All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:12-16)
Last month Ed Stetzer wrote a laser-sharp article about abuse in the church which is well worth reading (http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2018/january/andy-savages-standing-ovation-was-heard-round-world-because.html). Stetzer reflects on a clandestine event which took place between a youth pastor and a teenager two decades ago which then resurfaced a few weeks ago. The result has been a whirlwind of controversy.
When the Andy Savage story first broke, my gut reaction was sympathy toward a man who is being dragged through the mud today for a 20 year old offense, although he had confessed and repented long ago. I probably would have been one of the people standing and applauding. Ed Stetzer is helping me rethink this.
Stetzer’s main idea is that we should protect victims in the church, not abusers. Absolutely! Right on! Yet something inside me resisted. I felt sympathy for Andy Savage (and still do). The first time I read Stetzer’s article several days ago, something seemed to be missing. A thought niggled at my subconscious mind but didn’t break through. Today it finally did.
This is what’s hard for me:
When I was entering pastoral ministry in 1985, we talked very little about abuse in the church. It was rarely mentioned in seminary. I was naive enough to think abuse was much rarer than it actually is. Generally, we were taught (if we were taught at all) that the best response to scandalous sin was to work through forgiveness and redemption by all parties. We were told not to report such matters to the police unless the situation couldn’t be worked out privately. From time to time a scandal would appear in the news. Often the offender was given a chance to work through life issues and to be restored to fellowship, if not a church office. We would hear spiritual leaders make statements about second chances and reconciliation. I never heard anyone rebut this approach as protecting the institution at the expense of the victims. Very little was said about victims at all.
Back then the cultural climate was very different than it is today. I don’t remember anyone at the time who would have labeled a consensual sexual encounter between a 22 year-old college student/youth pastor and a 17 year old girl as abuse. We would have called it “premarital sex” and counseled the parties toward healing and reconciliation. Church discipline may have been initiated. There was little or no regard for the fact that one party was a youth leader and thus an authority figure. Today such a consensual sexual encounter is considered coercion with a perpetrator and a victim. Twenty years ago when President Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he was impeached for lying about it, not for the indiscretion itself. Standards have changed.
This is illustrated in the Savage case by the fact that there was no state law prohibiting such sexual encounters when the encounter occurred.* According to news reports, the district attorney said there is unfortunately no case to prosecute today because the applicable law didn’t exist back then. That reflects a very important part of our constitution known as ex post facto. Our nation’s founders recognized that it’s inherently unjust to create laws to fit a crime after it has occurred. In the present controversy, what is a crime now wasn’t a crime 20 years ago. That doesn’t make what happened 20 years ago between a 22 year-old youth pastor and a 17 year old teenager right, but it does make it unprosecutable.
Some people have criticized the way church leaders handled the Savage situation at the time. Exactly what did happen is in sharp dispute. The accuser and the accused are framing what happened and the aftermath very differently.
This is not an isolated case. Accusing authority figures ex post facto is a cultural tidal wave. Several years ago an abuse scandal rocked Penn State University which ultimately brought down legendary coach Joe Paterno. I’m not excusing what took place in the locker room by any means or the coach’s inaction which allowed the abuse to continue. Abuse must be stopped at all cost. At the same time, Coach Paterno’s reputation was destroyed for leadership decisions made decades earlier in a very different legal and cultural climate. That’s ex post facto. Such judgments are unjust. Child abuse is much, much worse than ex post facto. But two wrongs still don’t make a right.
The same kind of ex post facto condemnations are bringing down celebrity figures, politicians and church leaders all over the country. Many of them are falling because of indiscretions which occurred years ago, but are now judged by a very different standard. Minnesota celebrities have not been spared. Just ask Garrison Keillor or Al Franken. The tolerance of the 1980s has become the intolerance of the 2010s.
The Apostle Paul addressed ex post facto in Romans 2:12-16. He didn’t excuse or justify any sin which someone commits before they received God’s law. Nor did the apostle judge them by the law which they received later (ex post facto). Instead, Paul identified a code of conscience as the criteria for God’s justice. If there is no law, conscience becomes our guide.
When we are in a crisis and we don’t know what to do — when the code of law has not yet been given, I think God will judge us by how well we follow our conscience. That’s not a free pass. We won’t get away with anything. I have an exceptionally sensitive conscience. There’s easily enough in my conscience apart from God’s law to condemn me to hell for eternity. Probably there’s enough in your conscience to condemn you, too. We are wrong to apply the law (civil or divine) to those who don’t have it, whether we use it against ourselves or someone else. Yet it happens a lot in today’s world.
Bottom line: God doesn’t judge anyone ex post facto. That would violate his perfect justice. Therefore, we shouldn’t judge anyone ex post facto, either.
*Update: Later news articles report that Savage’s actions actually were illegal in Texas at the time, but he cannot be prosecuted because the statutes of limitations has expired. Savage himself describes the events differently, stating that he believes what he did was immoral, but not illegal. Almost two months later, the two sides continue to frame the events very differently. If Savage in fact did break the law, it’s not a case of ex post facto after all. Whether he broke the law remains in dispute.