Remember Andy Savage, the pastor whose church gave him a standing ovation after he read a grossly manipulative statement admitting past sexual wrongdoing? In his statement, Savage called what happened a “sexual incident,” described his and his victim’s ages in a deceptive manner, identified himself as “on staff” at the church she attended but not as his victim’s youth pastor, and treated the incident as consensual.
Last week, World Magazine, a popular conservative evangelical publication, published its own treatment of the situation—and it’s ugly. The most offensive and damaging line of the piece? “Each Christian must acknowledge, ‘I am the abused and the abuser.'” Throughout the article, Russell St. John questions the victim’s account, questions whether sexually abusing a minor under his authority while serving in the ministry should disqualify someone from ministry longterm, and defends Savage’s church’s decision to handle the situation quietly and secretly.
Earlier this month, Christianity Today’s Ed Stetzer published an article calling Savage and his church out in no uncertain terms. At the time, I noted that Stetzer’s treatment gave me hope that some within today’s evangelical community were getting it, proving themselves willing—like Stetzer—to go to the mat to protect victims of abuse. I still feel that way, but this week I am sobered.
In the evangelical home of my youth in the 1990s and early 2000s, we didn’t subscribe Christianity Today. We subscribed to World Magazine—and so did every evangelical family I knew. Christianity Today, in my conservative evangelical community, had a reputation for being more moderate—perhaps a bit too moderate. World Magazine, in contrast, was thoroughly, safely, conservative. Those who need Ed Stetzer’s message most, then, are the least likely to hear it; and those who need St. John’s message least, are the most likely to hear it.
St. John titles his piece “Once We’ve Confessed” and asks in his byline: “How should churches handle sexual sins from 20 years ago?” His chosen terminology is worth noting: “sexual sins.” This is important. When most evangelicals think of sexual sins, they think of premarital sex or adultery, not rape, sexual assault, or coercion—and certainly not a pastor demanding sexual favors of a minor under his pastoral authority while giving her a ride home from youth group.
You can see this same framing in play here:
Savage confessed his sin before the Highpoint congregation in January and apologized: He has now taken a leave of absence. Church members gave him a standing ovation, which was not appropriate: news of sin, even tempered by repentance, should prompt mourning rather than applause.
Church members shouldn’t have applauded him because he was confessing sin—the nature of the sin is unimportant. Sin is sin is sin. Sexual abuse and predation are not separated out from other sins as something that should be dealt with differently. Sexual abuse and predation are treated simply as one more sexual sin—another sin in an overall panoply of sins, from lying to gossip to having sex with your high school girlfriend.
I discussed this in my “tale of two boxes.” Conservatives tend to group sexual acts into two boxes—what god allows (sex within marriage) and what god forbids (sex outside of marriage). Progressives make this grouping differently, offering their own boxes—consensual sex, and nonconsensual sex. The result is that conservatives place sexual abuse in the same box with consensual premarital sex and adultery, rather than treating it as substantially different from those.
But the problem goes deeper, and elucidates a fundamental difference in how wrongdoing is understood. Progressives, particularly those who are secular, typically define wrongdoing in a way that centers harm—it is wrong to cause harm to another person. Having consensual sex outside of marriage, then, is fine—raping someone is wrong. But evangelicals do not typically define sin as harm-based. They define sin as going against the commands of God—whether or not harm is caused to another person is irrelevant—and talk of sin as being against God.
What Savage did was wrong because God forbids sexual contact outside of marriage. That Savage harmed Jules Woodson through his actions is less important—the important part is that he sinned against God. And God—evangelicals contend—forgives those who sincerely repent, and washes away their sin, and restores them.
None deny Andy Savage disqualified himself from ministry. He and WPBC [the church he attended when he sexually abused Woodson] conceded as much when he resigned. But later the leadership of Highpoint Church declared him qualified. Some Christians acknowledge Jesus restored Savage as a man but claim him forever disqualified from office. After all, the Scriptures require an elder to possess character “above reproach.” But 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 address a prospective elder as he is now, not as he was 20 years ago. Is the man now above reproach? Peter’s restoration demonstrates that a man who committed gross sin can resume public office within the church. If Paul intended to disqualify any man who was ever reproachable, then he disqualified himself and many Christian leaders since.
To my knowledge, Paul never sexually abused a minor under his pastoral care, but remember—St. John is lumping all sins together here. Sexually abusing a minor under one’s pastoral care is no different from, say, giving in to temptation and having sex with one’s future wife a month before the wedding. Or coveting.
