Open Letter from Two Abuse Survivors
to the Board of Directors, Christianity Today International
Easter Week 2019
TO: Board of Directors, Christianity Today International
Chairman, Eugene Habecker. President and CEO, Harold Smith. Members: Thomas Addington, Miriam Adeney, Claude Alexander, David Bere, Sandra Gray, Tami Heim, Alec Hill, Walter Kim, Darryl King, Michael Lindsay, Samuel Rodriguez, Meritt Lohr Sawyer, John Sommerville, Annie Tsai.
FROM: Julie Anne Smith and Brad Sargent, Spiritual Sounding Board
Julie Anne Smith, who was sued unsuccessfully in 2012 by her former pastor and church for $500,000 for posting allegedly defamatory criticisms of them online.
Brad Sargent, who is a spiritual abuse survivor, research writer on multiple forms of abuse/violence, and has been blogging as “brad/futuristguy” since 2003.
We are posting this open letter to the Board of Directors for Christianity Today International (CTI) because we believe the public situation of reportedly questionable ethics and abusive behaviors by CTI representatives Mark Galli and Ed Stetzer has escalated to where it can only be resolved at the board level. We have opened the comment section of this post to allow members of survivor communities and others to express their thoughts on this open letter and on the actions of CTI representatives.
CTI is constituted as a non-profit corporation, which requires it to function for benefit of the public. CTI is also a member of the Evangelical Press Association (EPA), which requires it to function by their Code of Ethics. Recent events connected with James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel have led to fractious interactions in the public eye between individuals associated with CTI and other Christian leaders. Also affected directly and indirectly are members of abuse survivor communities.
In our opinion, public figures who represent CTI have failed to fulfill its non-profit purpose or EPA ethics in this situation. Instead, they have reduced CTI reputation and misspent whatever good will we had left toward it.
Ethical issues in this situation include questions about:
- Journalists not accepting gifts that unduly affect work performance (EPA Code of Ethics, section 4.3).
- Not having either the appearance or reality of a conflict of interest (section 5.1).
- Bias in publishing opportunities that give the appearance of an endorsement that compromises editorial independence (section 4.2).
There are also questions about level of wise discernment, abusive accusations and interactions with fellow Christians, and giving a platform to Christian celebrities who are known to have abused the power in their roles of influence as public figures in Church and community. To summarize the specifics:
1. The status of Ed Stetzer in relation to his official connections with CTI; his acceptance of a substantive gift from celebrity Christian James MacDonald, who has a track record of verbal, spiritual, financial abuses that has been well documented by survivor community writers, Christian news media, and on social media; and Mr. Stetzer’s lack of transparency and deflection of accountability in explaining the situation.
2. Issues of ethics and poor discernment and judgment by high-ranking CT employee Mark Galli, involving his apparent conflicts of interest plus bias or tacit endorsement of James MacDonald.
For instance, Mr. Galli gave James MacDonald an uncritical Op-Ed platform that promoted his position on what turned out to be a frivolous lawsuit, and described weak processes for how an opposing view might possibly be presented by Christianity Today.
He also inserted himself into this conflict situation by offering to mediate between Mr. MacDonald and other parties involved in his defamation lawsuit (i.e., The Elephant’s Debt bloggers Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant and their wives, and investigative journalist Julie Roys).
3. Assertions by Mark Galli that Wade Burleson (in blog post comments) and Kristen McKnight (via a phone call) were “bearing false witness,” and how he communicated with them publicly on social media, and also with Scot McKnight instead of Kristen McKnight, his wife, directly.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDED ACTIONS
All together this raises the serious question:
If we cannot trust the ethics and discernment of these high-profile CTI associates (and we do not, at this time), how are we to trust CTI’s reporting and other dealings with those involved in abuse survivor communities?
In challenging systemic abuse, we’ve learned how consequences often impose themselves, because system parts and processes are interconnected. In this case, some of the key inherent consequences of CTI’s interactions with abuse survivors are that you cannot claim to have veracity for leadership or credibility for reportage among abuse survivors on issues and situations we face. Instead, your track record ranges from apparent indifference to abuse survivors through lack of timely coverage, to the appearance of outright complicity with celebrity Christian leaders who abuse their power and privilege.
We—and other abuse survivors/advocates—have posted about similar problems in recent years. Christianity Today publications have effectively given a positive platform to a celebrity Christian at the same time their victims have been sharing their narratives of maltreatment and crying out for justice. This affects CTI’s reporting and reputation negatively, while inflicting further harm and loss on those already traumatized by abusive Christian leaders.
This is an era of #MeToo changing the social dynamic on sexual abuse and harassment; and #Exvangelicals, “nones,” and “dones” reflecting how evangelicalism has alienated them. If you, as Board members of CTI, are not aware of who those celebrities are who have been demonstrated to be abusive, and when exactly this happened in CT publications, we urge you to find out—if you care about survivor communities, that is. And frankly, we’re not convinced that you are aware or care, based on the ongoing problem patterns and series of negative situations from CT publications.
We hope you will secure the services of an independent investigative agency to study these problems and patterns. (As guidelines to what “independent” investigation does and does not mean, we recommend the October 16, 2015, Religion News Service article by Boz Tchividjian of GRACE: Are abuse survivors best served when institutions investigate themselves?)
A genuinely independent investigation would serve as a sign to our communities of your good-faith efforts to identify systemic issues at CTI and to begin repairing damages already done and preventing similar ethical lapses in the future. With an independent investigation, we believe you’ll find why we feel CTI does not represent the Good Samaritan among our communities of those wounded by abuse, but as the religious leaders who walked on by, their apathy adding to victims’ recovery time.
If the Board of Directors for CTI decides it wants that antipathy to change, here are the main things we will be watching for in your attitudes and actions:
- How well you resolve the current situation involving violations of professional ethics by Mark Galli and Ed Stetzer—and repair damages done by their actions and inactions.
- How well you address questions being raised about CTI’s ethical standards in general.
- How well you deal with the appearances and realities of bias and complicity in past coverage of prominent Christians who are reportedly abusive, including CT’s giving them an unchallenged platform, whether through op-eds or news articles.
Thank you for reading this open letter. Because these conflicts involving your employees have been public, and they themselves have engaged in them on social media, we would appreciate seeing public responses—especially to the specific men and women named above who were directly affected in the current situation we outlined, and to the general community of those victimized by James MacDonald/Harvest Bible Chapel.
Julie Anne Smith and Brad Sargent
NOTE: We have corrected several typos and formatting inconsistencies.
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CO-SIGNERS AND COMMENTERS
Feel free to co-sign and/or comment if you agree with the sentiments of this open letter, or comment if have criticisms of them or the facts as we have analyzed them. We know this particular situation has brought out strong emotions from abuse survivors, and if you choose to comment we would appreciate your being respectful and constructive toward all parties, and staying on-topic. If you are new to Spiritual Sounding Board, see the Blog Moderation page for basics about comment and moderation policies.