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A recent blog on this site by Dan LaValla provides an excellent reminder that forgiveness should not be conflated with reconciliation (or that the first must necessarily lead to the second).  He reminds us true repentance requires fruit of change beyond words and tears. This got me thinking again about the complex issues when a released sex offender desires to rejoin a church community.  What should a church do if they have a member with a history of sexual violence towards others?

Two Common Responses

Most people answer the last question in one of two ways.  Either, “Yes, the church is for all sinners. This person paid their dues to society in prison and now we need to treat him as if it never happened,” or, “Over my dead body! Once an offender always an offender.”

Some Initial Steps

In order to avoid a church split, the church with the opportunity to minister to both victims and sex offenders ought to follow some simple (not easy!) steps:

  1. Start talking. The community needs to have time to consider several topics that will likely make them uncomfortable: the nature of abuse, impact on victims, protection of the vulnerable as central theme of the Gospel, the differences between forgiveness, restitution, restoration to the body, reconciliation, and true repentance, etc.
  2. Learn from others. Listen to those who work with sex offenders. Listen to other churches that have had the privilege of ministering to offenders. Listen to the concerns of victims of other abuses. Don’t assume you have all the knowledge you need to minister well.
  3. Write policies. While policies won’t eliminate all problems they can give leadership and laity guidance when addressing how to minister to sex offenders. What safety protocols will the church use when an offender is in the congregation? How will the church minister to victims of abuse, offenders, family of offenders?
  4. Assessment of repentance. Every church must undertake the difficult and ongoing task of assessing repentance in those offenders seeking to be restored to the church. Time, words, and tears will not, by themselves, prove repentance. In the absence of a sure-fire test, start by asking if the offender demands his/her rights to be a part of the church body. Demanding one’s rights does comport with acceptance of natural consequences for sexual sin. Demandingness often reveals a mindset of inordinate self trust rather than submission to the wisdom of others. Further, a demanding attitude rarely concerns itself with the needs of victims nor displays sacrificial efforts to restore.
  5. Bring the church to the offender. The first 4 points take much time. But, nothing stops a church from providing immediate ministry to sex offenders. Gather a group of willing church members who want to serve the offender and his/her family. The group can meet at church if empty or at someone’s house. Provide fellowship, worship, communion, baptism, etc. Voila, you have church. It may not function with the whole community, but all the ingredients of a community of believers would be present.

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychology and Director of the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates. He blogs regularly at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/phillip-monroe

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