On Churches and sex offenders

It seems to be an increasing question these days: What should the church do when a sex offender finishes their sentence and wishes to return to church or join anew? I’ve written here on this before but want to return to the subject because it is controversial. Of the questions I get relating to this are,

  • Shouldn’t the church be a place where all sinners are welcome? 
  • If a sex offender is disallowed in church aren’t we removing the one thing they need (Christian community?)
  • Should victims of abuse have so much power as to say who can and cannot attend church?

Instead of answering this questions, I think churches need to have frank conversations about the following areas:

  1. Repentance. What is it? What are the fruits of it? What are signs of either inadequate or false repentance?
  2. Protection. There are more than 60 commands in the Old and New Testaments about protecting vulnerable members of society (widows, orphans, aliens, etc. ). True Religion, James says, is one that looks after the vulnerable. What does it mean to protect them. Is it enough to tell them that they are safe even though they do not feel so? Do we ever consider giving them power and some ability to say what they can tolerate?  
  3. Forgiveness/Restoration/Redemption/Reconciliation. These terms are sometimes used synonymously. They should not be. What does it mean to forgive? Does it mean I should act as if it never happened? Where does this idea come from? Restoration to God? The Body?
  4. The Church and access to it. As Christians we are called to meet together for worship and the teaching of the Word? What are the options we might think about that meet this calling but value that same calling for everyone? Can the “church” come to the sex offender? Is he willing to not demand rights to be in church but find ways to worship with other believers while also being concerned about the welfare of others?

That’s a start. If churches would be willing to explore these issues and delay answering the questions I noted at the beginning, I think they will have a better chance of ministering to all. And if either victims or sex offenders are so impatient that they will not allow the body to study the matter, then that probably says something about the interest to care well for all the sheep. If the offender becomes impatient and demanding, whining and complaining, then we have to question his/her interest in being ministered to. There may be other reasons they want in the church. As Anna Salter discovered in her interviewing many many offenders, some offenders see the church as a place of protection from scrutiny due to naivete.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Repentance, Sex

11 responses to “On Churches and sex offenders

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    I have a male friend who completed a 15 year sentence for sex-related crime against children. His crime did not involve physical contact with children, but nonetheless he will carry the label of “registered sex offender” with him the remainder of his life. He knew God before going to prison…but God met with him while he was in prison and impacted his life over the span of that sentence significantly more than he would allow Him to influence him outside of prison. Because of the problematic issue my friend was not effectively dealing with, God put him where it could be dealt with, but the privilege of encountering God under those circumstances carried a price which my friend must necessarily bear for his remaining years. The patriarch Jacob apparently had an issue in his life that God knew would be effectively dealt with only when He had assumed human form and physically wrestled for a fortnight with Jacob. The price Jacob paid for that athletically-inclined life lesson was to emerge forever crippled in his hip, a sign to all (most conspicuously to Jacob) that this corrective measure had taken place. My friend feels his consequence is just, and understands (though struggles at times to embrace) the restrictions placed upon him regarding ministry involvement and leadership in his church. He, like Jacob, bears a wound as a sign of his healing, but my friend cannot run in the ministry circles he’d like, much like Jacob could not run…period. He seems to exemplify the attitude I’d wish all Christian sex offenders could adopt when returning to fellowship post-incarceration. He’s been patient with leadership in his church (a different church than the one we’d attended years ago), and respected periods of cautious reticence by some as trust was built. He, in turn, has created an invaluable opportunity for his church to explore all the issues Phil wrote about above, and wrestle with tough questions about repentance, restoration and permanent consequence for actions. So far, it seems to have been a good thing for all involved.

  2. Scott, I concur that your friend and the experience he had with his church is rare, difficult, fraught with pain, but good.

  3. armchairapologist

    Though this is not necessarily about sex offenders, I recommend the book Amish Grace, it tells the story of how the Amish of Nickle Mines PA forgave that man who killed all those school children it is a story of true forgiveness.

