NOTE: In choosing to focus this article on abuse of power within the Church, I recognize that I have not addressed every possible instance of abuse. In particular, I am not addressing child sexual abuse. That is a topic which requires very careful and extensive treatment not possible in a short article such as this. Child sexual abuse is a heinous act of evil that should be reported to authorities in every case and dealt with by trained professionals.
My children and I have studied church history together. We’ve read about abuses and excesses of the medieval Church, when men garnered undue power and wealth from their positions.
Going back further in time, we have the New Testament’s witness. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day rejected his message and his identity because they feared losing their following and more (John 12:19). Their jealousy for their own power was so strong that they crucified the Messiah, the Son of God.
In more ancient times, we read of the kings of Israel and Judah who, rather than leading God’s people in covenant faithfulness, practiced idolatry, exploited their people for their own gain, and reveled in worldly rewards.
Throughout human history, including the history of the Church, sin has led men to love power and wealth and influence more than they love God. When those in the Church love power more than Jesus Christ, there is one result: corruption (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 2 Peter 2:19).
We could speak at length of the inner corruption that flows from idolatry. The Bible is clear that when man “exchange[s] the truth about God for a lie and worship[s] and serve[s] the creature rather than the Creator,” God “[gives] them up to a debased mind.” The idols of power, success, and money, far from bringing glory to man, bring about his corruption and his downfall. This also is vanity, to quote the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
But it doesn’t stop there. This corruption is not confined to a single man’s inward world. Idolatry leads to corruption within the Church.
Corruption in the Church Today
You may have experienced the pain and disillusionment of being part of a church or missions team that fell apart due to misuse of power. We’ve all read about more cases of pastors and Christian leaders falling than we care to know about. It reflects poorly on the Gospel. And we know that there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people harmed whenever a leader or organization defames the name of Christ.
As parents we feel, rightly, that we do not need to discuss every example of sin within the Church with our young children. But as they age and mature, and become more conversant with nuance, we need to examine that impulse carefully. Do we fear that acknowledging the existence of fallen church leaders will cause them to turn away from their ultimate leader, Christ? Do we fear that knowing about sin within Christian groups will cause them to hate the body of Christ?
The truth is just the opposite. When our maturing children see us acknowledging and condemning serious sin within the Church, while affirming that this does not alter God’s character or his mission, we protect them from the worst kind of disillusionment: thinking that God doesn’t see or care.
Our growing children will eventually learn about the presence of corruption in a nearby church, or in a denomination, or in their own church. At the very least, when they are grown they will come to understand things that eluded them in their childhood, and they will certainly witness the damaging effects of serious sin in their adult lives. We cannot hide it from them. We can, however, guide them in how to understand and address sin in the Church proactively with a Biblical foundation.
Why is there sin in the church?
Why is there sin in the Church? In part the answer is simple. Even we who have put our trust in Christ, who are a new creation, still struggle with putting off the old self (Ephesians 4:22-24). In this life, God is sanctifying us, making us more holy; one day we will be glorified and fully free from sin. In the meantime, we will fight against sin and the old self until we die. Every Christian still sins, and this causes personal and institutional harm in a myriad of ways (1 John 1:8). Thank God he gives us the gift of repentance and forgiveness.
You may ask, “But what about unrepentant sinners who continue to wreak devastation on the Church? What about wolves who eat sheep rather than shepherd them?”
Jesus tells us to recognize wolves, or false teachers, by their fruit. A bad tree does not produce good fruit, and vice versa (Matthew 7:15-20). Ultimately, God is the judge. But if a leader’s “fruit” is destroying the lives and faith of believers, it is anathema to God and should be anathema to those who follow him.
If we recognize that Scripture and history repeatedly reveal the destructive reality of corruption in the Church, we are not surprised when we see it firsthand. We recognize God’s wrath “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7, Jeremiah 6:13-15).
How Do We Help Our Children?
So how do we help our children preserve their love for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and their commitment to Christ’s body, while discerning and fleeing from evil masquerading as light?
We remind them of Scriptural truth. As Paul states so beautifully in Ephesians 5, Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Scripture witnesses to Jesus’s faithful, effective love for his bride: he has given himself up for her, he is sanctifying her, he has cleansed and washed her, and he will present her spotless and without blemish at the last. Jesus, who knows fully what is in man (John 2:24), nevertheless has not and will not abandon his Church. Man’s faithlessness does not nullify Christ’s faithfulness.
Now, there is a call implicit in this discussion: We, who together are the Church, must forsake the love of idols that leads us away from Christ and into corruption. We must teach our children what it is that God requires of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We must teach them that we are to treasure God above all else and to obey him. We who have been bought at a price by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who are raised to newness of life with him in his resurrection, must be found in him, having a righteousness that comes from faith in him, ever pressing onward to make it our own (Philippians 3:9-12).
We must also recognize and care for the deep injuries some believers have received in the Church. We affirm that we are called to be part of the body of Christ, and both we ourselves and the Church lose much if we give up on it. And we offer compassion and tangible help to those who are hurting.
All abuse within the Church should be reported appropriately (including according to applicable laws) and dealt with according to responsible and credible methods. The organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is a good starting point if you or your church have questions about what to do.
Holding Fast To Our Hope
If sinful leaders existed in the second millennium B.C.; if the people went after idols throughout Israel’s history; if the first century witnessed leaders caring more about power and image than the purity of the Church; if the past millennium has seen the visible Church cave to idolatry in too many ways; if the people of God have suffered these realities for thousands of years, then we know two things: 1) It will likely happen in our generation, and 2) God will always preserve a remnant: those who have not bowed the knee to idols (1 Kings 19:18).
The spate of revelations of abuse of power within the Church is disturbing and will not evade God’s eyes (Psalm 94:7-11). But we are not without hope: the gates of hell shall never prevail against Christ’s Church (Matthew 16:18). Let us inculcate this sure, unfading hope within the next generation.