There is much St. John is leaving out, by the way—for example, that Savage only resigned from WPBC when Woodson started to talk to others in the church about what he had done. Had she remained quiet—as both he and the other WPBC pastors demanded that she do—he might never have resigned. After all, the pastors let Savage lead a workshop on sexual abstinence mere days after Woodson told them what he had done—and Savage, for his part, did not disqualify himself.St. John’s treatment is full of things being left out in just this manner—for instance, he identifies Woodson as being 17 when the “sexual incident” happened, but does not give Savage’s age, identifying him only as a “college student” and thus allowing the reader to imagine that he might have been only 18 or 19, much closer to Woodson’s own age. In fact, Savage was 22, an adult with years of lived experience. This was no teenaged youth pastor having a fling with a high school senior in his youth group (although the position of authority even in a case like that would need to be addressed).
Cultural backlash against the church may indeed indicate an error or moral failure. It may also indicate no such thing. Jesus never sinned, yet the world hated Him.
I’m pretty sure that the world didn’t hate Jesus due to allegations of mishandled sexual abuse carried out by his disciples, but maybe I’m just reading the Gospels wrong.
At best our culture requires the church to support Woodson by crucifying Savage. Christ commands us to love both.
No one is calling for crucifying Savage. WTF, St. John. Hyperbole much?
At worst the culture deplores Savage as an irredeemable monster and the church as complicit in sexual predation. The world cannot grasp the wonder of Hebrews 11. Men of great faith are also men of great sin. Abraham, Moses, and David delved deep into sin, but Christ delved deeper into mercy. To diminish the former diminishes the latter.
I actually find this argument fascinating, in part because you can’t look at David and come away thinking that sinful men are simply restored, with no future consequences for their actions. I mean really, look at David. Do we all remember that his sons fell to civil war after he failed to address a rape perpetrated by one of his sons against one of his daughters? This was not a big happy family with a nice happy ending. In fact, I remember my mom reading aloud to us through I Samuel, wondering when things were going to calm down—I guess I’d thought he’d win the kingship and live happily ever after.
Also, David’s son by Bathsheba died. That tore David to pieces, and that loss never went away. Repentance is not magic. It does not erase what happened before. Restoration is a long, messy process. Evangelicals frequently want to treat this process as a one and done—as something you do, and then it’s over. It’s not that easy. Some things never go away.
St. John goes on:
Christian backlash presents a different challenge. Good Christians are calling for Savage to resign. Were the church to force his ouster it would send a powerful message to the culture: We police our own and will not tolerate abuse. The culture would applaud. But maybe the culture needs a different message: Jesus restores not only the abused but also the abuser. The culture is not rooting for the restoration of Harvey Weinstein. It does not want a wicked predator to know the mercy of Jesus, but the church should want just that. Each Christian must acknowledge, “I am the abused and the abuser.” Blessedly Jesus restores both.
And there it is—everyone sins. We are all the abuser, because we all sin. What makes us any better? But for the grace of God, there go I. Growing up, I was taught that no sin was any better or worse than any other. There was no rankings of sin. Sin is sin is sin. We are all sinners; we are all like the abuser. Woodson is just as much a sinner (because we all are) as Savage. This idea makes it nigh impossible to deal effectively with abuse and predation.
I am not saying that an abuser cannot be restored. What I am saying is that we need to scrutinize what that means. An abuser may be able to recognize that what he did was wrong, to repent of it, to try to make good, and to take steps to change. But that abuser should not be placed back in a position of authority over others. A pastor who sexually abused a minor under his care may be restored to the church, but should not be placed back in the pastorship.
And—and this is important—when sexual abuse is handled under a veil of secrecy—something St. John defends as “the privacy of the discipline process”—people will not know to watch for certain actions or to hold the restored offender accountable. Several decades ago, an elder at a New England church raped his children’s teenage babysitter. The church required the elder to repent before the congregation—the congregation assumed he was repenting of adultery. None of the parents were given any reason not to let their own daughters babysit his children, putting more teens at risk.
Finally, after all this, St. John turns to Woodson:
In all this the church must not forget Jules Woodson’s wounds. Those who have suffered at the hands of a wolflike shepherd deserve the church’s utmost care. Jesus is tender with the wounded: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” His church must offer the same tenderness, binding up Woodson’s wounds with the love of Christ.
One would think that the best thing that could be done for one who had suffered at the hands of a wolflike shepherd would be to defrock that wolflike shepherd. Savage reentered the ministry only a year after Woodson’s unwillingness to keep quiet about what he had done forced him to leave WPBC; none of his congregations along the way, including WPBC, were told of what he had done. St. John is defending that ministry, and that secrecy.
Twenty years ago on a dark road Andy Savage abused Jules Woodson. The only cure for Savage, Woodson, the church, and the world is: Jesus.
To be clear—Savage was a pastor when he abused Woodson. He had Jesus. That alone should make it clear that it is not that simple.
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