Six ways to help prevent abuse from flourishing

Given recent posts, it seemed worth briefly outlining some of the ways we can work to prevent a culture of abuse from forming. None of these things are a silver bullet and without godly people involved, they are no guarantee of protection. But here are some ways we can try to limit the reach of those who would use power and authority to intimidate, bully and abuse others.

Biblical polity

I don’t pretend polity solves everything, but there are certain things that a credible polity (for my money, congregational polity) will make much harder. Unfortunately, far too many either encourage the ‘benign dictatorship’ model as their long term approach or they just don’t bother thinking about the implications of their structures until problems boil over. Only, at that point, it’s all too late. Proper structures mean that power cannot be held without accountability.

Co-equal, plural eldership

To the same end, having a genuinely plural, co-equal eldership is also vital. I don’t mean merely having more than one elder. I mean have genuinely co-equal elders. Elders who can outvote the pastor. Elders who can bring ideas that will actually get actioned that haven’t just come from the pastor. Elders who can say ‘no’ to the pastor. Elders who are not all ‘yes men’ or blokes 20 years younger the the pastor who have been appointed because they will only ever rubber stamp what he says. Make sure you have a genuinely co-equal, plural eldership so that one man does not hold all the power.

Have robust policies and procedures

Many of us simply don’t have robust policies and procedures in place until such time as something goes wrong. For issues of personal, private sin the Lord has given us some measures. We should make sure that we write Matthew 18:15-20 into our constitutions and handbooks and whatever else you use as a minimum. But we should also have clear policies on what we will do should people commit sin that is public. Equally, what will we do if somebody accuses another person of something illegal. Minimally, that must go to the police, but how do we treat that person whilst investigations are ongoing. We need to make sure that we have an actual procedure.

Be transparent

Many problems linger on for much longer than they ought simply because there has been a lack of transparency. Likewise, systems are ultimately only any good when people see that they are fit for purpose. When problems arise and they are hushed up, or dealt with privately, people cannot see that the procedures are working. What is more, it gives wrongdoers the opportunity to spread their own propaganda whilst those who want to respect the process choose not to spread their version through the rumour mill, which makes issues that much worse. Transparency is vital (amongst the church members) if we are to see the issues for what they are and if the systems and processes are to be trusted. Justice must be seen to be done.

Enact proper church discipline

When we call something out as sinful and wrong, we need to make sure there are actual consequences. Simply saying it, but doing nothing about it, does not engender any confidence in the process. We must ensure that those who engage in unrepentant sin are dealt with accordingly.

Don’t mistake ‘sorry’ or tears for repentance

The goal in all of this ought to be to bring a sinner back to repentance and to restore them to proper fellowship (where we are able). But often, churches are far too quick to judge somebody repentant. Typically, someone turns on the waterworks or utters the word sorry, and they are immediately pronounced repentant and welcomed back. That is neither right nor just.

True repentance will be seen, not merely said. We have to have a proper understanding of what repentance and reconciliation will look like in practice. This will mean the miscreant potentially stepping back from things for a time so that evidence of repentance can be seen. It may mean waiting to see them inconvenience themselves so as to make sure that the sin won’t happen again. We need to make sure that we don’t cheapen grace by simply waving in every person who utters the word ‘sorry’ or who cries at the consequences of their sin. We want to see genuine repentance before we can restore the wayward brother or sister.

As I say, I don’t pretend any of these things are silver bullets. Abusers may still find ways to buck your systems and processes. But we must make sure that we have some processes and systems that are actually capable to achieving anything at all otherwise we are failing to properly protect the flock that the Lord has given us to shepherd.