When news broke months ago that leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a neo-Reformed chain/mini-denomination/franchise/whatever label they use, were being charged with abusing children and covering it up. Neo-Reformed websites either ignored the charges entirely or published something to the effect of “we stand by our leaders,” refusing to take any steps whatsoever. Now the trial has happened and the verdict came down guilty, which isn’t a surprise considering how rare false accusations are. In and of itself, this is a huge problem. I’m not suggesting they rush to condemn the alleged abusers, but they should at least be making sure they create a safe space and never assume that the allegations are false to hold on to your power.
Zach Hoag and others have been tweeting with the hashtag #IStandWithSGMVictims as a way to show our support for those who have bravely stood up to their abusers and the attempts to silence them. I haven’t had to do anything remotely like this scale, so no, I don’t really know how hard it must be to stand up to abuse. But I have made the effort of listening to the stories of others who have. It sucks. You’re constantly accused of lying, sometimes instead accused of it really being your fault. You’re ostracized by the community. Many have probably still not found healing. That’s a tough emotional ride. Plus of course we’re talking about a lot of time and legal fees. There is a cost to standing up for the truth and they were brave enough to fight through it. While many of them probably don’t want anything to do with Jesus anymore, those people look an awful lot like him right now, suffering at the hands of oppressive structures to help end those structures.
The Gospel Coalition is again refusing to make any comment. Apparently they’re even blocking people on Twitter and deleting any comments on their Facebook that bring it up. In other words, it’s not like they just haven’t had time to comment yet (of course they could comment quickly when others fail) – they’re actually trying to shut down the conversation. These tweets and comments aren’t insulting them in any way. They’re not even discrediting that SGM and TGC may have done some valuable ministry. It is just asking that they stand with the victims as many of us are trying to do.
We’re not asking that TGC immediately fire all of their editors or that they condemn those abusers to Hell, although it is definitely frustrating that they had no problem doing so to Rob Bell before even reading the book in question, or to World Vision for daring to admit that other Christian denominations exist, or to many others. Yes, this would have some practical effects, too, like learning not to rush to defend the (alleged) oppressors and encouraging churches they’re affiliated with to have good accountability structures in place.
That’s what every church needs: accountability for its leaders. When in seminary, I saw the comprehensive policy in place for the United Church of Canada and heard a good chunk of other good advice regarding abuse. Some were simple, like having one-on-one meetings in a public place or at least with the office window/door open so other staff would see anything wrong. Of course, people could always choose to ignore it, but the fact that it was right there repeatedly was a good sign. The leaders may be very good people and good ministers in many ways, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have guidelines for their behaviour. Even in the rare case were the allegations are false, after all, that’s a good safety net to be able to say “other people were around, they can back me up.” And then if a report was made, the UCC has detailed processes to deal with it swiftly in a way that protected the (allegedly) abused. This should be a no-brainer for other denominations/churches to emulate if they haven’t already.
Unfortunately, their reaction is showing that it is more important for them to protect their neo-Reformed brand the best they can than it is to actually minister to people. I understand that we all have this temptation. I do have to seriously ask myself: if a scandal broke out for The Meeting House, or Woodland Hills, or some other Anabaptist/Emerging church that I share much theology with, what would I do? Would I try to hush the abused to protect my “tribe”? Or would I be able to say that my real tribe is not those in theological agreement but those who Jesus stood beside: the outcast and oppressed? I hope that if there ever is a scandal in one of those churches and I am not just as quick to work for change that somebody will call me out on that hypocrisy.
It’s not like there’s even something inherent to their theology that says they should ignore abuses. Yes, there’s a lot of heavy top-down authority very different from most Anabaptist churches, but at least in theory they say those authority figures should be held accountable. So why can’t they say “SGM messed up and did not hold its leaders accountable. We’ll look into how to encourage our churches to do better”? Why are they instead trying to block out anybody who will admit that? It’s all about protecting their neo-Reformed brand, which I suspect will fail miserably as it is hard to silence critics in the age of the Internet (look at the Catholic Church, now learning to be more transparent).
It’s time to listen to that call of Jesus: “Repent!” or as the CEB translates it so well “Change your hearts and lives!” It may be too late to stop those abuses, but it isn’t too late to enact change that helps those abused heal and helps prevent further abuse. Please, TGC and other Christians everywhere, stand with us beside the victims and let’s get to work making sure there aren’t any more under our watch.