Yesterday, I read a post in Christianity Today in which reporter Kate Shellnutt wrote a long article about a mess occurring at John Piper’s old stomping grounds, Bethlehem Baptist Church (read: systemic abuse).
It indeed is a mess at Bethlehem Baptist. Back when I was blogging routinely, John Piper was the subject of a number of blog posts: Piper’s teachings on women, misogyny, his statement about women should endure a smacking for a season, his permanence view of marriage, his cordial connections with pedophile-hider, boob-objectifier, documented plagiarizer, spiritual abuser, Doug Wilson, shall I go on?
But, alas, a new group of folks who have been trying to “do church well” at Bethlehem Baptist have been seeing the light, and are trying to do the right thing by exposing the problems and sharing their personal experiences. I get it.
When you are part of a church, you become invested in the church, the people, the mission, the theology, the hopes and dreams. When something goes amiss, you want to see it get back on track and want to be part of that positive change.
When you try to put critical issues you see on the table in front of church leadership and don’t feel heard, or are dismissed, it makes it very difficult. What do you do?
This perfect storm of various issues coming together somehow got to the attention of reporter Kate Shellnutt. She wrote on the culture and many of the issues going on in this article: Bethlehem Baptist Leaders Clash Over ‘Coddling’ and ‘Cancel Culture’. Quite a few people were interviewed, but what I read on Twitter this morning got me sad and angry. Many of the people interviewed felt like their collective voices were not heard. They felt that church leaders got more space in the story than the survivors who worked hard to expose this.
My heart goes out to them. I’ve been there and done that. My regular readers know my experiences with Christianity Today on several high-profile cases. For example, I was interviewed by Christianity Today for the Ravi Zacharias story because Lori Anne Thompson was under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I had files from Lori Anne that she had given me before she signed the NDA. So, essentially, I could speak for her, even quoting her own words, because I was not bound to the NDA. But Christianity Today refused to publish a statement I made, even though I was told it would get published. So, Ravi Zacharias got a full-page spread defending himself (even though he, too, signed the NDA), and Lori Anne Thompson got nothing published to defend herself….zilch.
Of course we know the rest of the Zacharias story. He’s dead. The investigative report three years later proved that he indeed did great harm and used his position of power and influence to rape and sexually abuse many innocent victims. Christianity Today defended a sexual predator, and it wasn’t the first time they had done so, They also gave a big spread to “Pastor” Tullian Tchividjian, another clergy sexual predator, even though I had reported with credible resources what he had done in several blog articles.
I’ve thought long and hard about this dilemma. I have an excellent track record on reporting on high-profile (and not-so-high profile) church abuse cases. My name and blog are quoted in Christian media (Christianity Today, The Christian Post), as well as mainstream media, books, academic journals/articles, etc. But yet I find that it’s primarily Christian media that screws up and gives abusers a platform, and once again, survivors feel maligned and not heard. Ugh!
So, there’s that media issue, but then I think about this: how many times have I reported on something, the truth is exposed, I provide necessary documentation or testimonies to prove survivors are telling the truth, and then NOTHING HAPPENS? This is what happens more often than not. Let’s reminisce on just a few cases I’ve covered where the truth is exposed and nothing happens to the perpetrator:
- My first case – the pastor who sued me for $500,000 was running a cult is still running a cult. As of last month, a relative of a current member told me about the shunning their family is experiencing because they don’t believe the same as the pastor (Chuck O’Neal). He’s still in business even after a lot of public exposure.
- Tullian Tchividjian – the pastor who committed multiple cases of clergy sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse was put in church discipline by his Presbyterian church leaders. He up and left that church group and is now pastoring independently, rebranded. He’s still in business.
- Mark Driscoll – his empire of Mars Hill Churches established in the Seattle, WA all shut down after exposure of spiritual abuse, plagiarism, financial mishandlings, misogyny, etc. He rebranded himself in Arizona to start fresh, and guess what, rinse and repeat, now more personal stories of spiritual abuse and shunning are coming from congregants in his Arizona church. Mark Driscoll is still in business.
