What Did Evangelicals Know and When Did They Know It?

What Did Evangelicals Know and When Did They Know It? March 15, 2019

The National Association of Evangelicals, one of the major institutional outlets for white Protestants who coalesced around the ministry and institutions associated with Billy Graham, has issues a call addressed to the increasing awareness of sexual abuse in Christian circles. A Call to Sexual Purity and Child Protection has three sections, a code of ethics for pastors, another for congregations, and one more for church leadership. Here is a sample of the call’s instructions for pastors:

Avoid sinful sexual behavior and inappropriate involvement. Resist temptation: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3a);

Identify a minister/counselor who can provide personal counseling and advice when needed;

Develop an awareness of personal needs and vulnerabilities;

Avoid taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of others through exploitation or manipulation; and

Address the misconduct of another clergy member directly or, if necessary, through appropriate persons to whom that member of the clergy may be accountable.

What is striking about a statement like this is that it has little instruction on ethics and mild advice about procedures for handling accusations of abuse. One could possibly argue that this is the case because all the people and communions that belong to the NAE already condemn sexual abuse because they believe the Bible and are committed to heeding its teachings. At the same time, statements like this raise the question of whether churches actually need to respond to scandals in the headlines. Was anyone seriously wondering if Southern Baptists actually approved of sexual abuse? Of course, it happens in churches that believe the Bible. But hypocrisy requires that you actually affirm the virtue you are transgressing — otherwise, why the need to act like you are virtuous?

A question related to the one above is what sort of weight such a statement carries with people, congregations, or denominations that belong to the NAE. If for instance, cases of sexual abuse came up in the Presbyterian Church of America, would the NAE threaten to withhold membership in the organization from the PCA? Or if someone abused by a pastor in the PCA takes his concerns to the governing bodies of the denomination, and if the PCA fails to give the abused person justice, could the NAE apply discipline to the pastor, congregation or presbytery in the PCA?

I doubt it. Most Protestant interdenominational organizations are high on uplift and aspiration, very low on actual authority.

For what it’s worth, the NAE has a record of issuing statements about matters that have risen in public awareness. In 2015, the NAE produced “Call to Action on Creation Care.” Much earlier, in 1991 the Association issued a Resolution on racism that called evangelicals to greater cooperation with African-American churches. Two years ago, the NAE issued a condemnation of white supremacy.

If evangelical support for President Trump is any indication, the NAE’s statements on race did not move the needle much among those would-be members of the Association. On both race and climate change, the NAE’s stands do not seem to have made a significant difference.

Would it be possible to produce a resolution against issuing calls?

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