On Sunday mornings at New York Chinese Alliance Church, where I pastor, several different ethnic congregations come to listen to God’s Word in their mother tongues. Parents drop off their youngsters for children’s worship and Sunday school. Youth gather for fellowship and Bible study.
Our seasoned ushers always try to welcome every familiar face and newcomer into the house of God with a warm smile. And while their primary goal is to meet and greet each person, our church has also trained them to identify acute needs and flag any potential concerns among the congregation.
We have a congregant with a history of incarceration who often invites other formerly incarcerated men and women to church. And although we are happy for the opportunity to minister to such individuals, we try to be discerning in how to best serve them in the context of the larger community.
One Sunday morning this year, this congregant invited a new visitor who triggered a sense of concern. When the ushers decided to inquire about the newcomer, they discovered that he was a registered sex offender. And while they still welcomed him as a first-time guest, they also wanted to protect our other congregants—and so they decided to inform our pastors and governing board members.
Prayerfully, our church leadership identified a spiritually mature member to accompany the young man for the remainder of the service, and he was able to enjoy fellowship with other members throughout the afternoon.
As a medium-sized Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, we realized we were woefully unprepared—having no explicit policies written to address these kinds of situations. Our governing board had never had to consider how to enable someone seeking God to find him in our fellowship, while still ensuring the safety of young children and adolescents in our congregation.
Over 780,000 sex offenders reside in the United States—a country in which 81 percent of women have experienced sexual abuse, along with 43 percent of men. Sexually abused children know their perpetrators 93 percent of the time. And yet just over 30 percent of sex offenses are reported to authorities.
As a pastor and pediatrician, I feel a personal obligation to safeguard the youth in our church body. In my former practice, strict policies were implemented to protect sick and vulnerable children. At the same time, I sensed a need for our church to minister to this young man. Rather than denying him a place to worship, I felt we should offer him the same chance for redemption as anyone else.
Our governing board discussed details such as whether we should prohibit this man from interacting with children in our congregation. We wondered if we should inform the parents of our kids and youth, or whether that would create more fear than caution. We also wanted to be informed of whatever legal mandates were expected of us so that we could comply with the law of the land.
Our priority was to protect the congregation. But at the same time, we wrestled with how Jesus would respond to this situation—especially knowing how he interacted with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other broken people on the fringes of first-century society. Could we fulfill both goals? And if so, how?
First, it’s important to remember that federal laws require all sex offenders to register their status. Neglecting these laws can result in the prosecution of new crimes.
For instance, in our state of New York, sex offenders are categorized based on their risk of committing another crime and harming the community. Level 1, or low-risk offenders, must register for 20 years unless they have been given a specific designation. Level 2 (medium) or level 3 (high) risk offenders are required to register for life. Special designations include sexual predators, sexually violent offenders, and predicate (repeat) sex offenders.
That said, legislators have struggled for ages to develop appropriate policies for sex offenders. The pendulum swings from rehabilitation to punishment to isolation. Experts debate the merits of rehabilitation versus punishment alone. Each framework has pros and cons, with polarizing views on either side of the issue.
Rehabilitation models place a prudential value on the dignity and wellbeing of every individual, including their relationships, health, work, and other activities. Rehab programs are designed to restore a person’s capacity to function, regain their quality of life, and help them become a contributing member of society.
But punishment models are also rooted in ethical values—in the belief that there’s a firm line between right and wrong, good and bad, and that this distinction defines our behavior and should underpin the boundaries of all our relationships.
Likewise, local churches face the dilemma of where to place appropriate boundaries to ensure their community’s safety while also being willing to partner in the spiritual rehabilitation of broken individuals.
The Bible mandates protecting the vulnerable from harm while also showing mercy to sinners. In Luke 5:32, Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” At the same time, he warns us that “whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42, KJV).
So, unfortunately, there is no easy answer when it comes to how churches should respond to sex offenders who want to attend worship, participate in Bible study, or engage in other ministry gatherings.
That said, most experts agree sex offenders should not be allowed to attend a church if its leaders are not properly trained to ensure the safety of their children. This includes staff being educated on the habits of sex offenders—such as their potential to groom churches and take advantage of their trust—as well as being informed of all relevant state and federal laws.
Some states, like Tennessee, have proposed banning sex offenders from houses of worship unless they obtain permission. Others do not permit them to be onsite at daycare facilities or schools, which often include churches, depending on their structure and level of involvement in para-church activities. In many cases, it is not safe for the former sex offender to be allowed to have any contact with or proximity to children whatsoever—and it may even be illegal for them, depending on their timeline and level of risk.
