Anabaptist Exceptionalism and Sexual Abuse

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Two weeks ago, Think Truth published Kristen Yoder’s excellent review of the book In the Name of Mission Work,” by Doeurldy Cadet. If you haven’t read her review already, you can do so here. And if her review hasn’t convinced you to read the book, I don’t know what I can do further to convince you—but you really should read the book. But we must do more than just read; the purpose of reading is to learn how to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. Much outrage has been directed at the fact that Jeriah Mast was allowed to return to Haiti after being sent home in 2013 when abuse first came to light. However, I think a more fundamental issue is the fact that Jeriah was not properly held accountable for his actions in 2013. How did this happen?

Whenever humans form groups, they tend to see their own group as particularly special. Anabaptists are no exception. As a result, we tend to fall victim to thought patterns that suggest that we’re an exception to the general rule. For our community, I call this thinking “Anabaptist exceptionalism.” In this article, I’d like to explore two intertwined facets of Anabaptist exceptionalism that I believe laid the groundwork for the tragedy that unfolded.

The first facet I’d like to explore is the idea that as Anabaptists we’re somehow exempt from the laws of the land. While it is true that Christian behavior is generally in line with the laws of the land,1 we are still commanded to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13). Why does God care about whether we submit to the zoning board, the safety inspector, or the Bureau of Labor? “That by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15)—so those on the outside have nothing evil to say about us. Though we may not agree with all laws, the world does notice whether we keep the law.

It’s not obvious why, despite the Bible’s clear direction in this area, and the Anabaptist hermeneutic which emphasizes taking commands literally, ignoring the law is so common in Anabaptist circles. Perhaps it’s because, particularly in extremely conservative circles, there tends to be a divergence between the written standards and actual practice, so people become used to breaking church standards in minor ways, and therefore are comfortable doing the same thing with secular laws.2 Perhaps because as Anabaptists, we’ve obtained religious exemptions in areas such as military service or education, we assume that we’re somehow also exempt from following other laws, despite those laws having no conflict with our religious beliefs. Perhaps, rooted in a misunderstanding of two kingdom principles, the laws of the kingdoms of this world are somehow viewed as evil and unnecessary. Or perhaps we, like non-Christians, are simply comfortable breaking the law if we’re in little danger of getting caught—in other words, Scripture has not changed the way we live in this area.

Regardless of the cause, the fact is that too often, when someone in our churches has a run-in with the law over some minor infraction, the church’s attitude is one of sympathy, sometimes paired with a certain level of distaste for law enforcement. This attitude has far-reaching effects. When we move from the relatively fair and corruption-free United States to a third-world country with a legal system that leaves much to be desired, this existing attitude is only magnified. While I recognize the difficulty of navigating corrupt legal systems, the solution does not lie in disrespecting or simply ignoring the law. Though imperfect and written by fallible men, laws exist for a reason. Society and culture are structured around the established norms codified in the law. When laws are ignored, misunderstandings result. For example, in his book, Cadet describes the completely avoidable tension among CAM’s Haitian employees that resulted from their ignorance of and/or noncompliance with Haitian labor law. When he suggested CAM employ a local consultant or law firm to ensure they were compliant with Haitian law (which they were naturally unfamiliar with, as foreigners), he received a telling response: “We have the cross, so we don’t need earthly laws.”3 This attitude is patently unbiblical. God does not consider earthly laws unnecessary; on the contrary, he has appointed governmental ministers to establish and enforce laws, and calls on Christians to be subject to them.4 When we fail to do so, we leave a poor testimony to the world around us.

Of course it is true that if we live as Christians, we should never be guilty of any serious crimes. However, the Fall is universal; all of us are depraved. No group membership, creedal affirmation, or set of outward appearances can exclude someone from the potential for serious sin. While few would openly disagree with this idea, the deep-seated impulses of the heart are revealed by our reaction to serious sin in the church. While I recognize a certain level of denial is a natural response in the immediate shock of sexual misconduct allegations, too often, Anabaptists ignore credible allegations because we refuse to acknowledge that even well-respected members of our communities (despite external appearances) are fallen humans capable of grave sin. When the evidence rises before our faces in undeniable clarity that cannot be ignored, we tend to downplay the severity of what has happened, instead of recognizing that one of “our own” is guilty of serious crimes. Even worse, attempts are sometimes made to assign partial blame to the victim, further hurting those that have already been terribly wronged, rather than facing the ugly truth.

