It is impossible to ignore the news of pastoral abuse of congregants that seems to come to light with increasing frequency. And we should not seek to ignore these stories. Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd and that it is the enemy who comes to kill, steal, and destroy. When our pastors abandon the gentle and self-sacrificial guiding that Jesus commanded and instead commit to practices that steal innocence, destroy lives, and kill our witness, scripture demands that strong, corrective action be taken to deliver justice and protect the victims.
A key facet of the promotion of justice is to determine truth. The truth of the matter must then be used to remove the guilty from a position in which they can further harm those in their care. All too often, we are anxious to sweep aside such disgusting and disappointing events, to pretend they did not happen, or to simply enforce quick and meaningless “forgiveness” rather than actually going through a full, fair, and biblical analysis of what went wrong, how repentance and restitution can be made, and how we can prevent similar actions from happening in the future. What happens when these processes are not followed can be seen in the closing chapter of the book of Judges.
Phyllis Trible spoke about the tale of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) as one of the “texts of terror.” This horrific tale begins with spousal disharmony (the history of interpretation is full of allotting the blame to both parties) and ends with genocide and mass rape. The tale is bracketed by reminders that in those days there was no king or secular adjudicating authority (Judges 19:1 and 21:25), and the book ends by saying that everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
In this story of the “Terror of Gibeah,” the Ephraimite Levite journeyed down to Bethlehem to retrieve his concubine who had returned to her father’s house. On his way back, he refused to entrust himself to foreigners and spend the night in a fortified city. Instead, he thought that he and his small traveling party would be safe among his own Israelite brethren in the Benjaminite town of Gibeah (Judges 19:12). This is similar to how most of us would consider the church a relatively safe environment where we could let our guard down. However, the men of Gibeah were bent on abuse, and when they were not permitted to rape the Levite, they instead committed a particularly abusive [יִּֽתְעַלְּלוּ־בָהּ Strongs H5953] gang rape against his concubine who was tossed out the door to them by the Levite in one of the most heinous acts in the Bible.
The next day, the Levite showed no compassion to the woman he had sacrificed to save himself, but cut up her body. (The text does not say if she was already dead or not.) He sent the pieces of her body to the 12 tribes, asking them to assemble and mete out justice. The Levite told his tale to the assembled tribes, and they immediately sought to bring the men of Gibeah to justice. But instead of turning over the perpetrators of this perversity, the Benjaminites actually stood up to defend them (Judges 20:12-14)!
How often have we seen this in our own days? When pastors finally have to face the truth that they abused their position and inflicted themselves on those whom they should have protected, the people of God give them a standing ovation? Just like Benjaminites rallying to protect those they know to be guilty simply because of an in-group identification, Christians applaud those they know to be wrong because they reflected on their actions publicly without issuing meaningful apologies or doing the hard work of repentance that makes restitution. Victims and God declare when sins are forgiven and someone is welcomed back into the community, not an applauding crowd and not a band of warriors who defend the guilty.
The rest of the story of Judges spirals into increasingly pervasive violence and abuse. The Benjaminites slaughter tens of thousands of their countrymen. The Israelites finally decimate the Benjaminites to the extent that the tribe faces extinction. The Israelites feel remorseful and they then approve two instances of capture and forcible “marriage” of unwilling women so that the remaining Benjaminites men will have offspring. The book closes with the grim reminder that there was no king in those days and everyone did as he saw fit.
In our days, King Jesus watches over us and demands that we take care of “the least of these.” Those who abuse a child will prefer that they had been tied to a heavy object and drowned in salt water (Matthew 18:6). Those who do not take positive action on behalf of the lowly, weak, and oppressed will be personally excluded from heaven by Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46). We need to be active on behalf of the oppressed, especially when it is the shepherds of the church doing the oppressing.
The solution is not for every man to do what he thinks is right, however, but to have a secular power seek out the truth and adjudicate in these matters. We must remember that the Israelites were capable of seeking AND hearing the will of God from the cultic center at Bethel (Judges 20:18). What they lacked was a temporal authority to enforce justice. Again, we are fortunate in these days that we have not only law enforcement authorities (though there are certainly problems with unequal application of justice), but we also have services specifically aimed at seeking out the truth in situations of church abuse, such as Boz Tchividjian’s GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).
The choice for Christians is stark: do we plunge headlong into everyone doing what they think is right as the community splits between those who wish to prosecute offenders and those who wish to defend them? Or, do we acknowledge the kingdom of heaven and embrace open, thorough, and external investigations of potentially abusive situations? Let us all choose the difficult, narrow path.