  4. john

    i wonder how many of you are supposedly christians that are judging and desiring suffering on people who had a past of a sex offence. you know jesus died for every sinner. but as long as you hang on to your hate you will be not in gods house. as a matter of fact sex offenders will be in heaven and you will be in hell forever. at least sex offenders only have to live in this hell temporarily is forgiven. not all sex offenders need to be treated this way. what will you do when one of your family members get caught? most sex offences happen by reletives.
    these laws are wrong and you that hate people of any kind will burn in hell.sex offenders cannot even go to church where church is for sinners not the perfect in society. judge not lest ye be judged.unfortunately the scarlet letter placed on these individuals endangers you and your kids more instead of rehabilitation and support. registries have the opposite effect of helping. all this put on the sex offenders causes problems in thier life that can cause reoffence or even a act of mass murder. see how rediculous this is? its pretty bad when someone is treated like a pariah that molests a kid but someone who murders a kid and does not molest them is not treated as bad. god bless you and good luck, you’ll need it sooner or later.

  5. Pastor Jerry

    One thing that has not been mentioned is that all those who meet the legal deginition of a sex offender are not quilty. Because they do not have the money for a good defense attorney many innocent people will take a plea bargain. Based on my own research and professional experience in the field of child sex abuse investigation, I believe it is fair to say that one in three on the sex offender list are truly innocent. You may feel my numbers are too high but there is no doubt there is a significant number.

    Now let me go in another direction. Could it be that the church needs the sex offender. Typically we consider their crimes to be the most terrible of things. But I wonder if sometimes a faith in the power of forgiveness for most terrible of sins –in human eyes– is not just what we need to be assure of the forgiveness of what we might consider the worst of our sins. I wonder if sometimes we do not need to believe in the love of God for those we consider the most terrible of sinners to be certain of the love of God in our worst of moments. I wonder at times if we do not need to see a change in the life of those we consider the most unchangable to know the victory that God can bring in our own lives. I wonder at times if the friend or relative we are trying to reach for Christ does not need to see our embrace of the sex offender to know we really do believe in forgiveness, the uncondition love of God, and the power of change that comes in being born again. Maybe our embrace of the sex offender will be just the key that God will use to reach that one we have been trying reach but could not.

    And what about those that discredit the positions of Christians. They discount our message about the right to life cause they say we are just judgementual. They discout our concern for marriage as a union between a man and women because they say we are judgementual. How effective will this group be in discrediting our message by calling us judgementaul when the community knows we are the only one’s who would love the sex offender and say with them we are all sinners.

    Yes we have to protect the children and others. But our methods of protection should never forget they are not save because we have kept the uncaught and labeled sex offender away. And in terms of protecting the weak such as the widow, orphange, and traveler in a foriegn land, are not the sex offenders like them? They are week and easily hurt. How like God to call use to protect the child who is weak and the preditor who might harm them but who has been made weak by their label.

    Often the labels we place on sex offenders creates the very stress that we know is likely to make them reoffend. If the Body of Christ can walk with them as Christ would have and reduce this stress and let them feel the love of Christ, then we are not, not protect our children. We are instead the only one’s who are reaching out to those that might hurt our children with a ministry to reduce that stress that increases the likelyhood of reoffending. A sex offender under stress is more likely to reoffend. A sex offender truly trusting in Christ is sex offender with Christ and without stress.

    God placed the leopard in the path of Jesus that others might see His power and believe. Could it be that God has placed sex offenders in our path that we might show through them the love of Christ and the power of forgiveness?

  6. deborah

    John, why such an obvious emotional post? I don’t think the article or discussion was to persecute the sex offender but rather to see how the church can help.
    Remember, by law many sex offenders are restricted from ANY contact with children & Mark 9:42 says: “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
    God is the ultimate judge, but there is a huge difference between judging and accountability.

  7. Chris

    We need to stop associating the term “sex offender” with “children.” Not all sex offenders had anything to do with children.

