I once had an odd experience while staying in Atlanta some years ago. I had run into a man in the hotel where I was staying who said he wanted to go to church with me in the morning. Said he was a regular attender back home in Kansas. I thought, well sure-- sounds fine. He then proceeded to tell me he was in counseling for child porn and for fondling children and was doing better. He was a doctor who had lost his job. At that juncture I had a dilemma on my hands. I didn't think I could decide for the church in question whether he ought to be there or not. I honestly didn't know what to say or do. The next morning I got up and went on to church early , and this man showed up as well. Well, I sat with him. We sang the hymns together, but I have to tell you I was more than a little distracted. I was watching him closely more than I was paying attention to the service. I am still not sure what I should have done, if anything.
In the NY Times this week there is an excellent article about this same subject. Here is the link--
The sign outside the Pilgrim Church of Christ, which is the subject of this article, proclaims that "all are welcome". Does "all" really mean all? This story is about a man who was a convicted sex offender who had molested various children, had given his life to Christ, was now out of prison, and has been attending this church. This has caused a moral dilemma for various of the members-- some saying he should not be there, others saying that of course he should be there since we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Shouldn't all be welcome to come to church as they are, since it is supposed to be a hospital for sick sinners, not a museum for saints?
One of the things of course that makes this such a volatile issues is that the church also reaches out to adult male victims of child molestation. And there are many of these. If we add to these adult women who have been molested by a male family member growing up, the issue becomes even more volatile. What both of these groups have in common is that it is men who have abused them.
One statistic I have seen suggests that over 95% of all molestation is perpetrated by men, and a comparable statistic could be brought out if we were asking about the percentage of rapists who are males. Only a slightly lower percentage would be found if we asked about who's regularly viewing or is addicted to pornography, including child pornography. These issues are overwhelmingly male problems. I already knew this that day in Atlanta which is why, if a woman had come up to me at my hotel and said she was a lesbian and wanted to go to church in the morning, that would not have worried me anywhere near as much in terms of the imminent potential danger for the rest of the unsuspecting folks there.
One of the issues one has to deal with honestly in thinking through this issue is what does conversion or sanctification really accomplish? Does it really snuff out aberrant desires of various sorts, or does it just give the person power to control and stifle them? Can people really be transformed by conversion? In other words, what do we believe the grace of God can really accomplish in the life of person whose sinful inclinations are so deep-rooted? I personally do believe real transformation is possible, and I have met various persons for whom it is so. I also know others who are real Christians but they struggle day by day to keep those inclinations in check.
The other issue is whether knowingly having such a person in one's midst might not ruin the warm fellowship of a church, and replace faith based thinking with fear based approaches to other members of the church. Would you always be looking over your shoulder, especially if you had children who could be victimized?
These are very hard questions. And when a church takes a stand to allow "whosoever will" to come into the church because they believe it is what Jesus would want, then it must be prepared to work through the consequences of such a stance.
In the case in the article, the man was not trying to hide anything. He wanted the help and support of a living body of Christ. Knowledge of his situation and past was made known to the other church members. Some accepted it, some rejected his being there, and left. And still others felt uncertain and ambivalent about it. It can change the ethos of a congregation in a heartbeat. And furthermore, it will reveal the secrets of some hearts. You will discover who is more self-protective, and who is more other-directed.
I do not pretend to have pat answers to these sorts of difficult questions. But this I do know. If I did not believe that God can change people, sometimes even dramatically, I would not be in the ministry at all. At the same time, I also know that change in some people can be painfully slow, and sometimes what change looks like in a particular life is simply the power of restraint of the things that drive one in unhealthy directions. This power comes from the Holy Spirit.
There is a voice that haunts me in all of this. He is saying "Come unto me ALL you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest". Should not this also be the primary posture of the church instead of mainly being self-protective?
God give us wisdom to know how to be compassionate without being naive, loving without condoning sin, caring without giving up accountability and responsibility to the body as a whole.