Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Growing up, I was always taught that the blood of Jesus washes away our sins. It was not simply that we were forgiven—God actually made it so that it was as though the sin never happened. On top of that, once we were Born Again, the Holy Spirit began a transforming work in us. Unbelievers were in bondage to their sin natures, unable to control their base desires. With Jesus inside us, though, we were empowered to do right. No longer slaves to the flesh, we could live truly good lives.
That’s not to say we were perfect, or that we wouldn’t sin anymore. There was a constant war between the spirit and the flesh, an inner conflict that prompted St Paul to write “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The Christian tradition of self-loathing is a very old one, and it’s particularly severe when you believe virtually everything fun is a sin.
So we have these two somewhat contradictory ideas in Christianity: first that when God forgives us he also transforms our lives, and second that we are all inherently debased and evil. Which of these you hear emphasised depends on what point the preacher is trying to make. If they want to convince you to get Born Again (or talk about how superior Christians are to everyone else), you’ll hear the former. When their children get caught molesting their sisters, they’ll tend to fall back on the latter.
These two ideas circulated all the time in my Christian world. We used to talk about how amazing it was to be saved by grace, how Jesus had changed us and delivered us from our old temptations. At the same time, we’d emphasise how without Jesus we could do nothing (John 15:5), how left to our own devices we would be evil from the inside out.
When we hear Josh Duggars’ defenders implying or outright stating that molesting your sisters is ‘normal’, it’s the humans-as-inherently-evil discourse coming to the fore. They seriously believe that, without Jesus, there is no good in any of us. We are totally depraved. So if anything happens to interfere in our relationship with Jesus, it isn’t surprising at all if we start going around sexually assaulting people. It’s this attitude that prompted ATI heavyweight and Duggar relative Michael Seewald to claim that rather than being shocked by Josh’s behaviour, we should all be grateful that there isn’t more abuse happening.
But the major reason abuse isn’t taken more seriously in these contexts is that Christians believe prayer works miracles. When Josh Duggar prayed and repented for his sins, he wouldn’t have stopped there. He would have prayed that Jesus would continue the transforming work in him, and give him the power to overcome temptation.
And because the Duggars are people of faith, that was the end of it. To seek professional help at that point would be to doubt that God would keep His promises. Prayer works. Josh prayed that Jesus would help him. Job done.
This belief fuels religious coverups of abuse. It’s not just that reporting the molestation to the police might bring shame on the church, or damage God’s reputation, or provide ammunition for the enemies of Christ. It’s that reporting is genuinely unnecessary, because the person is changed now. Jesus is helping them, and what better helper could there be? And to God it is as though the sin never happened, so who are we to drag it up again?
Except, you know, this doesn’t work. We’ve seen it with the scandals in the Catholic church, and now we’re seeing it in the Methodist church too. So far, there’s been no thorough investigation into the extent of it among conservative evangelicals, but there’s an urgent need for an investigation. Boz Tchividjian, who specialises in investigating child abuse in Christian contexts, “is careful to say that there’s not enough data to compare the prevalence of child sex abuse in Protestant and Catholic institutions, but he’s convinced the problem has reached a crisis point”. And this is not some anti-Christian zealot—Tchividjian teaches at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Scandal after scandal of sexual abuse and subsequent coverups have emerged from within fundamentalist and conservative evangelical circles. Here are the first three I thought of:
- Pastor Jack Schaap, who pleaded guilty to taking a minor across state lines for the purposes of having sex with her
- Ernest Willis, who raped a girl and then watched as she was forced to apologise publicly for her ‘sin’
- Bill Gothard, accused of sexual harassment and assault by 34 women.
Even the Duggars’ own testimony indicates that there is a widespread problem:
It was a very difficult situation. But as we’ve talked to other parents and different ones since then, a lot of families since said that they’ve had similar things happen in their families.
— Jim Bob Duggar, The Kelly File, June 3 2015
So let’s make this very clear:
Jesus does not magically turn rapists into safe people to be around.
He does not magically cure addiction (at least not at any rate statistically better than placebo).
Prayer is not magic.
And it’s not OK to let children get raped just so you can maintain your belief in miracles.