A bad idea is one thing. Flawed execution of a good idea is something else. Thomas Edison is said to have botched the execution of the light-bulb concept about a thousand times before he got it right. Today, we’ve decided that the incandescent light bulb is not such a great idea anymore. But does anyone think that the general concept of converting electrical energy into light is a bad idea?
With changing times and advances in learning and understanding, we’re in constant danger of thinking that all old ideas are bad ideas—and in even greater danger of seeing any flawed execution of an old idea as a failure of the old idea itself. In our hurry to embrace “progress” we often don’t pause and look more carefully at where failure is truly located, and as a result, our piles of obsolete notions include increasing amounts of the wisdom of the ages.
Lately, at least in the West, we’re especially prone to do this with the social sciences. This week’s (or this decade’s) scientific consensus trumps all. And if you’re out of step with it—well, the fact that you’re wrong is self-evident. Because we just don’t do things that way anymore. We know better … until we change our minds again.
My chief concern with GRACE’s BJU investigation and Final Report (hereafter, GR) is that some very good ideas are lumped in with flawed execution (and a genuinely bad idea or two). As a result, there’s a temptation to respond to the GR in one of two unfruitful ways: (a) by dismissing it entirely, or (b) by embracing it entirely.
I appreciate the core of GRACE’s mission and don’t doubt that they have helped many abuse victims find a measure of healing. I’m sure they’ve also helped many ministries make much-needed changes to prevent abuse and help abuse victims.
There is some good stuff in the GR—some very good stuff. But the GR is flawed in some important ways as well. More conservative ministries should use GRACE’s services very carefully, or perhaps seek out an alternative.
1. Lack of Focus
Most of the report focuses on matters clearly relevant to the purpose. But the GR’s efforts to connect BJU’s commitment to personal discipline, “showcase” ideals, in loco parentis, dress standards, etc., to failure to properly help abuse victims are strained.
The section on BJU’s dress code is an example worth noting. To be sure, dress codes and modesty teaching can get pretty weird if poorly understood, poorly balanced, and/or poorly communicated. But Scripture clearly has no problem with placing the primary responsibility on men to resist lust, while at the same time acknowledging the seductive power of clothing and calling women to responsible restraint (Prov. 5 and 7, particularly Prov. 7:10; 1 Tim. 2:9). Viewed through that lens, the idea that pursuing modesty encourages men to blame their behavior on women appears far less likely. It’s interesting that the GR does not even acknowledge that there is a modesty principle in Scripture (59).
The lack of focus is a fairly minor flaw, but it did result in a report that is longer and more cluttered than necessary, making it harder to correctly locate points of failure, and tempting some to put the whole report in the circular file.
The cautionary note here for conservative ministries in general is that, unless the GR is a fluke, GRACE does show some tendency to seek out and target irrelevant philosophical and methodological differences.
2. Facts and Perceptions
If I walk by Pierre’s office cubicle every morning, offer a cheerful “Bonjour!” and receive only a silent glare in return, day after day, I might start to think he hates me or hates some group I belong to. That would be my perception, but the fact might be that until he’s had his third mug of coffee, Pierre hates everybody, and I’m not special at all.
Readers of the GR should keep in mind the difference between perceptual realities and factual realities. In my hypothetical working relationship with Pierre, my perceptions are not only real, but are a potentially important problem for both of us. So Pierre has two sets of problems that may not have much to do with each other: he has (a) the perceptual problem that I think he hates me, and (b) the factual problem that he gets too little sleep and is generally grumpy.
I could lecture Pierre all day about the ugliness of hatred, and every word of my criticism might be absolutely true—just not very applicable. My solution is off target (and maybe counterproductive) because my perception is not factual; I have not correctly located the point of failure.
The GR does show a little awareness that perceptions are not the same things as facts.
GRACE made every effort to collect, verify, and corroborate all information that was provided and included in the Final Report. Some information collected from witnesses was incomplete or unable to be corroborated. (21, note 59)
One of the more intriguing findings in this investigation is the degree to which recollections about BJU teachings on the topic of sexual abuse differ among former students. Students who apparently heard the same sermons and lectures seemed to come away with vastly discrepant perspectives on what was communicated. (45)
This observation is not surprising. Human beings are notoriously non-factual, even when they are being absolutely honest. We perceive inaccurately and recall even less accurately.
