Jayma Anne Montgomery
THE PUBLIC RECKONING HAPPENING WITHIN EVANGELICALISM IS LONG OVERDUE…AND LIKELY FAR FROM OVER
Remember back in the 1990s when the rampant pedophilia going on in the Catholic church first made headlines and the news was filled with a seemingly endless parade of one gruesome tale of child abuse after another? The Evangelical world was practically giddy. I recall quite a few Evangelical leaders commenting with barely suppressed satisfaction that those stuffy, idol-worshipping Catholics were finally being called out. I remember one pastor saying from the pulpit that ‘this is what you get when you don’t let your priests marry.’ I haven’t seen or heard much finger-pointing at the Catholic church’s scandal-ridden history over the past few years. Apparently, Evangelical skeletons don’t look or behave much differently from Catholic ones, even with marriage in the picture. This is gonna be a long one folks. Duck out now if you’re bored or tired.
I had a casual conversation with my best friend recently about the culture of youth groups in Evangelical churches. Her thirteen-year-old daughter recently started attending a very large and successful youth ministry at a local church where they are considering membership. My goddaughter is a gorgeous, gangly pre-teen with a mind full of probing questions and a habit of timing these questions poorly. She has always had a shy disposition that requires time and trust to overcome. She isn’t the type of kid that is going to thrive in a loud, hip, concert-like atmosphere. I was that same kid. A few of her friends, who are also introverts, reluctantly attend with her due to the prompting of their well-meaning parents. I hardly blame them. Sometimes we believe that if we can just get our kids to sit under preaching delivered by a trendy, fun youth pastor who ‘speaks their language’ that this will somehow prevent them from rebelling. I’m not so sure that I won’t fall prey to this same trap in a decade when my kids become pre-teens. What Christian parent doesn’t want to do all they can to ‘guarantee’ that their kids will accept the faith that they were raised in?
We ended up reminiscing about the Assembly of God youth program that I was a part of. In fact, she had actually attended several of our events but it was a large enough ministry that we never met. We were the church that had the best youth program in the county and all neighboring counties; ‘best’ meaning the most well-known, well-attended, and well-funded. We had an energetic, Caucasian youth pastor who identified heavily with Hispanic and Black culture. He listened to gospel rap and reggaeton. He used all the lingo and was somehow able to pull off dressing like a Gen Xer without appearing to be trying too hard. Under his leadership, our church would send out buses to pick up teens for Sunday services, youth night, and youth activities like barbeques, basketball tournaments, block parties, and carnivals. To this day, I consider our youth pastor a good-hearted individual who went above and beyond to make us feel noticed and appreciated. He knew everyone’s name and what made us tick. Somehow, he always found time to encourage us when we were down and have heart-to-hearts with us about our fears and failings. He clearly loved Jesus. He was never the problem.
I’m not sure what the vetting process was for the youth program chaperones but I imagine it wasn’t very vigorous. Most of the chaperones were college grads or recent high school grads employed locally and overwhelmingly male. It wasn’t long before youth group activities became a venue known for older guys hooking up with the young girls. Girls as young as thirteen were pairing up with men in their early twenties with the express purpose of ‘getting their cherries popped.’ These girls were wild and unashamed, but the actual adult males made no secret that chasing down virgins was a cherished past-time for them. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes but I am confident our youth pastor did what he could to intervene. It was clear he didn’t have the level of support that he needed in order to hold the staff accountable. I was already tired of essentially having my high-school experience of not being one of the ‘cool kids’ replicated within my local church. My parents were not prominent and well-known church leaders so that made me social zero. But seeing the clear pattern of the church leader’s progeny exemplify the meanest and most morally loose behavior in the bunch was enough for me to retreat further into my shell. I wanted no part of the hypocrisy. By my junior year, I essentially begged my parents to let me out of the group. The trail of teen pregnancies that followed and a few other ‘quiet’ scandals made that battle an easy one for me to win.
These experiences came flooding back to me as I read Russell Moore’s article chronicling the investigation into abuse allegations in the SBC. ‘This is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse’ would be an exaggerated title coming from anyone else. Reading the content of the piece easily justifies this claim. For years, he led the charge calling for reform within the SBC regarding not only this issue but also things like racial reconciliation and political extremism. His rage is palpable and I don’t blame him. He is no longer a Southern Baptist for very good reason.
Among the most appalling ‘highlights’ of Dr. Moore’s article are the following: (1) Cover-ups by SBC leaders of credible abuse allegations; some implicate current and former SBC leaders. (2) A database of over 700 cases of sexual violence and assault that was used to protect the abusers rather than the victims. Abusers were permitted to continue to serve and move on to other ministries. (3) A preoccupation with discrediting female pastors while harboring a staunch unwillingness to investigate and persecute rape and child molestation cases. This was largely in the name of protecting their overseas missionary funding and preserving strongly held SBC cultural traditions. This is sickening. This is wrong. This is more disgraceful than the high priest Eli not reining in his sons for seducing the female attendants who served at the Tabernacle (1 Sam 2:22). The secular world does a better job of protecting women and children from predators than the church does. If that doesn’t bring shame and grief to the hearts and minds of those who call themselves members of this tradition (it has surely brought shame and grief to mine), then I fear nothing will. When will enough finally be enough?
This is not just a problem within the SBC. I’m sure I don’t need to rehash similar scandals that have been uncovered recently involving Hillsong ministries, John MacArthur, and Ravi Zacharias Ministries, just to name a few. I sent out a text to my closest friends asking them to pray for the entire church body’s response as the world looks on at us with (much deserved) disdain. I told them that I no longer say that ‘GOD is in control but that He is certainly involved.’ My dearest brother in Christ and one of the most intelligent Christians I know asked me to elaborate. I will try. This is a conclusion that I have come to in slow succession after living through the after-effects of multiple traumas that tested what I believed about GOD. Keep in mind that I am merely articulating a personal practice that I follow based on my own convictions. I’m not trying to impose hard and fast rules on my fellow believers.
