This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more. Joe Paterno
A lawsuit was filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries in October, 2012 with three plaintiffs. Last week, an amendment was made to the lawsuit raising the number of plaintiffs to eleven. The allegations, particularly those in the latest amendment, are deeply disturbing. Yet, at this point they remain allegations, which is distinctly different than legally established fact. In the last few days, a judge dismissed most of the suit over the statute of limitations. In such suits, victims must file within three years of reaching the age 18, and only two of the plaintiffs meet that criteria. This is a big issue in conservative evangelicalism, especially the reformed community. The way reformed leaders address it reflects on our belief system. God help us do a better job of stewarding the forum we are given with these issues.
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. (1 John 1:5-7 ESV)
Many have argued (correctly) that all brands of religion and even life in general are sullied by child abuse. There are lots of sin bombs in life we could address, but it’s the one in your own backyard that has the greatest likelihood of wounding you or those to whom you are most obligated to advocate for. This is a bomb, planted firmly in the backyard of the house that is the young, restless, and reformed movement of which I am a part. It has already torn apart much of the reputation that was built over the last few years. There are precious doctrines attached to the groups under accusation right now. We have lost much when we chose silence over transparency in addressing these things. And we stand to lose much more if things don’t change in how our community addresses these things.
I have first hand experience with ministries recently accused of abuse. Some of those ministries provided much needed structure at a time when I lacked self worth, self confidence, or any kind of personal security. Yet, a ministry/person can do both – help one person while destroying another. What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (I was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the conservative religious authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who weren’t 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.” I don’t really care to speak to abusers in this post. Instead, it is the SILENCE by others that I want to address.
In particular, while working at a respected Christian camp, I had a camper share with me (in repentance, trying to repair her reputation with me), that she didn’t mean to have sex with the guy with whom she got caught. She hadn’t dressed provocatively. In fact, she had had holes in her undergarments when their sexual encounter took place. Obviously, luring him into sex wasn’t on her mind when she got dressed that day. And she had even protested and said no. But at some point, because of her moral weakness, she gave in. At least, we both kind of accepted that view of it, which was the view projected onto her by her church authority structure. She was brought up for church discipline with the guy. She “repented” and was left with a reputation she worked hard to repair. Another friend was cornered by a youth pastor in a room with no one else around, who then proceeded to masturbate in front of her. She told a female adult authority in the church, who told her she must have been dressed inappropriately and that it was her fault. She never mentioned it again until she told me decades later.
Now, with the maturity of an adult living in the real world, I think of my camper’s story with a cold knot in my stomach. She was caught by surprise and embarrassed by the poor condition of her dress that day. She said NO. She was underage. This wasn’t sexual immorality. It was rape. But her sexual abuse from her past and the acceptance of it all as her fault by the authorities in her life (her parents, her Christian school, her pastor, camp counselors, and so forth) led her to truly believe it was her fault, as did I. She was CHURCH DISCIPLINED for it.
Conservative churches, especially during the 80’s and 90’s seemed to have this as their general M.O. When children who were physically and sexually abused by parents or leaders in a conservative church came forward with allegations, they were often told it was their fault. They were often the ones held accountable while the authorities in their lives who either did the abuse or allowed others to do it were not. Rarely was law enforcement involved.
As I’ve written in other posts, authorities are ALWAYS the one held to the higher standard, the greater accountability. They are called to restrain their authority and use their power as a force for the abused and oppressed. Many leaders in conservative evangelicalism have not held authorities to the higher standard. In fact, the exact opposite seems the norm (and I deliberately chose the word “seems” because I do not know what conversations among leaders are going on in the background, and I am hopeful that genuine change on this issue is taking root privately).
I pray for leaders who will teach the value of authentic REPENTANCE by other leaders who dropped the ball and made the wrong choice when confronted with these situations in their congregations. Just REPENT. Just say, “Yes, under my watch, this specific thing did happen. It was wrong. And I did not protect the widow and orphan. I participated in injustice. And I am very sorry.” Then CHANGE. Do things differently. Repair what you can. You know what?! 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. It equips us to ADDRESS THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR ACTIONS. Christ’s death frees us from the chains of our own sins. And His life applied to our account lets us walk forward in the truest righteousness of all–HIS!
Christian leader, if you happen to be reading this, take up the call in Isaiah 1 that is echoed in James. Right wrongs. Correct injustice. Protect widows and orphans. Defuse the bomb in your own backyard before it blows up in your face. The true gospel really does equip us to do this!