WHEN GOD AND LAW COLLIDE – THE WITNESS OF VIENNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

The Christian Church has taken a lot of hits in recent years.  People in our culture tend to be suspicious even hostile towards Christianity as an organized religion.  With more and more people in our nation who have no significant Christian roots and with little or no contact with authentic disciples of Jesus Christ, the labels of ‘judgmental” and “hypocritical” are easily and somewhat casually pinned on the Church.

The Vienna Presbyterian Church may force some persons to pause in their contempt and rethink what happens when people truly live as biblical Christians.  Several years ago a student ministry staffer was dismissed for sexual misconduct and later convicted for contributing to the delinquency of minors. This process began in 2005.  There were many painful conversations but little more substantive action by the church.  No significant help was provided for the students whose lives had been affected by the youth pastor.

In 2009 Vienna Presbyterian’s elders began to look again at what went wrong.  In March of this year, the church’s pastor acknowledged in a sermon that the leadership “became aware that we were not caring adequately for the victims of (youth director’s) abuse.”  The church had set up a ministry to help these persons, but as part of the process made the decision to acknowledge its failings, apologize to the victims, and publicly commit to their care.

Pastor Peter James spoke in a public worship gathering to the victims: “We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed in this church, I am truly sorry … I regret the harm this neglect has caused you.”

Powerful words of Christian integrity. Words that declared the church was committed to be agents of truth and reconciliation and healing.  Words that those victims and our culture at large needed to hear.

They were also words that put them in direct conflict with their insurance carrier and the attorney hired to defend the church.  They were admonished to say nothing publicly nor put anything in writing to admit or apologize lest this be evidence that is used against them in a court of law. This is guidance given routinely by insurance companies in our judgmental and litigious climate.  It is counsel that many churches choose to follow so as not to endanger the future of their ministry because of significant, often crippling damages that may be awarded against them.  Insurance companies give this counsel to protect the assets of their shareholders.

It is a tragedy that our litigious and adversarial judicial system coupled with the greed of so many creates such a conflict.  A church that chooses the route of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing then becomes at risk to lose their insurance coverage and endanger other ministries.

But Vienna Presbyterian Church decided that it is a greater tragedy to leave the victims uncared for and to avoid responsibility.  Again quoting Pastor James, “We won’t hide behind lawyers … Jesus said the truth will set us free.”

The healing, life-transforming ministry of Jesus Christ is set free by their faith and their integrity.  Hopefully there won’t be lawsuits (there haven’t been to this point).  Hopefully there will be healing for the victims and for a society that needs to see the Body of Christ acting like Christ.  That is my prayer.

(quotes reported in USA Today 5-10-11)

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