Why is it sinful for a church to cover up abuse?

Does it seem like every year there’s more church abuse/Christian ministry scandals hitting the news? These "falls from grace" are always a shock. Every time the messy, ugly truths from organizations that should be bastions of love and safety are revealed, the Christian community as a whole is rocked.

Unfortunately, division often occurs between believers in the fallout of these reports. Some champion the calling out of abusers and reject any kind of cover-up in their churches. Some people defend an organization’s decision to keep things as quiet as possible, claiming it's for the "greater good." But covering up abuse goes directly against any form of the biblical definition of love, justice, or truth.

What is a cover-up?

A cover-up is when a church or other organization intentionally hides or disguises a sin or sinful or illegal activity within the community. Cover-ups generally happen to protect the reputation of a business, church, or individual, etc. to avoid loss of revenue or credibility.

Bluntly, churches should never be involved in cover-ups. Cover-ups require lying, deceit, protecting perpetrators, and essentially excusing the abuse of people or resources—all things which go against the examples of Christlike sacrifice and integrity that the Church is charged by God to reflect.

Ignoring Abuse is Often ILLEGAL

As Christians, we are told in Romans 13:1-7 to "be subject to the governing authorities." We are to abide by the local and national laws placed above us, which includes those laws regarding abuse. In the United States, there are small differences from state-to-state on who is a "mandatory reporter" (someone legally obligated to report abuse to the police). Most mandatory reporters are doctors, therapists, teachers, and others in professions that work closely or intimately with clients and patients and their sensitive information.

Clergy (pastors, priests, deacons, etc.) are considered mandatory reporters in many states. That means that when a pastor is aware of an abusive situation and chooses to ignore it, he isn’t just sinning against God and the victim, he is also sinning by breaking the law we are told to obey in Romans 13.

Ignoring Abuse is Morally WRONG

As believers, we are called to "admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak" (1 Thessalonians 5:14). By dismissing, disguising, or denying abuse in our churches, we abandon the weak and the helpless. One of the ways in which Christians are called to be different from the world is through our love and compassion for marginalized people (Proverbs 22:22, 31:8-9; Exodus 22:22)—not by prioritizing our own reputation at the risk of others' safety and well-being.

Out of respect for the wounded and for the safety of the congregation, allegations of abuse in the Church should always be taken very seriously. This is one of the many ways we can display Christ’s love to others—by listening, understanding, and believing those who have been victimized. Upon hearing an abuse claim, churches should be fervent about identifying truth and pursuing justice. Efforts to cover-up abuse for any reason always makes things worse—not just for the sufferer, but for the organization and anyone connected. By God's grace, the truth will come out eventually.

Justifications for Cover-ups

Protecting "God’s" Reputation.

Oftentimes, abuse is covered-up by Christian organizations out of fear of how it would "make God look" to people outside the faith. Abuse can get downplayed as "not a big deal" because of all the good the church or ministry may actually be doing. But as Matthew 10:29-31 says, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."

God treasures each individual. Every person is important to Him. No amount of donations or missions or soup kitchen time validates the injustice done against even one person in the eyes of God (Isaiah 10:1-2; Mark 7:9-13). These shameful patterns of rejecting justice for the sake of reputation do not protect God’s street cred—instead they destroy the credibility of Christians to an unbelieving world (Romans 2:23-24). Besides, God doesn't need us to protect Him (Romans 8:28)!

Grace and Forgiveness Will "Fix It."

Another painfully common narrative to justify covering-up church abuse is that grace and forgiveness are more important than accountability and correction. But to claim such a thing is to fundamentally misunderstand grace, forgiveness, justice, and the character of God. Yes, God’s love is perfect and unending (Romans 8:38-39), and yes, we are told to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38-39). However, we only need to look at Jesus’ overturning the tables in the temple to see that there’s a time for righteous anger (Matthew 21:12-13; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). We should be angry when what is good has been perverted. We should be angry when what should’ve been protected has been harmed.

At minimum, the Bible requires accountability and correction for believers who have sinned. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 clearly lays out that we are not responsible for judging those outside the church, but we are to always call out sin within the church, among fellow believers. (Also see 1 Timothy 5:20.) What things are defined as sinful and in need of rebuke is often controversial, but in the context of addressing abuse, 1 Corinthians provides an extremely raw instruction about how seriously to take it. By choosing to downplay or disregard abuse, we downplay harm and disregard justice (Proverbs 19:5).

Sin is Sin.

No matter the size or scope of an organization or church, abuse is abuse. Abuse itself is sinful, and covering-up abuse is sinful as it furthers the harm done to individuals, the community, and the Christian testimony worldwide (2 Corinthians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:17). Cover-ups welcome continued or future abuse of even more precious humans, which is 100% reprehensible (Proverbs 24:11-12).

An organization may have great power on earth, but Jesus called out the various corrupt religious leaders of His time with reminders that evil never stays hidden. Luke 12:2-3 says, "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops."

God already knows everything (Matthew 12:36; Hebrews 4:13), and His say will always be the final judgment regarding harm done to others—especially if harm is sanctioned in His Name.

Nothing Stays Hidden Forever.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 tells us, "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." No matter how successful an organization is at hiding abuse on earth, they will remain accountable in the sight of the Almighty Creator when they stand before Him.

Though abusers will answer to God eventually, that doesn’t mean we have no personal responsibility to expose abuse when we see it happening in our communities. Christians are to "test the spirits" (John 4:1) of all people and all things—even (perhaps especially) respected spiritual leaders—and hold them accountable to God’s Truth and standard of goodness (Acts 17:11; Ephesians 5:10; Proverbs 18:17).

God treasures each and every human being. Should abuse happen within a church, the leadership has a responsibility to investigate immediately—without fear of the world's judgment. Rather than hiding a person's sin, they should prioritize seeking truth, pursuing justice, and providing healing and care for the person who has been hurt (Proverbs 16:8).



God treasures each and every human being. Should abuse happen within a church, the leadership has a responsibility to investigate immediately—without fear of the world's judgment. Rather than hiding a person's sin, they should prioritize seeking truth, pursuing justice, and providing healing and care for the person who has been hurt (Proverbs 16:8).

Writer/Editor: September Grace

September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.

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