Should Churches Ban Pastors Who Engage in Abuse?
Trauma expert and therapist Dr. Diane Langberg reacts to the results of a recent Lifeway study.
By Laura Finch
According to a new study from Lifeway, most pastors agree: abuse should ban them from ministry. But one expert says the church is far more protective than those numbers would indicate.
When polled, 83 percent of pastors agreed that if a pastor engages in child sexual abuse, they should never return to ministry. Seventy-four percent said the same of sexual assault. Twenty-seven percent said adultery should disqualify a pastor from ministry for life.
Dr. Diane Langberg, who has worked with victims of trauma for nearly 50 years, says her reaction to the study is mixed.
“I’m glad it’s being looked at, that the question is being asked,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.” Two years ago, Lifeway found Protestant churgoers roughly split on whether there was much more child abuse by Protestant pastor left to be exposed. Thirty-two percent said there was much more abuse to be exposed, 37 percent disagreed, and 31 percent didn’t know.
Langberg thinks the 83 percent from this latest survey may be surprisingly high for the public—but most significantly, she points out that the ‘numbers on the ground’ are probably lower than the survey reveals.
Survey respondents often answer surveys—especially those on sensitive topics—in a way that they think will be most presentable to the interviewer. The field of psychology even has a name for this phenomenon: the social desirability bias.
“The church is far more protective of abusers than those numbers would indicate,” Langberg said. Put another way, answering a survey question is not the same thing as triggering a figurative earthquake in one’s church community by reporting abuse.
“Not many people would say they should stay [after abuse],” Langberg points out, but translating it on the ground, in real life, I think there will be a gap. As we know, when these things are exposed, there’s almost always more than one victim and it has gone on for some time. There has been hesitancy to deal with it at all because of all the ‘damage’ to the church that will have.”
There’s another curiosity in this survey: the other 17 percent, who didn’t respond that child sexual abuse should permanently disqualify a pastor from ministry.
CT found U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics stating that for Fiscal Years 2014-2018, 98.8 percent of sexual abuse offenders were sentenced to prison, and their average sentence was almost 16 years.
Yet in the Lifeway study, ten percent of pastors told researchers that if a pastor has engaged in child sexual assault, that person should spend between 2-10 years away from ministry—or even less. (Seven percent did not know how long the pastor should spend away.)
What is going through their heads?
“I would assume… part of what’s going through their head is: ‘we’re sorry it happened, but he’s repented and maybe even cried and we’re called to forgive him,” Langberg said.
That kind of thinking—not just in terms of the abuse, but in terms of scripture—is not being done well in Christendom.
“Not only are you not allowed in a pulpit now, but you’re going to jail,” Langberg said. “Those are the facts. But we dont’ know how to think that through. When it’s someone we know or admire, we end up not removing them because of other factors that we trust more.
That’s cheap, shallow repentance, says Langberg. “It takes layers and layers of deceit in order to preach the word of God on Sundays and have sex with children on Mondays. In that case, saying you repent doesn’t do it, it just allows for more deceit. It exposes things in the church that are not well and not obedient to God and his word.”
For sexual assault of adults, she says, the numbers are different because we don’t understand power.
If you’re the shepherd, they’re one of the sheep. And shepherds who exploit their sheep are called wolves. —Diane Langberg
“Vulnerability in the sheep should be safe with the shepherd,” Langberg said. “If you’re the shepherd, they’re one of the sheep. And shepherds who exploit their sheep are called wolves.”
The book of Titus has a helpful list of qualities for elders in the church. They are to be above reproach. An elder is to be temperate, self-controlled, virtuous, and moral. “What struck me is that in order to be in the pulpit in the first place, those are character statements,” Langberg said.
“If you violate that place (child or adult), and are sexually abusive, you have not only disqualified yourself; but everything in that list is not there. You’re not virtuous. You’re not moral. You’re completely unworthy of that position.
What about the ‘fruit’ of pastors who have abused?
Any work the Holy Spirit may have done in those cases was in spite of us, not through us, Langberg says.
“God is pursuing people, whether we are or not. He invites us to do that with him in ways that reflect his character. But he’s doing it whether we do it or not.”
Kent Annan and Jamie Aten, co-directors of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, interviewed Langberg earlier this year on Power and Abuse in the Church for the Better Samaritan podcast.