I first wrote a version of this article after a story involving sexual child abuse came to light a few years ago which involved people and ministries I knew from my years in Christian fundamentalism. The odd thing about it to me then was the defensiveness of the pastor who brought her up on church discipline after she was raped and became pregnant by a married church usher. In the end, the pastor’s own notes from all those years ago was THE thing that resulted in the conviction of the rapist. To this day, despite the conviction, the pastor has still never publicly or privately acknowledged any wrong doing or even lapse in judgement. Apparently, whatever he believes about Christ and the gospel, it doesn’t equip him to humbly self-examine or repair with someone who says he has hurt them. He couldn’t say, “I blew it. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?” And when our leaders can’t say it, don’t be surprised when our congregations can’t say it either.
In that first post years ago, I said this.
What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the fundamentalist authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who were NOT the abusers seemed OK with the ones who were. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Now, there is a new set of allegations in conservative evangelicalism involving Sovereign Grace Ministries and its leaders, and the crickets are chirping in the dead silence of leaders I respect. I note that when the Penn State scandal broke out, there were all kinds of articles written by conservative evangelicals. And they were written before Sandusky was convicted, many even before Joe Paterno released any public statements.
With all of our positive tweets and blog articles about good things among evangelicals and critical tweets and articles about bad things among those who are not conservative evangelicals, I think we are going to undo our gospel testimony in horrible ways if we can’t be honest about poor judgement and possible outright breaking of the law in our own ranks. We are going to UNDO our GOSPEL testimony. I’m not kidding here. We are at a fork in the road, and the consequences to our testimony are serious. Some apparently think that our testimony will be more sullied if we DO address it. But I believe with my whole heart that our gospel testimony will be damaged, possibly beyond repair, if we DON’T.
The gospel is for THESE moments—not just for other ministries or leaders, but for ourselves! The gospel’s relevance for these very moments is what drew me out of my fundamentalist baptist upbringing toward the reformed view of the gospel and grace. I needed a gospel that equipped me to repent twenty years after I first professed belief in Christ. I needed good news that equipped me to be honest about the darkest places in my heart even though others thought of me as a Christian leader in high school and college. Others need this same gospel too—one that is as effective for us thirty years after we first professed belief in Christ as it was on the day we first understood our need for Him. One that is effective when we are in despair because WE were the ones making wrong choices with long consequences when we were supposed to be discipling others. And we lose the beautiful testimony of this gospel if we don’t apply it honestly and publicly about things the public already knows. As I said before, when our leaders can’t acknowledge wrongdoing and poor choices, don’t be surprised when our congregations don’t either.
If we’re going to live out this gospel we believe, we need to …
1) Acknowledge the allegations. Everyone already knows. There is no value to ignoring it. That ship has sailed. Maybe you don’t want to gossip. It’s healthy to focus on that which is pure and praiseworthy, right? But the same reasons we don’t feel that certain types of articles on Beyonce or Penn State violate those principles apply here as well.
2) Eschew choosing scapegoats that we then cut off and abandon. That’s what ministries do when the outcry gets loud enough that they finally must answer it, but they are still not ready to do humble, repentant business with God and those hurt by their actions. They pick the guy whose name is most mentioned but not the one who is actually the most powerful. And they quietly (or not so quietly) cut them off and send them on their way.
3) Strongly support the leaders under question in HUMBLY CHOOSING REPENTANCE. What if Big Name Leader under question walked up to a podium to make a humble statement with Big Name Leader #2 and #3 standing by his side, helping him to speak a humble acknowledgement of the issues of which he is accused?! What if they walked with him to court to face his accuser and encouraged him to not explain away his action but honestly own his mistakes and the cost they had on others?
4) Avoid holding accusers to a standard of our own choosing. Maybe accusers are not believers. Maybe they do gossip. Maybe they say hateful things. Many likely do have things for which they need to repent. But those things are not equal to a satanic desire to bring down a ministry. Those are not equal to Christian persecution. That seems obvious to me, but the world view of some Christians is primed against outsiders they think want to take down a ministry. The reformed view of the faith that has been precious to me is that I need to be more suspicious of MY inner tendencies apart from Christ than someone criticizing me from the outside.
When talking about accusations from someone without power against someone with power, the person with power bears the greater responsibility. Kings are heard and obeyed when they whisper, but the oppressed must use a megaphone. The Bible gives us tools that even out the tendency of fallen man to respect the whisper of the king over the outcry of the victim.
The Bible principle at play is that we expect more of the one who has been given more. Maybe they have more power. Maybe they have more knowledge. Maybe they have more influence. Maybe they have more support. To whom much is given, much more is required (Luke 12). It’s a natural law of God’s design. I especially expect more of those with a better understanding of the gospel. The more you understand and teach the gospel, the more you should be falling over yourself to repent and repair when someone raises an accusation against you.
I have several burdens right now on this topic. I pray that leaders would understand and teach how to minister real grace to the victim. I highly recommend G.R.A.C.E., headed by Boz Tchividjian (Tullian’s brother) to anyone trying to figure out what to do next when allegations are brought up in your ministry or congregation. I pray also that leaders would build a culture in churches and ministries that gives potential abusers an avenue to get counsel and help BEFORE they act out on things.
But most of all, I pray for leaders who will give testimony of a gospel that allows even those who for years have discipled others to humble themselves and admit without deflection their own failures. REPENT. What beautiful freedom we have in Christ to say, “Yes, under my watch, this specific thing did happen. It was wrong. I did not protect this person. I participated in injustice. And I am very sorry.” Then CHANGE. Do things differently. Repair what you can, and acknowledge what you can’t. That very gospel we talk about so much empowers us to face our sin head on, to admit it, to lay it at the foot of the cross, and to walk away changed. It equips you and I to get up and go in a new direction without shame. Christ’s death frees us from the chains of our own sins and the shame from mistakes for which we should have known better. His life applied to our account lets us walk forward in the truest righteousness of all—His.
Evangelical leaders, take up the call in Isaiah 1 that is echoed in James. Acknowledge sin and poor judgement within our own camps. Right wrongs. Correct injustice. There is a bomb in the back yard of conservative evangelicalism. Defuse it before it blows up in our faces. The true gospel equips us to do this!