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Children, Church and the Law

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22 May 2017

A guide to the government’s laws for Christian Organisations and the Church

“In the work I did running an orphan-care programme through churches, I would hear church leaders saying things like, “The law does not apply to us” or “We are above the law” – and at first I thought it was arrogance, but soon I realised it was actually ignorance. Leaders did not know how key the country’s law was to their working with children.” So says Erica Greathead, author of Children, Church and the Law, a book published last year in South Africa, to help those working with children, churches in particular, know the law of the land as it relates to children. 

“It sounds obvious,” says Erica, “But the country’s law is the very most basic of standards, it is like the foundation on which you can build, but if you don’t know the law and what it means, you cannot make sure you are working up to that very base-line standard.” 

This is why Erica tackled this mammoth, and tedious, task. “I knew there was a gap and that it needed to be filled, and it seemed God was leading me to do this. I kept saying, “God, why me? I don’t know anything about the law!” I felt God encourage me that I would meet the experts I needed to along the way, and that is what happened. I realised later that this was exactly why I was the right person for the job – in order for the law to be made understandable by the average person involved in Children’s work, it needed to be communicated in a way that someone like me would understand it.  

South African law was re-written after democracy and this meant an entire new Children’s Act, which in some ways made it easier, says Erica, because it all changed at once. There were many versions written by various institutions to help people understand it and implement well, but nothing for the Church as it related to specific issues that emerge in ministry to children. Erica lead a project called Care for Kids, under an NGO in Cape Town that serves the church in its response to poverty, injustice and division, and in her work discovered that many church leaders had no idea that the law had even changed.  

In partnership with another local Christian network, Erica began the research that would result in a book that will help churches comply with the law and in so doing, protect children in more educated ways.

What would she say to a team, organisation or church wanting to undertake this for their country? Erica has ten basic tips: 

  1. Don’t attempt this without a committed prayer team who will support you throughout the project. Whenever work towards improved protection of children takes place, there is enormous spiritual attack, so it is vital you have prayer warriors who will pray.  

  1. Get input and advice from the poor, economically vulnerable communities before you hear from affluent groups, because they know what is really going on and what really needs to be put in place, as opposed to the affluent groups who think they know but are often out of touch. 

  1. Using question and answer style makes it easier for people to use and easier to write it up, and makes it easier to reference and find information that is relevant to a specific issue. Having an index is important.   

  1. Having a team was key to the success of the project – from a communications person who helped frame the chapters and content, to a project manager who made sure it moved along well, to a person who worked with children daily in a church context, who helped with examples.  

  1. Develop a diverse reference group who will work through the chapters with you a number of times, checking for relevance, what to include, good examples and contextual issues. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to take a stand on something that the broader church may disagree with, but is contextually crucial. For example, some parts of the South African church are fighting for the right to corporal punishment (mainly affluent churches), whilst the reality is that the context of South Africa with high child abuse rates, and often from discipline gone wrong, it is key that the Church support this law, instead of fight it.  

  1. Use information from credible and authentic research organisations, such as universities etc. as that gives your project credibility that it will not have if you use unknown sources.  

  1. Find a lawyer or lawyers who will read the book chapter by chapter, ensuring that the simplification of the law does not mean its inaccuracy. Some lawyers will use their pro-bono hours for this kind of work. Don’t be afraid to ask and trust God for provision of the right people at the right time.  

  1. Know what international agreements your country has signed with global entities, such as the United Nations Rights of the Child, for example.  

  2.  Realise this is a long, slow process that will not happen overnight but the sooner you start, the better. Listening, contextualising and learning to communicate it well, takes lots of time – four years in this case – but the end product is so good for children, and helps those working with children, do so better. 

“If the church wants to be seen as a light in the area of child protection, and not as an organisation who protects child abusers, for example, we need to be more intentional about abiding with the law, and knowing it well is the first step in doing that,” says Erica. “We have to be a light and voice in the area of Child Protection, and having a clear explanation of the law as it relates to children, is very helpful in that endeavour and vision.” 

If you would like to purchase a copy of Children, Church and the Law in book or PDF format for further clarity or an example, please email publications@warehouse.org.za

By Linda Martindale, Micah Global