Welcoming a Pariah?

Friday, August 29th 2014
Sep/Oct 2014

I had seen the man before, but I could not remember where. Mr. Smith (not his real name) was middle-aged, pleasant enough, and looked like he had something important to tell me. We stepped aside to avoid the crowd coming out of the church sanctuary after our Sunday morning service. He introduced himself and reminded me that he had visited our Friday night catechism class a while back. Then I remembered him. He hesitated a bit’now looking rather sheepish’and added, "I am a Megan's Law offender." I knew that Megan's Law had something to do with a registry of criminal sex offenders (specifically, sexual crimes against children), but not much more.

Pastors are busy on Sunday, and most do not have time to conduct the kind of extensive interview this initial encounter indicated would be necessary. Since I had another service to lead, I found an elder, told him about our visitor, and exhorted him to make sure that Mr. Smith was not left unattended. I really did not know how to respond beyond this, only that I knew this man was not to be left alone with so many church children running around the campus.

After meeting with Mr. Smith later, two things were crystal clear: (1) there was no doubt in my mind that Mr. Smith was a professing Reformed Christian, and (2) he had committed a series of criminal sexual acts upon an underage female family member. He recounted how, when his crime was discovered, he was arrested at work, given a public defender, tried in a California court, and then found guilty of multiple counts of the same sexual offence. He then did his time in the California state prison system’ten years.

Mr. Smith lost his high-paying career. He lost his family (including his wife and biological children). He would forever be identified as a sexual predator, whose life and movements would be circumscribed by the myriad of state, county, and local ordinances that regulate the daily conduct of such individuals’where they can live, where they can go, and with whom they can associate. Mr. Smith had served his time, and although now out of state prison (and on parole), he was still living with the consequences.

While incarcerated, Mr. Smith came to faith in Jesus Christ. The chaplain who led him to faith just happened to be one of the few Reformed and Presbyterian chaplains in the state prison system. Mr. Smith spent several years learning his Bible, he read the standard Reformed theology texts, and he certainly knew the confession and catechism. Once released from prison, he gravitated back to his hometown and began attending a local Pentecostal outreach, which had a ministry to Megan's Law and other criminal offenders. Although Mr. Smith truly appreciated this church's willingness to embrace him and his parole conditions, he explained to me, "I am Reformed. I cannot bring myself to participate in Pentecostal worship any more. Can I worship at your church?" Such a request demands serious consideration.

The elders of our congregation wrestled with his request. We say, and we advertise, that "sinners" are welcome here. Are they? Really? Are repentant sex-offenders welcome too? We do not let people like this loose in our neighborhoods, so why allow them in church? What about keeping our children safe? We knew we needed to know more.

We talked to Mr. Smith's prison chaplain and to his parole officer (both gave us exemplary reports). We talked with several other Reformed and Presbyterian churches dealing with the same issue. We talked with attorneys and insurance carriers. We heard from worried parents, as well as from women who had been the victims of sexual abuse earlier in their lives, who explained how this man's very presence in our church triggered years of repressed memories and fears. We held congregational meetings, requiring Mr. Smith to be present, and take questions directly from concerned church members (with due discretion because of the graphic nature of his crimes). We walked through our church facilities, considering where best to seat Mr. Smith. We did everything we could think to do.

One thing was apparent as a result of our investigation: There was a huge tension between extending hospitality to this Christian brother and protecting our covenant children from a possible predator. How do we welcome Mr. Smith into our midst as a brother in Christ, and yet still manage to protect our congregation from anything he might do? This dilemma required a clear and definitive resolution before Mr. Smith was allowed to set foot on church grounds again.

There was no question that Mr. Smith was a justified sinner, struggling with his own sins and lusts (his personal sanctification), and truly grieving over the life he lost and the damage he had caused to his victim. A Christian? Yes. Still struggling with lust toward children? No, he claimed. Only the Lord truly knew what was in his heart, but we could not naively take his word that such lust was not still there, nor could we let down our guard. If we were going to welcome this man into our church and to the Lord's Table, then there must also be no question that our own covenant children must be (and must feel) protected from any possibility of harm to them from a Megan's Law offender whom we invited into our midst.

To make a long story short, the arrangement we eventually hammered out enabled Mr. Smith to worship with us and enjoy fellowship with those who wished to do so. Mr. Smith was chaperoned at all times, he was greatly restricted in his movements on our campus, and he was not visible to those in the congregation who did not wish to see him. The church produced a Megan's Law policy, which is posted on our church website, and has been recommended by at least one church insurance broker as an approach churches may wish to consider.

I have advanced far in my thinking about these issues since the day Mr. Smith first approached me asking to worship with us. Extending hospitality to a pariah (duly noting the potential danger that goes with doing so) requires a plan of action to be in place before a situation such as this arises. When first approached, I had no idea what to do, and although I correctly insisted that Mr. Smith be chaperoned, I allowed him access to the entire campus’something which, in retrospect, I should not have done. Churches should formulate a plan well in advance before a Megan's Law offender shows up unannounced, because they will.

