Missional church ministry to sex offenders

I think it fair to say that there are significant similarities between the treatment of lepers 2000 years ago and sex offenders today. Just as there wasn’t much hope for change for those with serious infectious disease so today we have little human hope that sex offenders (especially those guilty of acting on pedophilic desires) can change and be safe around vulnerable people. So what’s a church to do if they have a member or potential member with a history of violating others?

Generally, folk fall into two responses to this question. Either, “Yes, the church is for all sinners. This person paid their dues to society in prison and now we need to treat him as if it never happened.” Or, “Over my dead body! Once an offender always an offender. An offender can offend with his eyes and other victims of sexual crimes will never feel safe.”

So, what are we to do in order to serve the whole body without discrimination and avoid a split between the two extreme positions?

Assessment. We must assess the specifics of the situation and avoid a one size fits all response.
1. Extent of the crime and other related history (not merely based on offender’s report)
2. Extent of repentance. This one is even trickier since repentance isn’t a one-time event. But here’s my quick evaluation: If the offender is demanding his/her rights to be part of the church body, he/she is not likely repentant. Demanding rights does not go well with deep understanding of the broken trust and a willingness to care for even those who might be afraid of future violations (especially victims of other offenders). Demanding rights does not go well with the call to self-sacrifice that we see in Philippians 2.

Based on the above assessments, here’s one solution to someone convicted of child sexual abuse:

Bring the church to the offender. Gather a group of willing church members (empty-nesters?) who want to serve the offender and his/her family. The group can meet at church if empty or at someone’s house. Provide fellowship, worship, communion with pastoral leadership, and voila, you have church. Maybe even a better community of believers than what everyone else gets. This group would not need to focus on the offender’s crimes any more than anyone else’s sins. Their love would allow that person to be fully known and fully participative.

What would be wrong with this picture? Any Scriptures that it violates? Some might think it wrong for victims of prior abuse to control who goes to church. I would respond that while we may wish to work with prior victims on re-building trust in the Lord, avoiding unnecessary paralysis from fear, etc. it is not wrong to give the power to the victim after a violation. The victim will certainly have to answer to God regarding his/her use of power, just as anyone of us will have to. Because they are capable of abusing power does not mean we should not give it. I take Acts 6 and the giving of power to the minority population of believers to make sure that the food distribution to the widows was not biased.


Filed under Abuse, Missional Church

23 responses to “Missional church ministry to sex offenders

  1. What a loving solution to a sticky situation. While I would not wish to worship alongside a prior offender, I do not think it would be biblical to exclude them if the sinful behavior had stopped. Of course, protecting the congregation would have to take priority, but restoring this person to fellowship could be a powerful part of their recovery.

  2. Agreed. What form of restoration to fellowship is the key question. The level of denial an deception necessary to violate another person makes it hard to know if the person has stopped the behavior or is in no danger of picking it back up. Part of my sense of repentance would be whether or not I care more about the experiences of others who might be afraid of me than for my right to worship with everyone else.

  3. Pingback: i like shiny things » Blog Archive » Missional church ministry to sex offenders « Musings of a Christian Psychologist

  4. Child molesters are indeed the outcasts of society. Barred from many neighborhoods, jobs, and social networks, they have little means of reintegrating into society. While comparing them to lepers comes a little short, since pedophilia isn’t precisely a disease like leprosy (though it inflicts these people due to no choice of their own), and this difference matters, I would agree that it’s the closest thing the church has to a modern day leper. I’m disheartened at the lack of interest in rehabilitating this population by most people, including Christians. They think the risk is too much. Yes, honest and thorough assessment is a must! But there will ALWAYS be risk and following Christ demands we take some of these risks.

    I’ll get off the soapbox now and say that I love your model because it does just that: minimizes risks without neglecting the work of Christ. The only worry I have is that we need to remember that they are subject to being disinterested in the gospel, just like anyone else, and we should not give our pearls to pigs who don’t want it. The church should only extend so far so as to make sure the person is doing their own part. I think any offender who doesn’t realize why people aren’t catering to their every need or why some restrictions are placed on them is probably still dangerous and does not deserve the church’s time and resources.

