Saturday, September 5, 2015 By Douglas Wilson
In light of the recent court proceedings involving Steven Sitler, and the resultant coverage of those proceedings in the media, we believe that it is necessary for the session of Christ Church to make a public statement of where we have stood in this matter, and where we stand now.
When Steven’s sins and crimes first came to light over a decade ago, as the pastor of Christ Church, I immediately encouraged the person who had discovered them to go to the authorities immediately, which was done right away. All the difficult circumstances that have followed since that time — for the victims, for Steven’s family, and for our church community — are entirely the cascading result of Steven’s initial sins. This entire avalanche is his responsibility. This includes the difficulties created for his own family by his current legal circumstances. In what follows, when we refer to Steven’s repentance, it is repentance for the whole situation that we are talking about.
Second, since Steven’s conviction and conditional release from prison and jail, Steven, as a penitent Christian, has been welcome at Christ Church, and has worshiped regularly with us since that time. On the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he is as welcome as any other sinner is, which is to say, he is very welcome. At the same time, since his conviction, in accordance with the decision of the court and in accordance with an additional and separate determination by the session of Christ Church, Steven has never been to our worship service unaccompanied by a trained chaperone. He usually comes in shortly before the service, sits quietly, and leaves shortly after the service. Our ministry to Steven, in other words, has not been conducted at the expense of any children in our church community, or in a way that puts any of them at risk.
Third, in Moscow, Idaho there are 38 registered sex offenders. The chances are good that the only one you have heard about is Steven Sitler. This is because he provides an easy way for enemies of our ministry to attack us. If he abandoned the faith, or joined another church, or joined in on the attack on us, he would still certainly have the legal consequences of his crimes to deal with, but would probably be allowed to retreat into relative anonymity. As noted above, despite the greatness of his sin, we have not pulled away from him. But it should be noted that despite all the “extra treatment” he is getting, particularly on the Internet, it is to his credit that he has not pulled away from us either.
Fourth, the task of ministering to broken people is one of the central glories of the Christian church. For us, there are two causes of rejoicing in this. The first is that Christ came into the world for the sake of the screwed-up people. “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31, ESV). We refuse to abandon that glory for the sake of our own reputation or convenience. This is the gospel — through Christ God saves sinners. Second, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints which brings us to the second glory. When we minister to people in this kind of desperate condition, there will be others in the grip of bile and bitterness who use the occasion to attack the hospital staff for “supporting and applauding” the diseases the hospital staff is actually laboring to eradicate. That is, the church’s detractors are people who allege that we, the church, are protecting, covering, or advocating molestation of children. These false allegations are simply slander. But even though such detractors speak their slander, Jesus said that when men despitefully use you, and say all manner of wicked things about you — e.g. that you protect and cover for child molestation — the church’s response is to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” (Matt. 5:11–12). To be vilified for standing for grace is itself a grace. It is an honor to be so dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. But it is the grace the church glories in, never the sin that made the grace necessary.
Fifth, the fact that outsiders who vilify Steven believe him to be automatically guilty of anything that is alleged of him, as soon as it is alleged, creates a temptation for us to simply go in the opposite direction. We are aware of this temptation and are deliberately guarding against it. We do not believe that the temptations that earlier led Steven to molest children are out of his life, and we do believe that he, his wife, his chaperons, his ministers and elders, his fellow church members, his probation officers, and the state of Idaho, have reason and cause to be wary. Our fellowship with Steven does not mean that we think “he’s in, he’s good.” Those who slanderously diagnose our pastoral competence from afar (without bothering to check their facts) do not know anything about how we have taught him, prayed with him, admonished him, rebuked him, checked on his stories, and held him accountable. We do not believe that Steven has been magically “cured,” or that true repentance means anything other than an introduction to a lifetime of repentance.
