When allegations of sexual abuse first began to crop in Southern Baptist churches, Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a letter (published in Christianity Today) calling churches to confront the inevitability of sexual sin and abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. In that letter was this passage:
We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority.
When people said that evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible—even to me. I have been president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 25 years. I did not see this coming.
I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.
Setting aside issues of theological differences between Catholics and Southern Baptists and his general tone in the first paragraph, which I understand may be offensive to many practicing Catholics, I must admit I was absolutely boggled by this letter. It didn’t seem plausible? Sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist denomination didn’t seem plausible?
Sin is sin. Humans are sinful. Humans sin. And those of us saved by grace hope that in the strength of God we grow stronger in obedience to Him and in righteousness, but we sin too. We’re not exempt from it. And so that attitude – “we believed it could happen to other people but not to us” – just blows my mind, even though I see it more than I expect.
If we’re not careful as believers, we can buy into the idea that sin is behind us. I mean, we’ll always acknowledge that sin is there and we might be tempted into it, but we also assume that “Christian sinning” will be…minimal. Manageable. Better, somehow, than what came before. God’s spirit is at work in us, after all. So maybe we’ll experience some pride, maybe we’ll let a profanity slip here or there, maybe we’ll tell a dirty joke–but Christians won’t sin big.
And then we find out the truth. An infidelity. A gambling debt that bankrupts a family. A drunk-driving arrest. Sexual abuse. Domestic violence. We reel in shock and horror. We are always astonished that it could have happened here. Like Mr. Mohler in his letter to Christianity Today, we acknowledge that it happens to other people (whom we often smugly feel superior to), that we even expect it to happen to other people, but never, ever to us.
Because we think we’re different. And better.
But we shouldn’t be shocked and we should take care in assuming what we are and are not capable of. Yes, God’s spirit is alive in believers–and so is our sinful nature. 1 Peter cautions believers that the devil is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Have we really forgotten Paul’s lament in Romans 7:19?
For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
It is really only humility – the understanding that it is God’s strength and grace, and not our own – that can situate us to properly look at sin. Because when we look at sin with humility, we understand that there but for the grace of God go we. When we look at sin with humility, we understand our own sinful nature. When we look at sin with humility, we do not say “never us” but rather “that could very well be us if we are not mindful.”
I’m surprised that Mr. Mohler is surprised by the extent of sin in the denomination. I’m surprised by his shock: I can’t imagine these people would do this sort of thing. I can’t imagine the rot would be this deep. I can’t imagine people of faith would stoop so low or that this would be endemic. I thought there were other factors at play. I never dreamed it would come to us.
We don’t have to be surprised. We shouldn’t be. To quote Christ in Mark 7:
What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.
The capacity for horrible sin rests within us. The human heart, when it steps away from obedience to God – as all ours do – is a wicked thing. The Father knows it. Jesus knows it. The Spirit convicts us of it. And we would do well to remember it, too – because if we forget, we run the risk of looking up in shock and surprise to see that great sin has taken root and grown among us.
Sometimes, realizing what we’re vulnerable to and what we’re capable of is the first step in guarding against it.