If it is finally recognized that wrong has been done, and crimes have been committed, there is still often a reluctance to involve law enforcement. Why? Aren’t they “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil”? (Romans 13:4b) Aren’t we willing to admit that sexual predators in our communities fit the definition of “him who practices evil”? This too is Anabaptist exceptionalism at work. It’s as if, somehow, it’s different—the crime isn’t as serious, the act isn’t as depraved, the perpetrator is not as evil—when it happens within the cozy confines of our churches and culture. Law enforcement is excluded in favor of handling the matter “internally,” which in practice means no real consequences for the perpetrator. Not only is this a distortion of justice, such internal handling of sex crimes often fails to protect the community (both the church community, and society at large) from further victimization. Though sometimes effort is made to protect the victims from further abuse, other times, the status quo is promptly restored under a misconstrued sense of “forgiveness” for the offender. True forgiveness is desiring the rehabilitation of the offender—not writing them off as hopelessly evil. However, we must recognize that rehabilitation begins with holding the offender accountable for their actions. We cannot place them in positions of trust as if nothing happened, and expect all to turn out well in the end. Yet too often, this is precisely what happens.

In the case of child abuse, not only is internal handling of the matter ill-advised, in most cases, it is illegal. Under mandated reporting laws, school teachers and members of the clergy are required to report any known or suspected child abuse.5 However, Anabaptists seldom take these laws seriously; instead, they prefer to act as if they’re exempt. I would argue that regardless of the requirements of the law, all abuse should be reported. Dealing with these crimes is one of the reasons God has appointed government; we shouldn’t need a mandated reporting law to force us to make use of it!

Sexual abuse is a grave tragedy whenever and wherever it happens. Given man’s universal depravity, it is inevitable that it will happen in our midst, though it should be an extremely rare occurrence if our communities are truly seeking to be transformed by the power of the gospel. But when it happens, the way it is handled can greatly affect the scope of the tragedy. Imagine a world in which Jeriah would have been held criminally accountable for his Haitian crimes when they were first reported in 2013. How many innocent children could have been spared from victimization? God’s name is blasphemed whenever the church is rocked by public scandal, but how much less the scandal would have been if it would have been dealt with promptly, instead of six years later! If there had been a transparent, public revelation of Jeriah’s Haitian crimes in 2013, coupled with church support of appropriate criminal consequences, it might have emboldened his earlier stateside victims to come forward, experience the vindication of their abuser being held accountable, and move forward in the healing process at a much earlier date. Maybe, just maybe, if our church communities had a culture of respect for the law and accountability for criminal behavior, those stateside victims would have felt empowered to report him before he ever reached the mission field. And maybe, just maybe, if Jeriah’s sin had been brought to light and appropriately dealt with early on, Jeriah could have gone on to live a life of holiness in Christ after serving his sentence. I don’t know, but the matters at stake are too important, and the consequences (temporal and eternal) are too grave, for us not to try our utmost.


  1. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23, emphasis mine) All scripture taken from the New King James Version.
  2. Credit to Drew Barnard for first suggesting this theory to me.
  3. Doeurldy Cadet, In the Name of Mission Work” (self-pub., Amazon, n.d.), 145–46
  4. See Romans 13:1
  5. Exact details of the laws vary by state, some have less requirements, a few require everyone to report, not just professionals. You can search the laws in your specific state here:
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About the Author:

Ryan Zimmerman is a software engineer who is passionate about seeing people united in pursuit of truth, with a commitment to live it out. He enjoys good books and deep conversation, with an occasional hike for a change of scenery.

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