I felt sadness recently as I read an Associated Press article about clergy sexual abuse by Catholic church leaders in Guam. Abusers inflicted so much damage for so long. The trail of tragedy meandered back into the 1950s. Several victims' stories repeated the refrain, "I never went back to the church again."
Sexual abuse is only one affliction that ravages churches. The list includes many other sins, too. Paul warned his protégé, Timothy, that evil men and imposters would increase and advance. Whether Paul meant that their numbers would increase or that their impact would become more devastating, the result is the same: damage and pain.
Churches are vulnerable to charlatans and imposters. Congregations sometimes appear weak against the wiles of evil men. Some of the things that make a church glorious also make it susceptible to manipulation and exploitation.
Church members trust church leaders. They should. Scripture instructs believers to honor, respect and even protect their spiritual leaders. That culture of trust fosters a hesitancy to accept accusations against such leaders or scrutinize them. That hesitance attracts charlatans. If they wear the right camouflage, they can rise to leadership and exploit people and opportunities with few consequences. The inherent trust church members place in leaders partially insulates charlatans.
Church members also tend to think positively about other people and situations. That tendency radiates from the Christian emphasis on joy and kindness. After all, the Bible does instruct believers to encourage others. At times, congregational positivity minimizes problems. Churches can also mingle positivity with avoidance - a dangerous combination. Swindlers can take advantage of such optimism.
Additionally, Scripture cultivates a redemptive mindset. It teaches believers to pursue and to restore sinners. Saints live with the tension that, while some sins are more heinous and destructive than others, no sin exceeds God's power to forgive and transform. That tension may offer wicked men an inappropriate and unfortunate haven.
Believers also extend patience and tolerance to sinners. Church culture urges caution about accusations and unkindness. Christians must first "remove the plank from their own eye" before pointing out another person's sin. Sinful leaders can prey upon and manipulate that kindness and patience.
Christian endurance and self-sacrifice can also create vulnerability. Some saints believe that enduring wrongdoing against themselves or others - without responding - is virtuous. While Scripture does embrace endurance, sacrifice and suffering, it does so without compromising on personal holiness. Jesus, the Old Testament prophets, Paul and other biblical personalities take bold public stands against sin - even occasionally naming sinners to protect others from harm or deceit.
Of course, churches should not distrust their leaders; swap joy for suspicion; withhold grace, mercy and forgiveness; or elevate intolerance and become selfish and impatient. But, they must unapologetically practice diligence, discernment and prudence.
As long as the temptations of wealth, pleasure, power and possessions continue, churches face a challenge. They must maintain Christian graces while also exercising prudence and watchfulness. The Church must heed Jesus' caution, "Look, I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). The Church can shed neither its innocence nor its responsibility.
The Church is not more vulnerable today than it has been in the past. Facing that reality, the Church must renew its ability to maintain both shrewdness and innocence, to remain both strong and gentle. Though vulnerable, the Church is eternally strong and powerful, too.