Dirty Laundry in the Church and What to Do About It
Updated: Jun 8
We don't enjoy looking at dirty laundry; we do it because we hope we can change it, and make it clean, fresh, and pure again. Let's look at some dirty laundry in the church and what to do about it.
Churches wondering why people are leaving need wonder no more.
They can look in the mirror.
The faithful are not leaving the church because they've lost faith; they're leaving the church because they think the church has lost the faith.
I touched on this in my post about what makes people deconstruct. If a church responds to a person with questions/ doubts/concerns by denying they are valid and calling them a non-believer, the person will leave. While some say that deconstruction means people losing faith and leaving, maybe the church has taken a turn that the faithful could not follow.
Southern Baptist Convention
Last week, Guidepost Solutions LLC reported on the investigation commissioned by the Executive Committee (EC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). After investigating allegations of abuse by EC staff and members over the past twenty years, the report reveals that the SBC had consistently neglected to respond to abuse complaints, citing that they could not discipline abusers or fire them since individual congregations who are affiliated with SBC have autonomous governance. In addition, while keeping a secret list of over 700 abusive pastors and leaders, SBC did not make statements to police about identified abusers as they chose to protect the abusers and the denomination rather than protect the present and future abused.
The SBC took no action to stop 'men in positions of power' from being in their leadership roles at SBC churches. I say 'men positions of power' because the SBC does not permit women in positions of power. Back in 2004, SBC withdrew its membership in the Baptist World Alliance and confirmed its doctrinal statement that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." In 2021, the Saddleback megachurch pastored by author Rick Warren ordained three female pastors and SBC continues to consider whether that church can continue in fellowship or will be removed from SBC affiliation.
Nearly 400 SBC leaders, from youth pastors to top ministers, have pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998, according to a recent investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News. Superstar pastors like Bill Hybels and Andy Savage have been forced to resign over allegations of misconduct. After last week's report was presented, the SBC leaders said they are committed to preventing abuse and improving the church's response to abuse allegations.
The SBC released an earlier study of abuse back in 2019 and SBC voted to change its governing documents to disaffiliate congregations or churches that are not "in friendly cooperation" with SBC's doctrinal statements. The problems noted in the 2019 report include:
failure to train staff and volunteers to recognize and respond appropriately to abuse
failure to take action or be accountable, citing church autonomous governance
failure to listen, believe or care for survivors of abuse
failure to report abuse to civil authorities
failure to dismiss perpetrators or prevent them from securing employment in similar positions of trust and leadership
success in glorifying the mistreatment of women and children
success in wrong teaching that leads to treatment of women and children as inferior
success in teaching women to submit to men (men as entitled to sex and power)
success in minimizing the sin of abuse, rushing to forgive abusers and suggesting victims might be to blame
To be clear, the report did not cite Complementarian teaching as a problem, but the "misapplication of complementarian teaching" to demean women.
Many of us sing beautiful worship choruses from Hillsong. These come from Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia. Brian Houston, a co-founder, resigned in early 2022 after two misconduct allegations against him. He is now in a legal battle, accused of breaching the pastoral code of conduct when he entered a hotel room of an unidentified woman while under influence of alcohol/drugs in 2019 and also exchanging inappropriate texts with a staffer in 2013. Following that, Hillsong fired his wife, Bobbie Houston, co-founder and co-global senior pastor since 1983, saying that her position was redundant. Hillsong's Dallas pastor Reed Bogard was accused of rape and a college student has claimed the church covered up her sexual assault. There have been other allegations of abuse and coverup documented by 60 Minutes Australia.
John MacArthur and Grace Community Church
Back in 2002, John MacArthur, pastor, author, and televangelist for 8000 members at Grace Community Church (GCC), a Reformed Baptist gathering in California, publicly shamed a woman in his congregation, intending to discipline her by putting her away from the fellowship.
Why? she had filed legal separation and restraining orders against David Gray due to his repeated abuse of her and her children and his threats to kill them. She had reported her husband's abuse to the elders and pastors of GCC hoping they would protect her and her children and provide professional help for her husband.
Instead, they excommunicated her and spiritually abused her, bullying her to forgive and return to the husband who had threatened her children. These elders who were not counsellors said she was evil, irrational, and exaggerating. At the time that they publicly shamed Eileen Gray, her husband, David Gray has written a confession of his abuse and submitted it to GCC in 2001. John MacArthur and the rest of the GCC leadership knew about the abuse but said he had repented and wanted to be reconciled and that she was wrong to leave the marriage.
