Special Report: Is the house of God open to everyone?

Acceptance and roles of sex offenders in the church evolving

LAWRENCE COUNTY, AR (KAIT) – It's a question that delivers quite a bit of controversy in the church setting. Should sex offenders be allowed in the church? If so, what capacity can they serve?

According to most Christian leaders, the answer is that these offenders should be allowed in the church; however, they should be closely monitored. According to Christianity Today, 80% of 3,000 church leaders surveyed stated sex offenders should be allowed in church. However, some disagree on how sex offenders should serve. Click here to read about the study.

"People make bad decisions and do some very bad things. They are involved in wickedness and immorality and evilness because they don't know Christ or they're not followers of Christ. He died on the cross so that people could have forgiveness," said Dr. Archie Mason, senior pastor at Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro.

Mason is among the majority of pastors who believe sex offenders should be allowed in church to worship.

"As believers, the bible teaches us to be as wise as a serpent, but as gentle as a dove. We are to have wisdom. We're not to be naïve about things," said Mason. "This is probably a volatile issue where people have different opinions about what should take place. All I can always say is let's go to scripture. Let's see what Christ says. Let's see how he would respond."

"I say go to the gospel, and the message of the gospel is that God has forgiven us and the result of that is we ought to forgive others," said Jason Noel, senior pastor at East Side Baptist Church in Paragould. "We start with that basic point of the gospel. You have been forgiven of that entire debt of your sin. As a result, you should be willing to forgive those who sin against you."

Noel said he's worked with sex offenders at other churches. In his 15 years of ministering, he's only worked with three registered sex offenders. He said he's never worked personally with a sex offender in Paragould.

"What is forgiveness? When we define forgiveness as I'm going to act like that what you did didn't really happen? That's not forgiveness. That's denial," said Noel. "Forgiveness is saying, I'm not going to hold you hostage to this anymore, and I'm going to process through this. I'm going to go on and as far as possible, we'll continue in relationship, but sometimes that's not possible."

Noel said while most Christians understand forgiveness, it's difficult for them to practice it. He said some crimes and sins are so egregious; a person can't forgive the offender.

"If we're talking about someone who does something that's relatively minor, most of us are good at forgiving, but the more personal it gets and egregious it gets, the more difficult it gets to forgive," said Noel.

Region 8 News found a registered level three sex offender living in Lawrence County, who agreed to talk to us only if we hid his identity. For the sake of this story, we'll call him "Bill." Bill did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation against his church.

Bill was arrested in 1990 on charges of sexual assault against a 40-year old woman. He was sentenced to spend seven years in prison for the crime, which he claims he didn't do.

"As far as anything that happened, nothing happened. I have no problem with her. I have no hard feelings against her. I've prayed for her all the time," said Bill. "She has told the people that nothing happened, which God has blessed me through this whole ordeal."

Even though Bill claims he's innocent, he's still a registered sex offender in Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Department of Correction, Bill has a "high" risk of reoffending. According to the ADC, the 56-year old is now required to stay away from alcohol/drugs and is encouraged to stay away from situations "that give him unsupervised access to underage persons."

Among Bill's convictions are battery in the first degree, batter, forgery, escape, assault with a dangerous weapon, grand larceny and two counts of burglary.

"I went to Cummins and then I came back to Pine Bluff because I was out on a special thing to work outside the prison," said Bill. "It's hard. It's hard on my family. It's been hard on me."

"You can't imagine how much it means to a person to lose time with his family, children," said Bill, who claimed he was imprisoned four different times.

"If you can't shake my hand in honesty, you're not a Christian. You can't hold a grudge against people for the things they do because every time you point at me, look here. It's an old saying; I got three times the same guilt hanging on my shoulders, because I am convicting you. That's not my job to convict you," said Bill. "God tells us if we can't forgive our brothers of their transgressions against us, how can we expect to be forgiven of our sins?"

Bill said he changed his life around when he got out of prison. For the last ten years, he's been a member of a church in Lawrence County. He said every parent who attends his church knows of his criminal history.

"I walk out here with my head up just like you do. I have that right because God has forgiven me for my sins, even the ones I was accused of that I didn't do. He has made provisions for me," said Bill. "God tells us to go out and tell the gospel to each and every person, not just one. You can't be forgiven of sins if you're not a sinner."

Bill said he wasn't sure if he'd be welcomed in the church after getting released from prison. He said that wasn't his concern anyway.

"I wasn't doing it to serve people. I was doing it to serve God," said Bill. "I've lost so much, but you know, God said we would have trials and tribulations, and go through a lot of things, and the only way I've made it is because of the strength of God's spirit in me."

Region 8 News contacted the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office about Bill's story. Police indicated they have not had any problems with him since his release from prison.

While Bill says he's happy with his church home, he said other sex offenders are not like him. He said the church does need to be aware of the intentions of others.

"Can we really call ourselves the church if we looked at someone's past and said, you're past is really too sketchy, so you're not welcome in this place?" said Noel. "As believers, there's not an opt-out clause for forgiveness."

Noel said his church leaders are instructed on how to handle sex offenders and other convicts. He said police officers in the congregation help with security.

"They're expected when they are in the church, to be a cooperating, functioning part of what we're doing here," said Noel. "We have adults whose eyes are always open. We watch for anything that's out of the ordinary with our kids and basically our rule of thumb is, if something looks strange, say something."

In some instances, Noel said certain offenders and criminals would not be allowed to worship with his congregation. He said that's a matter of the person's intent.

"The house of God is open to everyone, but the house of God is not open to people who come in and do what they want to do," said Noel. "I'm not as worried about the folks who have been convicted because most of them don't want to go back to jail. I'm worried about the folks who have not been convicted yet. The guys who might wander in off of the street who have bad motivation. They have ill intent."

Central Baptist Church has some of the same guidelines in dealing with sex offenders. Mason said sex offenders must go through background checks before becoming members of the congregation. Mason also said certain offenders are not allowed in some parts of the ministry.

"A lot of times people have made mistakes and things have happened in their life. I share with them that anyone that's going to serve in the area of preschool or children or students or college students, that we do a background check," said Mason. "We do have plans in place. No one can roam through the preschool area. It's a secure area. You just can't roam around in the children's area. That's a secure area. So I would say yeah, that person can come. If we know those circumstances, we try to help them and guide them because some people are coming because they sense the spirit of God in their life, they're seeking forgiveness."

Mason continued.

"But also we have to be honest that there are some people who have the wrong motives," said Mason.

"(Some people say) God can't forgive me, and man I want to say God can and he will. If we can get that story across, that God is a God. Jesus is the God of forgiveness, he'll change their life," said Mason.

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