I’ve been thinking a lot about safeguarding recently. If you’re involved in church circles it’s difficult to avoid – not least because church leaders being investigated for safeguarding is becoming a depressingly regular occurrence. The latest leader to fall is Mike Pilavachi, who is the co-founder of Soul Survivor.
Commentators keep telling us we need to have better safeguarding to protect against these things, and I’ve seen many Christian leaders and organisations vow to improve their safeguarding. Few people, however, are asking the question: is there a DEEPER issue in the church? Is there a reason why we keep having these safeguarding failures in the first place?
I want to argue that we will never solve the safeguarding problem until we actually grasp the fullness of the Biblical gospel. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that safeguarding is actually preventing us from having a safer church. The more I think about it the more I realise that safeguarding is simply adding to the problem.
Let me explain. There are two broad headings – firstly, why the gospel in itself is sufficient for safeguarding; secondly, why safeguarding is problematic.
A quick disclaimer
Before I dive into my problems with safeguarding, let me say that my crosshairs are aimed at the way the church – and especially the Church of England – practices safeguarding at the moment. I think safeguarding has some value, especially in secular institutions. In fact, I’ve seen safeguarding work quite well in institutions such as schools, where it is in place to protect children. Safeguarding procedures have a place when they are sensibly used and implemented.
My problem is with the way we do safeguarding in the church, and specifically the way that it’s practised by the Church of England (although I expect there will be similarities across denominations). The church is not a secular institution and should do things differently.
Why the gospel in itself is sufficient for safeguarding
The gospel is the remedy for sin
I can understand why safeguarding is such a big issue at the moment. I can think of several recent, high-profile examples involving church leaders without even trying: John Smyth, Jonathan Fletcher, Ravi Zacharias, and now Mike Pilavachi. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of church leaders who have been able commit abuse and not be held accountable for it. Sometimes their actions have been covered up, they’ve moved on quietly and never been reported to the police.
It turns my stomach that people who have committed horrible abuse could have just been allowed to continue without any punishment. At the same time, no-one seems to be asking how these things could have been prevented in the first place. Christians, more than anyone, should recognise the power of sin. As Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). However, Christians should also experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to help us obey the Lord. “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
Jesus was very clear that the way to deal with sin in our lives is not to impose more rules upon ourselves, as the Pharisees did, but to repent of our sins and turn to him and the power of the Holy Spirit. (In fact, this is basically what my book Confused by Grace is about – I had to get a plug in somewhere!). The way we deal with sin, according to the New Testament, is to repent of our sins and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do that which we cannot do in our own strength. If we rely on our own strength, we’re dead in the water – but if we walk with God and trust in him, he will transform us and change us. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned about safeguarding: the best way the church has to prevent problems is by ensuring that everyone is walking daily with the Lord. That goes double for anyone in church leadership.
Healthy people do healthy things
Should we expect Christians – especially Christian leaders – to be doing what is right? Look at what Jesus had to say about false teachers:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.Matthew 7:15-20
Jesus said that the way we can identify false teachers is by their fruit. What does he mean? I’m sure the “fruit” is not people being converted. I hear that Jordan Peterson has actually led some people to faith – even though he isn’t a Christian (or at least, wasn’t – I’m not quite sure where he stands now). If even a non-Christian can, in some sense, lead people to Christ, it’s clearly not a good measure of spiritual health.
It seems most likely to me that the fruit Jesus is referring to is actually the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul defines as: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Note that ‘fruit’ is singular: love is the fruit, and the rest of the list are aspects of love. Any true Christian, who walks by the Spirit, should be bearing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Not fruit in terms of ministry accomplishments or number of people converted, but in terms of a godly and mature character.
Going back to what Jesus said, if a Christian leader shows signs that they are not bearing fruit of the Spirit then that should be a grave concern. It shows that they might, in fact, be a “ferocious wolf”. Christian leaders are sinners just like everybody else, of course, but in general a mature Christian should be growing in love rather than abusing people. If a sinful pattern of behaviour is not changing and – more than that – goes on over many years, this is a big warning sign that they are not close to God.
