Rainbow-colored vans and buses were a regular sight in my hometown during my childhood in southern England. Emblazoned with a large red cross on the window and the words Jesus People Loving People on the side, wherever the vehicles stopped a team of people would jump out dressed in brightly colored camouflage gear and start an open-air evangelistic meeting. This was how I experienced the Jesus Army.
But this innovative and controversial British group will now no longer be on the streets. Numerous disclosures of the past sexual abuse of children have led not just to the appropriate criminal prosecution of the individuals concerned, but the dissolution of the entire church network.
Despite these tragic and terrible events, some might ask if the disbanding of the entire denomination is too extreme a reaction? Does the total disappearance of a ministry circumvent the Christian potential for change, learning, redemption, forgiveness and restitution?
How should believers react to the awful fact of the increasing number of ministry abuse scandals in the United Kingdom, United States, and beyond? What can we learn from the Jesus Army’s response?
The Jesus Army is not to be confused with the Salvation Army, founded by William and Catherine Booth in 1865 and now numbering 1.7 million members worldwide; nor with the Church of England’s evangelistic organization known as the Church Army, founded in 1882 and now with about 300 evangelists in the UK and Ireland.
The Jesus Army was founded out of a charismatic church in Bugbrooke in 1969 by Noel Stanton, following his personal encounter with charismatic renewal and the Jesus People movement in the US. By 1987, the group had taken on a clear vision to follow in the footsteps of the Salvation Army and sought to reach out to marginalized people in the UK.
At its peak, the Jesus Army had about 2,500 members. They used targeted evangelistic campaigns and a strongly directive form of mentoring and discipleship which became known as “heavy shepherding.” The forcefulness of these practices led to the Jesus Army being removed in 1986 from membership of both the Evangelical Alliance UK (EAUK) and the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
In 1999, the Jesus Army was received back into the EAUK’s membership. Its expulsion and re-inclusion seemed to offer good evidence that discipline for the sake of restoration (as described in 2 Corinthians 2:5–11) can be effective when it comes to churches and denominations.
But after the sentencing in late May of 6 men for the assault of 11 victims from the 1970s to 1990s, the Jesus Army voted to revoke its constitution and to shut down as a national organization. With the winding down of the central overseeing body, individual churches were encouraged to become independent fellowships.
Tragically, such incidents of child sexual abuse are echoed in many different denominations and organizations today. The Church of England is currently facing scrutiny by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IISCA), with more than 3,300 allegations reported so far. In fact, the IICSA recently announced a new investigation that will scrutinize safeguards across the broader spectrum of churches and organizations beyond Anglican and Catholic ones, indicative of the growing number of serious allegations and disclosures. Meanwhile in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged both media reports of 700 cases of abuse by affiliated pastors over several decades and its own failure to adequately care for victims.
Some feel that such denominations and ministries are now so tainted that they, like the Jesus Army, should be fully terminated. Others would argue that there is the possibility of redemption even after these most serious of crimes.
The Bible is very clear about the intrinsic value, dignity, and worth of all people, and is particularly outspoken about children and the consequences of crimes and sins against them. There is no excusing or dismissing the evil of the abuse of children. As a foster parent, I have seen too many instances of the horrific impact that sexual abuse has on children. It is vital that we as the church prove to be both above reproach in our safeguarding practices and unfailingly compassionate in our care for victims.
However, there does not seem to be a clear-cut approach in Scripture as to whether it is possible for organizations and churches to recover after the guilty have been punished by the legal and civic authorities.
There are times when we see a clarity and severity of the judgement of God. For example, on Ananias and Sapphira—a passage that made my children scream out in objection to the apparent injustice when we read it together. The problem for my children was that God would strike down dead a couple who had exaggerated the gift they were offering to the church, and how particularly harsh this seemed in comparison to the exceptional mercy afforded to the apostle Paul who had been murdering Christians.
Or compare the fate of Uzzah, who is struck dead for putting out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant so it doesn’t fall, with the clemency given to King David for murdering his mistress’s husband, Uriah. Is murder less important to God than half-hearted tithing? Is adultery less important to God than temple furniture?
From our human perspective, how are we able to determine the full significance of every crime and scandal? How can we even begin to understand every punishment or mercy meted out by God to individuals, let alone be clear about its implications for modern organizations?
Once the perpetrators have been found guilty and sentenced, how are we to respond to organizations that have been affected by abuse? Which side do we err on: mercy and pardon, or judgment and punishment?
There is a strong argument for leaning toward the side of grace. After all, there but for the grace of God go any of us. We are all sinners forgiven by grace, and who are we to judge the living and the dead? All of us fall very far short of God’s standards, and each of us has the capacity to abuse power and harm others.
But each of us also has the responsibility to act in wise and discerning ways that protect the vulnerable and promote righteousness. We must of course lean toward the side of truth, being diligent to investigate accusations, acknowledge wrongdoing, support victims, and take appropriate action against the guilty. How can we balance these two mandates?
Justin Humphreys, CEO of thirtyone:eight—a UK-based Christian safeguarding charity which advised the Jesus Army on its response—told CT:
“There are some circumstances where it almost seems as though there is no way to rebuild where damage has been caused by abuse and harm—especially where this has repeatedly occurred in the church environment. Indeed, sometimes unsafe cultures are so embedded that the ability to sift out all the undesired remnants of harmful attitudes and practices is impossible even after the perpetrators have been disarmed of their power and removed from their positions. Closure may sadly be the only robust step to assure people’s future safety.
But we must remain hopeful that our God is able to redeem all things in His time. We must be realistic in this regard, however, and to assume that acting with grace alone will address issues of abuse is naïve and dangerous. Risk is a reality, and we must be prepared to face the truth and deal with it effectively and appropriately. The church is no exception.”
Jesus is our model when it comes to balancing grace and truth. He is the one who is described as “the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus magnificently holds in tension the pure holiness of God and the perfect compassion of God. The same Jesus who restored Peter, who offered full forgiveness and a VIP welcome to paradise to the thief dying next to him on the cross, also declared that a millstone ought to be tied around the neck of anyone that causes a little one to stumble.
Following Jesus means we should be gracious and hospitable to the worst of sinners, but also be decisive and unremitting in the way we deal with sin—even shutting down ministries and excommunicating pastors when necessary, if they have lost their moral and spiritual credibility.
We must be more committed to protecting the vulnerable than protecting the reputation of the church, denomination, or ministry involved. We cannot turn a blind eye if we uncover abuse in any form. We must face it head on, refusing to allow grace to eclipse truth or truth to eclipse grace.
Krish Kandiah is founder of Home for Good, a UK-based fostering and adoption charity.