I appreciate the GR’s concessions on this topic, but on the whole, it does not adequately help readers understand how to deal with the fact vs. perception relationship. Sometimes, it even increases the confusion:
Clearly, different people can respond differently to the same messages and environment. One way to understand the differences in perceptions is to keep in mind that many victims of sexual abuse suffer from guilt and self-blame … . As a result, many abuse victims are sensitized to perceive and remember victim blaming/perpetrator exonerating attitudes and teachings that individuals without such life experiences fail to note consciously.
In more concrete terms, abuse victims may be able to detect toxic victim blaming/perpetrator exonerating attitudes in highly diluted concentrations that non-abused individuals may lack the sensitivity to detect. A canary illustrates this concept well. (46)
Certainly abuse victims may perceive intended meaning that others miss. But they may also perceive meaning that is simply not there. As I read the GR, I was struck repeatedly with the thought—“Wow. There is a whole lot of misunderstanding going on here!” not only by respondents (many of whom are identified by the GR as non-victims, by the way), but also by the GR team.
The GR team had a difficult task. On the one hand, correctly locating points of failure requires sifting fact from misperception. On the other hand, including that kind of cross examination in the investigation process would create yet another painful experience for victims who have already endured so much—and the prospect of having to go through that would likely frighten many into silence.
Still, the GR does not acknowledge its disproportionate reliance on perceptions, and several of its Recommendations reveal an inappropriate level of confidence in what critical respondents understood BJU leaders to believe and teach.
Two final observations may be helpful on this topic:
- Responsibility for understanding the communication of leaders, preachers, and counselors does not lie entirely with those delivering the message (Prov. 18:13).
- Even if we communicate with perfect clarity, some will misunderstand (e.g., Matt. 16:11, Mark 9:31-32, John 12:16).
3. Counseling Model
Though the GR gives considerable attention (59-162) to problems of execution—such as the pace of counseling, inadequate attention to establishing safety and trust, and lack of clear communication—the overall thrust of its analysis and Final Recommendations goes beyond correcting problems of counseling delivery; it is ultimately unsupportive of the biblical counseling model in general.
Not only does the GR’s analysis grant a far smaller role for Scripture and spiritual realities than any variant of the biblical counseling model, but it also recommends outsourcing all of the university’s sexual abuse counseling to an organization that is, apparently, secular (227).
The contrast between GRACE’s recommendations and the handling of sexual abuse upheld by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, for example, is deep and profound. Note “Vision of Hope: The Story of Julia,” as a poignant example. The Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Making Peace with the Past recommends a counseling process that is similarly at odds with the GR’s perspective (e.g., the contrasting statement around 0:08:53, and comments at 0:40:33 regarding dealing with guilt), as does Amy Baker’s “What Do you Say to a Woman Filled with Hate from Past Sexual Assault or Abuse?”
The message of these groups is clearly not just “move on,” but it definitely includes “move on.” Though I believe the biblical counseling movement has some weaknesses in finding a proper relationship to clinical research, the movement continues to grow and improve. What victims of all sorts need is a biblical counseling model that brings the whole truth to the whole person rather than a model excessively limited to neuro-biological understandings of human behavior.
That there is room for improvement in the execution of BJU’s counseling process is clear in the university president’s public statement as well as in counselors’ comments in the GR itself (e.g., 69). On a few points, it appears that problems exist at the theological level (such as the “Trinity of Man” concept and counseling techniques predicated on trichotomous anthropology; 65 note 108, 87). But to the degree that the university’s counseling has been ineffective for abuse victims, giving too much weight to spiritual realities and too much attention to Scripture has not been the problem.
Due to the perceptions-focus and philosophical differences evident in the GR, the Recommendations are of widely uneven usefulness. Much is helpful; some is quite unhelpful. For what it’s worth, I believe the university should limit its future relationship with GRACE to something along the lines of “Thanks for your help; we’ll take it from here,” then chart its own course to fixing the points of failure it is able to correctly locate.
As for GRACE, I would echo BJU president Steve Pettit’s observation: “They are devoted to the cause of preventing sexual abuse and their contributions are significant.” When it comes to investigation services, they are perhaps not the best choice for more conservative ministries and institutions, though. Perhaps the time has come for an organization such as BCC or ACBC to launch a service to meet this need.