Kanakuk Kamps and the urgency of accountability: Salvation in three tenses and the peril of Christless Christianity

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The United Nations has condemned a bombing at an Indonesian church on Palm Sunday, an attack that wounded twenty people. Turkey is expelling Christian pastors as its leaders continue their move from democracy to Islamic nationalism. 

Closer to home, a group of college students is suing the US Department of Education, seeking to eliminate the religious exemption that enables Christian colleges to align their practices with historic Christian doctrine. Baylor University is among more than two dozen faith-based schools named in the class-action lawsuit. 

However, the greatest threats to the church are not from without but from within.

“There is no statute of limitations on truth” 

Kanakuk Kamps is one of the largest Christian camps in the world. Since its founding in 1926, it claims to have served more than 450,000 campers. Each summer, approximately twenty thousand kids pass through its gates outside of Branson, Missouri, and in other locations. Numerous families in the churches I pastored have had wonderful experiences with Kanakuk. 

Now, tragically, Kanakuk is back in the news for all the wrong reasons. 

Former Kanakuk director Pete Newman went to prison in 2010 for abusing boys. Nineteen victims were identified in the initial investigation against him. However, Christian journalists David and Nancy French recently published an extensive article noting that the damage could be far worse. 

They describe Newman as enormously charismatic: “Girls wanted to date him, guys wanted to be him, and children wanted to follow him.” However, as they note in deeply disturbing detail, he abused boys in camp cabins, in the gym, in the pool, in the showers, on father-son retreats, and on a mission trip to China. They report that camp leaders were extremely slow to respond to rising allegations against him. 

A site called “Facts About Kanakuk” lists other former Kanakuk staff and associates who have been convicted of sexual abuse of minors. Christianity Today reports that one of Newman’s victims died by suicide in 2019. 

It also notes that Kananuk has since put on child protection training seminars for leaders from more than four hundred and fifty fellow Christian camps and ministry organizations. Kanakuk now lists detailed guidelines regarding contact, interaction, and conversations which staff members can have with campers. 

However, David and Nancy French note that the number of Kanakuk victims who have come forward remains unknown since many cases were settled with nondisclosure agreements. They explain the reason for their report: “There is no statute of limitations on truth.”

A catastrophic weakness in our theology 

Any biblical response should begin with the fact that God loves children and condemns anyone who victimizes them. Jesus stated bluntly that for such a predator, “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). The abuse of a single child anywhere in the world grieves the heart of our Father and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. 

Why, then, would a camp run by evangelical Christians be susceptible to such horrific sin? It seems to me that evangelicals suffer from a catastrophic weakness in our theology.

We know that salvation is in three tenses: 

  1. We have been saved from condemnation as sinners and granted salvation as the children of God. 
  2. We are being saved through the process of daily sanctification. 
  3. And we will be saved from physical death to eternal life in heaven. 

We know that we must depend on God for the first and third tenses of salvation. We cannot save ourselves from our sins (Ephesians 2:8–9). We obviously cannot save ourselves from physical death once we die and are dependent on God to raise us to eternal life with him (John 11:25–26). 

However, we all too easily ignore the fact that we are just as dependent on God for the second tense of salvation. We fall prey to the lies of our fallen culture that promote self-sufficiency and reward external success. This is true of charismatic figures like Pete Newman, brilliant communicators like Ravi Zacharias, and trendsetting innovators like Bill Hybels. Too many leaders forget that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1) and that “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). 

The body of Christ is complicit here. The more famous a Christian leader becomes, the less we seem to hold them accountable for the sins to which all people are tempted. We want heroes to value and emulate and resist our biblical responsibility to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). 

So long as this cycle of accountability avoidance continues, more tragedies will make more headlines, dishonoring our Lord and grieving his heart.

“Encourage one another and build one another up” 

This is where Easter becomes especially relevant. 

On the day after billions of Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fact is that he is just as alive and active as he was when he first rose from the grave. He is just as committed to interceding for us (Romans 8:34), walking with us (Matthew 28:20), forgiving us (1 John 1:9), and empowering us (Acts 1:8) as when he first walked our broken world. 

But we, like his first followers, must choose to follow him. We must admit Jesus was right when he told us, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We must submit to his Spirit each day and all through the day (Ephesians 5:18). We must ask him to make us like himself (Romans 8:29) “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). 

We must hold each other accountable to God’s best for us (Proverbs 27:17) as we “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We must start every day by admitting how much we need Jesus to empower us by his omnipotent grace.

Christless Christianity is no Christianity at all. 

Alexander Maclaren was right: “The risen life of Jesus is the nourishment and strengthening and blessing and life of a Christian.” 

Will you invite the risen Lord to be glorified in your life today? 

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