Holding Members Accountable

Christian denominations have swung the pendulum back and forth between two extremes: (1) At times, churches have disciplined members over the most trivial lifestyle choices, such as wearing jewelry, owning a radio, dancing or attending a theater. (2) At other times, and perhaps to compensate for its past rigidity, churches have ignored open immoral living among its members. 

John Geoghan was born in Boston in 1935 to an Irish Catholic family. He attended local parochial schools, graduated from Cardinal O’Connell Seminary in 1962, and was later ordained as a priest. On February 13, 1962, he was assigned as an assistant pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Saugus, Massachusetts (10 miles north of Boston). John Geoghan is considered one of the worst serial molesters in the history of the Catholic Church in America. For three decades, he preyed on young boys in six parishes in the Boston area. Despite his disturbing pattern of abusive behavior, Geoghan repeatedly went on “sick leave” before reemerging at another parish for years. Only in 1998 did the church finally defrock him.

On January 11, 1984, Bernard Law was appointed Archbishop of Boston by Pope John Paul II. That same year, on November 13, Law reassigned John Geoghan to St. Julia’s in Weston (15 miles west of Boston). Years later the Boston Globe documented that an auxiliary bishop in Boston warned Law that Geoghan was unfit to return to parish ministry. Law ignored the warning and put Goeghan in charge of three youth groups, including altar boys. 

In 1989, Geoghan was once again removed from the ministry due to continued child sex abuse allegations. He was forced to go on sick leave and spent months in two institutions that treat sexually abusive priests. Later he was allowed to return to St Julia’s. Further incidents resulted in his permanent removal in 1993. Geoghan's being defrocked in 1998 was due to a chain of events beginning in 1996.

A woman in Waltham, Massachusetts filed a suit alleging that Geoghan had sexually abused her three sons. Eight months later, a 22-year-old man filed a suit claiming that Geoghan had abused him beginning in 1981 when he was seven. Between 1996 and 2000, 70 people accused Geoghan of sexual abuse. Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, after the second suit was filed against Geoghan, wrote on January 15, 1997, “If we are really so relentless in our pursuit of pedophiles, why aren't we also prosecuting [Geoghan] criminally, instead of allowing him to retire in the sheltering arms of his Church?” 

By the summer of 2001, claims had led to criminal charges and 84 civil suits, 70 by alleged victims and the rest by their family members. After a January 2002 report on Geoghan by the Globe Spotlight Team, the case became a catalyst for revelations of other clergy abuse and church coverups. Dozens of priests were accused of abuse by hundreds of alleged victims who filed lawsuits, forcing the archdiocese to release damaging documents that showed the church’s relentless attempts to avoid scandal and protect its reputation. Because it was published at the dawn of the internet age, the Spotlight piece was the first investigative story that went viral.

Paul was concerned about the church’s image and reputation in society, and he also had to deal with scandalous sexual immorality among God’s people (1 Cor 5:1-13). His approach, however, was vastly different from that of Bernard Law and many other prominent religious leaders. Rather than cover up evil behavior, Paul admonished the Corinthians to address the issue in a prompt, transparent, responsible, merciful and biblically faithful way. What emerges from Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 5-6 is a vision of the church as an alternative community within Corinthian society that holds its members accountable to live as God’s separate people.

The church in Corinth was tolerating “sexual immorality” among its members that was so scandalous that it was not “even named among the Gentiles” (vs. 1). Paul tells them that “those inside the church” are to be held accountable (vs. 12). He encouraged association outside the community but discouraged table fellowship with people claiming to be disciples while living sexually immoral lifestyles. For Paul, “immorality inside and apparently sanctioned by the church was far more likely to lead Christians astray than the immorality of non-believers would.” Alluding to Deuteronomy, he wrote, “Therefore put away from yourselves the evil person” (vs. 13). 

Such drastic measures were necessary because: 

(1) The church’s witness in society was being compromised. The church doing nothing about the scandalous incest that was of a nature that even non-Christians would have condemned(vs. 1) would compromise their witness in Corinthian society. That Paul was concerned with the image of the church in Corinth appears in his warning to believers not to sue each other, which was being done “before unbelievers” (1 Cor. 6:6; see also Rom. 2:24). 

(2) The sexually immoral person needed redemption. However one interprets Paul's instruction to “deliver” the immoral person “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” it is clear that the ultimate goal was “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Though Paul’s instruction seems severe, it had in mind the best interest of both the immoral man and the church. Paul’s intent was not for the immoral man to be “swallowed up with too much sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7), but for him to experience repentance and remorse. Paul later instructed the Corinthians to “reaffirm your love to him” (vs. 8). When “anyone among you wanders from the truth,” writes James, the goal of the church should always be to bring “him back” “from the error of his way” (Jas 5:19-20).

Finally, (3) the spiritual health of the church was at stake. The immoral man needed to be removed from the fellowship of the church because, as Paul explains, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). Jews understood yeast to be a symbol of something small that had the potential to affect a much larger or more significant situation. Disfellowshipping the immoral person meant preserving the purity of God’s people in Corinth. Furthermore, Paul’s instruction for the church to “put away from yourselves the evil person” was rooted in the Old Testament teaching that required eliminating the Israelite camp of evils which would influence others to sin against God. Perhaps Paul was alluding to church discipline when he admonished Timothy to “rebuke [sin] in the presence of all, that the rest may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20).

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