What I am driving at here is that the gospel should be a greater safeguard against wrongdoing than safeguarding procedures. If someone is spiritually healthy, they should be bearing the fruit of the Spirit and not committing abuse. In short, the most effective form of safeguarding by far is seeking to ensure that everyone is mature in Christ.
The seriousness of sin
Another mark of spiritual maturity is an understanding of how egregious sin is. For one of my Understand the Bible videos the other day, I quoted this passage:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
Paul says, “no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister”. That’s what we want, isn’t it? He then goes on to say: “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins”. God hates sin, especially the kind of sin which does “take advantage” of others, those who are perhaps weaker or more vulnerable. Christian leadership should be servant leadership, not the kind of leadership which abuses the position to fulfil one’s own sinful desires.
If someone in church leadership is taking advantage of others, that is a big deal. A church leadership team who really believed this should deal effectively and decisively when it came to sin. They wouldn’t cover it up or excuse someone’s actions. Especially not if there was a pattern of problematic behaviour, as there was when it came to Jonathan Fletcher and (it seems) Mike Pilavachi.
If the church really believed the gospel in all its fullness, there would be no need for safeguarding. I cannot stress this enough. I’m not saying that any church could be without sin – we will never be sinless this side of the Lord’s return. I am saying, however, that if Christian leaders were godly and mature, if there were healthy structures in place to ensure spiritual accountability, and so on – you could dispense with safeguarding in its entirety and nothing bad would happen. Sin would be dealt with appropriately, people would be punished where necessary, and so on.
The reason I feel the need to start with this is, as I said at the beginning, no-one is asking the question why we seem to have so many safeguarding issues at the moment. Rather than focussing more and more on our safeguarding procedures, I believe the time has come to step back and say there is a bigger issue at stake here – the issue of the gospel. The fact that so many church leaders are falling shows that there are serious problems with what we believe about the gospel – and that is a far more serious issue than safeguarding.
Why safeguarding is problematic
I have argued above that the gospel is sufficient for safeguarding in and of itself. However, I think it is also necessary to go further and explain why I believe that safeguarding itself is problematic. Let me outline the problems I have with safeguarding.
It cannot substitute for the Bible
As I have argued above, healthy Christian leaders should not do the kind of things that the likes of Ravi Zacharias and Jonathan Fletcher did. But there is another aspect to it. Christians who are growing in maturity should come to have a love for righteousness and a hatred of sin. Psalm 36:2 says that those who do not fear the Lord “flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin.” By contrast, those who love the Lord should “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Those who are godly should also have a deep sense of God’s justice (Psalm 11:7).
Those in church leadership – whether in church or parachurch ministry – should not be on their own. There should be other godly, mature Christians around them. Therefore, if someone in church leadership does not hunger and thirst after righteousness, he should stand out like a sore thumb. And if he does do something wrong, the other mature Christians around should respond appropriately: recognising the horror of the sin that has been committed, but with love and compassion for both the sinner and the sinned against.
Here’s the problem with safeguarding. Safeguarding is trying to ensure that justice is done, which is a good thing. But, God is more concerned with justice than we are. The more godly we are, the more concerned with justice we should be. So if people aren’t godly enough to be concerned with justice without a safeguarding process, why should they pay attention to it with a safeguarding process? The problem here isn’t the process. The problem is that people do not have a big enough sense of justice and the seriousness of sin – and that can only come from God. The solution, again, is a deeper Christian maturity, not more red tape.
It doesn’t get to the root of the issue
Another problem with safeguarding is that it is doesn’t get to the root of the issue. If someone has sinned, the goal should to point out their error in the hope of their repentance and restoration. In other words, in the church, the goal of treating someone who has fallen into sin should always be to bring them back to God. That is how we express love for sinners. Paul says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). You can see the love in the process Jesus describes in Matthew 18:15-17 – point out to someone the error of their ways, hoping for their repentance – but if they do not listen they should ultimately be treated as a non-believer.
This isn’t to brush sin under the carpet – far from it. It is actually a way of both treating sin seriously and honouring the gospel which forgives sinners. That doesn’t mean there should be no consequences: someone who has done something illegal should be punished for what they have done, and it might be necessary to remove someone from a position of responsibility. But the goal should always be repentance and reconciliation.
