Gospel Testimony Amidst Abuse in Our Own Backyard

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!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
  remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
  learn to do good;
seek justice,
  correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
  plead the widow’s cause.
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
  though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
  though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”
(Isaiah 1:16-18 ESV)

19 Responses to Gospel Testimony Amidst Abuse in Our Own Backyard

  1. Rachael Starke February 7, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    Thanks for being willing to speak to the sins within our own camp, Wendy. You are spot on.

    Having grown up in a ministry family, and lived all my life in the shadow of big name churches and seminaries, I've seen these situations played out repeatedly. There are always two sin factors that make genuine repentance and change so hard:

    The sinful pride of the one in ministry, who for all his/her talk of the ministry being God's, cannot let go of it, even when it's obvious he/she should.

    The even more sinful pride of those who respond to someone's genuine repentance/change with condemnation, gossip and glee (all masked with pious talk about the necessary purity of the church), instead of sorrowful rejoicing over God's grace in granting repentance.

    But in this situation there's a third factor that makes genuine repentance even more difficult. (And I'm praying I speak as carefully and grace-fully as you did, and for grace from other commenters if I still fail.) When your theology has intertwined in it a belief that God still speaks and leads people through means other than Scripture, it's much, much more difficult to say “I got it wrong”, when you believe with all your heart that your direction came from God Himself.

  2. Wendy February 7, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    “The even more sinful pride of those who respond to someone's genuine repentance/change with condemnation, gossip and glee (all masked with pious talk about the necessary purity of the church), instead of sorrowful rejoicing over God's grace in granting repentance.”

    Good point, Rachel. If there is genuine movement toward transparency, repentance, and correction, I hope they will be encouraged positively to continue down that road. I know I need such encouragement when I finally admit to myself my own wrongdoings against others.

  3. http://www.joyfilleddays.com February 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    I agree that this is the right course of action IF the allegations are true. It is possible that allegations are false. Admitting wrong is only appropriate if wrong has been done. If my husband were “accused” of something horrid, I would hope the church would judge justly, and that he would remain innocent until proven guilty.

  4. Wendy February 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    Certainly! But though the legal case hasn't been tried, there is enough documented public testimony to fit Paul's standard in 2 Cor. 13 of two or three witnesses. Plus there is the arrest and indictment of a youth ministry leader. Something happened under leadership's watch at SGM, there is no doubt about it. Maybe not everything that they are accused of happened exactly the way it's written, but I guarantee there is something that someone needs to publicly address, repent of, and attempt to repair. These things are in the public record now.

  5. Ali February 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Thanks for addressing this, Wendy. I have been disappointed in the lack of public response by the “big dogs”. I hope they are doing something behind the scenes, but they need to speak publicly (without pre-judging the situation) or be rightly criticized for favouritism and double standards.

    I hope this message is being carried to them.

  6. http://www.joyfilleddays.com February 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Apologies, Wendy. I somehow missed that there were four kids involved. you are right. Imagine the heart of a mother when the church brushes over this? And the damage done to the child….uh. The place she thought to be a safe haven for her family, now becomes the place where they are the “enemies ” for speaking out against abuse. I misread the article. Yes, God's justice and glory is more important than a perverted, “above-the-law minded” “pastor's” reputation. We have to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates. Blessings!

  7. Wendy February 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    No worries, JoyFilledDays. It's a tangled web to navigate.

  8. Wendy February 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    Rachael, I've read through and thought about your third factor several times since first reading your comment. I don't like to think that is the implication of that theological view, but you raise an important point to consider. If one holds to that view, it must be bounded in obedience first to God's explicit instructions in His written Word. I guess I never considered that it wasn't always bounded that way. But I shouldn't assume a belief not explicitly stated.

  9. Dee February 8, 2013 at 2:48 am #

    Thank you for this wonderful post. It will help some hurting people to realize that they are not being overlooked or disregarded.