Megan's Law offenders are everywhere. I suggest taking a look through your local Megan's Law registry and you may be surprised to find them nearby your home and church. Sex offenders usually look quite normal (yes, there are a few creepy stereotyped individuals out there), and many of them are professing Christians. With the growing number of arrests (due to improved reporting) and the public awareness of who these people are, it is only a matter of time before you encounter this issue in your church. Far better to prepare in advance than to be caught flat-footed as I was. If you are a pastor, be ready. Have steps in mind, should you be approached. Elders, make sure you formulate a plan for your church regarding the protection of the church's children from predators. Consider reading Voyle Glover's Protecting Your Church Against Sexual Predators: Legal FAQs for Church Leaders (Kregel, 2005). This will save everyone much grief.

I believe the kind of crime Mr. Smith committed is absolutely reprehensible. But I had no idea his very presence would produce such a negative reaction, because as Christians we are supposed to welcome repentant sinners. We have all heard dramatic testimonies and conversion stories. We welcome repentant thieves, adulterers, drunk drivers, recovering alcoholics, and drug addicts every Sunday. But what Mr. Smith had done was so much different. As one of our church members put it, "If Mr. Smith had killed someone and repented, no one would mind having him here. But his crimes were such that you never know if he's leering at your children." There is something about this crime that offends us on a deep emotional level, even if we understand how someone could be forgiven for doing such a thing. The victim is damaged at a profound psychological level, while the perpetrator is branded a sexual deviant for life.

No doubt, the shed blood and perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, imputed to us through faith, reckons us as sinless as the Savior. Mr. Smith professed this, and his conduct was exemplary while with us. I believe his remorse was genuine, and that he had made great progress in the Christian life. But he was still a Megan's Law offender, who could not make eye contact with children, speak to them, or be alone with them. The requirements of his parole made it hard to hide who he was and what he had done. He wanted to be with us every Lord's Day for all the right reasons, and indeed should have been with us, so long as the church and the offender were placed in a position where any additional offences would be as impossible as it was humanly possible to make them.

A church can recognize a profession of faith as genuine, and yet still acknowledge the difficulties a sexual offender faces in his own process of sanctification. Studies indicate that the greater the taboo associated with the sexual offence (biologically related, same sex, prepubescent), the greater the likelihood of reoffending. Those farther from taboo tend to reoffend far less often (unrelated, opposite sex, post-puberty). Each Megan's Law offender has his own proclivities, temptations, and struggles, just like the rest of us. Scripture indicates that the Christian sexual offender's best weapon in dealing with such temptation is the regular preaching of law and gospel, signed and sealed through the sacraments. These folks desperately need the fellowship and accountability of a local church. They need the prayers of God's people, and they need Christian friends who will accept them where they are. At the same time, the church must protect itself from such people. And that is the rub, isn't it?

While my focus in this article is upon preparing for someone like Mr. Smith to announce themselves publicly, churches should be well aware that there are very likely victims of sexual abuse (as well as other forms of abuse) already present within the congregation. Many of these folks suffer in silence, while in other cases, their pastors, elders, and brothers and sisters in Christ know of their circumstances and are doing their best to help. Churches must be able to deal with these victims as well, and a book such as Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb (Crossway, 2011) offers valuable insight into this difficult element of life for many.

One more thing for which churches must be prepared is the numerical losses it will face for even attempting to allow a Megan's Law offender into public worship. Statistics show that a church that welcomes a registered sex offender can lose up to 20 percent of its members. A few leave for purely judgmental, self-righteous reasons. Others are worried about the safety of their children and feel it best to finder a safer environment. It's hard to blame them, although that response is naive, as the most dangerous sexual predator is the one who hasn't been caught yet. There are still others who, as victims of sexual abuse themselves, find that even being in the presence of a pariah triggers all kinds of emotions and involuntary responses such as panic attacks. These responses remind us of how much serious damage is done when sexual abuse occurs, and that extending hospitality to a pariah has consequences for the church that accepts them, consequences that go well beyond the original crime. Although a Megan's Law offender stands forgiven before Christ, they very much remain a societal outcast from whom our children must be protected.

Every church will need to wrestle with this challenging conundrum and consider how to welcome a forgiven pariah into its midst, to treat them as a Christian brother or sister while doing everything humanly possible to protect the church's youth from any possibility of harm. This is a terribly difficult thing to do. There is a price to be paid. But it can be done and it should be.

As a brief postscript, Mr. Smith has since moved out of state, has begun a new life, and attends a solid Reformed/Presbyterian church. We are thankful to have had such a Christian in our midst, and we praise God that none of the church's precious youth were ever in any danger. May God grant us wisdom and grace when the next Megan's Law offender shows up on a Sunday morning. It is a matter of when, not if.

Friday, August 29th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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