Jesus said, “And whoever welcomes a little child… in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5, NIV).
Now that may not seem like a whole lot, but in the Bible the idea of “welcoming” someone was very specific and meant a lot more than it means today. It meant to be concerned about someone—to care for them, to show kindness to them. To welcome someone in the name of Jesus means to do as He would do, to do so for His sake, to do so as a Christ follower.
Then He added these words: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).
A millstone was a circular stone that was used to grind grain. There were two kinds of millstones: a small one that could be used in the kitchen by hand for small amounts of grinding, and a large one of industrial strength (which is the kind Jesus specifically referenced) that was pulled by a donkey or some other work animal around a grinding vat of some kind. This type of millstone would have been as tall as a man. It was huge and could weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
The imagery of that hung around a neck and then thrown into the deepest parts of the ocean was strong.
But it was meant to be.
That’s how serious it is to mess with a child—to lead them astray, to lead them into sin, to keep them from pursuing the life God has called them to pursue.
The New York Times ran a series of stories this past weekend that are still reverberating through my mind. They were on child sexual abuse and its proliferation on the internet through child porn. If you want a simple summary, it would be this: “Last year, tech companies reported more than 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused—more than double what they found the previous year…. Twenty years ago, the online images were a problem; 10 years ago, an epidemic. Now, the crisis is at a breaking point.”
According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, child pornography is one of the fastest growing businesses online. Most images are of the very young and most are violent in nature. Among people who share images of child pornography called “Peer-to-Peer Sharing,” one of every three had photos of children age three or younger, and almost half had images of children that showed sexual violence.
One of the most disturbing things I’ve read in recent memory was an article in the Washington Post by a woman named Sarah Chang. Sarah works as a federal prosecutor of sexual abuse crimes against children. Her office is responsible for investigating and prosecuting such things as the production, possession and trafficking of child pornography.
During her first week on the job, she said that one of her colleagues gave her some advice on how to cope with what she would have to view in terms of evidence.
Her colleague said, “Turn the sound off.”
All Sarah could imagine was children screaming, crying and shrieking in pain.
Then came her first case file, containing multiple CDs and DVDs showing a young girl being abused by her father, who filmed his crimes with a handheld camera. So she went to the forensic computer lab and braced herself. And despite her colleague’s warning, she knew she didn’t want to remain deaf during her first pass at the evidence. So she left the sound on, in order to feel the horror of it all and to make sure she didn’t miss anything that would affect their case.
But she heard nothing.
She turned it up higher.
She turned the volume up as high as she could, but all she heard was silence. The five-year-old girl said nothing; she didn’t even sob. And that’s what she found in video after video—silent suffering.
She later learned that this is a typical reaction of young sexual abuse victims. Psychiatrists say the silence conveys their sense of helplessness, which is also why they are reluctant to report the incidents and why their tendency is to accommodate their abusers. Their helplessness is rooted in the complete breach of trust they’ve experienced because, all too often, their abusers are people they expected would protect them.
According to the Justice Department, more than 80% of sexual abuse offenses against children are committed by people they know—parents, relatives, daycare providers and other trusted adults.
This is why the vast majority of cases are never reported. The “trusted” adult tells them to keep it a secret, or that it’s an act of love between them, or that they’ll hurt their family, or that it will get them in trouble.
Sarah writes that on some days she has to look at 50 images, and on others up to 300. She dreads the videos the most because not only does she face the children’s silence but – in both the photos and videos – their eyes, she says, are dead.
Jesus’ idea of a millstone seems about right.
The church must awaken to this and now. This is the darkest of the dark, and we are the only light.
What would that mean?
Three things come immediately to mind:
First, pastorally, if you have been abused as a child it’s not your fault. There’s so much guilt and shame carried around by people who have been the victims of child abuse.
It’s not your fault.
I don’t care what they told you. I don’t care if you went along with it.
It’s not your fault.
And you need to process that with professional Christian counselors and get the care that you need. And somehow bring Jesus to bear into this.
Second, report any and all abuse.
“But it’s my husband.”
You report it immediately.
“But it’s my uncle.”
You report it immediately.
“But it’s a staff person at my church and could hurt our church’s reputation.”
You report it immediately.
Third, lead your church to do what churches are uniquely positioned to do, which is to raise awareness and lobby for action.
The Justice Department has produced just two of six required reports that are meant to compile data about internet crimes against children and set goals to eliminate them, and there has been a constant churn of short-term appointees leading the department’s efforts. The first person to hold the position, Francey Hakes, said it was clear from the outset that no one “felt like the position was as important as it was written by Congress to be.”
The federal government has also not lived up to the law’s funding goals, severely crippling efforts to stamp out the activity.
Congress has regularly allocated about half of the $60 million in yearly funding for state and local law enforcement efforts.
I know I’m sounding political. That’s not my intent.
I want to sound prophetically enraged.
James Emery White
James A. Brooks, “Mark,” The New American Commentary.
Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “The Internet Is Overrun with Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?” The New York Times, September 28, 2019, read online.
Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance, “An Explosion in Online Child Sex Abuse: What You Need to Know,” The New York Times, September 29, 2019, read online.
Benedict Carey, “Preying on Children: The Emerging Psychology of Pedophiles,” The New York Times, September 29, 2019, read online.
Mary L. Pulido, “Child Pornography: Basic Facts About a Horrific Crime,” Huffington Post, January 23, 2014, read online.
Sarah Chang, “I Watch Child Pornography to Prosecute Sex Crimes. The Kids’ Silence Is Deafening,” The Washington Post, October 23, 2015, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.