  10. Bethany February 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Ignoring this issue, cutting off association with those involved, all adds to the perception of our culture today that the Church is full of hypocrites, and why they are leaving church by the thousands…

    I am so troubled by this phenomenon, and I love this post! We can't be afraid that being transparent will hurt our testimony, its the pretending that causes distrust.

    I hate the US vs. THEM mentality that this perpetuates.

    Good post.

  11. Anonymous February 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    Don’t know if this anon. can be posted but we ought pray that the Lord will continue to bring deeds of darkness in His bride even now into the light so that they may be dealt with.

    For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God 1 Pet 4:17a

    The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Rom 13: 12

    Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness. Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. 2 Tim 2:19b-21

  12. EMSoliDeoGloria February 8, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing this. I left my SGM church about 10 months after reaching a point where I could no longer commend the national organization and had growing concerns for the direction of the local church.

    These are the nitty-gritty situations where we live out our gospel transformation. Where we choose to defend the weak instead of doing what's comfortable or defending our own reputations. And the church as a whole must speak – everyone understands failure but hypocrisy smells putrid.

  13. Cory February 8, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Thank you for this post. Many years ago I experienced hurt at the hand of a ministry leader, as were many others, but thankfully our church leadership and conference dealt with it Biblically and thoroughly. I am so thankful we serve a God who uses each of us for His purpose and glory in spite of our sinfulness. In the situation mentioned above, thousands of people around the world heard the gospel message because of this man's ministry over the years. Praise God! In no way does this minimize what he did or the profound hurt he caused. Christians must face up to their sins or it damages our testimony to an already doubting world.

    Wendy, would you consider writing about the difference between fundamentalism, evangelicalism and reformed theology? I find these terms confusing. Answers.com defines fundamentalism as: “Conservative Protestant movement that arose out of 19th-century millennialism in the U.S. It emphasized as fundamental the literal truth of the Bible, the imminent physical Second Coming of Jesus, the virgin birth, resurrection, and atonement…..Displeasure over the teaching of evolution, which many believed could not be reconciled with the Bible, and over biblical criticism gave fundamentalism momentum in the 1920s…. and fundamentalist groups within some Baptist and Presbyterian denominations broke away to form new churches.

    According to the definition, “It emphasized as fundamental the literal truth of the Bible, the imminent physical Second Coming of Jesus, the virgin birth, resurrection, and atonement”, I am a fundamentalist. But I get the impression from this post and others that you aren't so keen on fundamentalism. I could be reading this all wrong, and I am not criticizing your beliefs. I just want to understand. It can all be so complicated for my simple mind to comprehend! Defining all three of these terms would be so helpful.

    I grew up Conservative Baptist and then became a member of the Evangelical Free Church and I have appreciated and loved both denominations. Our core beliefs line up well with what you believe, as far as I can tell. Our sons developed a strong biblical foundation growing up in the church and it is still their foundation in adulthood.

    I appreciate your writings. I don't always agree with your take on things (rarely), but you give me so much to think and pray about and then to search the Scriptures for myself and determine exactly what I believe. God had used you to change my mind on an issue a few different times.

    Thank you, Wendy.

  14. Wendy February 8, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    Good question, Cory. I think the term fundamentalist is a relative term. It all depends on who you compare yourself too.

    Where I differed from the fundamentalism in which I grew up is the idea of separation — how much fellowship can/should you have with those who don't define things the same as you? There is a first line of demarcation — for instance, I won't go to a church if they don't agree to the basic tenets of the faith. However, the fundamentalists I knew practiced a second line of demarcation — separating from brothers who believed the same as them because those brothers had associations with people with whom fundamentalists disagreed. I did not see that type of cutting off of a brother biblically supported.

    That's a short answer.

  15. Weary Traveler February 9, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    I completely agree. One thing that concerns me is that churches usually don't respond any differently from secular people or organizations when allegations come up. Often, instead of admitting wrong and taking responsibility for their actions, they threaten the victim, attack them verbally and in trying to discredit them they put them through extra trauma.