There are a lot of unhelpful things that Christians say when things like this happen, simply because this is the language we have inherited from our teachers, leaders, and speakers. To an abuse victim, someone grieving the sudden death of a loved one, or a mother whose body entombed eight of her babies for no clear reason, being told repeatedly that ‘GOD is in control’ can be massively unhelpful. I’m not a Bible scholar, theologian, or pastor. I’m just an average Jane Christian who thinks deeply, studies intensely, and ingests a steady diet of ancient and contemporary Bible scholars. When you’re overwhelmed with emotional anguish, paralyzed by despair, and finding it hard just to place one foot in front of the other as you continue your walk with Jesus, a phrase like that can cut deeply. It can be interpreted as ‘GOD is directly responsible for this’ or ‘GOD fully condones what is happening to you’ despite the fact that it is well-meant. As a reformed Calvinist who is finding it easier and easier to reject sorting myself into discrete categories, I am convinced that one of the best ways that Christians can love their grieving neighbors is to stop speaking with authority about things we simply don’t know. I can’t seem to say this enough. Yes, GOD is the sovereign king of the universe but the way that He has chosen to manifest that sovereignty in the Earthly realm is incredibly nuanced and complicated. We only know in part what GOD’s original intent for humankind and creation was and will be. We are living in the in-between time, where He often honors human agency and decision-making even when the consequences are catastrophic.
We have to learn to hold the seemingly conflicting nature of GOD’s character in both of our hands in order to approach a full and balanced picture of who He is. This is far from easy but necessary to the maturing of one’s faith. He is a GOD who invites His people to intimacy with Him while still somehow remaining set apart, seated high above in the Holy of Holies, a place that would utterly decimate us if we were to approach Him without the very specific way that He has made for us (see 2 Sam 6:1-7). He is a GOD who handed over his blameless servant to Satan and, in the end, never told Him why He suffered (see the book of Job). He is a GOD who was willing to cause Jesus to suffer (some translations say ‘pleased to crush Him’ which makes me cringe) to atone for humankind’s sins so that the ’good pleasure of the LORD shall succeed in His hand.’ (Isaiah 53:10 AMP) He is a GOD who (at least sometimes but perhaps not always) turns the heart of kings, to the point of hardening Pharoah’s heart; defying the false gods of Egypt with the plagues and culminating this with freeing His people, Israel. He is also a GOD who turns from the intention to carry out judgment when His people or even sinful people (like the Ninevites) wholeheartedly repent. He is a GOD who tests our faithfulness, as He did Abraham saying, ‘for now I know that you fear GOD, since you have not withheld your only son from me.’ (Gen 22: 12 CSB). Was GOD simply playing along here? Why bother to test people if you already know for certain what the end result will be and then take things a step further by saying that now you know that they reverence you? I know I’m treading on weighty doctrinal ground here but my point is not that I know more than the brilliant theologians who continue to debate this, but that our language needs to change to reflect our present reality. The LORD invites us to get to know Him but that’s not the same as being able to predict His every action. Words and terms like ‘sometimes,’ ‘usually,’ ‘generally,’ ‘often,’ and ‘Biblical precedent’ should be preferred to words like ‘always,’ ‘never,’ and ‘definitely.’
Jesus and the universal Christian church are often His answer to the big problems in the world. Furthermore, being a redeemed human is about far more than just avoiding eternal damnation. It is a decidedly corporate venture that, for better or for worst, binds us to one another as a new heavenly family. We don’t just get to point fingers at the bad actors in our midst and expect GOD to wipe the slate clean for us. He expects us to be the church by holding them accountable, restoring them to righteousness when possible, and removing them from the fold if they remain unrepentant. We betray our allegiance when we double down on denial and blame extreme proponents of Critical Race Theory and the Women’s Liberation Movement for the problems of our own making (I’m not sure why we expect people who bear the obvious fruit of non-belief not to sin, by the way).
I imagine that being the church we are called to be might look like is this: verbalizing humility and open repentance often and sincerely; making amends to the people who have been hurt by our institutions in radically generous and compassionate ways; burying the many hatchets we have been wielding in our culture wars in favor of prioritizing the things that are nearest and dearest to GOD’s heart (ministering to the sick, poor, elderly, widowed, orphaned, immigrants, etc.); surrendering the political idols and high places we have built to power and influence in exchange for building strong networks of transparency and accountability within our organizations and over those that lead them; aggressively discipling our saints and pseudo-saints who have been overtaken by conspiracy theories and fake news. I could say more but…why? The most vocal and prominent among us have apparently still not learned these important lessons and so we will continue to collectively pay the price for their indiscretions. GOD help us. I pray that leaders like Russell Moore and the growing remnant of Christian thought leaders like him can help us right the ship before the ‘Day of the Lord’ comes, not only to pronounce judgement on the world but also to separate the weeds from the wheat. (Matt 13:24-43) I will conclude with the warning that was given to the church of Laodicea:
17 For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see. 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent. (Rev 3: 17-19 CSB)
RUSSELL MOORES’ ARTICLE:
SUGGESTED RELATED SCRIPTURE REFERENCES (certainly not an exhaustive list):
RANDOM OBSERVATION: Our son is turning two this week and very much entering the ‘terrible twos.’ I’m starting to think he may be a mutant with one of those superpowers that no one likes. Anyone remember Banshee?