    Pastor Jerry, that was a beautiful post. I had never thought of things in terms of the church needing the sex offender.

  8. Saved Sex Offender

    Saving Pedophiles through Jesus Christ

    A. Purpose

    I pray this testimony will lead pedophiles to
    1. Accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
    2. Call upon the Lord to help them deal with their sexual addiction to children.
    3. Prevent future children from being molested.

    B. The Bottom Line

    The following is offered to those of you who want to skip reading the rest of this testimony and just get the essence of what I am saying. The following is excerpted from Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible regarding Exodus, Chapter 8, and verses 20-32

    Reigning lusts break through the strongest bonds, and make men presume and go from their word. Many seem in earnest, but there is some reserve, some beloved, secret sin. They are unwilling to look upon themselves as in danger of everlasting misery. They will refrain from other sins; they do much, give much, and even punish themselves much. They will leave it off sometimes, and, as it were, let their sin depart a little way; but will not make up their minds to part with all and follow Christ, bearing the cross. Rather than that, they venture all. They are sorrowful, but depart from Christ, determined to keep the world at present, and they hope for some future season, when salvation may be had without such costly sacrifices; but, at length, the poor sinner is driven away in his wickedness, and left without hope to lament his folly.

    Relative to pedophiles I interpret Mr. Henry’s comments as follows:

    The lusts are sexual attractions to children. These lusts are normally reinforced through masturbation, a highly addictive behavior. Drinking alcohol and taking drugs in excess are also addictive behaviors. One of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps to recovery is “belief in a higher power.”

    Because pedophiles break one of societies’ strongest bonds, namely the trust children have in adults, even other types of criminals loath child molesters.

    I met many pedophiles during my ten years of treatment. Except for the pathological offenders, they all seemed to earnestly want to rid themselves of their secret desires. Almost all were sorrowful; some were just sorry for themselves whereas others were sorry for both themselves and their victims. I suspect those who were just sorry for themselves would have ventured all by molesting additional children if they were sure they could get away with it.

    I also suspect that some of those who empathized with their victims are nevertheless still masturbating to pictures, events, and fantasies involving children.

    In a spiritual sense I believe anyone who refuses to repent, ask Jesus to be their Lord and Savior, and enlist His aid in dealing with their sexual addiction for children is keeping the world at present and left without hope of salvation.

    C. My Background

    In 1988 I was sentenced to 5 years of probation for sexually molesting a child. One of the conditions of probation was satisfactory completion of a 5-year pedophile treatment program. Upon satisfaction of all the conditions of my probation (including not living with my family and not being in areas frequented by children) the Court released me and did not require me to register as a sex offender.

     The good news; I believe therapy gave me the awareness, empathy, and coping skills necessary to stop acting out my fantasies.

     The bad news; a child had been molested and I was still fantasizing about children. I voluntarily chose to continue therapy for an additional five years because I felt I had more to learn and gain from treatment.

    My treatment consisted of one-on-one sessions and weekly group meetings of pedophiles conducted by a psychologist. After ten years I left treatment because I felt there was nothing more to gain by continuing it. At that time I was not “acting out” my fantasies but I was still mentally addicted. I was living what appeared to be a “outwardly normal married life”. For example, I attended my three sons’ college graduation ceremonies and held down a full time job with a government agency. But I was still plagued by fantasies.

    Finally, I truly accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and asked forgiveness of my sins. Immediately the Lord cleansed my sole and mind. Praise the Lord!

    Because my ten years of treatment were of value (they taught me ways to not act out my urges and to not fantasize about current situations) the following portion (“D”) of this testimony will address some of the lessons I learned during treatment. However, those treatments did not minimize my fantasies about past occurrences; those were only greatly decreased when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. So, the final portion (“E”) of this testimony will be on how the Lord can save pedophiles and help them deal with their sin.

