by Al Maxey

Issue #318 ------- September 23, 2007
The mercy of God does not suspend the
laws of cause and effect. When God forgives
me a sin, He destroys the guilt of sin, but the
effects and the punishment of sin remain.

Thomas Merton {1915-1968}
"No Man Is An Island"

Predators in the Pews
A Critical Challenge Facing The Church:
Allowing Sexual Offenders Among Us

There is no way around it -- this article is going to be very controversial. Some will agree with what I have to say, others will not. Some of you are probably even offended by the title I've selected: Predators in the Pews. Aren't there also predators in the pulpit? Yes, sadly, there are. We live within a fallen world, and that state of fallenness, unfortunately, is far too often witnessed even within the family of God. These are very troubling times; dangerous times. Satan is alive and well. Although his ultimate destruction is certain, yet he exerts great power in this present evil age. His devices are not to be underestimated. Letting down our guard can prove to be fatal, both individually and congregationally.

I am a firm believer in the grace of God. I also affirm the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives. No person, regardless of how vile their former manner of life, should ever be denied the possibility of redemption, if they truly seek it (please read Reflections #554 for a very touching example; it's the account of a child rapist and murderer I immersed into Christ, and at whose execution I was later a participant). Those penitents who genuinely embrace Christ Jesus as Lord, and who are thus embraced by Him, should be equally embraced by each of us. We, as the people of God, are to be "ambassadors of Christ," committed to a "ministry of reconciliation" [2 Cor. 5:18-20]. If the church is failing to function in this fallen world as a redemptive community, we are quite frankly not fulfilling our mission.

Having our arms open to the penitent, however, does not mean that our eyes are closed to the predators. While some former wolves truly seek to become sheep, others seek only to feast upon the flock. Discerning between the two is the challenge before us. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits" [1 John 4:1] is very good advice for any situation. After all, the servants of the Devil often "disguise themselves as servants of righteousness" [2 Cor. 11:15]. Paul warns the elders in Ephesus, "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood, for I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock" [Acts 20:28-29]. We are at war with the forces of evil. Letting down our guard and laying aside our armor will prove to be costly. Inattentiveness on the battlefield is inevitably fatal.

Just about a month ago, on a Wednesday evening (August 29), I received an email from an elder in my neighboring state of Arizona. The very next evening, with his permission, I shared this brother's request with the many readers of these weekly Reflections. This elder wrote, in part -- "Brother Maxey, We are facing the problem of sex offenders wanting to attend our congregation. We want to write a protection policy for the church, which, of course, is something very new to us. I'm asking you if you have some good information on how to go about this, since you have such a wide experience in many things because of your numerous contacts with brethren and churches throughout the world. Maybe even one of your excellent Reflections on this subject would be appropriate sometime. We would like for them to assemble with us, as we think this is what Jesus would want us to do, but we must also protect our children, both boys and girls, and our women. This is a volatile subject, and something that could cause disastrous problems if we don't address this right now. If you have some good advice about this, we would appreciate any help you can give us in order for us to adequately (we hope) face up to this problem."

As expected, I received an outpouring of responses to this special request. I heard from physicians, lawyers, judges, elders, ministers, corrections facility workers, psychologists, and even from several sexual offenders who are seeking to transform their lives. I also heard from a good many victims of sexual predators, and their stories were quite compelling. I was somewhat surprised to discover just how many congregations are currently facing this very same challenge, and the variety of approaches they have adopted in an effort to truly meet the needs of all persons involved shows some responsible, as well as creative, thinking. Those who have, or who are, facing this challenge of known sexual offenders seeking to associate with a Christian congregation are aware that this is not just a spiritual issue, but also a legal issue. Shepherds have an obligation not only to reach out to the lost, and to bring them into the fold, but an obligation to protect the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. This latter responsibility, given the conditions of our present fallen world, can very quickly lead to situations and scenarios where extra-church institutions (such as the legal system) become involved. This is simply one of the realities of the society in which we live, and we ignore or circumvent such societal obligations at our own peril (whether individually or congregationally).

For example, known sexual offenders, depending on the nature of their offense and their place within the "rehabilitative process," may have certain restrictions and limitations placed upon them by the courts. Some of these offenders may very likely be forbidden, for a period of time, from coming within a specified distance of any location where children congregate (schools, day-care centers, public pools, and the like). Although some states exempt churches from this ban, others do not. Therefore, in considering allowing a known sexual offender to assemble with their congregation, leaders would be well-advised to determine in advance the nature of this offender's crime, the limitations and restrictions placed upon him/her by the courts, and the laws of the state, county and city within which they reside. If the law forbids this person from being in close proximity of children, for example, the congregation, in order to be in compliance with this law, must forbid this person from being present at their assemblies. Should the leaders disregard this legal restriction, and should the offender at some point re-offend with a child of one of the members, the church leaders could very quickly find themselves in extremely serious legal difficulties. Such would prove costly on many levels. A reader who is a professional Correctional Counselor with one of our western state's Department of Corrections wrote this wise word of warning: "Anyone who might allow a parolee access to a prohibited 'item' of that parolee's Condition of Parole, that person or persons could be charged with aiding a convicted felon, which is a felony as well." And this would only be the beginning of the legal problems these leaders would face if actual harm came to one of these "items."

