Actively hiding, disguising, or keeping a mistake or sin hidden rather than correcting it is referred to as a “cover-up.” The church should not be involved in cover-ups. Anyone with knowledge of abuse or who suspects abuse is morally obligated to act on such information. In many cases, there is also a legal obligation to report the abuse to the proper authorities. State laws clearly define abuse and detail when, how, and to whom to report it. Churches and Christian ministries are required to follow state laws in this matter (Romans 13:1–7).
Beyond the legal requirement is the moral requirement to deal with incidents of abuse. When abuse is suspected in a church or Christian ministry, the organization should carefully and thoroughly investigate the matter. The goal should be to discover truth and seek justice—not to prioritize reputation. Cover-ups seek to evade consequences while ignoring the harm caused by an incident. Covering up abuse is sinful because it perpetuates wrong, exalts what God hates, and ignores state law. In the long run, covering up abuse will have far worse consequences than dealing with the truth immediately.
Any professing Christian individual or organization who participates in a cover-up of abuse, as legally defined, is guilty of sin. To identify oneself with the Lord while enabling sin violates the command not to take His name in vain. Denying victims justice through crafty deflections is a rejection of the Lord’s will (Isaiah 10:1–2; Mark 7:9–13). Such actions lead to people blaspheming the Lord (Romans 2:23–24). God’s people are called to protect the weak and vulnerable, not exploit them (see Exodus 22:22). God hates any attempt to use good things as a cover-up for sin and evil (Proverbs 21:27; 1 Peter 2:16).
Those who participate in a cover-up often claim good intentions. A common excuse for creating these smokescreens is guarding the faith-based group’s reputation. By covering up one person’s sin, the organization reasons it can continue proclaiming the gospel or doing other good work. This thinking is misguided. Christians are called to protect the weak and hurting (Proverbs 22:22; 31:8–9) and should be committed to the truth.
Another rationalization for cover-ups is the idea that grace and forgiveness should trump correction. But true repentance never dispenses with justice. Biblical commands to rebuke, correct, or excommunicate some people provide the very means by which heinous sin is to be resolved (1 Corinthians 5:9–13; 1 Timothy 5:20). Dodging the consequences of abuse is done at the cost of those who have been harmed (Proverbs 19:5).
Confronting abuse can be painful. But few things interfere with evangelism more than professing Christians using deceptive, cynical schemes to protect their reputation (2 Corinthians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:17). Most attempted cover-ups will be found out in this life. And those who think God will look the other way are sorely mistaken (Psalm 10:11–15). God is aware and cannot be fooled (Matthew 12:36; Hebrews 4:13). Jesus pointedly warned hypocritical religious leaders that their secret actions would be uncovered (Luke 12:2–3).
Secret sins will eventually be exposed (Numbers 32:23; Proverbs 26:26; Ecclesiastes 12:14). Once discovered, cover-ups will always make the church or group look worse. It is better to be criticized while repenting of sin than to protect one’s reputation while lying (Proverbs 16:8; 28:6). Never should we allow sin to continue and victims to suffer.
Cover-ups erode trust in everything an organization says. Abuse involves a violation of trust; a cover-up only magnifies that violation and worsens the scandal. After a cover-up of abuse is discovered, whatever moral statements the person, church, or organization makes are rightly seen as hypocritical, even if they are biblically correct. It would be foolish to assume leaders who enabled or hid abuse in a church should be trusted to suddenly “do the right thing” after they have been caught.
A good way to prevent cover-ups is to establish a clear sense of accountability. This applies to individuals and to organizations. Transparency and integrity are important standards to uphold to prevent abuse from happening in the first place (2 Corinthians 8:20–22). Nothing enables abuse within the church more than leaders who sense they are not truly accountable. The Bible holds leaders to high standards (1 Timothy 3:1–13; James 3:1), and they are to be called to account if they fail (see Galatians 2:11–13; Proverbs 27:5). Believers are to carefully compare all things—including the words and actions of leaders—to God’s truth, regardless of who those leaders are (Proverbs 18:17; Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1; Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 5:21).
If abuse does happen, the only acceptable remedy is truthful humility. Care for the victim is paramount—far more important than preserving the reputation of the abuser. Ideally, victims of abuse should feel empowered to speak up. This needs to be part of a church’s fundamental culture. Those guilty of abuse, whoever they are, should be confronted. In a church situation, they should undergo proper church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20); in all situations, they should also be referred to the proper legal authorities (Romans 13:1–5). Care and restitution for victims must be important parts of the process.
Abuse is a clear violation of God’s will. Both abuse and cover-ups are twisted opposites of God’s command for Christians to be known for their love toward others (John 13:35). There is nothing loving about disguising sin or failing to address it with integrity.