    D. Lessons Learned From Therapy

    Assume anyone can be a pedophile. I am concerned some children are being molested because neither they nor their parents realize pedophiles can be anyone, not just “dirty old men hiding in bushes”. Consider the case of John D. R. Atchison, federal prosecutor…

    Gulf Breeze, Fla. —John D. R. Atchison – federal prosecutor, married father of three – was a respected figure who coached girls’ softball and basketball in a park a few blocks from his home in this well-to-do beach community.
    But all that came crashing down when he was arrested last weekend in Detroit in an Internet sex sting on charges he went to Michigan to molest a 8-year-old girl. Officials say he later tried to hang himself in jail.
    Atchison, 53, had been com-municating with an undercover sheriff’s detective from Ma-comb County, Mich., who was posing online as the fictitious girl’s mother and arranged for him to have sex with the child, police said. He was arrested carrying presents for her; in-cluding a doll and earrings, and sexual materials, officials said.
    In the community that once applauded Atchison for his dedication to youth sports, people now worry that the assistant U.S. attorney might hold other secrets. But authorities have so far found no cases of child molestation in Florida involving Atchison.
    . “There were no red flags. He was normal. He went to work at the courthouse Monday through Friday. It’s not like he carried dolls to the ballpark,” said po-lice Lt. Rick Hawthorne, who knew Atchison for more than 10 years and coached softball.

    Mayor Lane Gilchrist said: “My first thought was just how stupid it was, particularly some-one of his stature. You couldn’t think up something like that”

    Note that Mr. Atchison does not fit the pedophile’s stereotypical image of appearing outwardly creepy during everyday life. Nor do the priests or women school teachers that have recently appeared in the news. So, don’t use appearances to determine whether someone is a threat to a child.

    Mr. Atchison does conform to the commonly held misconception that pedophiles usually molest strangers. In fact, most pedophiles know their victims. Of all the pedophiles I have met, most of them victimized fellow family members. Others met their victims through institutions such as schools, scouting, or church. I have only met one person who had molested a stranger. Most of the pedophiles I have met wanted to use their positions of trust to “groom” their victims in order to establish a long-term relationship.

    Mr. Atkinson’s case is an exception to the general rule that children know their perpetrators. It is better to assume ANYONE could be a pedophile. Children must be protected at all times. Be especially suspicions of people wanting to spend time alone with children. Do not take anyone for granted!

    Most pedophiles experience recurring cycles of giving advance permission, acting out, reinforcement, guilt, and denial; then back to giving advance permission, etc. I will now address each component of the five-step cycle and how to break the chain of sexual addiction to children.

    Step 1 giving oneself permission to contemplate or commit unacceptable behavior is a form of justification. Common rationales are “this is a way of us showing love for each other” and “its better for me to teach them than someone who does not love them.” It is wrong thinking and selfish. It does not recognize the harmful consequences on either the child or the molester. It is an excuse to indulge in addiction.

    Step 2 Acting out can range from “just looking” to rape. Those who claim they will never do anything worse than “just fantasize and never touch” think are in control. But their addiction is in control. Pedophiles often delude themselves and minimize their actions.

    Step 3 Reinforcement results from masturbation before and/or during and/or after the act. It yields an extreme high that is highly addictive.

    Step 4 Guilt usually occurs for selfish reasons; feeling shame, sorrow for oneself, fear of being caught, etc. It may occur because of a limited amount of empathy for the victim. This is the time of conscience. The “guilt phase” is the weak link in the cycle. If left unbroken, the cycle continues to have terrible consequences for pedophiles and their victims. The guilt period is the opportunity to acknowledge the problem and deal with it; but it is too late to undo the damage done to the victim. Sadly, addiction trumps guilt with denial.

    Step 5 Denial is the pedophile’s antidote for guilt. It shifts the focus from the negative aspects of pedophilia to aspects the molester finds to be pleasurable. Denial prepares the mental ground for sowing the seeds of further destruction to both the pedophile and more victims.