Several congregational leaders throughout the nation have, independently of one another, arrived at what they think is a workable solution when faced with sexual offenders who have had various restrictions and limitations placed upon them as conditions of their release and/or parole. They have established special times and places where these prior offenders may interact with certain members of the congregation in a worshipful setting other than the regular assembly times. A few, for example, have formed a "small group" (composed of several members from the local congregation) that is willing to meet on a regular basis with these offenders for the purpose of fellowship, worship, and spiritual edification. In this way, they seek to meet the spiritual needs of the ex-offender, while still complying with the legal restrictions placed upon him or her. In time, when those restrictions are lifted by the courts, and if this person has demonstrated a genuine desire to transform his or her life, they would be welcome to assemble with the congregation at the regular meeting times. A preacher in Texas wrote, "I have become painfully familiar with these legal requirements as I've watched a dear friend wade through these waters. He has been recently released from prison and is not allowed to be in any facility where minors are present. To his church's credit, several of the members rotate coming to his home and conducting a personalized worship experience as he goes through the initial process of clarifying expectations with his parole officer." I commend these brethren for the creative ways in which they have sought to minister to the needs of these individuals, while still seeking to comply with the laws of the land.

Not all known sexual offenders, however, will have such legal restrictions placed upon them. Indeed, some will have none. They may have served the time for their particular offence, and they are now free to reintroduce themselves into society. Yes, they might well be on some public register, thus identifiable to those who live around them, but legally they may be free to come and go at will. This largely depends upon the nature of their crime. As a rule, those convicted of crimes against children will tend to be more closely monitored by society, and their freedoms will be more curtailed than one who may have committed an offence against an adult. Some who are classed "sexual offenders" probably shouldn't even be characterized as such, and yet in our society many different offences are often lumped together under this designation. For example, if a 19 year old male has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend, he may well be prosecuted as a sexual offender. There have been cases where these two have later married, and yet the man still has this characterization hanging over his head. I would certainly not regard him as being at the same "risk level" as one who had been convicted of multiple molestations of children. In other words, the leadership of a congregation should make themselves aware of the nature of the person's crime before determining that person's level of risk to the congregation. It may very well be that the "sexual offender" poses no risk to the flock whatsoever. As an attorney in Tennessee wrote, "This is certainly a difficult issue because there is a wide range of sexual offenders and sexual offences, yet the law tends to lump them all into one pile. The law calls them all apples, but some of them are oranges." Thus, there is no "one size fits all" policy for how to deal with such people who may come your way wishing to attend where you worship.

The greatest challenge here, as I see it, is when a known sexual offender, who has no current legal limitations or restrictions placed upon him or her, and yet whose crime was considered by society to be severe (molesting a child, for example), seeks to associate with a local congregation of believers. Should this individual be accepted or turned away? If the former, should there be actions taken to protect the flock against possible recidivism on the part of this prior offender? If so, what should they be? And, would such precautions be in keeping with the spirit of Christ Jesus? Further, would such actions perhaps open a congregation and its leaders to potential legal action? These are all critical concerns, and they are being faced by an ever increasing number of congregations throughout the land.

Having said this, however, I nevertheless firmly believe that as the people of God we are to be a receptive, accepting, redemptive community. We should turn away no person who is genuinely seeking a relationship with the Lord and His people, regardless of their past. Saul of Tarsus certainly had a past that caused some in the church to doubt his intentions, yet where would the Body of Christ be today if he had been turned away? Even the most reprehensible of men can be transformed by the Spirit of God. Paul wrote, "neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God" [1 Cor. 6:9-11]. There was a case of immorality in the church at Corinth "of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles" [1 Cor. 5:1], and yet there seems to be evidence that this sinner was brought to repentance and the brethren were urged to forgive, comfort and reaffirm their love for him [2 Cor. 2:6-8].

