Why Do Churches Cover Up Sin?

Why Do Churches Cover Up Sin?

Over the past few weeks, many questions have been asked about why professional institutions like Michigan State University and the United States Gymnastic Association would cover up Larry Nassar’s crimes.

But these events force another painful question to the surface. Why do churches also do this? Why do Christians cover up similar sin within the church? The same questions can be asked of para-church ministries and institutions, and all of what follows here is applicable to them too.

I’ve seen and heard of multiple occasions on both sides of the Atlantic where good people (and some not so good) have made horrendous decisions about how to handle complaints against individuals within the church. Time and again I’ve found myself utterly perplexed: “Why are they doing this? How can they do that? What is their motivation?”

As I’ve processed this agony and listened to people who have made bad decisions in these situations, I’ve come to realize there is no one reason that explains everybody. Instead there are numerous possible motivations, and often a few are found in the same heart.

I’m going to list the various motivations I’ve discovered over the years with a view to helping Christians in positions of power examine themselves as they make decisions and judgments going forwards. But, before that, a few caveats are in order.

First, this is not about one church or institution. I’m not referring to any particular case.

Second, this is not about recriminations about the past. It’s more about offering help and guidance for the future. It’s a kind of checklist to help men test their motives and therefore make purer decisions.

Third, I’m going to be referring to “men” throughout because, in most church situations, it’s men that are making these decisions.

Fourth, men finding someone not guilty who is actually guilty may be a genuine mistake. It’s part of the pain of earthly justice, that men can make sincerely wrong judgments. When people make misjudgments we disagree with, we should not jump to the conclusion that they are corrupt and they are trying to cover up sin.

Fifth, many (I hope most) churches do the right thing. We only hear of the bad examples and the media only expose the cover-ups (as they should). However, there are many Christians who bravely and courageously stand up against evil and protect the innocent.

Sixth, the need for churches to conduct ecclesiastical investigation into alleged sin does not absolve them of the responsibility to report suspected crimes to the appropriate authorities. In some cases, that is mandated by law. As has been pointed out repeatedly, obedience to the law of the land and respect for civil authority would save churches a lot of grief.

With these caveats in place, why do Christian churches, institutions and ministries cover up sin?

Genuine belief in innocence: I just said that men can be sincerely wrong in their judgments and that we shouldn’t immediately condemn them as corrupt if they find a guilty person not guilty. However, this genuine belief in someone’s innocence can sometimes lead to a refusal to fairly consider evidence or even hear the accusers. That is corrupt and wrong.

Management approach: Some men who have been in positions of leadership for a long time can become pragmatic managers more than principled leaders. Their instinct when faced with serious accusations against someone is to manage the situation, to find a middle way, to take the path of minimal stress, to put peace above principle, to replace truth with accommodation and compromise. “Let’s see if we can come to some arrangement here.”

Gifted offender: Sometimes the accused is a man of great gifts and usefulness in the church or organization. It might seem that to lose him would sink the church or ministry. If an ordinary person were accused of the same thing, the approach would be much swifter and more serious, but charisma skews the judgment. “What a pity it would be to lose such a gifted preacher.”

Personal blessing: Related to the above, many have been blessed through the man’s ministry. Some were converted under him. Others were called to the ministry through him. Still others were brought to see the glory of Christ in a new way. God used him to guide people through dark times. This creates a spiritual and psychological debt and an obstacle to just judgment. “How can he be guilty if he’s been such a blessing to my life?”

Friendship: There can be a false sense of loyalty to someone due to a long and valued relationship with them. “How can I do this to a friend?” Or it may be a fear of losing friends who support the accused. Loyalty to men takes precedence over loyalty to God.

Lack of friendship: While the accused can benefit from the misplaced loyalty of so-called friends, victims can suffer from being unknown to the church or the examining committee. There’s no personal connection, there’s no relationship. Sometimes it’s only a written statement that’s before men looking at the case. Indeed, the accused’s defenders will often go to some lengths to prevent any direct contact with or examination of victims because they fear the power of that encounter. It’s far easier to dismiss the accusations of faceless strangers than the defenses of long-time friends.

Loss of reputation: If this gets out, the media will be all over it and our reputation will be destroyed. Or, perhaps it’s more “local” as people consider the impact on their own families. “What will people think?” or “How could I explain this to my unconverted children?”