At the same time, MacArthur urged his followers to shower prayers and love on her husband, David Gray, a pastor at GCC. The church never reported David Gray's abuse to civil authorities and he was able to secure new employment with youth until his arrest in 2005. He is now serving 21 years in prison for convictions of aggravated child molestation, corporal injury to a child, and child abuse.
John MacArthur continues to hold his position of influence as lead pastor at Grace Community Church. He has publicly criticized Beth Moore for being an evangelist, author, and Bible teacher, saying, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.” He did not show concern for her faith but mocked her, saying 'Go home'. MacArthur continues to say that empowering women makes men weak and that if women are in charge, we're in trouble. He backed it up by saying women are more vulnerable to deception because Eve was deceived by Satan. His reasoning is that Adam was not deceived but sinned knowingly after Eve was empowered and Adam became weak.
Eileen Gray remained silent while her children were minors, fearing backlash from John MacArthur and members of GCC who continue to say she was sinful for leaving the marriage. For the sake of vulnerable women and children at MacArthur's church, and anyone influenced by his videos or books, she made her story public in early 2022.
During the pandemic, MacArthur's church failed to report an outbreak of COVID-19 to officials and defied local government restrictions, holding worship services in person, without masks or social distancing. MacArthur was unable to preach for three Sundays and the following week returned while struggling to clear his throat or catch his breath. Even as church members were falling ill and dying, MacArthur said there was no evidence they caught it from GCC.
Roman Catholic Church
In 2019, the Catholic Church held a summit to address sex abuse scandals, a great turning away from past secrecy and repression. Survivors of abuse are hoping priests will reveal lists of offenders to law enforcement officials instead of keeping them employed and "shuffling them around the organization".
Why is this Happening?
For many years, Protestants have said Catholic leaders are more likely to abuse because priests cannot marry and because of its authoritarian, top-down governance. However, since abuse is now found in married religious leaders and in autonomous, bottom-up governance, we know these are not the causes of abuse. Many argue whether abuse is about sexual attraction and lust or if abuse is more about power, dominance, anger, or revenge. A power imbalance often makes the victim vulnerable. Patriarchy may lend itself to oppression. Churches that believe men should control women may breed domestic violence. A misapplication of Complementarian teaching may result in women being told to be silent, have no voice, and have no authority even over their own bodies. Jesus supported the oppressed, not the oppressors.
But abuse is not the only reason people ask if the church has lost the faith. Sometimes the problem is not sexual sin. Sometimes it's money.
Mars Hill Church Mars Hill Church of Seattle Washington was famous for attracting 13,000 people on a Sunday but closed in 2014 after a number of scandals involving allegations of Driscoll’s bullying and spiritual abuse of members and church leaders, misogyny, and homophobia espoused in a church message board, plagiarism, and misuse of church funds. In 2017, its founder Mark Driscoll was accused of misappropriating $30 million dollars of member's donations. He defrauded individuals by soliciting donations for one purpose, then using them for unauthorized ones. In 2021, we learned that Mark Driscoll hired ResultSource to place thousands of orders for his book through resellers, making the book move up on the bestseller lists. He provided over US$200,000 to ResultSource to purchase his books at retail prices (and pay him royalties). Usually, authors would buy their own books at the low 'author price' which pays no author royalties. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is a podcast produced by Christianity Today that tells the story of the growth and decline of the Mars Hill megachurch.
Joel Osteen is a well-known American pastor whose online sermons are seen by ten million viewers and whose books have hit bestseller lists. Joel Osteen preaches the "prosperity gospel," which focuses on the notion that if you're devout enough, God will reward you with wealth and health for you to enjoy. As of 2022, Joel Osteen's net worth is estimated at $100 million.
Having wealth is not a problem; selfishness is. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, Osteen was slow to open the church facility to provide temporary shelter to local flood victims. The church budget is used to fund events that promote and sell Osteen's books, creating personal revenues. God does not promise wealth, but if we receive it, we must recognize it comes from God and God's resources are to be used for God's purposes, sharing with those who are less fortunate:
The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. 1 Timothy 6:10
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have Hebrews 13:5
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:16
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17)
Welcome everyone; you belong here; Come as you are.
