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.