- Doug Wilson – continues to run his cult in Moscow, ID after much public exposure how he harbored pedophiles, his stance on slaves, misogyny, spiritual abuse, plagiarism. Doug Wilson is still in business.
- C.J. Mahaney/Sovereign Grace Ministires – one of the first stories I discussed after my own. SGM had a huge exodus of pastors leaving because of spiritual abuse and sexual abuse cover-up, but C.J. Mahaney is still in business and rebranded his church group.
I could go on, but suffice it to say: abusers DO NOT CHANGE. Even when there is a spotlight shown on sin and abuse, if the abuser stays in power, the dynamics DO NOT CHANGE. There is simply a rebranding, but the core issue is still there: the abuser is still the abuser cultivating a climate of abuse with anyone around him.
If you have not seen the movie, Spotlight, I highly recommend it. This movie describes systemic abuse powerfully. When we are exposing abusers, we need to understand this: it’s not just the abuser abusing. The abuser creates a culture of abuse and utilizes the people around him to keep the system in motion. Any person who supports the abuser is complicit in this system of abuse until they entirely leave the system. Here is a tough pill to swallow: you cannot stay and change the system. It doesn’t work.
So now what? What do we do when we’ve been an abusive church, we expose the issues, and see no changes?
When I started publicly exposing my spiritually abusive pastor, I hoped that there would be enough uproar that he would be confronted, and maybe he would see the error of his ways and come to repentance, and step down. Now I know this: abusers never see themselves as doing anything wrong. They will never step down (as we can see by the cases I identified above).
So . . . if these bad leaders refuse to step down, now what? What should our end goal be now?
It took many years for me to come to this conclusion and I think that many of us who are spiritual abuse survivors have been spinning our wheels because we wanted to fix our churches. Our spiritually abusive churches cannot be fixed if there are abusers in power, period. Getting our stories told by Christian media outlets doesn’t work. I’ve seen it time and again. It may identify some problems, but usually survivors will not get an even playing field. It only alerts the general public that there is a problem, but the general public never knows how bad it really is.
I’ve been doing this gig for a long while and here is where I see positive results. Personal stories are powerful. Reading personal stories helped me identify the abuse I was incurring (in my church and in my marriage). When reading a personal story and connecting with it, we are allowing our brain to connect with like scenarios. When we hear someone label a familiar situation we have experienced as “abuse,” it engages our brain to consider, “hey, could I have experienced abuse, too?” You’ll know you have a connection when it happens because you can sense your body’s physical and/or emotional response.
I’m going to say it again . . we can’t change the culture of an abusive church, because while an abusive leader is in power, there is a system of abuse involved. We cannot change an abusive system. But what we survivors can do is provide a safe place where personal stories are told, heard, believed.
Here is what I would recommend for those who are involved in an abusive church.
Create a blog/website specifically to discuss the issues at the church. Allow people to share their personal stories. I recommend allowing pseudonyms. I found that most spiritual abuse survivors are living in fear of being discovered. They need to feel safe to share openly and freely. Share your story. Share personal incidents that have troubled you. Allow comments. The moderators need to be trauma-informed and really do a good job of ensuring the safety of the environment.
This is what happened here on this blog for many years. Many abuse survivors came here to read personal stories. They identified with them even though people were talking about abuse from different churches. In this dialogue among survivors, they found they were not alone, and we created a lovely safe place where trust was established and people could heal.
If you have experienced spiritual abuse and would like to contact me for ideas on how to create this type of environment, please reach out to me. I don’t do many blog posts any more now that I’m working full-time, but I will make the time to take phone calls.
I originally didn’t think I’d get this post finished, and what do you know, my Saturday plans changed and I had time to finish. But here’s a video on the same topic I shot using my camera. Very low-tech and unscripted, but there ya go.
Personal note: I’ve missed you all and the community that once was here. I know many of you still subscribe. Hope you all are doing well. I am now one year post divorce. I just bought a new home in June. My cyber security job is going great. I have a great team and really enjoy the work dealing with a different kind of vulnerability than I was dealing with here. But it’s interesting, it’s all the same – it takes diligent effort to keep people and data safe. Feel free to drop a note from time to time. Take care, friends 🙂