Many churches invite people to church with these phrases. But the LGBTQ community is starting to express betrayal when they are welcomed to sit in the pews and then told they must change if they want to be a member or participate in reading, speaking, or singing at the front of the church. It seems like it's a lack of transparency. It feels like the 'bait and switch' sales technique.
When a queer Christian couple emailed the Oasis Church in advance to see if they would welcome them, the answer was a resounding 'Yes!, All people are welcome. Welcome home". "We believe that Jesus Christ died for everyone... we do not reject people because of their sexual orientation or any other kind of issue that they are facing..." They were relieved, thinking that they had found a good church family. They did not realize the church viewed their same-sex attraction as an issue that they were facing and would need to address. After attending and tithing for a year, the church showed a video to celebrate people overcoming things like alcoholism, porn addiction, and same-sex attraction.
This is just one example. Many churches are very verbal about their welcome and very quiet about limits on the participation of LGBTQ, women, or minorities. It's time for each congregation to be transparent about what beliefs and behaviours are required for full opportunities to participate in their particular congregation.
I will stop, remembering the old saying: When you point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing back at you.
I am sorry that so much abuse has become apparent in both Christian churches and secular settings. I am sorry that some have felt entitled to lead and teach in a way that harms others. But I am aware that all of us have a selfish human nature, and must work towards growing the fruits of the spirit, including self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We have all made mistakes: maybe errors in judgement, greed, envy, jealousy, or snide remarks. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" Romans 3:23.
But Jesus gave his followers a new commandment: to love one another (John 13:34-35).
The secular world is watching. The Christian body is watching. God is watching.
The faithful need to do what we can to honour God's name.
What Can I Do to prevent Abuse?
Be aware of the issues; listen, read
Stop any financial support or purchases from ministries, youtube channels, books or music by those who support abusers
Ally with the oppressed; believe and investigate their accounts
Be compassionate, slow to judge, remembering that we all have faults (Matthew 7:5)
Pray that there will be both individual and organizational/structural change to facilitate accountability
What can my Church Do to ensure and demonstrate that it is safe and supportive?
Check these 5 guidelines: Two adults present with any minors, active church member, police screening for volunteers, secure drop-off and pickup procedures, and clear sightlines in meeting rooms.
Check these 30 strategies for fighting abuse in the church.
Meet as church leaders to read and study a book about creating an abuse-free community or review GRACE resources on how groups may confront abuses. Dismantle a purity culture that can be a foundation for rape culture
Be transparent about the beliefs and requirements of anyone who wants to participate in any form of local leadership; post any doctrinal statements that a volunteer must sign to participate in leadership; be clear about limits on the participation of people in various situations.
Offer counselling or referrals for both the survivor and the abuser, since many abusers were themselves abused and may need to learn healthy ways of dealing with their anger and fear.
How Do I Know if a Church will be Safe or Harmful?
Check their website. Look for their statement of faith or beliefs, doctrinal statements or creeds that they follow.
Check if the church has signed on with the Danvers Statement of 1987; signing this statement indicates agreement with the theology of distinct gender roles with men in authority and women always subordinate.
Check the list of pastors and leaders and take note of racial or gender diversity or lack of it
Check if the church is fully autonomous or if it is accountable to an overseeing body
Check if the church has published and follows a 'safe church policy' for abuse prevention
What Can I Do if I feel I have been Abused?
Get to safety
Call a domestic violence hotline or report to the secular police before going to your pastor. Reporting to the police reduces the chances that you will be abused again. There is a chance the pastor is untrained in counselling or domestic abuse and may offer damaging advice that it is God's will that you suffer, your cross to bear, and your duty to forgive. This is especially true if you are part of a relationship in a community that promotes your silence, discounts women's voices, and may support or honour your abuser.
Forgive yourself. Calling out abuse does not end a marriage. Violence ends a marriage. Abuse breaks the covenant relationship. Some victims have been manipulated into thinking they are at fault for the other person's actions. Each person is accountable for acting on their impulses.
Forgive the abuser. An apology from the offender is meaningless without repentance: making concrete steps for change. But forgiveness does not mean returning to an abusive situation. It means letting go of the hurt and pain and starting to heal. Usually, forgiveness cannot happen until you are in a place of safety and receiving the help you need.