In my previous article “We Were Rachael’s Church” I wrote about how the Denhollanders held up a mirror of the church’s behavior to Immanuel Baptist church in Louisville KY and how the church reacted with introspection, investigation, awareness, repentance, and finally restoration.
But what had Immanuel Baptist done? A recent Washington Post article “The Sin of Silence” provides some instructive details about how the culture in evangelical churches actually protects and provides cover for abusers in their midst – including Immanuel Baptist. The matter in question pertained to allegations that leaders in Sovereign Grace Churches failed to report claims of sexual abuse to authorities during the 80s and 90s and caused secondary trauma to the victims through their pastoral counselling.
From the Washington Post article:
As an adult, Rachael Denhollander … attended Immanuel Baptist in Louisville, [who] was actively supporting former SGC president C.J. Mahaney’s return to ministry. Mahaney had been asked to step down from his role in 2011 because of “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” In 2012, a class-action lawsuit held that eight SGC pastors, including Mahaney, had covered up sexual abuse in the church. Mahaney and the SGC claimed vindication when a judge dismissed the lawsuit for eclipsing the statute of limitations. In 2016, Immanuel Baptist Church repeatedly invited Mahaney to preach at its weekend services.
In this case Immanuel Baptist relied on a secular court of law to decide a question of theological and moral concern. The problem is that the statute of limitations exist for a specific legal reason – to limit the time between when an alleged infraction happens and when it is brought to trial. These laws do not exist to determine the facts of a matter nor can they be used to determine guilt or innocence. That charges were filed after the statute had run out and the case was dismissed as a result of that time limit didn’t mean that the accused was innocent of the charges. To go one step further, the standards used in a court of law can be entirely different or even opposed to those a church should be using.
Denhollander says she told her church’s leaders this was inappropriate, as Mahaney had never acknowledged a failure to properly handle allegations of sexual abuse under his leadership. But the church ignored her, and when Denhollander went public with accusations against Larry Nassar in the Indianapolis Star, a pastor accused her of projecting her story onto Mahaney’s. When she persisted, he told her she should consider finding a new church. (Maheney did not respond to requests for comment.)
This kind of behavior is keeping with the ABC District Task Force report where Marlis Krueger, R.Psych. writes:
Churches in general are not comfortable with dissent or grievances, and denominational churches are among the least tolerant. In Protestant churches, research suggests that the most common responses are denial that anything wrong has been done and minimization of the seriousness of what has happened. Protestant churches tend to encourage people to see the different sides of the story, forgive, and just move on. This is even the case, however, when very serious things have occurred.
Shepherds do not accept correction as readily as the sheep; sociologically, they need to reestablish credibility and authority. The sheep find it disconcerting to have their shepherds and their pasture under attack; they just want everything to settle down. Processes then occur to neutralize those with grievances so that authority and solidarity are restored. Churches, church leaders, and laity are not following these sociological processes purposely, but are all nonetheless acting out predictable sociological roles. These processes are persistent in denominational churches (at both congregational level and larger church level) and tend to occur in sequence:
(You can read the rest of this section of the First Task Force Report under “SOCIOLOGICAL/PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS”.)
This concurs with Diane Langberg’s observation as reported in the Washington Post:
When congregants believe that their church is the greatest good, they lack the framework to accept that something as awful as sexual abuse could occur within its walls; it is, in the words of Diane Langberg, a psychologist with 35 years of experience working with clergy members and trauma survivors, a “disruption.” In moments of crisis, Christians are forced to reconcile a cognitive dissonance: How can the church — often called “the hope of the world” in evangelical circles — also be an incubator for such evil? “Christians must decide whether to give into the impulse to minimize the disruption of the abuse, or let themselves see a serious problem in their community and deal with it,” Langberg says. “It’s when they find out if they truly believe what they say they believe.”
“It is isolating and heartbreaking to sit in a church service where sexual abuse is being minimized,” Denhollander says. “The damage done [by abuse] is so deep and so devastating, and a survivor so desperately needs refuge and security. The question an abuse survivor is asking is ‘Am I safe?’ and ‘Do I matter?’ And when those in authority mishandle this conversation, it sends a message of no to both questions.”
I expect a similar mechanism is currently at work with the community of CEF / DIL depositors, families, and friends – namely that the church’s ongoing silence, excuse making, and blame-shifting is clearly telling her members that their situation is of lesser interest or concern to the church as a corporate body as compared to protecting itself from liability and making the “issue” go away by refusing to address it.
When their concerns were dismissed, the Denhollanders left Immanuel Baptist church for another church home. In a similar manner, I’ve corresponded with a few faithful and even multi-generation Lutherans who couldn’t take how they were being treated and have left LCC – some for other church homes, some are going it alone, and some are forming their own groups for mutual support and encouragement.
And you know what? Until “the church” repents and “confesses every sin” the way Immanuel and her pastors did, I can’t blame them. There is only so much abuse and marginalization a person can take before protection of self trumps a desire to be part of a body that only pays lip service to right doctrine and practice.
During His time on earth, Christ had some choice things to say about people that conducted themselves in this manner, and I fully expect He has the same expectation of people and churches today.