    Ccef.org has a great audio on how the church should handle abuse allegations. Their premise is due to the position of authority and power that when an allegation surfaces, church leaders should not be allowed to do their duties until the investigation is over.

    Instead, what often happens is an attempt to cover up and hide the issue. Victims usually leave in shame and feel even worse then before speaking up.

    Here is a link to the audio. One of the speakers, Tim Lane, was my pastor during college at a PCA (reformed) church.


    Wendy, I agree about not hiding the churches flaws…it's extremely hard to make a difference when everyone knows about serious flaws and no one is talking about it! I am currently taking counseling courses through ccef.org to try and one day make a difference in how churches respond to these types of situations. I recently wrote a blog post also stating that the church needs to seek to follow Christ better in having biblical relationships and develop a sense of community that truly encourages and supports the members. I'd be thankful if you had time to read it. http://frompaintohope.blogspot.com/

  16. carole February 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    I agree – I think it right that the nation was outraged at the Penn State scandal. Editorial pieces and op-eds were plenteous on the subject. Where are the Christians speaking out against the injustices borne by spiritually and physically abused victims at SGM (and more)?

    I attended a church where the cover up of criminal sexual conduct came to light not long ago. That church continues on, unchallenged, unexposed. (My husband and I had moved on to a healthy church 4 years prior to this news, so we are not members.) If it is right to speak up in the face of injustice then how do we go about exposing these leaders in an appropriate way? There is a sense that if I talk about it, or warn people about that church, that I am a gossip or stirring up strife.

  17. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. February 15, 2013 at 5:28 am #

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  18. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. February 15, 2013 at 5:38 am #

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  19. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. February 15, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. Have not come across any scandal until today that I was directly connected to…

    Then today I heard for the first time of the details of ABWE firing GRACE for the way in which GRACE was investigating sexual abuse that was first reported in 1989 and potentially occurred then and more than once because the abuser was not dealt with appropriately.

    I grew up as an MK and knew people then in ABWE who are still very precious to me now. It is appalling that some mission boards and Christian ministries can be secretive and do not feel accountable to basic child protection laws or rules of professionalism.

    There is separation from the world, but never cover-up of evil excused as “in-house/in-family issues”. It reminds me of the Corinthian church- and yet so many in the circles I grew up in might judge harshly the kinds of things that were going on in Corinth.

    I'm not sure we're so far from it, or that we ever were- I think the internet has opened up a venue for people who have been victimized to take a much-needed stand against abuse of all kinds, and frankly, the church needs to wake up and stop enabling abusers to not only give Christ a bad name but also re-victimize victims by claiming they aren't “forgiving enough”.

    The manipulation, shame, silencing, and abuse has to stop being excused and “forgiven” when repentance is not flowing from the top down. Leaders are doubly accountable for what they know- there can be a level of confidentiality and grace, but there should also be transparency and openness to dialogue.

    There should also always be a clear obedience to the laws of the land- such as mandated reporting- even if it tears families apart, as some leaders fear it might. Better to be obedient to the Word of God by submitting to authority than to claim false authority to do whatever the heck we want in protecting [key word: our] ministry.

    Every true believer should be massively grieved by all that has gone on in the church regarding abuse of any kind- but instead too many of us are proud- and Paul has strong words to say about this: remove the evil person from among your midst. Are we really aware that in some cases that means dealing with our leaders when they get proud? That exposing sin in house/in family is what we are to be about? (not to shame or leave no way for repentance/restoration, but to protect and leave no room for evil to blossom.)

    I am so sick of the evangelical mentality that excuses authority figures in the church on the basis that if you talk about this stuff you are a gossip. We need to have a conversation about this stuff, and the church needs to step up and obey the laws of the land, at the very least. God will vindicate those of us who talk.