    After denial the cycle begins anew and repeats until the pedophiles’ acts are stopped, usually by law enforcement. Courts and therapists protect children by altering and deterring pedophiles’ worldly behavior. But Jesus Christ can save pedophiles’ souls and offer them a “24/7 hotline” for dealing with their addiction by stopping it before Step 1 takes place. I pray the final section of this testimony leads you to the same conclusion.

    E. The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.

    Almost all of the pedophiles I met after completing the initial phases of therapy were able to control their outward acts by following two rules.
     Rule 1 Avoid: Avoid contact with children in the first place.

     Rule 2 Escape: When unavoidable situations arise placing the pedophile in proximity with children the pedophile is to escape the scene as soon as possible.

    Following these rules helps minimize the chances of harming more children, but they do nothing to heal the harm done to pedophiles and their victims. It addresses (cleans) the pedophile’s outward behavior but does not address their lusts. Therapy is man’s way of addressing mental addiction, but therapists can’t save souls. The Lord will clean the pedophile’s mind and save his soul, if he confesses, repents, and accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior

    “Outward motives may keep the outside clean, while the inside is filthy; but if the heart and spirit be made new, there will be newness of life; here we must begin with ourselves. … And it is just with God to give those up to men their true characters.” —Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on Matthew 23:13

    Man has free will. He can choose to “obstinately persist in gratifying their hearts’ lusts” to their, and their victim’s, peril or he can choose to break his cycle of addictive behavior. As discussed earlier, the best point to break the cycle is when he is trying to get permission to act out his urges (Step 1). Man may be able to fool himself through feeble excuses, but the Lord knows better. The pedophile acknowledges his desire to sin by confessing his urge to the Lord. Enlisting the Lord’s help at Step 1 can prevent a new victimization. If, sadly, the pedophile has bypassed the Lord then the cycle can be broken at Step 4 if the perpetrator truly confesses and repents. Note: This is not a game, the Lord will not be mocked.

    If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1John 1:8

    If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1John 1:9.

    Confession should be directed to the Lord, victims, and loved ones because confession can help both the pedophile and others. Confession must be coupled with true repentance resulting in being forgiven by Jesus Christ:

    “Repent ye.” The word here used, implies a total alteration in the mind, a change in the judgment, disposition, and affections, another and a better bias of the soul. Consider your ways, change your minds: you have thought amiss; think again, and think aright. True penitents have other thoughts of God and Christ, sin and holiness, of this world and the other, than they had. The change of the mind produces a change of the way. That is gospel repentance, which flows from a sight of Christ, from a sense of his love, and from hopes of pardon and forgiveness through him. It is a great encouragement to us to repent; repent, for your sins shall be pardoned upon your repentance. Return to God in a way of duty, and he will, through Christ, return unto you in the way of mercy. It is still as necessary to repent and humble ourselves, to prepare the way of the Lord, as it then was. There is a great deal to be done, to make way for Christ into a soul, and nothing is more needful than the discovery of sin, and a conviction that we cannot be saved by our own righteousness. —Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary regarding Matthew 3:1

    “…repentance is bound up with the forgiveness of sins. In Acts 5:31 we read that Jesus is “exalted to give repentance and forgiveness of sins.” These two blessings come from that sacred hand which once was nailed to the tree, but is now raised to glory. Repentance and forgiveness are riveted together by the eternal purpose of God. What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.