A great many of you wrote and stressed the need to embrace these prior offenders in the love of Jesus Christ. A minister in Pennsylvania wrote, "May we never shun someone because of past sins. We are all recovering sinners. Jesus welcomed sinners, and enables metamorphosis. Thank God for His grace!" A reader in North Carolina phrased it this way: "We are a hospital for the sick, not a country club for the righteous." A preacher in Mississippi stated, "Reaching out to such people is without a doubt what Jesus called us to do, even though it is difficult." In the state of Indiana, a minister writes, "We have had to deal with this situation. We have a couple of people like this attending our church. They have repented and they are striving to walk with the Lord. We allow them to worship with us." A brother in West Virginia said, "We presently have two attending with us. We feel each offender is a person in need of the grace and mercy of our God. They too need a chance for love and acceptance, and if not within the church, then where?" An elder in Missouri stated, "The church is not a place for perfect people, but rather a place for people to become perfected for heaven by the blood of Christ and the mercy and grace of God."

And yet, "where a trust has been violated, caution should be exercised," warns a reader from Tennessee. It is quite difficult to know the heart of another, which is probably why, at least in part, the Lord urged the penitent to "bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance" [Matt. 3:8]. We can't always correctly discern another's intent, but judging between good and bad fruit is somewhat easier, and our Lord states, "You will know them by their fruits" [Matt. 7:20]. Therefore, I don't find it out of keeping with the spirit of Christ to examine such persons to determine if their practice is consistent with their profession. After all, should any of us fear such accountability from our brethren? If our hearts are right, if our intentions and motivations are noble, and if we are genuinely seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ, would we not welcome the loving support of our spiritual siblings? If I am slipping off the "straight and narrow," I want someone to care enough about me to challenge my actions and attitudes. And if my particular sin is a besetting one, then should I not welcome all the more the intervention of those who truly desire my ultimate salvation?

Although all sin is an affront to the holiness of our heavenly Father, the reality is that some sins are more heinous in the sight of men, and from certain sins, frankly, the struggle to be free is exceedingly more difficult. Those persons who struggle with sexual obsessions, especially when this is coupled with predatory tendencies, are just as assuredly afflicted with an addictive personality as those who long daily for that next fix of alcohol, nicotine or heroin. A great many psychologists and psychiatrists will inform you that, based on reputable studies, such people are never truly cured, but merely controlled. One lapse in a moment of weakness and temptation can send them hurtling over the precipice. Recidivism among sexual offenders is extremely high, far greater than that of other crimes. Thus, in my view, we are truly doing these people no real favor by failing to provide them with spiritual supervision. They should never, ever be placed in situations where they'll be subjected to temptations directed toward their specific weakness. For example, if a convicted embezzler is a member of your congregation, it would be foolish to make him the deacon over finance, or to let him count the contribution each week. Yes, he might do a great job and never take a penny. Then again, he might not.

Convicted sexual offenders, especially if their crime was against children, should never, ever be placed in a position to work with the youth of our congregations! This cannot be stressed enough! It would be sheer madness to do so. Certain consequences follow after certain behaviors, and this is a case in point. A minister in Pennsylvania said the leadership of his congregation is clearly aware of their responsibility in this matter: "We will not send any brother or sister into the very thing that was his or her greatest failing or greatest weakness." A preacher in Kentucky writes, "Keeping the children and sex offenders away from each other in private situations is not just protecting the children, but also protecting the sex offenders from possible temptation. I guess what I am trying to say is: a 'protection policy' should be written so that sex offenders also feel protected and cared for." This only makes sense. If you care for someone, and want to see them overcome their besetting sin, you don't place them in situations where their weaknesses may be worked on by Satan. Protect them from themselves, just as you seek to protect those who could potentially end up being their victims if they succumb to their temptations.

The extent of this supervision -- the degree to which these sexual offenders are monitored, and by whom -- varies from congregation to congregation, according to the many emails that I received this past month. Most readers, however, felt that some such oversight was essential. An elder in Texas, who also happens to be a physician, wrote this insightful observation, "Just because someone is penitent and forgiven does not mean they are not still tempted, and we should help them live righteously. That requires some accountability. We must not put them in a situation where they have a weakness to temptation. I know that some will perceive this as unforgiving, but I don't mean it that way. I just see it as prudent behavior. As an elder, I want to protect the flock and minister to the individual, and this sort of reasoning seems to be the best way to do both." I couldn't agree more! A dear reader in California wrote, "Completely forgiven does not automatically translate to completely trustworthy." If these people are truly repentant, then there is no question that they are also truly forgiven. But, brethren, such persons, especially if they are just beginning their journey of spiritual transformation, are highly susceptible to temptation, and you can rest assured Satan will be working on them. Let's not partner with the Devil by placing in their path opportunities to falter and fall. If we do, we are accessories to their failure. Paul declared, "Do not put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother's way" [Rom. 14:13]. Although Paul did not have sexual offenders in mind in this passage, wouldn't this principle nevertheless apply? We must show consideration for the weaknesses of others, and not do anything to cause them to stumble if they are seeking to grow spiritually.