This is very different to the way safeguarding operates. Safeguarding isn’t about confronting someone with their sins and leading them to repentance. Safeguarding is not designed to get to the root of the issue, and as such it will never actually bring about a safer church. Safeguarding, as a friend of mine (a former CofE vicar) said to me recently, is more of a PR exercise so the church could be seen to be “doing something”. He also told me that safeguarding was about as far away from the Biblical way of doing things as you could get.
The only Biblical way to stop things from happening again is through repentance and faith, and the genuine power of the Spirit to change us.
The dynamic of victims and abusers
Safeguarding doesn’t deal with what you might call plain vanilla “sin”, as we talked about above. Safeguarding focusses on abuse, which is quite broadly defined. Obviously there are some kinds of abuse which are absolutely clear cut, where one person is the victim and one person is the abuser. However, life is often more complex than that. Safeguarding doesn’t seem to recognise this, however – it divides people into ‘victims’ and ‘abusers’.
It seems that if someone does a good enough job at presenting themselves as a victim, they get absolved of any sin whereas the person who is accused gets all the blame. We live in a society where there is an enormous power to claiming victimhood – see, for example, Mike Ovey’s paper Victim Chic: The Rhetoric of Victimhood. (I would highly recommend reading it – I talked a little about this in my post about Accepting Evangelicals). One of the problems with designating oneself as a victim is that it has a totalising effect: the victim becomes pure and spotless, whereas the victimiser becomes the distillation of pure evil.
I think we can see this dynamic at work in the safeguarding process: as soon as a complaint is made, we have a “victim” and a “victimiser”. In other words, the safeguarding process virtually assumes that abuse has happened from the get-go. The whole process is ripe for people to take advantage of. There’s a line in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible which has always stuck with me since I studied it at A-Level: “Is the accuser always holy now?” In the world of safeguarding, it seems that they are. There is no redress for someone who makes a vexatious complaint, but it might do untold damage to the person who was accused and their family / church.
The more I see safeguarding at work, the more uncomfortable I am with the dynamics of victim / abuser. The Bible says we are all both victims and abusers: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all deserve God’s judgement for the way we have treated others. As I said before, this is not to minimise sin in any way, but rather to say that the safeguarding process forces an unhealthy and unbiblical way of looking at the problem before you’ve even started.
Again, this is not to say that there are no genuine victims. Of course there are. But victims need to be dealt with in the Biblical way, as I tried to explain above.
The process is itself abusive
My final problem with safeguarding is that the process is abusive in itself. In the conversation with my former vicar friend, he told me that the Church of England had conducted a review into its safeguarding processes a few years ago and found that the process was abusive. He had actually been involved in a number of safeguarding issues previously, one of them serious, and said that the process did not enable him to support anyone properly. It treats people as cogs in an administrative process, rather than people to be loved.
Another friend told me that he knew someone – a vicar – who has been suspended from his parish for three YEARS because of a safeguarding complaint. Firstly, the police had to do an investigation which came up with nothing. After that, the church needed to do an internal investigation. This man has been unable to minister for three years.
How is this fair or just? How is this even safeguarding anybody?
It’s not surprising that many people have called for the Clergy Discipline and safeguarding measure to be reformed – and hopefully it will be. But we need something far deeper than a reform of the law and the safeguarding / CDM processes.
Conclusion: Safeguarding is not safe
At the start, I said that safeguarding culture was actually preventing the church from being safe. That’s because the focus is on safeguarding instead of the gospel. If the church was going deeper into the gospel, and helping people to be spiritually accountable, it would do far more to stop safeguarding issues than any process.
Instead, what I think is happening is that safeguarding is becoming a substitute gospel. Safeguarding seems to be used increasingly instead of the Biblical pattern of repentance and reconciliation. It looks to me very like Pharisaism, which Jesus came down so hard on in the gospels. Every time a safeguarding issue happens, rather than considering whether there were problems of spiritual accountability and ‘gospel’ / theological issues, there are calls for more red tape: more procedures, more box ticking, less trust, and so on.
At the same time, the calls for more safeguarding are obscuring the gospel message which has the power to transform sinners.
I’ve written about safeguarding before on this blog, you might appreciate these posts: