Rachael Denhollander, Paige Patterson, and the Deep Crisis in Evangelical Christianity
In many ways, the #MeToo movement has proven a cultural watershed. Americans decided to believe women (and men) who came forward claiming sexual assault, and when those claims were verified, the allegations brought down politicians, Hollywood elites, and one particularly notorious Olympic doctor. The reckoning has also come to evangelical Christian churches, and it helps highlight a serious deficiency of discipleship in modern America.
Rachael Denhollander, the outspoken victim who moved America in her denunciations of former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar, also told the harrowing story of being met with mistrust after a licensed counselor warned that a fellow church member seemed to have been "grooming" her when she was 7 years old. The girl's mother told her Bible study group, and the group not only refused to listen, but warned that they wouldn't let their kids play with Rachael, fearing she might accuse them. This led Denhollander to blame herself and to keep her silence when Nassar later abused her.
More recently, Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced into early retirement last month after reports that he had sexualized a teenage girl and discouraged a wife who claimed to have been raped from protecting herself from her husband. Illinois megachurch pastor Bill Hybels also retired after women said he had made lewd comments, forcibly kissed them, and invited them to his hotel rooms.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, notably declared that "the judgment of God has come" to the Southern Baptist Convention. "The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over."
"Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear," Mohler admitted. He remarked that Protestants thought "this was a Roman Catholic problem," with the command of priestly celibacy and an "organized conspiracy of silence" fostering horrific abuse of children.
When this sexual abuse crisis hit the evangelical churches, Mohler admitted that his movement "cannot blame a requirement of priestly celibacy" or "an organized conspiracy of silence," but it appears there has been an "unorganized conspiracy of silence."
Mohler wondered whether the problem was theological, a result of evangelical churches teaching "the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, its ministries solidly established on the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Chillingly, he asked, "Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?"
To a limited degree, this may indeed be the case. In his book "Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time," pastor Greg Ogden warned that the Christian church faces a crisis in discipleship. "There appears to be a general lack of comprehension among many who claim Jesus as Savior as to the implications of following him as Lord," he wrote.
Chillingly, Ogden added, "Reducing the Christian life to embracing the gift of forgiveness has made obedience to Jesus in daily life an irrelevance."
Christians are right to emphasize that no human work can save sinful humans and reconcile them to God. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-10, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast." Christians often focus on the gift of grace and neglect the part that follows next: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which he has before ordained for us to walk in."
Hand in hand with the Bible's doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and only by God's grace is the equally important doctrine that those who are saved by Jesus Christ must acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ and live a life of humility, service, and love toward others. Jesus is not just the savior who died so that Christians might live, He is also the example who invites believers to follow Him (Mark 8:34-38) in a walk of self-denial and love for others, with the hope of an eternal glory.
Too often, evangelical Christians focus on making converts, rather than making disciples. When Jesus issued His last commandment to His disciples, He declared, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
A disciple follows the way of the teacher, and grows in service and good works toward others. Jesus did not just tell His followers to proclaim the gospel, He also told them to "make disciples," and just as importantly, to teach others to "observe all that I have commanded you."
What commands did Jesus want His disciples to teach others to obey? The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) may be the best short summary of His moral teachings, and on lust in particular Jesus proved uncompromising.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell," He said (Matthew 5:27-29).
Jesus hates lust, and urges His disciples to flee from it, even at the cost of personal peril. This does not mean every disciple of Jesus must tear out his or her eyes, but it does mean that lust is debilitating, and can cause horrific evil.
Anyone familiar with the sexual assault cases of Larry Nassar and Harvey Weinstein knows this to be true. Jesus' command to flee lust even in the heart seems extreme, but sexual desire can drive men (and women) to do unspeakable things.
Just as importantly, Jesus teaches the lesson of humility. He urges His disciples not to lord power over other people, but to serve others as He did (Matthew 20:25-26). This countercultural command has unleashed a spirit of generosity throughout history, as Christians cared for the orphans and the sick in the Roman Empire when no one else would. Christians follow Jesus' command by building orphanages and hospitals, welcoming strangers into their homes, and helping the less fortunate.
This is the exact opposite of using people for sexual gratification.
So why do Christians fail to follow Jesus' commands? The error stems from the darkness of the human heart, but it also follows from an overemphasis on "getting saved" and an underemphasis on how to live following Jesus Christ.
In a recent Pew study, 46 percent of Europeans identified themselves as "non-practicing Christians." In America, the tradition of evangelicalism leads many cultural Christians to assume that they are saved and therefore do not need to follow Jesus. As Ogden noted, many will gladly identify themselves as "Christian," but hesitate to identify as "disciples of Jesus."
This is dangerous presumption, and Jesus constantly warned that those who do not "bear fruit" will be cast aside (John 15:5-6, Matthew 3:10, Matthew 7:19). Christianity isn't just about going to heaven when you die, it's about becoming a new person who is humble, loving, and effective in serving others.
Churches are tempted to emphasize making converts because it is a lot easier and the results are easier to quantify, but this rejection of Jesus' commands opens the door for hypocrisy and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."
Christians need to listen to Rachael Denhollander and others like her. They need to be attuned to abuses of power — sexual and otherwise, inside and outside the church. It is not enough to accept the gospel, Christians must also live it out in love and service to one another.
Greg Ogden suggested that followers of Jesus form discipleship groups of three or four, to devote themselves to reading the Bible, prayer, and growing in their relationship with God and service to others. Pastors need these groups as much as other believers, and no Christian can afford to try to live the life of a disciple on his or her lonesome. That's how you get failed disciples, and #MeToo tragedies.