  5. luskwater

    A year or so ago, I was walking our dog one Sunday evening and passed one of the churches in our neighborhood. A sign on the door proclaimed that an evening class had moved to the hall next door: “Adult Forum moved to Parish Hall. ‘Sex Offenders: A Christian Response'” I hurried home with the dog and returned to walk into the class about 15 minutes before it ended. The presenter was just wrapping up a discussion of current treatment options (East Coast: behavioral; West Coast: chemical, if I recall correctly), and that neither one seemed to work particularly well.

    I came by again the next week for the wrap-up, and to hear the Christian response. Sadly, there was none. I lead a support group for men with sexual issues of various sorts, and was hoping to find something interesting, or find an opportunity to share how the Gospel had been effective. Regrettably, the forum came to a close with something of a whimper.

  6. Ouch. That is regrettable. It raises the question of whether we believe the Gospel really changes people.

  7. Phil,

    Have you seen the movie the Woodsman? Disturbing, but powerful. Kevin Bacon plays a pedohile trying to reenter society after being released from prison. It tries to portray Bacon’s demons, his desire to change, society’s view of him and a couple of people in his life who see him to be a person who is more then an offender.

  8. Jody

    I’m going to throw a radical curve ball into this discussion that I am not completely sure about myself. It is more of an intuition about a current social process that is going on, which makes understanding the total dimensions very difficult.

    Our fear and obsession with “sex offenders” grows proportionately to our attempts to normalize other sexual behaviors that have been deemed aberrant in the past. In general we are nearing a complete normalization of all historic aberrations of sexual behavior that existed prior to the beginning of the 20th century. The latest round of course is the huge obsession with gay rights and the morality of homosexual relationships. There is very little sacred ground left in sexual prohibitions other than pedophilia and non-consent. My thesis here is that as we try to accept “unnatural” forms of sexuality and behavior we often project our innate disgust on those few who we can still label as offenders. Needless to say, anyone who was born after 1950 probably has engaged in and accepted the practice of a realm of sexual behavior that was considered abhorrent and worthy of harsh punishment by our grandparents generation. Whether we have since “repented and seen the light” or not, we still carry an ingrained sense of shame and loss over this cultural break.

    Before anyone goes crazy and thinks that I’m all for a return to the “dark ages” of human sexuality do understand that I’m referring more to a predictable psychological phenomena. Many people have describe the sexual revolution in America and Europe as throwing the baby out with the bathwater” because we were left with few if any “rules” in the secular realm to guide our sexual behavior. Religious authority in all matters sexual have been held suspect or completely rejected, too. I think there is much to understand about the positive value in past sexual ethics that should be revisited. Many of us have destroyed our lives in this most intimate area for lack of any solid ground to base our self concept of sexuality on. We know something big and fearful has happened to us but we aren’t always sure and guilt is a frequent way of handling that unnamed uncleanness many of us feel. So why not project all of that rage, hatred, and loathing on the few people we can still legally point to as being sexually guilty?

  9. MacMullen, Thanks for the movie title. Hadn’t heard of it. Jody, I really appreciate your comments here and think you are on to something. There are other examples where we need to make ourselves look better by lumping the guilt we ought to bear on someone worse than ourself. “What I did isn’t so bad, look at him/her!” Its from the first response of Adam and Even to sin. Better to get fixated on sex offenders and deviants rather than recognize my lustful desires are just as abhorrant to God.

  10. Dave

    I lead a group of men who struggle with various forms of sexual addiction(non criminal). We have been appoached by a group to see if we would be able to suppport men who have criminally offended. Level 2 , level 3 types. We are at the beginning stages of looking at possibly offering this kind of support., I personally feel that this is strongly needed. I need advice on how this would look and administerd in a safe environment both for the offender and our families in the church.

  11. Dave,

    Thanks for your comment/question. You are right, such a ministry is absolutely needed and the Church is a wonderful place to do it. I would consider either choosing a time at the church when no one else is there or choosing a safe off-site place. But in either case, I would think pastoral staff should be present. Why? Because it shows direct care from shepherd to sheep instead of pushing these men off to a dark corner of the church. You’d need to figure out what the goal of the group would be, how you would manage outside relationships, who gets in, whether the group is open (allows for new members) and how much accountability the group actually offers. Will it be a therapy group? Bible study? Accountability?

    Lord bless

  12. Sheri

    Bravo. Loved this site.