    Repentance must go with remission, and you will see that it is so if you think a little upon the matter. It cannot be that pardon of sin should be given to an impenitent sinner; this were to confirm him in his evil ways, and to teach him to think little of evil. If the Lord were to say, “You love sin, and live in it, and you are going on from bad to worse, but, all the same, I forgive you,” this were to proclaim a horrible license for iniquity. The foundations of social order would be removed, and moral anarchy would follow. I cannot tell what innumerable mischiefs would certainly occur if you could divide repentance and forgiveness, and pass by the sin while the sinner remained as fond of it as ever. In the very nature of things, if we believe in the holiness of God, it must be so, that if we continue in our sin, and will not repent of it, we cannot be forgiven, but must reap the consequence of our obstinacy. According to the infinite goodness of God, we are promised that if we will forsake our sins, confessing them, and will, by faith, accept the grace which is provided in Christ Jesus, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But, so long as God lives, there can be no promise of mercy to those who continue in their evil ways, and refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing
    —All of Grace An Earnest Word with Those Who Are Seeking Salvation by the Lord Jesus Christ by Charles Spurgeon

    F. Conclusion

    The good news is that through the grace of God pedophiles can find salvation, be able to discuss feelings and potential actions with a loving Friend 24/7, and enlist His aid in preventing further harm to children. This grace is obtained by (a) accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, (b) confession and repentance of sins, and (c) staying in touch (keeping the faith) with the Lord.

    What the Lord Jesus did for us when He came more than nineteen hundred years ago is the gospel, the good news. He died for us, and He rose again. God doesn’t save us by His love, and He doesn’t save us by His mercy. Ephesians tells us: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8)… Mercy is the compassion of God that prompted Him to send a Savior to mankind. If one man could be saved by the mercy of God, all mankind would be saved. It wouldn’t have been necessary for Christ to die; the Cross would have been circumvented. God loves men, but He didn’t save us by His love. Love is the divine motive, but God is not only love, He is righteous and holy and just. The holy demands of God, His just claims, and His righteous standard had to be met. The love of God may long to save us, but the immutable law of justice makes love powerless to do so. Therefore, Christ, by dying for our sins, met the holy demands of God’s justice, and He can now save us by grace. How wonderful it is to be saved by the grace of God! —J. Vernon McGee’s Thru The Bible commentary on Titus 2:11

  9. Ben Steinke

    As someone who was arrested for attempted possession of child pornography, I thought the church I had been going to for a while would understand the value of “time served”. But the new pastor, several years younger than I (I’m 40), told me upon meeting me for the first time that I could only attend the service that day, not enter any of the BATHROOMS (!!!) and not go anywhere near the downstairs kids area, and that I was to exit the sanctuary immediately and go out the front door. I told him I had served my 18-month probation with flying colors and had no restrictions on being near children by the courts, but that didn’t change his mind one iota. I call the “Christianity” practiced in the U.S. “Christen-Dumb”, a kind of Churchianity that seems to have a sliding scale for various offenses while simultaneously preaching “grace”. They’ll accept convicted rapists (so long as their victims were “of age”) and even convicted murderers, armed robbers, and those convicted of assault and battery, but if you’re a sex offender, whether your offense was in the “contact” or “non-contact” categories, you’re no longer welcome. I never touched a child or looked at one in the wrong way, but the “grace” of Christen-Dumb doesn’t care. Crimes against adults are immediately forgivable, but crimes against children are considered unforgivable, eternal sins. What laughable, pathetic hypocrisy.

  10. Grooms

    I want to tell you thank you for your post on the 1 in 3 are innocent but plead guilty. My husband is one of those. He couldn’t afford a good attorney and was scared of facing 15 years in prison, so he took the plea deal of only three years. He did his time and has not had any other offenses then. He was asked to leave our church because someone called the church and told them that he was a sex offender. We were told that he had to leave and we would be called back when they had a policy in place for people like him. Needless to say, we found a different church and the very first thing we did was tell the pastor his story. They had no problem accepting us, because my husband’s intentions of wanting to join the church.

    • Ben Steinke

      THAT is exactly how a church SHOULD behave. Yes, the church needs to be reasonably careful even in situations like these, but I think your new church has the right idea. I wish I could find a good church like yours. I haven’t joined another one since my expulsion from the church I mentioned before. I have been tempted to send that church’s pastor a link to this article, but I don’t think it’ll do much, if any, good. They have a deceptive spirit and cannot comprehend what they are doing.

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