Following last week’s enormous reckoning around sexual abuse, coverup and the Southern Baptist Church, Americans might rightly wonder just how seriously Protestants take sexual abuse in the church. After all, both the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — America’s two largest Christian institutions — are reeling from sexual abuse scandal and alleged leadership cover ups that are at least rumored and, in many cases, confirmed to go nearly to the very top.
Be that as it may, a new study from LifeWay Research says that most pastors agree: sexual abuse is permanently disqualifying.
“Most current pastors believe the office of pastor is incompatible with having sexually abused or assaulted another,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “This does not convey that they believe these behaviors are beyond God’s forgiveness, but a large majority believe sexual abuse is a permanent disqualification from ministry leadership.”
Eighty-three percent of Protestant pastors agree that sexual abuse of a child should warrant a lifetime ban from the pastorate, with 2 percent saying the ban should last 10 years and 3 percent saying it should last five years. Slightly less than 2 percent say the ban should only be a year or less.
Seventy-four percent of Protestant pastors support a lifetime pastoral ban for those caught sexual abusing an adult, while 5 percent say the ban should last 10 years, another 5 percent say at least five years and another 5 percent say at least two years.
Pentecostal pastors are the only denomination that didn’t have a majority support a lifetime ban for pastors caught sexually abusing adults, with just 44 percent agreeing.
“When someone sexually assaults an adult, it is both a violent sin and a crime. It is the opposite of the love, care and respect toward another the Bible teaches,” said McConnell. “The role of pastor has incredibly high standards in the Bible, including that the overseer of those in the church be above reproach or beyond criticism. Seventeen percent of pastors think someone could move beyond reproach in this matter given enough time.”
LifeWay’s previous research here indicates a possible lack of agreement on just what does and does not constitute “abuse.” For example, a 2019 survey found that just 27 percent of Protestant pastors believe a pastor caught in an affair should be permanently banned from ministry. Of course, a pastor who slept with a congregant would be violating their trust and leveraging his own authority, leveraging a power imbalance that certainly constitutes sexual abuse.