In Church, Confessing To Sexual Abuse Can Win You A Standing Ovation

For evangelicals, forgiveness is more important than justice.
The congregation at Highpoint Church gave pastor Andy Savage a standing ovation after he confessed to a "sexual incident" with a member of the church where he worked in 1998.
The congregation at Highpoint Church gave pastor Andy Savage a standing ovation after he confessed to a "sexual incident" with a member of the church where he worked in 1998.
YouTube/Highpoint Church

On a Sunday morning earlier this month, Andy Savage, a pastor on staff at an evangelical megachurch in Memphis, confessed to the congregation that back in 1998, as a 21-year-old man, he had been involved in a “sexual incident” with a 17-year-old young woman. Savage had met the teenager when he was in college and serving as an intern at a Baptist church near Houston. After offering her a ride home from a youth group event at church one evening, Savage parked his car in the dark woods near her home and sexually assaulted her.

Given our current #MeToo moment and also the usually strong prohibitions evangelicals hold against unwed sexual activity, Savage might have feared harsh judgment for his admission that Sunday morning. Instead, the congregation at Highpoint Church gave their pastor a long standing ovation.

Savage’s story joins a long and growing list of reports of sexual abuse and harassment in evangelical churches and ministries that have come to light in the last several years. While the press has focused on a few high-profile cases, such as incidents of assault at Christian colleges and universities or the culture of sexual abuse inside some evangelical ministries, the recently launched #ChurchToo hashtag has collected thousands of painful but largely unnoted accounts of evangelical women (and some men) who have suffered sexual abuse and violation in their churches, often at the hands of their spiritual leaders.

What all these stories have made clear is that the problem of sexual abuse and assault is as rampant within American evangelicalism as it is in any of the supposedly godless precincts of Hollywood, Wall Street or Capitol Hill. That so many of these accounts involve the sexual abuse of underage women, however, suggests there might be something particularly unique about the culture of American evangelicalism that leaves young women especially vulnerable to sexual violation. In fact, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and founder of the watchdog organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), argues that the sexual abuse of children in Protestant churches may be larger than in the Catholic Church, a scandal that received far more attention and public pressure for reform.

But as the bulk of #ChurchToo stories and Savage’s dramatic confession reveal, evangelicalism’s theology of forgiveness and grace and its institutional culture of all-male leadership may be keeping evangelicals from having an honest reckoning with the widespread sexual abuse in its ranks. It could even be perpetuating it.

Much of the power of the #MeToo movement is in how it has flipped the dominant hierarchies of American culture that facilitated the abuse it now rallies against. In claiming #MeToo, long-silenced women have found their collective voices and attacked the citadels of power that cultivated and protected their abusers. The radical implications of this moment are not only that these victims might finally get some small measure of justice, but also the possibility that studio lots, trading floors and the halls of Congress might look altogether different in the years ahead, altered by the forces that rooted out offenders, increased women’s visibility and power, and established tougher policies and procedures. None of those results are a foregone conclusion for any of these industries, of course. But they are far more likely to take place there than within American evangelicalism.

While #MeToo seeks to dismantle the existing power structure that foments abuse, much of the handling of sexual harassment and assault cases in evangelical quarters inverts the basic operation of #MeToo activism. In these scenarios, the perpetrator takes the spotlight while the victim is left in the wings. It is his words of confession and embarrassment, but also often rationalization, that a church body gathers together to hear on a Sunday morning, not her cries of rage and pain that they must confront. If #MeToo has been about breaking the silence, the evangelical response has been to allow the abuser’s voice to fill the void.

Placing the abuser at the center of the story alters the course of action for those around him and the institution that employs him, making the priority forgiveness for his sins rather than justice for her injury.

Christianity teaches that because God has forgiven them, Christians are also to forgive each other, a belief that evangelicals especially emphasize. No doubt, that’s a powerful message of redemption and reconciliation. But it can also be easily twisted toward perverse ends.

Far too many evangelical women have shared their experiences of how church leaders pressured them to forgive their abusers, and accused those who refused or even showed reluctance to do so of dishonoring God. In such environments, the victim becomes the offender and the wrongdoer is transformed into the wronged.

Young girls watching the event play out in their churches learn quickly that maintaining their own silence and shame may be a smaller price to pay than coming forward with their story. For men who do get accused, publicly expressing their belief in God’s forgiveness for their sin, as Savage emphasized in his confession, also works to compel church members to do the same.

That’s not to say these men face no consequences. Savage’s confession has cost him personally. He lost a book deal with the Christian publishing group Bethany House, and his church placed him on leave. But the focus on individual repentance and forgiveness often obscures the deeper conditions that foster abuse. It may also prevent reform.

With plenty of good reason, evangelicals have long decried Hollywood and Washington as bastions of immorality and hypocrisy. Yet the #MeToo movement has already prompted real attempts to change what happens in the entertainment industry and on Capitol Hill. For Christians who care about the church’s witness to the world, those efforts should be a chastening example. If Washington and Hollywood prove themselves far more readily reformed, what does that say about evangelicalism?

Neil J. Young is a historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”

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