Ten years ago, my young husband’s heart valve broke around the time we moved to Seattle. We were in the fortunate situation of having access to a very good heart surgeon at a very good hospital. After the surgery, the surgeon came out to talk with us and was upfront about a mistake he had made. While trying to repair the flap of the heart valve, he lost a piece of tiny equipment he was using to secure the flap. He was never able to find the missing piece in the heart and ended up having to completely replace the heart valve with an artificial heart valve instead of the more desired outcome of repairing my husband’s own heart valve. He explained the problem clearly along with the potential concerns. We were just glad at that point that my husband was stable. However, about an hour after the doctor left us, my husband crashed and had to be raced back into surgery. I recount some of this in the opening of Practical Theology for Women. It’s likely that the lost piece of equipment caused a heart attack, but even after the 2nd surgery, the doctor was still unable to find it. My husband was in critical condition for a bit, but he eventually recovered.
In all of that, it never occurred to me to even consider malpractice. When the surgeon made a mistake while trying to do the best for my husband, he was open and honest with me about it. We remained on the same team, even during his mistake. Years later, while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I understood a bit of the psychology of what happened in that moment. In Blink, Gladwell discusses malpractice rates and the momentary decisions doctors make that tend to lower their rates of malpractice. The basic thing Gladwell notes that predicts malpractice rates is the length of time doctors spend explaining situations to their patients, even negative situations of the doctor’s own causing. The longer doctors spend with patients and more open they are about potential and actual problems, the lower the malpractice rates against them. That was exactly my experience. Our doctor was open and honest about potential problems as well as his own actual mistake, and that up front transparency on his part reinforced that we were on the same team with the same goals. I would go back to that doctor in a heartbeat (no pun intended) if we were in a similar situation.
The choices we make in a moment involving honesty and transparency about OUR MISTAKES have incredible long term consequences. This isn’t just a secular phenomenon but an important Bible principle. God, after all, is the Master Psychologist. Malcolm Gladwell didn’t note these statistics about doctors and malpractice suits in a vacuum. In a world created and ruled by the sovereign God of the Universe, transparency over our mistakes is a wise choice. God sets this up clearly in His Word, and even secular society notes this truth. We, as believers, are called to operate in the light with other believers, and we are called to operate in the light with unbelievers and our accusers.
I John 1:5-9 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
I was particularly moved by this Biblical truth while working through Ephesians 5 for By His Wounds You are Healed. In it, I said this on Paul’s words about exposing sin to the light in Ephesians 5:8-14.
A few years ago, the elders’ wives at the church I attended planned a women’s retreat entitled “Exposed,” taken from this passage in Ephesians. I was a women’s ministry leader at the time, but to be honest, I dreaded going to this retreat. The title did not in any way naturally draw me. Personally, I did not want to be exposed and did not care to be a part of something that had set that as its agenda.
Then I went to the retreat. Each woman that spoke gave brutally honest testimony of where she had been in her darkness, how God had brought her from darkness to light, and all the ways God was still meeting her in her failures. Each one was exposing themselves, bringing their ugly pasts and some of their ugly present into the light. It ended up being one of the most powerful retreats with long lasting outcomes I have ever witnessed. As each speaker spoke on God’s redemption of her particular sin (sexual addiction, self-absorbed vanity, gluttony, among others), women started understanding that hiding their sin, shame, and guilt was not the answer. Woman after woman started admitting her sin, exposing herself by walking out of the darkness and into the light. While that can be terrifying and cruelly damaging in the wrong context, in the light of the gospel, it was beautiful, redemptive, and uplifting.
When Paul says (in Ephesians 5) to take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness and instead expose them, we probably all think of an instance of someone maliciously revealing someone else’s sin or shame. When people in darkness rip at others in darkness, there is no good that can come from it. Exposure of sin apart from the gospel is cruel, leaving devastation and hopelessness in its wake. It took that women’s retreat for me to finally understand how radically different God’s call to exposure is. In light of the gospel, I do not have to fear exposure. Instead, God says bring all of the nooks and crannies of your sin and shame to me. Let me shine the light of the gospel into even your deepest and darkest place of fear and guilt. And when these things are exposed to the light, they first become visible (according to Ephesians 5). Then they become light. What radical transformation!
For the past few years, I have witnessed multiple churches and ministries confronted with past failures concerning the handling of sexual/physical abuse of minors. Social media has given a megaphone to many who were previously voiceless, and we are only at the very front end of exposure for sins of the past. Each person along this path will have a choice to make when they are confronted with their own mistakes, maybe even outright sin, of the past. Expose or hide.
Recently, Tim Challies posted the first acknowledgement of the SGM lawsuit that I have seen among conservative bloggers. I was thankful to see his acknowledgement. He rightly pointed out our need to extend love to both the accused as well as the accuser, particularly that love is “ever ready to believe the best” of someone (I Cor. 13:7). He also mentioned Prov. 18:17 — that the first to tell their story seems right until we hear from the second.
He did not address some other Bible principles that I believe are important in this situation, in particular the need for transparency about past failures that I mentioned from I John and Ephesians 5.
Here are a few more Bible principles that apply to this situation:
1) We need to be subject to secular earthly authorities.
I Peter 2:13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,
Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2) Two or three witnesses validate a charge.
Matthew 18:16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
2 Corinthians 13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
1 Timothy 5:19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
3) Listen to your accuser and come to terms with their concerns early in the process of a suit.
Matthew 5:25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.
4) Not everyone wields Scripture accurately, including the proverbs.
Prov 26:7 Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
While Proverbs 18:17 is often used to justify believing the best of those who have not addressed accusations against them, Proverbs 26:7 reminds us that the proverbs need to be used wisely, and wisdom is best found in the whole counsel of the Word.
I hesitate to apply Proverbs 18:17 personally to the SGM situation. Prov. 18:17 implies that when we finally hear the truth from the 2nd party, things will become clear. But in SGM’s case, their first line of defense was to hide behind the Bill of Rights so that they never have to address these accusations. That response does not seem to fit the spirit of Proverbs 18:17 at all.
My heart aches in all this, first for the victims who are trying to make sense as adults of things that hurt them deeply as children. My heart aches too watching leaders hide and other leaders seemingly encourage their hiding, like hiding will actually help either the victims or the ones under accusation. Instead, hiding hurts both parties in such situations. It certainly doesn’t help victims heal, but it also destroys the very leaders under question.
In the really great movies, the protagonist has a moment of profound choice–a fork in the road. One direction leads to destruction; the other to redemption. In this situation, the fork seems to be between laying low and figuring out a defense and coming forward with an honest public assessment of mistakes and failures. My encouragement for leaders involved in sexual abuse allegations is to choose the 2nd. There’s a natural law at work, clear both in Scripture and in secular psychology. You will alienate yourself from those who should be able to consider you trustworthy in the future if you choose hiding, redirection, and obfuscation over transparency and brutal honesty, even if such honesty means admitting to bad decisions or outright sin. Every church that has to deal with old allegations, every pastor that has to face his mishandling of a situation in which he was trying to do his best – I implore you to be honest, admit mistakes, and never push away or punish those who are seeking honesty and transparency.
Walk in the light. Bring it all into the light. Every bad decision. Every time you protected perpetrators over victims. Each moment you chose fear over truth. Bring it to the light and trust God’s promises to accomplish supernatural healing that hiding in the shadows will never, ever do for you.