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Serving the truth in scandal

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 6 Feb 2017

Lee Gatiss looks at two ways in which truth and justice are not well served in times of scandal, such as the current controversy surrounding John Smyth and the Iwerne Trust.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)

These verses are important because they encourage us to live in the light of the truth because anything less will hinder our fellowship with one another and with God. And they remind us that only the blood of Jesus can purify us from sin: he is the inexhaustible fountain of purity and sanctification, and all we need.

Truth and light are important in times when scandal hits the church. When there are allegations of abuse, such as the current ones to do with John Smyth and others, it’s really important for survivors to feel safe coming forward so the truth can then be properly weighed and established.

Truth is not well served, however, if:

a) the whole thing is politicised so that the victims’ stories are co-opted for someone else’s agenda.

For example, claiming that evangelical theology leads to violence or justifies it, as some have done, is demonstrable nonsense. But just think how damaging this suggestion is for victims. If there are further witnesses or survivors out there yet to come forward who are evangelicals themselves, then gleefully making this spurious claim for the sake of cheap political points simply hinders the cause of truth and justice. It makes evangelical victims less likely to speak up.

Likewise, trying to twist it all to somehow undermine the traditional doctrine of sex and marriage and those who hold to that — because alleged perpetrators held that view — does not encourage victims who also hold that view to say what happened to them. Making hay for your own cause out of someone else’s suffering is in no way commendable. Again, it simply makes victims more likely to bottle things up, if they think that by telling the truth they will give succour to a cause they disagree with.

Rather, there is a need for both restraint and compassion, as we hear allegations of abuse and pray for those who have suffered. That should be our first thought, our second, and our third.

b) evidence is shoved under the carpet in a mistaken belief that it might bring the gospel into disrepute.

Neither is truth or justice served by attempting to keep things (and people) as quiet as possible in the hope that it will all go away. We must walk in the light, and (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) neither dissemble nor cloak such sins. People love darkness because their deeds are evil (John 3:19), and too often we are tempted to keep hidden things which are better off exposed to the light and dealt with.

It’s especially important here to say that the Lord God Almighty doesn’t need that kind of defence. It’s common for abuses to be hushed up by means of an appeal to the positive attributes of an alleged perpetrator and their usefulness to “the cause”, whatever that may be. We see that in political scandals when politicians or activists do reprehensible things but are not called out or stopped for many years because groupthink takes over and says “we mustn’t lose this person, despite their transgressions, because it would damage our cause.”

We also saw this in the crises which engulfed the Roman Catholic Church over paedophilia amongst priests. Evidence was buried and abusers simply moved elsewhere (often to offend again). The abusers were too long protected by people on the inside saying, “Trust the hierarchy to deal with it; don’t stir things up or you’ll harm the church and all the good work we’re doing.”

This is a form of collusion. It comes out of and breeds precisely the sort of culture that identifies the gospel itself, or God, with “our institution” (insert the name of whatever individual, church, or parachurch organisation you like). Which elevates that ministry and its leaders to an almost untouchable status because “God’s work must be defended.” It doesn’t always go spectacularly wrong; but it certainly can and often does. People drawing attention to wrongdoing can be made to feel as ungodly as the perpetrators, and accused of “distracting people from the gospel.”

The gospel is not served by cover ups, and those who suffer abuse (or know about it) in Christian circles will too often keep quiet because they don’t want to be seen as “undermining God’s work,” or ostracised by others for daring to talk about it. Others try to close down conversations or control the reporting of such incidents for the same reasons, often putting pressure on reporters or even just people who post on social media.

But Jesus said “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). And so we walk in the light as forgiven sinners, with no need to pretend we are better than we are. That is how we serve the truth.

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.

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