Sixth, we need to speak with regard to the legal proceedings that are currently underway. Steven was sentenced about ten years ago; thus far he has successfully completed about 9 years of probation. As far as we know, there is no alleged probation violation filed against him. The court is now reviewing details regarding his interaction with his family and the protection of society. The court’s proceedings that were reported in late July and early September were status conferences. We do not complain that there is such a court-supervised process, and we do not object that the state of Idaho takes seriously the responsibility of protecting all children, including Steven’s young son. If some new, serious probation violations were alleged and filed against Steven, and if he were in fact found guilty of these things, and if the court deemed it necessary and just to revoke Steven’s probation and send him to prison, that would occur with the full approval of the session of Christ Church. Moreover, approval of such a sentence would prove no barrier to visiting him there, and seeking to minister to him.
Seventh, in the latest round of accusations, much has been made of the fact that Christ Church approved of Steven’s wedding to Katie through the fact that I officiated at the wedding. First, it should be noted that in our community, weddings are not arranged or determined by the church. Katie and her family had all the facts when she agreed to marry Steven, which was important, but the decision to marry was the couple’s decision, not ours. That said, I officiated at the wedding and was glad to do so. While we do not believe that marriage is an automatic “fix” for the temptations to molest children, we agree with Judge Stegner who approved the wedding and said that ‘an age-appropriate relationship with a member of the opposite sex from Mr. Sitler is one of the best things that can happen to him and to society” (emphasis added). Moreover, if everything is on the table, we do not believe the church has the authority to prohibit or “not allow” a lawful marriage.
On a related front, others have said that I advocated for leniency for Steven after his conviction and during the sentencing phase. In the course of the letter I wrote to the judge (in 2005), I simply reported on the nature of my counsel to Steven after he was caught. In the middle of that report, I said, “It is important to note that I have not offered him any spiritual panacea or ‘quick fix,’ and I believe Steven understands the importance of his need to resist these temptations over the long haul.” In addition, at the conclusion of my letter, with regard to the legal consequences of his behavior, I told the judge that I was “grateful that he [would] be sentenced for his behavior,” and was also grateful that there would be “hard consequences for him in real time.” At the same time, I urged that the civil penalties be “measured and limited.” By “measured and limited,” I meant principled, defined and deliberate. I did not mean trivial, light, or lenient. I was not requesting a slap on the wrist. If you put together what I actually said, you will see that what I expressed to the judge was my desire for hard consequences for Steven that were measured and limited. My hope is that the judge read the letter more carefully than others have since done.
And last, whenever the spirit of accusation takes center stage, preachers of the gospel need to be ready to respond with the only possible answer. Christ came into this world in order to save wretched sinners. Under the control of the accuser, the unbelieving world runs on condemnation, and loves trafficking in such accusations. Since this is the case, I want to finish with the only reply that can be made to such accusations. If God were to mark iniquities, no one could stand (Ps. 130:3). All of us would go down before the wrath of God, like grass before the scythe. No one is righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10). This is the meaning of the Lord’s saying when dealing with the accusers who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3). When Jesus said that the one without sin should cast the first stone, He did not mean that sin should not be dealt with. It must be dealt with because God dwells in unapproachable holiness (Is. 6:1–3). But it cannot be dealt with by Pharisees with rocks in their hands and anger on their faces. That is the so-called solution of religiosity, filled to the brim with its own moral impotence. In order to deal with our wickedness — and by wickedness, we mean child molestation, child murder, racial enmity, sodomy, slanderous accusation, fornication, adultery, theft, blasphemy, bitterness, disrespect of parents, pornography, hatred, malice, envy, drunkenness, drug abuse, and more — the Son of God had to die on a gibbet. He died there in order to secure the forgiveness of anyone who calls upon Him, and rose again for that same person’s justification, regardless of what that person has done. As the old hymn puts it, “Jesus, what a friend for sinners, Jesus, lover of my soul.” We are not ashamed of His blood; it is our only hope.
If you have occasion to visit our worship services, the chances are good that Steven Sitler will be there, listening to the proclamation of free grace. It is a proclamation that never gets old. He is welcome to be there with us, and you are most welcome also.
Cordially in Christ,
Douglas Wilson, on behalf of the elders of Christ Church