Recently, in an essay for Soul Tread magazine, I explored the way in which Scripture describes the church as a family, and some of the significance of that for believers. Since I sent it off for publication, I’ve been thinking more about this idea of the church as a family, and about my denomination in particular. The RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America), and now the RPCA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia), have been pivotal in my own experience of the church in this way. Part of this is the size of the denominations—smaller usually means more intimate, and this is certainly true for these two denominations. There are many opportunities for connections and relationships outside of one’s own home congregation, and, having taken many of these opportunities myself, I have a sense of the church that not only is my home congregation my church family, but that other congregations are part of our extended family. The genuine relationships, the generous and unpretentious hospitality, the generational connections and discipleship make our denomination a beautiful place to find a church home. I know that (as I talk about in my ST essay), as a preteen feeling unsettled in a new city and bereft of the kinds of relationships that had nourished and tethered me as a child, the RP church that my parents found felt like coming home. Over thirty years later, I still feel that way. I am amazed that whenever I have traveled around the U.S. and the world, visiting new congregations has felt like visiting relatives.
And yet, this is not a good that comes without danger. The more I read about abuse—sexual, physical, etc.— the more certain themes jump out at me: the way abusers exploit their victims’ longing for belonging, connections, and intimacy, the trust given to others because “we know this person, and s/he would never do that,” the tendency to deal with things in-house rather than involving the state, the pressure to be silent out of loyalty to the group.
Each of these themes (real ones, which happen over and over and over again in churches and other organisations) resonates with me as a specific danger for the small church that feels like a family. The generational ties and connections too easily can become a substitute for true knowledge of character. The sense of loyalty to ‘family’ can prevent people from calling the police on someone, preventing protection and justice from being sought. The desire to stay connected, to remain in the circles of intimacy and relationship that we prize, can prevent us from speaking out, or listening to those with the courage to do so.
The gifts of a family are rich and wonderful. We know that—but I wonder if we realize how powerfully dangerous these gifts can be when they are exploited? When they are clung to at the expense of the innocent, rather than given back willingly in order to care for the vulnerable?
I say this because I know that to put systems in place to prevent abuse comes with a loss. Background checks, policies, reports—those are sterile things that are at odds with the warmth and informality of family life. With these formal systems comes the possibility of cultivating a culture of proceduralism and suspicion—toxic in any relationship. Yet, we have to find a way to plot the course between lifeless relationships and unearned, naive trust.
Here in Australia, the government has taken past abuse seriously by regulating activities involving children, and taking serious steps to protect them. I’m thankful that as our own denomination has responded to these regulations by putting policies in place, the men and women of our congregations have embraced the opportunity to demonstrate to the watching world that we care for the vulnerable. Rather than a laissez-faire approach that mimics the unqualified acceptance of family members at the expense of protectiveness, we need these policies to help us protect the vulnerable from wolves in sheep’s clothing.