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.