Financial loss: Often related to the above. The loss of this person will mean the loss of money, the loss of some in the congregation, the loss of some donors. “We can’t afford to lose him and his supporters.”

Loss of career: I hate to acknowledge this, but sometimes men are afraid to ruin their chances of promotion within churches, or moves to other churches, or conference invites, or publishing contracts, and so on. “If I get involved in this, I’ll never be accepted in the ‘in’ crowd.”

Stalled agenda: Perhaps this person was at the forefront of a particular agenda within the church. It could be a modernizing agenda or a conserving agenda. Or it could be a particular theological or practical emphasis. If he goes down, then that agenda goes down too. “We don’t want to lose the leader of our party.”

Ignorance of effects: It’s very difficult for some men to grasp the long and serious psychological consequences of sex offenses, and that leads them to minimize the offense. “It was just a kiss… What’s in a cuddle?… He didn’t go the whole way… It was a long time ago…” 

“Weak” accuser: Some men target women who are unlikely to be believed, either due to their age, personality, background or circumstances, knowing that they will win any credibility battle. “Are you really going to believe her/them instead of him?”

The accuser’s supporters: Sometimes supporters of victims can be perceived and portrayed as over-zealous and can say and do things that rub establishment types up the wrong way. Sometimes people with their own personal agenda and mixed motives can attach themselves to victims as their “advocates” (as I saw in a couple of cases in Scotland). In both situations, the establishment then closes ranks and the victim is forgotten in the cross-fire. “We’re not going to let that guy/group beat us.”

The judges’ pasts: Men who are in positions of judgment have sinned in similar ways as the accused. They don’t have a clear conscience and therefore cannot deal truthfully with other people’s sins. In one case I know of, the accused had, over the years, counseled many men with various problems. Men had disclosed their deepest secrets to him. Some were terrified that if they found him guilty, he would reveal their own secrets. They used “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone…” as a defense of inaction.

Dug into a hole: Men can dig themselves into such a deep hole by defending the accused to the hilt at the beginning, that they make it very difficult to change their mind when more and more evidence is revealed. “I don’t want to be proved wrong.” But if you’re in a hole, you not only need to stop digging, you need to get out and fill in the hole.

False view of sovereignty: Some men take the theological high ground and say that God is sovereign and God is judge and we should therefore wash our hands of the matter and trust God to act. But they refuse to see that the Sovereign Judge has also called men to judge on his behalf. Once we have taken responsibility and done all we can, then we may eventually have to say, “We have to trust the Lord to put this right.” But we don’t say that up front.

Abusing grace and peace: “Aren’t we all about forgiveness and second chances?” “Shouldn’t we just love one another?” Related to this is also the ”peace” card: “What will the world say if we are just fighting one another and condemning one another.” “Disunity is a bad witness.”

Intimidation: The accused often has very loud and confident advocates acting on their behalf and sometimes the loudest voices silence any opposing voices. “Procedure” can also be used to by adept administrators and bureaucrats to silence or stifle legitimate questions and investigations.

Inexperience: Men who have never dealt with serious accusations like these, or dealt with such deceitful men, have no idea what to look out for. Instead of calling in professionals immediately, they bumble around making lots of amateurish mistakes which they then try to cover and hide as their folly is realized.

Fear of condemning the innocent: This is a genuine and legitimate concern. It’s a huge responsibility to have to come to a judgment of guilt. Some men fear making a mistake here so much that they forget the equally serious error of failing to protect genuine victims.

As I said at the beginning, let’s use this checklist not for past recrimination but for future self-examination, to purify our motives when we’re called to make judgments on serious cases. I know my own deceitful heart and I’ve felt the tug of all these temptations when called to make costly decisions in these areas.

And if you’ve ever succumbed to the pressure, bring your sin to the Savior of sinners, confess it and you will find mercy (1 John 1:9). But then go and sin no more. And, if you can, go and put the wrong right—privately certainly, and publicly if necessary. And do it before you stand accused before the Uncoverer of all secrets and the Judge of all the earth who will do right (Rom. 2:16; Gen. 18:25).

This article originally appeared here.

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David Murray
Dr. David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary. He is also Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. David is the author of Christians get depressed too, How Sermons Work, and Jesus on Every Page. You can read his blog at HeadHeartHand.org/blog or follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray. David is married to Shona and they have five children ranging from 4 months to 17 years old, and they love camping, fishing, boating, and skiing in the Lake Michigan area.

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