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The SBC Sex Abuse Crisis: The Difference Between Privacy & Secrecy

There is a big difference between privacy and secrecy—once again, we’ve been reminded of that difference in the most painful of ways. This week the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published an in-depth investigative report on the widespread and systematic sexual abuse of minors in Southern Baptist churches over the last 20 years. Many of the crimes were perpetrated by youth workers who, in many cases, were rescued from the consequences of their actions by church leaders eager to keep these incidents from the public eye.

This is yet another example of ugly, destructive, and violating behavior that was allowed to thrive under cover of secrecy…

Privacy is an issue related to personal boundaries, and is embedded within the dignity God has gifted humanity.

Secrecy is a tactic we use to escape or divert personal accountability.

Differentiating these two self-regulating character issues is crucial for youth pastors who are committed to avoiding the inherent temptations of their calling, and who’ve dedicated themselves to helping teenagers and parents stay on the path to maturity as Jesus-followers.

A family we know has had some turmoil over the past several weeks. David,[1] their 17 year-old son, has started hanging out with the wrong crowd and has gotten himself into some trouble.

After several months, with his parents patiently enduring the consequences of his actions, it became clear that David did not intend to change his ways. He demanded more freedom than his parents were willing to give, and he chafed under the rules he was forced to adhere by: his parents demanded the passwords for his phone and all social media websites; he was not allowed to make video calls in his bedroom; and he had to turn in his electronic devices by 9:30 p.m. to his parents, who would charge them in their bedroom.

David’s parents shared their struggles with us, and asked us for input. After much prayer and discussion, we offered them a simple truth: David said he wanted more privacy, but what he really wanted was secrecy. Again, these are similar concepts, but they produce radically different outcomes.

  • Secrecy means hiding certain behaviors to avoid accountability; privacy means using appropriate discretion while still living accountably.
  • Secrecy is an unbiblical, self-isolating strategy that ensures protection from accountable Christian community; privacy is a biblical value that respects others while staying connected to community.
  • Secrecy attempts to keep certain things hidden in darkness; privacy acknowledges that all things need to be brought into the light.

The distinctions are subtle, but significant. Recognizing the difference between the two helps us discern the heart of the person and the situation. Consider Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:

God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.

How does understanding the difference between secrecy and privacy influence how we do youth ministry?

  • In our personal life, we recognize and embrace our need for accountability in all things.
  • In our conversations with parents, we use language that encourages and equips parents to be parents—we emphasize that the trust required for privacy is earned, and secrecy is never appropriate. We also challenge parents to model an accountable lifestyle themselves, abandoning secrecy but honoring privacy.
  • When we teach teenagers, we describe and help them experience the difference between secrecy and privacy, and we invite them to embrace an accountable lifestyle that leads to maturity.
  • When we interact with kids personally, we intentionally challenge them to think and act like healthy young adults. For example, when a teenager asks, “Can you keep a secret,” we’re able to respond, “We won’t keep any secrets, but we can keep things private, only involving other adults if we feel you or someone else is at risk.”

Healthy Jesus-followers live accountable lives in community, knowing that we’re all broken and in need of redemption. And Jesus wades into our mess with us, inviting us to bring it into the light of his truth, so we can walk with him as He heals us. As Jesus brings healing into our lives, He invites us to be agents of healing in others’ lives. And that journey is not something we want to keep secret.

[1] Not his real name.


Stefan Steinbauer

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The SBC Sex Abuse Crisis: The Differe...

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