The evangelical twittersphere has been reverberating over the past few days with the hashtag #IStandWithSGMVictims. Last Thursday, Nathaniel Morales, a former youth leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was convicted of sexual abusing three boys between 1983 and 1991. Covenant Life Church was the founding church of the Sovereign Grace Ministries network. Prominent national neo-Calvinist leader and very recently removed Gospel Coalition council member CJ Mahaney was senior pastor at the time of the abuse. Another pastor within the church, Grant Layman, confessed in court to withholding information from law enforcement officials about the abuse. It’s obviously a very ugly situation. I wanted to reflect cautiously about how Christians should respond to ugly situations like this in social media. I’ve seen a lot of righteous zeal, and righteous zeal makes me very nervous no matter who it’s coming from. This is definitely a case in which I don’t have good answers, but I’m trying to write my way to greater understanding, so if I’ve gotten something wrong, please don’t be offended but offer loving correction instead.
I. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a hyper-authoritarian church
That’s the first thing I should say. I have all kinds of opinions and fears about fundamentalism, but they all come from the vantage point of growing up among moderate evangelicals for whom the fundamentalists were very much “those people.” I cannot have the same personal stake in denouncing what happened at Covenant Life Church as I would if I had personally grown up in a hyper-authoritarian church and experienced spiritual or physical abuse as a result. So from my vantage point, attacking the Gospel Coalition or the neo-Calvinist movement broadly for what happened at Covenant Life Church would amount to exploiting someone else’s tragedy to score my own ideological points. I’m not going to accuse anybody else of doing that; I’m just explaining why I’m hesitant to enter the fray. And yes, if there is a concrete, more direct way to support the victims of abuse, I would love to know how I can help.
II. Abuse happens at moderate and liberal churches too
I know that many people have argued that the neo-Calvinist theology of Sovereign Grace was the poisonous root of the abusive behavior. I can see how an “umbrella of protection” understanding of human community in which fathers are the absolute authority figures in their families and pastors are the absolute authority figures in their churches would contribute to an atmosphere where abuse doesn’t get reported or addressed. But when I was victimized by my church basketball coach as a preteen, I was in a moderate Southern Baptist church that had female pastors on staff when very few other Baptist churches did, and it certainly didn’t have a controlling social environment. The problem was that an adult who happened to be a pedophile was allowed to hold an overnight event with preteen boys at the church without the accountability of another adult present. There’s more than one way that an unsafe environment for children can be cultivated. This is where policies like the United Methodist Safe Sanctuaries program are critical to eliminating circumstances where abusers can victimize children.
III. Public scandal is not always the same thing as justice
A big part of the outrage against the Gospel Coalition stems from the sense that the Gospel Coalition has not adequately responded to the abuse situation at a leading council member’s church. Some members of the Gospel Coalition board did put out a statement a year ago in support of Covenant Life Church founding pastor CJ Mahaney after a lawsuit over the abuse at Covenant Life was dismissed because of a statute of limitations. It’s also pretty shady that the Gospel Coalition quietly scrubbed Mahaney and current CLC pastor Josh Harris from their council over the past couple of days (see before and after), and their web editor Joe Carter explicitly denied their past affiliation on the council (though Joe later walked back his denial).
Bracketing aside the mystery of the two disappearing council members, I think it’s worth asking what the Gospel Coalition could say about the latest development that would be satisfactory to its critics. I honestly don’t think they could say anything that wouldn’t be immediately nitpicked and condemned as not good enough. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to observe that the Gospel Coalition right now is functioning as a scapegoat for a lot of ex-neo-Calvinists and other hurt and angry post-evangelicals who lack another clear repository for their rage against abuses they suffered that they can’t take up with their real life oppressors.
In our buzzfeed, scandal-addicted social media world, there’s a phenomenon that I despise whenever it happens regardless of the particular circumstances and who’s behind it. I would call it obligatory outrage. Example: unless you sign this petition to get ______ fired/off-the-air/uninvited from delivering our commencement address for expressing opposition to ______, then that means you’re a bigot too! The cynical side of me doesn’t mind for the Gospel Coalition to get as much egg on their face as possible, because I’m opposed to their theology, but from my vantage point, that has little to do with justice for the victims of sexual abuse at Covenant Life Church.
In fact, the Gospel Coalition did issue a response today that seemed quite thoughtful and pastoral to me. They picked a woman to write it; she confessed her involvement in a horrifying situation as a camp counselor where a rape victim came to her convinced that her rape was her fault for being “seductive,” and the author of the piece went along with this skewed interpretation of what happened which haunted her for years after that. So basically, the Gospel Coalition published a piece on their site in which someone confessed and repented openly of perpetuating rape culture because of conservative evangelical presumptions about modesty. Shouldn’t they get some credit for that?!
Those of us who have a more progressive understanding of Christianity tend to push back against a strictly retributive understanding of justice and call for a more restorative form of justice. But when it comes to our ideological enemies, we get sucked into the scorched earth buzzfeed retributive approach to justice where nothing less than total political annihilation and absolute discredit will suffice. My hope is not that the Gospel Coalition would say, “You’re right. We suck completely, which is why we’re deleting our website tomorrow,” but rather that a more genuinely introspective reflection process would happen, i.e. the kind of thing that can never happen amidst the artillery fire of twitter. Ultimately, I would love for them to agree with my view that gender essentialism is idolatry and is a sinful source of abusive environments, but I don’t think that recognition is ever going to happen as long as they feel martyred by a constant barrage of angry tweets. And furthermore, regardless of our views on gender and church authority, all of us need to be reflecting on how we can prevent abusive environments from getting created in our churches.
IV. The victims should be calling the shots in their struggle for justice
One thing with which I was indoctrinated starting in my early activist days is what we called the solidarity model of organizing. When we were trying to target and boycott sweatshop goods up here in the US, we always took our cue from the Central American garment workers who worked in those sweatshops. If a boycott served their union organizing strategy, we did it. If not, we called it off. We didn’t tell them how we were going to help them. The same principle seems like it ought to apply here. I suspect that there are a lot of abuse victims and their direct supporters who are already part of the crowd denouncing the SGM abuse and coverup. My hope is to see a coherent strategy for pursuing justice that goes beyond the first step of awareness-raising, and I would hope that the actual victims are empowered to dictate the terms of this strategy.
There is a site for Sovereign Grace Ministry Survivors. Unfortunately, there aren’t any active posts after February of this year, but the comment threads have kept going and might provide some direction for what SGM survivors are really asking for. Additionally, an organization that has been doing a lot of important work in addressing abusive environments is GRACE (Godly Response to Abusive in the Christian Environment) led by Boz Tchividjian. Boz has a blog with practical tasks that we can all be engaged in to support victims of sexual abuse in our churches.
Again my purpose here is not to dis what anybody is doing, but simply to process these things in conversation with others, hoping that we can ultimately channel our anger at injustice in a Christlike way. Please forgive me and provide loving correction if I said anything that was presumptuous or ignorant. Every Sunday night in my opening prayer at worship, I say, “Thank you God for giving us this sanctuary, this safe place where we can come to worship you.” Jesus made himself unsafe on the cross so that we could be safe within his body. If church isn’t a safe place, there’s no point in doing it. So let’s make church safe for everyone, especially our children.