If a prior sexual offender is serious about change, then it seems to me he would appreciate our efforts to shelter him from that which would entice him to relapse into previous destructive behaviors. A deacon in Florida agrees: "If the offenders want to seek redemption then they should be willing to comply not only with our efforts to protect our children, but also to provide them a monitored and helpful place to heal." "So, setting up appropriate boundaries is a must, and they probably need to be very individualized, as each sexual offender has different proclivities," observes a reader in Georgia. "These limitations should not be taken as a lack of forgiveness, while at the same time they must not be imposed with such harshness that they cause more harm than good," states an elder in Missouri. He continues by noting, "Forgiveness and acceptance does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the possibilities and dangers involved in this type of an issue." A preacher in Arkansas wrote, "We currently have a sex offender who attends our congregation. He said that because of the nature of his offence he would not expect to be left alone with our children or to be put into situations where he might be accused of something." A reader in Texas says, "If these past offenders have the right spirit about all of this, they will understand the concerns of parents and be willing to cooperate with the guidelines for the good of all." I really think this is a key factor in whether or not the integration of such a one into the congregation is successful or not. Some concessions are going to have to be made by all concerned. If hearts are right, if love rules supreme, and if the goal is the restoration and redemption of lost and struggling souls, the result will be positive. If either side chooses to be self-serving, however, the results will be disastrous.

Just how much information should be shared about these individuals who have sexual offences in their past? And with whom should it be shared? Should the entire congregation be informed? Is this a matter only for the spiritual leaders? As you might imagine, there is considerable debate over this, and emotions run high (several readers wrote and identified congregations that have actually split over the presence of such prior sex offenders in their midst, and the lack of information supplied to them by the leaders). Frankly, I would strongly advise an eldership to seek legal counsel on this. Informing an entire congregation about someone's past, without that person's consent, might very well raise some serious legal issues. Some readers, on the other hand, feel that no convicted sexual offender is entitled to his or her privacy in this particular area; that the people with whom he or she seeks to associate have a "right" to know of their past. I'm not an attorney, so can't speak to the law or advise them with respect to either side. But, I think it only wise for church leaders to consult with someone who can. It could save them some difficulty down the road.

Concluding Thought

We live in a fallen world, and that fallenness touches us all. Yet, our Lord has called us to be beacons in the darkness, a leavening force in a world in need of being enlivened and lifted up, and salt in a society gone flat and tasteless. This necessitates that we ourselves be transformed by the Spirit of Christ into the very image of Christ. We cannot truly call others to experience that which we have not. This call to come forth from the darkness and experience the grace of God will draw out all manner of men. Some will be genuine seekers of Truth, others will merely be seeking to profit from what they perceive to be a spirit of weakness and gullibility. Therefore, coupled with our purity must be a keen awareness of the nature of the forces we battle each day. Jesus stated, "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves" [Matt. 10:16].

When the fallen come our way, seeking to associate with us and to learn of God's gracious will for their lives, we must not turn them away. We cannot know their hearts, so we must operate initially under the assumption, until proven otherwise, that they are sincere in their desire to transform their lives. Our mission is to help them do so. However, we must ever be alert, for our enemy is a crafty and deceitful foe. Being watchful for the flock is not optional; it is commanded. Blind trust can be fatal. The reality is: there are predators among us; wolves among the lambs. A few genuinely desire to change, and these we must embrace. The majority, however, are there only to feed their bellies. These, when they become evident, must be dealt with decisively. If there is any doubt about one who is in your midst, any doubt at all, watch them like a hawk. It only takes a moment for a wolf to make off with a lamb, and that is too high a price to pay for inattentiveness.

I fervently hope and pray that the thoughts and counsel provided in this issue of Reflections will prove beneficial in helping us each to show the proper spirit toward those who truly desire to change, and that it will alert us to the deadly danger of those among us with less noble intentions. May God bless each of you, individually and congregationally, as you face the challenge of living for Him in this present evil age.

Reflections on CD
Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Order Your Copy Today
Publisher: (301) 695-1707
Reflections on the Holy Spirit
A Published Tract by Al Maxey
Order Copies From:
J. Elbert Peters
1701 Jeannette Circle, NW
Huntsville, Alabama 35816
(256) 859-3186
Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, I have been on a short vacation and just read your article on young children taking the Communion. I am in agreement with those who feel this is something that they should be taught to wait for until after they have been baptized. My real pet peeve, however, is the way we observe the Lord's Supper -- not just toddlers at the table, but us older babies also. We say that it is the central and most important part of our "worship service," but then do everything possible to rush the serving trays up and down the aisles as quickly as possible. Where does our reflection on what the Lord has done for us come in? Why are we always in such a hurry to get this over with? I am firmly convinced that the Lord's Supper should be a slow and thoughtful part of our assembly, with great emphasis on our remembering of the Lord's love and sacrifice. Thanks for letting me rant!

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: