A few thoughts about safeguarding6 min read

A couple of days ago, the organisation ThirtyOne:Eight released their review into what happened at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and Jonathan Fletcher (see the report from the Independent Advisory Group for a shorter summary). This follows hard on the heels of the full report about Ravi Zacharias which was only released just over a month ago.

Naturally, people have been talking a lot about these things. How could this happen? How can we ensure it never happens again?

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One of the things which came up with Jonathan Fletcher was “Fletcher Culture”. The problem with both Jonathan Fletcher and Ravi Zacharias was not with them alone but with the culture they created. Unfortunately in the case of Jonathan Fletcher, because his influence was extensive, that culture has managed to extend pretty widely into the conservative evangelical world.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about safeguarding, and I’d like to share a few brief thoughts.

Safeguarding exists because of sin

The first thing is, the reason safeguarding is necessary is because sin exists: if sin didn’t exist, there would be no need for safeguarding.

Sin is a falling away from God’s standards. It is both actively doing what is wrong, as well as failing to do what is right. (This means that most sin falls within the second category – none of us love as we should.) Sin includes abusing power and authority as well as sexual immorality. Sin also includes failing to act when it’s in our power to do something about abuse. In other words, sin includes the specific wrongs done by an abuser as well as the culture which enables it.

Now, of course, the church is made up of sinners. People don’t stop being sinners when they come to Christ! In fact, it’s almost the opposite: when people come to Christ, they realise how deep their sinfulness is. I’ve had several new Christians say to me that they thought they were doing OK before becoming Christians, but now they had only just begun to realise how bad they were.

But – thanks be to God – there is good news!

The solution to sin

There is a remedy for sin! In Jesus Christ, God offers us not only forgiveness of sins – a complete cleansing – but the power of the Holy Spirit. We can bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-24), not by our own strength but as the Holy Spirit works in us.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that sin instantly disappears when we come to Christ. But it does mean that it has lost its power – we have a new master. Over time, as we walk in step with the Spirit, we are transformed day by day into the likeness of Christ.

And because we are a church, we confess our sins to each other, pray for each other, and walk with each other. God doesn’t simply call us to run an individual race, but work together as a team. We encourage and help each other across the finish line, so to speak. In other words, as the Spirit works in our lives, he also creates a Christian community or culture. We grow in holiness not simply as individuals but as a church.

The fundamental point I’m trying to make here is this: if the church is working properly, safeguarding should not be necessary. Safeguarding is something that should not be needed in the church full of people walking in step with the Spirit.

Before anyone says anything – the fact that something shouldn’t be needed doesn’t mean it’s not needed. I’m not arguing here we should abolish all safeguarding officers and safeguarding best practices. That’s not the point I’m making here. Please bear with me…

What about Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher?

I think you have to seriously question whether someone who is living in a pattern of unrepentant sin is actually a Christian. Sin is a powerful thing, and we can’t escape it on our own. But with Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin and help us to change, progress is possible. So, a Christian may have a battle over a sin like pornography, for example – but if the Holy Spirit was at work I would hope (even expect) to see that battle being won as time went by.

I’ve seen a few people making the point over the last few weeks that we’re all sinners: any of us could have done what JF or RZ did. In a sense this is true. All of us are only what we are by the grace of God. At the same time, I think this is also doing a massive disservice to the Holy Spirit. Someone does not become a serial abuser without intent – no genuine repentance, no growth in holiness.

Christians can and do sin in serious ways. There are many examples of Biblical characters who sin in pretty big ways. King David, for example, committed adultery with Bathsheba, but more than that – covered it up by having her husband killed! Having an affair is sadly not unknown for Christians, even Christian leaders. When it happens, repentance and reconciliation is possible but it takes time to heal. But if someone had many affairs, continually, over almost their entire adult life, it’s a different matter. That’s not sinning and repenting – that’s brazen disobedience. That’s the kind of behaviour that Hebrews 10 is talking about:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God … How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Hebrews 10:26-27, 29

And that’s the issue with RZ and JF. They weren’t leaders who had a moral failure. They seemed to actively pursue what was wrong, again and again. They preached the gospel, but I’m not sure whether they really understood and believed the gospel.

And this leads me on to the worst thing of all.

What does it say about the culture?

I would hope that a Christian organisation or network would be the kind of place where safeguarding happened naturally. If people were genuinely walking with the Spirit, in fellowship and prayer, then if someone was a bit ‘off’ I think it would show. It’s possible to preach an orthodox, Biblical sermon without being a believer – but it’s a lot harder to deceive people who know you well.

If the whole church was truly growing in Christ and growing in holiness, than someone who wasn’t would stand out like a sore thumb. Except that… Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher apparently didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. And that’s worrying: if Jonathan and Ravi were not walking in step with the Spirit, what does that say about the culture they were part of? (And the culture I am part of, to an extent?)

What does it say about the conservative evangelical world that Jonathan Fletcher helped to create?

What happened with Jonathan Fletcher and Ravi Zacharias is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems to me that we don’t need more safeguarding (as important as safeguarding is!). We need a much deeper spiritual reformation of the church. This is an issue which is not something which those people over there need to deal with (e.g. Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, or RZIM, or conservative evangelical churches). This is something that we, the church, need to deal with – in our own hearts and in our own churches.

A new reformation

Mike Ovey, late principal of the college where I trained for ordination, used to say that he was hoping and prayer for a new reformation. I’m more convinced by the day that he was right. We need nothing less in the church. I’ve talked about this a few times on the blog before (e.g. my previous post on Ravi Zacharias).

We need to get on our knees and earnestly seek the Lord in prayer to renew and reform us.

4 thoughts on “A few thoughts about safeguarding

  1. ” If people were genuinely walking with the Spirit, in fellowship and prayer, then if someone was a bit ‘off’ I think it would show.”

    I’m not entirely sure that this is necessarily the case, I think scripture supports the notion that it can often be difficult to separate the wheat from the tares in this way.

    Of course the report should prompt prayerful reflection, and perhaps the fact that the majority of the leaders in groups like ReneW either knew Jonathan Fletcher well or owed their position to him should give us pause about the kind of legacy he may have left behind. In this context, that the report speaks about “fear of others still in positions of authority”, doesn’t really bode well.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. I was thinking about this last night, whether it’s really true that people should have realised about JF and RZ. I do take the point that the wheat and tares grow together. Although in context Jesus is talking about the world – Christians and non-Christians together.

      Jesus said that we should be able to identify true and false prophets and disciples (Matthew 7:15-23) by their fruits. I can’t believe that JF and RZ could be doing the kind of things they did while bearing good fruit in the rest of their lives.

      Both JF and RZ were in positions of responsibility – they should have been held to a higher standard. James 3:1 “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” They should have been examples of godly living.

      We are called to identify and separate from false teachers and false teaching. The New Testament seems to assume that they will be identifiable. We also have the help of the Holy Spirit, and one of the things I find most disturbing about the responses is where the Spirit has been in all this. The Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Someone may pull the wool over our eyes, for a time at least, but never over the Spirit’s eyes.

      I agree with your comments about fear – yes lots to reflect on.

      1. You are right that the context for that parable is the world, but the secondary implication is that we are often very bad at telling believers from non-believers, at least at the outset ..

        .. so we should therefore be able to look at the fruit and make a judgement. Just considering the Jonathan Fletcher case for a moment; I’ve seen plenty of people stress his founding of Proctrust, the EMA conferences, the church plants by ECW, the many ministers he trained and in many cases placed in the various large con-evo churches. The implication that those around him couldn’t see the truth about him is a very worrying one given that these are the people who run write our books, run our training colleges and lead our larger churches.

        There’s a interview on youtube with someone who was his curate for many years; for the first 20 minutes he touches on a variety of subjects including his conviction that the churches treatment of same-sex attraction is ultimately a ‘gospel matter’. In the latter part of the same interview he is asked about Jonathan Fletcher, where-upon he talks about requests for naked massages in terms that positions them as a regrettable eccentricity. The cognitive dissonance demonstrated is massive.

        1. Thanks Chris, I haven’t seen that interview so I will look it up. This is why I think we need a cultural change, because fruit in terms of gospel ministry is not the only kind of fruit – Matthew 7:22. I wonder if part of the problem is that we tend not to consider first the fruit of the Spirit but instead look for other achievements.

          In addition,

          (1) the conservative evangelical world often likes to think of itself as being more “Biblical”. No-one comes out and says it, but I think there is often an unspoken attitude that Con Evos are the Biblical ones. John 9:41 springs to mind.

          (2) Many of JF’s associates were people in gospel ministry. They were not new Christians or people who were inexperienced. I think we should have higher expectations of those in church leadership, those who are more mature Christians (hopefully), to be able to spot wolves.

          That said, I’m not trying to say I would have done a better job, or casting blame on any particular individuals. I think there is a general cultural problem, and I don’t think it’s something which more safeguarding will address – we need a real work of the Holy Spirit in us *all*.

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