To put ourselves through school, we both worked for a national bank as part-time tellers. Before the bank allowed us access to cash drawers or customer information, we went through extensive screening and training. We submitted personal information for background checks and references. We attended two weeks of training. The bank, understandably, wanted to protect its valuable assets.

In the church, our children are much more valuable than any bank’s money. We can — and should — protect children with as much diligence and care.

Pastors and ministry leaders can learn about child protection and implement sound prevention principles. When compassionate and courageous adults use their God-given authority to help children, the local church will be safer for them.

Child Abuse is Hard to Talk About

Child sexual abuse is a horrific sin with devastating consequences; it involves an adult or more powerful child using a child for sexual pleasure. Many in the church tend to avoid such an uncomfortable topic, and admitting that children in our local church are at risk is a painful thought to consider. Moreover, ministry leaders often have had training in exegesis, theology, and counseling — but none in abuse prevention. Thankfully, many resources are available for leaders willing to learn about abuse dynamics, adapt to best practices, and prioritize the needs of vulnerable children.

The Present Reality

How are children in the local church vulnerable? Studies estimate that 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and yet this estimate does not include instances of noncontact sexual abuse (e.g., child pornography). An adult retrospective study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. (As a comparison, roughly 1 in 50 children suffer from a peanut allergy.)

According to studies, about 90 percent of the time children know their abuser. Predators often go out of their way to appear trustworthy and then leverage their trust to gain access to children in vulnerable, isolated situations where abuse can take place. Research shows that about 80 percent of child sexual abuse happens in one-adult, one-child scenarios that are isolated from other adults or where visibility and accountability are low. The stranger in the park does not pose the greatest threat to our children — the wolf in sheep’s clothing does.

Harm done to children angers Jesus because he knows that children are powerless to stop it (Matthew 18:5d–6). Despite their inherent dignity, children occupy a vulnerable place in life. Children are in the process of developing spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. They are in a period of formation when their understanding of God, right and wrong, and sexuality is limited and malleable.

Abusers know that children are likely to believe what they are told. Sadly, many adults misuse their responsibility, using lies and manipulation to prey upon children. Given this reality, God expects adults to proactively lead in protecting children. Otherwise, many children will be left with no one to help them (Job 29:7-17; Exodus 22:22; Ecclesiastes 4:1).

When trusted adults harm children, the trauma they inflict is devastating. Studies show that child sexual abuse harms children emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually with long-lasting effects that ripple throughout society. Children who are sexually abused suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and many physical ailments at a greater rate than their peers.

A Faithful Response

Because we believe in the God-given dignity of children, the church should lead in implementing safeguards. From the Bible’s opening chapter, God declares the value and dignity of children as human beings made in His own image (Genesis 1:27). God affirms that the children of His people are members of His covenant and one of His most precious gifts (Genesis 17:7; Psalm 127:3). God prioritizes children’s spiritual development by outlining the responsibilities and efforts Christian communities must devote to children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Jesus’ life demonstrates God’s love for children, placing children at the center of His kingdom (Mark 10:13-14).

Conversely, Jesus reserves some of His harshest words for those who diminished the value of children, publicly rebuking His disciples in righteous anger when they tried to prevent children from coming to Him (Mark 10:14). Harming a child is a direct affront to the God who made that child in His own image, and Jesus says of anyone who does so, “It would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).

How can the church demonstrate its love for children by effectively protecting them? Child-protection measures function best in a church environment that embodies both humility and courage. When church leaders humbly acknowledge the problem and courageously take responsibility for protecting children, they create a safer environment for children. Embracing humility allows ministry leaders to lay aside insecurities so that they can focus upon children’s needs. Courage counteracts the climate of secrecy and shame that engulfs child sexual abuse. As leaders break through the darkness of child sexual abuse, they will see situations that will require the courage to act for the sake of the little ones Jesus loves.

Learn More

We have put together a comprehensive 70-page guide for churches who want to implement a child-protection plan for their congregation. It covers the biblical foundations of child protection: why churches need such a plan, what an effective plan consists of, and how to put together an effective plan. There are also templates for every document you will need, and an extensive list of recommended reading.

This guide, called “Faithful Protection,” is available for free through the Doulos Resources website. Visit www.faithfulprotection.org to get a copy.

Brother and sister Mike Sloan and Beth Hart serve in ministry in the PCA. Mike is the assistant church planter at New City Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Hilliard, Ohio. Beth works as a freelance editor, and her husband, Zane, is pastor of youth and families at Covenant Life Church (PCA) in Sarasota, Florida.