Hiding Abuse Does Not Protect the Mission

The mission. The mission. The mission.

What could be more important to missionaries than the mission?

But talk about the supreme importance of the work of the church can be used to silence those who would expose sin in the church. Russell Moore pointed this out last month, writing in Christianity Today about Guidepost Solution’s investigation into sexual-abuse claims, and allegations of coverup, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Guidepost’s findings include an email sent by the executive vice president and general council of the SBC’s Executive Committee, in which he comments on those bringing accusations against the SBC:

This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.

This line of thinking has played out on the mission field, too, as can be seen in published reports on the treatment of victims of child abuse overseas. For example, in 1997, the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Independent Commission of Inquiry reported on claims of abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, a boarding school in Guinea run by the C&MA from 1950 to 1971. About the students at Mamou, one missionary mother told the commission,

They were never allowed the freedom of expressing their hurts, their problems, their emotions to us. Each week the obligatory letter was not only read but censored, and forced to be rewritten if it appeared at all negative. This destroyed a vital link that could have helped maintain a fragmented family bond. They were repeatedly told not to share adverse happenings either by letter or by word on vacation with parents, lest it upset the parents and interfere with the work they were doing for God. The hidden message to the child was that God was more important, work was more important to the parents that [sic] one’s own child.

The commission summarized the reasoning behind censoring letters as “Children were advised not to upset their parents, lest their ministry to Africans be compromised and Africans left to their pagan ways.”

In 2010, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) reported on its findings concerning New Tribes Mission’s Fanda Missionary School, in Senegal, which boarded children from the mid 1980s to 1997. GRACE states that the MKs living at Fanda

were not allowed to voice concerns or complaints to their parents regarding the conditions at Fanda. They were repeatedly told by those in authority at Fanda that such complaints would hinder their parents’ work and result in Africans going to hell. In some cases, their letters were censored of all bad news in the name of the Lord’s work.

And also in 2010, the Independent Abuse Review Panel of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) filed a report on past claims of offenses among Presbyterian missionaries. Aware that some would rather that those who have been abused or who are aware of abuse “keep such information to themselves,” they refute the following three statements, which they label as myths:

1. The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.
2. The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.
3. What is in the past is best left alone.

Sadly, the reports referenced above do not represent all the investigation summaries written over the years, nor do official reports cover all the wrongs that have occurred. We cannot pretend that abuse, whatever the kind, can be relegated to a certain denomination or organization (that group), place (over there), or time period (back then).

We must be alert. Talking points for conversations with children—and adults—should include that secrets shouldn’t be kept, wrongs shouldn’t be hidden, and complaints shouldn’t be silenced in order to “protect the mission.” That needs to be said out loud over and over again to combat all the times that the opposite has been spoken or inferred.

Abuse in the church hinders the mission, not the exposing of that abuse. Silencing or shunning those who make accusations hinders the mission, not the act of hearing them out.

Again in Christianity Today, Moore returned to this topic last week. In “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain without Swearing,” he states that claiming to speak on behalf of God to shield abusers and to accuse accusers is tantamount to breaking the third commandment:

Sexual abuse, in any context and by any institution, is a grave atrocity. It’s worse when this horror is committed—or covered up—by leveraging personal or institutional trust. But using the very name of Jesus to carry out such wickedness against those he loves and values is a special evil. When sexual abuse happens within a church, violence is added to violence—sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Predators know this power is great, which is why they weaponize even the most beautiful concepts—grace or forgiveness or Matthew 18 or the life of David.

It’s also why institutions seeking to protect themselves will take on the name of Jesus to say that victims, survivors, or whistleblowers are compromising “the mission” or creating “disunity in the body” when they point out horrors.

There’s more to the mission of the church than just going and making disciples. There’s listening to and looking out for the oppressed and the vulnerable. There’s shining the light in dark places. And there’s speaking and acknowledging what is true.

The mission. The mission. The mission. The whole mission.

(Russell More, “This is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse,” Christianity Today, May 22, 2022; Report of the Independent Investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Guidepost Solutions, May 15, 2022; Geoffrey B. Stearns, et. al, Final Report, Independent Commission of Inquiry Regarding Mamou Alliance Academy (C&MA), November 15, 1997; Amended Final Report for the Investigatory Review of Child Abuse at New Tribes and Missionary School, GRACE, August 28, 2010; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010; Moore, “Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain without Swearing,” Christianity Today, June 21, 2022)

[photo: “Padlock on Red Door,” by Andy Wright, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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