  13. Sheri

    By Sheri Smith

    We always hear about how God will forgive you for your sins, but so many times people categorize these sins to anger, unforgiveness, drugs, alcohol, murder, etc. We never hear to much about sexual sins. I think many Christians are afraid to approach the subject. Maybe because it’s a personal subject, or they have been used by it, some still believe that to ignore it it will go away. But it’s time to approach the subject.
    And the question is, IS GOD BIG ENOUGH TO FORGIVE SEXUAL SINS? The answer to this is YES! God can forgive anything if the person asking for forgiveness is serious. Sex does not surprise God. He is not surprised that sex can be used for wrong as well as right. He invented it to be a oneness between a married couple to enjoy and to populate the earth. But of course living in a world of sin the great deceiver, Satan, is going to take God’s work of art and twist it to destroy man. This has been his intent since he declared war in heaven and was thrown out. Anything the Lord has made, Satan has twisted and made it a downfall for man. He hates God. So this should be no surprise to us, His church.
    But to many times the church turns away from a brother that has committed a sexual sin or crime.
    Which could be, adultery, rape, homosexuality, bestiality, streaking, sex with a minor or molestation.
    It seems the hardest time to forgive someone is if they have been in jail or prison for a sexual offense.
    Then we hear of the negative side like, this person cannot be rehabilitated, there is no hope, throw away the key and f they did it to a child they could never be helped again. They are worse than an animal, but God said the vilest sinner could be forgiven
    But the truth is that we are all like filthy rags when we come to Christ. Jesus never said, ”Visit those in prison except the sex offender.” Matt. 25:36. Many men in the Bible committed sexual sins. But God was still willing to use them when they repented. Joseph, who never was quilty, of his sin would still have been labeled a sex offender in our day. How would you treat him? How about the man who was living with his mother-in-law? 1 Cor. 5:1 Paul was against it said to kick him out of the church but in 2 Cor. 2:5-11 Amplified Bible, he said to forgive him, comfort him and encourage him so he was not overwhelmed by excess sorrow and despair. Apparently he was sorry for his sin. Paul begged them to reinstate him and to show their love towards him. He was testing them. Wanting them to forgive him. Paul said, “ If you forgive anyone anything, I too forgive that one”. That it was approved of God. To do this was to keep Satan from getting the advantage over them. Yes! it was a wrong situation. We have all been caught in the wrong situation. SIN! We couldn’t help it. We couldn’t get away from it. It was just there. So God in His great LOVE for us sent His only son Jesus to die for us.
    So before we go running off from situations that we aren’t comfortable with let’s love those whose sin is out in the open and help them to run to the Father. Other wise we take on the spirit of pride and that’s what Satan was kicked out of the kingdom of heaven for not sexual sins. Let us be the first to help so each one can find their way home and the last to judge because, THERE BUT BY THE GRACE OF GOD GO I.
    It is time for God’s church to arise and take back the kingdom. To stand face to face with God and the only way we are going to do that is by LOVE, not fear or hate. For God has not given us the spirit of fear but of Power, Love and a Sound Mind. Timothy 1:7
    Love for others in the church, who may have fallen in sexual sin and other sins, and for the lost for we once too were lost.

    Further reading. Jn. 3:16, Galatians 6:1-3, 1 John 2:1 and there are many others I could quote. You only have to look in God’s word and they are there.
    May God open our eyes to let us see that all are welcome into His kingdom if they believe, but how shall they believe if we don’t show our love and the love of the Father by forgiving them.
    Please pray and let the Lord open your heart to each one.

  14. Bob

    I have spent more than 20 years serving inmates and recently released convicts who are trying to be reestablished with their church, their families and the community. Please allow me to bluntly put forth an example which I ask you to Judge. A young man 20 years old living in a sexual relationship with a 27 year old woman allows her 12 year old son to perform oral sex on him, this youngster was known in the neighborhood to be queer, The young woman discovers this the same day but does nothing, six weeks later in the heat of an argument she cals the police and when they arrive she reports this act to them resulting in her boyfriend being arrested and ultimatly convicted of this sexual crime. The judge was more than fair and sentanced the boyfriend to only 5 years. Now 18 years later he is still in prison, has attemped suicide twice. Is this fair, is it legal??

  15. Bob,

    The sad story you tell gives ample evidence for brokenness all around. The 12 year old struggling with his own sexuality. How did that happen and why hasn’t anyone taken him under his wing? The 20 year “allows”… He’s capable of saying no but doesn’t. In some ways, it sounds like some think it is the 12 year old’s fault because of his orientation. The 27 year old mother who doesn’t do anything. Brokenness everywhere.

    Why is he still in prison after 18 years? on a 5 year sentence? Of course it’s not fair. But since when are the effects of the Fall fair, from our perspective?

  16. Pingback: Ministry to the Broken « Life Interupted

  17. S.S.

    We have a situation at our fellowship where a former pedohile who served time and then became a believer and is now in our church. The church has been divided with the two groups as you mentioned in your article. The forgive and move on side is seemingly mostly men (church leaders) and the lets kick him out side is mostly women. With exceptions of course.

    I feel the correct course is to encourage the brother (offender) in the fellowship of other believers within a framework. I think it is essential to have clearly defined restrictions (i.e. no access to areas w/ children, no leadership roles, etc… also to hae an accountability team that works with the offender. ) These restrictions should take the form of a type of signed covanent. This idea is also met with resistance as many feel that you cant set apart certain sins. I believe that sexual sin is distinct, especially against children. We must o every thing possible to prevent such action and protect children. Also even though we are forgiven when we repent, sins do bear life long consequences, such as no contact with children at church… I welcome and value any advice and thoughts. Thank you

  18. How does the man feel about this? Is he unwilling to sign a covenant? Who is this an issue for? Sometimes it more of an issue for those who idealize forgiveness as acting as if it never happened. The reality is that those who are truly repentant do not wish to have a blank check to do whatever. They crave accountability because they know what could happen and they want to extend the gift of safety to those who might be fearful.

    Both the Kick out and the forgive and forget crowd miss the fruits of repentance: Not demanding one’s own way.

  19. S.S.

    I appreciate your response. You hit the nail on the head in regards to the desire of the true repentant is accountability. I will keep you posted as to how things progress. Blessings…

  20. Joe

    Very interesting and timely subject matter here. I would also like to ask for some input on the issue.

    I am the facilitator of our churches recovery ministry, and in our efforts to better reach out in the prison/aftercare realms, we have been lead to consider whether or not we should try a 12 step approach to mentoring and /or support group specifically for sexual offenders. I would be interested to know if anyone here has any thoughts in this regard.

  21. Joe, good question. I know there has been mixed views on groups with offenders in prison. Some think it is unwise others think it is useful. I would think such a group would have to be very structured and focused on empathy building.

  22. em

    As a therapist who works with sexually aggressive youth in the juvenile court system, I appreciate your thoughts. The fact is, these folks can change, especially with the power of Christ. If they can’t, then we are deeming the blood of Christ ineffective & not quite powerful enough to deal with all sin. That being said, I think it’s the church’s responsibility, in dealing with someone with sexual behavior problems, to provide adequate supervision & accountability for the safety of other church members. Like you said, someone who is repentant & has changed, or at least desires change, will submit to this.

  23. Joe

    A follow-up to my previous post.
    Over the past 18 months or so we have been approached by numerous registered Sex Offenders in our community requesting to attend our church and for assistance in prison aftercare. Obviously, this is a complicated issue for a whole host of reasons, and we have been at something of a loss as to how best to address the issue while protecting the interests of all involved. We have come up with an approach that we will be presenting to the Parole Board on Sep. 10. that we hope to begin implementing this fall. It consists of four elements;

    1.) Issues specific to aftercare will be addresses through our existing Aftercare Ministry.

    2.) Each of these men will be connected with an existing Men’s Bible Study Small Group, where they will be paired with a mentor for individual discipleing.

    3.) Each of them will be required to attend an existing 12 week class on Sexual Purity.

    4.) The actual Worship Services offered to them will take place off site at our Community Outreach Center (James Place). This is to be my area of involvement.

    The intent is to make these off site services a temporary, albeit semi-long term, situation with the ultimate goal of re-integration with the congregation as a whole. The time frame for that involvement is a little fuzzy yet, and will probably depend a great deal on the individuals Parole Officer’s recommendations on a case by case basis.
    It is also my intent to model this service after Celebrate Recovery’s format, in that each meeting will include a time of worship followed by a sermon Germaine to the specific needs of this group and a Biblical based 12-Step Support Group targeted at sexual addiction. Sort of a combination of House Church and Recovery group.
    And so, I would like to ask you for any advice you might have in regards to soul care for this “people group”. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts you might have in this regard.

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