In the past couple of months many members of the church, particularly those involved with our children’s activities, have had a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) disclosure drop through their letterbox – a check designed to help prevent people with a criminal record of abuse against children from being allowed contact with children. Many of you will have had similar checks in your workplace or if you volunteer to help with camps, or with a Scout or Brownie group. It is now impossible to operate any kind of children’s activities without having the right documentation in place – for instance, our insurance company requires us to have a Child Protection Policy before they will insure the church.
People have never been as aware of the existence of dangers to children as they are now. From internet bullying to the tragic disappearance of Madeleine McCann, protection of children is a news story which never goes away. How should we, as Christians, react to the whole child protection issue? Should we dismiss it as more needless bureaucracy and red tape? Or should we be agonising over the safety of the children in our care, ensuring that we recognise every possible symptom of abuse towards a child?
Let’s set out some principles to help us in our thinking and ensure that we have a healthy, biblical mindset towards these sensitive areas.
The first thing we should say is that children are precious and welcome, both in our families and in the church.
The Bible’s outlook towards children and grand-children is to see them as a wonderful blessing, a reward from the LORD:
Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. (Ps 127:2-4)
Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labour; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots round your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the LORD. May the LORD bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem, and may you live to see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel. (Ps 128)
The Lord Jesus made it plain that children as well as adults must be part of his kingdom:
But Jesus called the children to him and said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:16)
So we should delight in God’s goodness in giving us many children within our church. We should love and welcome the individual children that God has put into our families. They should bring us joy and happiness; we should value such precious gifts to us from the Lord. Tragically, in our society today that isn’t how many people view children. They are often seen as an inconvenience, an expense, a nuisance. Many people, though they want the right to have children, don’t want to put in the time and effort that it requires to bring them up and love them. They expect nurseries and schools to do the job for them. Ironically, at the very point in history where so much is said about child protection, the most important thing of all – to love and value our children – is markedly missing in so many families.
The second thing we should recognise is that children are vulnerable.
They are born into the world completely helpless. They utterly depend upon us for everything. For food and shelter, for teaching and love, for discipline and example. They aren’t able to care for themselves or protect themselves in the way that adults can. So we have a great responsibility towards them. In the Bible, again and again we find that the LORD is especially concerned to protect the most vulnerable members of society – the foreigners, the widows and the orphans. Children without proper protection, either because they have no family or because their families are unwilling or unable to care for them properly, need to be cared for and valued.
Thirdly we must recognise that the abuse of children is real and it is horrible.
The media concentrates its attention on some of the most acute and terrible ways in which children are mistreated – especially violence and sexual abuse. So it’s easy to stereotype certain people as evil abusers while everyone else is stereotyped as loving and caring. But that’s not true – we need to remember that there is a whole spectrum of mistreatment of children. If I’m grumpy in the morning and snap unfairly at my daughters that’s an abuse of my position of authority over them. Some parents abuse their children by spoiling them, by letting them have their own way, by refusing to discipline them. Some parents abuse their children by screaming, swearing and shouting at them. Parents abuse their children by allowing them to watch unsuitable films and TV programs, or by allowing them unsupervised and unprotected onto the internet. There are thousands of obese children in the UK today because parents don’t insist on the right exercise for their children and feed them the wrong kinds of food.
Many parents neglect their children – not by failing to feed and clothe them, but by never talking with them, by working so many hours that they never spend any time with them, by treating them as unimportant. Children are also abused in our society by treating them as small adults – giving them too much responsibility, exposing them to the adult world and adult concepts too soon. So many children are being robbed of their childhood and being put in completely unfair situations by the grown-ups who should be bearing those burdens for them. And the great majority of parents are guilty of the spiritual abuse of their children – of never praying for or with them, never telling them about God or taking them to a church which can tell them about God, by keeping them ignorant of the Bible, by laughing at the ideas of heaven and hell, by teaching their children implicitly or explicitly that God is irrelevant and has no bearing on their lives.
