-protestant-boyz-club and their
    cover-ups designed to protect brand-names and the big-whigs who run them.

    c) It’s just a question of time before the gavel comes down hard and heavy.
    Those who didn’t Immediately report instances of child sex-abuse to
    law enforcement will also go down for complicity.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. In regard to gossip, I would throw some greek at those within the church that would seek to redefine the word to further protect their fiefdom : The Konia Greek word Psithurismos translates whispering, hissing, tale-bearing. The second greek word used in scripture Katalalia translates slanderous speech. Anyone using an ” anti-gossip ” rule to create hesitancy to report child abuse is a perverting the word of God to enable their perversion or protect their pot of gold. Either way they are a complete scumbag in my book and not a real follower of Christ’s teaching. I believe the Lord is disgusted by these people and will throw them into hell for all eternity if they fail to repent. NO WAY can a true believer put money, church reputation or a desire to protect a friend or co-worker over the innocence and safety of a child. It is unacceptable to do so and this whole “out of the mouths of two witnesses” scripture dropping doesn’t mean we are to NOT REPORT A SEX CRIME TO LAW ENFORCEMENT, even if you are not classified as a mandatory reporter by state statute.

    Accusations of theft of church funds, moral offenses, etc fine but the rape of a child NO WAY. The call has to be made, and on the word of a child making a claim of abuse you must as an adult make the call and let a trained police detective handle it. In this instance you are NOT bringing the charge and don’t scripturally need two witness, the child is making the claim. The state brings the charge if there is probable cause to make an arrest.

    Women were required to cry out if being raped in the old testament. These same “men” that like to use the gossip rule for the protection of their own are the same ones to always remind of us that OT passage. If a woman is to cry out during a rape don’t you think a child is allowed to object to a sex crime being committed against them and tell an adult ? The gospel coalition is disgusting to me. What a bunch of degenerates to put out such a trash pail of an article. It’s like they are in constant damage control mode. Like loss prevention in a corporation.

    Oh that’s right, it is a business. The church industrial complex is alive and well and the pigs chowing down at the trough don’t give a dam about your kids so why give them your money !

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  10. Two points:
    1. What is a “witness?” For some reason Evangelicals seem to think a witness must give oral testimony. Circumstances, paperwork, lack of paperwork and lack of human witness are all powerful witnesses. That a church leader would choose to find himself alone with a child would be a powerful witness against him should an allegation of abuse arise. I (a single woman) experienced a conflict with my former church leaders and attended several meetings with only those 4 or 5 men in attendance and myself. No recordings were made and no notes were taken (except by me) and it became apparent that this was intentional; all denied saying what I later reported. I was called a liar and slanderer of the elders because my former church family called this a “he said/she said”, and the elders engendered more trust.
    2. I’m not near a Bible, but 1Tim (?) states that when pastors sin, they are to be rebuked immediately and publicly. I’ve presented this point to Leeman, Dever, Sandee and others, without a response from any. I’ve never seen it applied.

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  11. In most churches, witnesses can be either people or evidence, so “my word against his” isn’t necessarily good enough, but an e-mail and your word, or two peoples’ words, etc., would be good enough.

    The problem is that in most churches, their desire is to do the most expedient thing, not necessarily the right thing. So, when it is one person with written notes (which, incidentally, ARE admissible in court) they think it’s more expedient to try and talk their way out of it.

    Your point 2 is spot on. I’ve said before – we had a formal investigation, and as part of the investigation, the committee said that they had “rebuked an elder”. I asked, why was this not done publicly? (I used the verse you referenced) The leader of the committee said, why would you want us to drag this elder’s name through the mud? However, when they excommunicate people, they publicly name the sin they are being excommunicated for, even though the Bible never commands that, so it’s just a case of picking and choosing (out of expediency, again!) what they want to obey in the Bible, while claiming to be serious about due process and “right”.

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  12. I’ve been working on a comp. argument, but I can’t find the quote. One of the comp. articles I read said essentially that all human relationships had some element of hierarchy. The specific example was that business partnerships of equals didn’t work, there had to be a decision-maker senior partner and a junior partner.

    I was thinking, then, that whomever made this argument is making the argument for a Pope. If every human relationship involves hierarchy, then, for example, a board of elders cannot be equals, but must defer to the most gifted or senior elder – usually the pastor – and this is often the case. However, when pastors in an area come together, whether it be a presbytery, council or whatever, the same applies. So, in each group, there is one “father” 😀 figure who should be given the final decision-making power, and ultimately, in the case of the church, that person is, presumably, the Pope (or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or …)

    If egalitarianism can’t work for any human relationship, then the only alternative must be hierarchy in every human structure – monarchy, prelacy, patriarchy.

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  13. One of the comp. articles I read said essentially that all human relationships had some element of hierarchy. The specific example was that business partnerships of equals didn’t work, there had to be a decision-maker senior partner and a junior partner.

    They always say stuff like that. It makes them sound like aliens or narcissists.

    Two generally well adjusted people are capable of arriving at a decision without having one person elected ‘decision maker’. You come to a mutually happy solution. You defer to each other at different times. It’s not complicated.

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  14. “1Tim (?) states that when pastors sin, they are to be rebuked immediately and publicly. I’ve presented this point to Leeman, Dever, Sandee and others, without a response from any. I’ve never seen it applied.”

    I applied that once. It got me the old boot of fellowship.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. As to your question about what if a law is not mentioned specifically in the Bible I would say that anyone who uses that defense is deliberately ignoring or misinterpreting Romans 13 to their own advantage. Romans 13 allows no room for avoidance of civil or criminal law not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures.

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