According to a 2010 CT study, nearly 80 percent of pastors, church leaders, and staff surveyed at the time believed sex offenders should be allowed to worship in church, so long as they are subject to supervision and certain limitations. That said, most aren’t prepared to welcome them into their own churches.
In his 2009 book, pastor Dick Witherow defines sex offenders as “modern-day lepers.” When Florida laws restricted where sex offenders could live in the state, Witherow expanded his existing prison ministry to help sex offenders re-enter society and reintegrate into congregations. After a series of setbacks, he bought a property in Palm Beach County to build Miracle Village (also known as City of Refuge), now the largest community for rehabilitating sex offenders in the nation.
While Witherow’s efforts have been a transformative—if controversial—model, most churches do not have the resources or manpower to support sex offenders while ensuring the safety of the vulnerable. In these cases, larger churches with abundant staff may be better equipped to help, since they are more likely to have the resources to supervise sex offenders on the premises.
What did our church do in this situation? After a time of prayer, church leadership realized the need to develop a policy for future encounters. A committee was formed to understand the complexities of federal and state laws, evaluate our standing procedures, and provide recommendations to the governing board regarding our posture toward sex offenders.
Given specific state laws regarding reporting and parole, our policy first defines the term sex offender. It then outlines specific requirements for sex offenders to attend church ministries, including an initial approval process involving pastors, the governing board, and a written covenant. The policy provides accountability for the sex offender, facilitates communication with church leaders, and allows oversight by the governing board.
Some of the issues we considered revolved around the following questions:
- Is our church called to minister to sex offenders?
- What child safety protocols are in place, and what revisions are necessary?
- How do we obtain accurate and up-to-date information on a sex offender’s status while liaising with relevant (e.g., parole officer) parties?
- In what ways can we gauge a sex offender’s heart and sincerity?
- How can we provide accountability for all parties involved?
- What services can we offer, and which are better received outside the church (such as therapy/counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and addiction programs like AA/NA)?
- What is the role of a sex offender’s accountability partner, and how can they minister to the individual?
- What ministries are a sex offender welcome to participate in?
- What congregational expectations should we have of a sex offender’s code of conduct?
- What are potential consequences of policy violations, and how will they be enforced?
- Are we compliant with state mandates and federal laws?
- How and when should we communicate to our congregation when sex offenders are on the premises?
- How can we involve the congregation in the process in a way that reflects both the protective and welcoming heart of Christ?
Another key question we considered was whether the person was truly repentant of their sin or whether they have sought to downplay their misdeeds. A genuinely repentant heart is one of the most important criteria in evaluating whether a sex offender is ready to engage in a local church. David models this heart of repentance in Psalm 51 as he confesses his sins in a spirit of brokenness and contrition.
While we were in the process of working through these considerations and developing an official policy, our committee invited the young man to worship with us virtually in our online service, rather than joining us in person, for the time being. He was gracious in his response and honored our wishes. We also assigned a pastoral staff member to reach out and minister to this individual on a regular basis.
One of the most important goals of our policy was to develop an environment of accountability and potential for discipleship. Sexual recidivism rates are 30 percent at 10 years but as high as 52 percent within 25 years. Knowing that statistics are likely underreported, these rates of repeated criminal behavior demonstrate how difficult it is to overcome this particular thorn in the flesh.
By fostering a relationship of accountability with a trusted church member, a sex offender has more communal incentive to avoid sexual temptations and live a sanctified life. Accountability partners are present to listen and support, while speaking the truth with grace, mercy, and love. Ideally, this kind of discipleship relationship encourages a life of prayer, worship, and personal devotion.
We are still in the process of finalizing a sex offender policy that is comprehensive in scope and detailed in prescription—an internal document that can guide our church in similar situations down the road. Above all, we want this policy to ensure the safety of vulnerable congregants while welcoming broken individuals with sinful pasts, like this young man, into our community and the heart of worship.
As a medium-sized church, we are aware of our limitations and know that we may not be able to welcome every sex offender into our community. But at the same time, we do want to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. Scripture tells us it is often through fellowship with the family of God that we can experience the love of Christ. And just like the broken people on the margins in Jesus’ day, sex offenders should not be kept from the chance to commune as members of the body of Christ.
Ultimately, as Christians, we believe Jesus offers each of us the same opportunity for redemption through his blood—and if anyone is in him, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17, ESV).
Stephen Ko is senior pastor at New York Chinese Alliance Church and adjunct professor at Alliance Theological Seminary. He is the author of the forthcoming Zondervan book Faith Embodied.