All of us need to think carefully about the way we are bringing up, or have brought up, our children – these vulnerable little ones we should be valuing, caring for, watching over. We’ll all have things to repent of and we may see ways that we should change. All the ways that we sin against other people are horrible but we need to remember that to sin against those who cannot protect themselves is even more serious. Jesus said:
Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Mt 18:5-6)
A fourth thing we must recognise is that, especially in the past, serious abuse of children has been covered up and hidden, or excused.
You’ll be familiar with the media stories of the horrible treatment of children by the same people over many years – from staff in children’s homes to school headmasters. The children affected were often too frightened to tell anyone what had happened to them, or if they did tell then they weren’t believed. Some children thought or were told that what happened to them was ‘normal’. Sometimes truth was covered up to avoid scandal and ignored, or staff members were moved on to hide what had happened. One good thing to come out of all these news stories is that now, at least, most people are aware that such horrible treatment of children does occur and that when it is found it must not be allowed to continue. People guilty of such behaviour must be punished and children must be protected from them.
It’s important for us to recognise that churches are not immune from this danger to children. People intent on harming children have targeted churches as places where they can meet and become friendly with children – our very nature as a church is that people from all walks of life and all ages mingle together as one body, one family. So we need to be aware that it could happen in our church. And we need to be aware that, appallingly, the abuse of children most commonly occurs at the hands of close family members or friends. These are extremely uncomfortable facts – but if we are serious about protecting the vulnerable little ones God has placed into our care we need to know these things and not hide from them.
We also need to realise that we cannot rely on CRB checks to protect children – they only tell you about already reported abuses. What they do provide is warning if someone who has previously been convicted of an offence against a child comes into the church and asks to be involved in the children’s work.
Having said all this, and taking all these things seriously, it’s also important for us to recognise that we must still trust each other.
Yes, we need to know that child abuse happens. Yes, we should be suspicious if someone always wants to take a child off on their own. Yes, if we are in contact with children who display strange or inappropriate behaviour, or who seem to fear their parents or teachers disproportionately, then we mustn’t ignore it. But the simple fact is that our church, like most real churches, is full of happy, healthy children growing up in families where they are loved, cared for and valued. The church is full of people who love each other’s children, who teach them, pray for them, and play with them. I don’t worry about my fellow members picking up a toddler who’s fallen over and hugging them to comfort them – that’s normal. I don’t think twice about our children having lifts to choir with another parent – that’s sensible. I want the students who come into my house to feel comfortable when Hannah jumps on their knee to have a story read – that’s natural. Joseph & Mary managed to travel a whole day from Jerusalem without worrying about the whereabouts of their 12 year old son, because they were travelling with the friends and family whom they loved and trusted – that should be how we feel about the church. We mustn’t close our eyes to the horrible possibility of child abuse – but we mustn’t let it poison our love and trust for each other. We mustn’t let it prevent us giving vulnerable people the care they need.
Let’s finish by asking ourselves an important question: what’s the best way to prevent abuse of children?
Is it to draw up child protection policies with lists of symptoms of child abuse to look out for? Is it to ensure everyone in the church is CRB checked at regular intervals? Well, in a fallen world we may need some of these precautions. But they aren’t the real answer, are they? The answer is much simpler – to live normal, happy, godly family lives following the guidelines given to us by our Maker. If husbands love their wives and wives submit to their husbands, if fathers don’t exasperate their children but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord, if children obey their parents, if we walk closely with the Lord Jesus, if we pray for each other and with each other, if we fight temptation, if confess our sins to one another and forgive each other, if we take an interest in one another’s concerns, if we share our lives together and love each other, what will the results be? Our children will be loved, valued and cared for. Marriages will be strong and healthy. Families will be happy places to live. Vulnerable and struggling people will be looked after. Odd and inappropriate behaviour will stick out like a sore thumb. Which brings us back to the Psalm with which we started:
Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. (Ps 128:1)
In the next few weeks we’ll be giving out copies of the updated Child Protection Policy to everyone involved in the church’s children’s work. If anyone else would like to see a copy, please ask Geoff or they can now be downloaded from the church website.