Rachael Denhollander's statement to Sovereign Grace Churches

SGM’s CT commentary is more or less arguing against sworn testimony in the trials of former members convicted of child sexual abuse. Doing that to a lawyer who just dropped a jerk who’d evaded justice for 20 years is like stepping into the ring with a pit bull wearing a meat suit. Just plain dumb.

The morass is huge at MSU, by the way. I was talking 15 minutes ago with the aunt of a current MSU medical student while giving blood, and her niece just had to file a harassment report when an instructor gave her advice to actually wear more revealing clothing when going on a medical mission to Haiti. You would figure with the circus going on there, that people would tone things down for a while, but apparently the message is not through yet. If Bil Schuette does his job well, my alma mater is going to look like the Place de la Concorde during the Reign of Terror, I’m sad to say.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

So there you have it. Typical behavior of churches when they get confronted with truth about how they mishandle abuse. Despicable. Pathetic. I have no respect at all for SG. No one should until they get their act together.

For me, a big gut check is what would it take for me to separate from a church, or refuse to attend a conference, based on the behavior of the speakers. So far, I’ve found that I’m willing to separate based on espousal of prosperity theology and clear evidence of love of money, refusal to take the pulpit ministry seriously, and endorsement of KJVO/Trail of Blood theology. Informally, I’ve refused to go to conferences where the whole deal seemed “just a bit too big and overblown”, but I’ve probably made a few mistakes along those lines, too.

Thankfully, I’ve never gotten the chance to decide whether I need to separate from someone due to failure to report sexual abuse yet—I never was a SGM guy myself—but I hope I would. If we want to lose the “typical behavior of churches” label, we need to prove we’re serious.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Is not attending a conference the same as separating from?

G. N. Barkman

[G. N. Barkman]

Is not attending a conference the same as separating from?

It’s just a baby step, really, but in a culture where fundagelicals like to get as many big names together as possible under one tent, refusing to provide “rear ends in seats” and ticket revenue is a start. Step 2 is to tell friends “I’m not going, and this is why, and I encourage you to stay home, too.” Step 3 is to protest to the organizers—what the Denhollanders did—and I believe that was seen as necessary because the conference/invitation of Mahaney came from within their church body.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert raised a good point about knowing when and how to step away from something. Here’s the strategy I’ve used in the past, both within a local church and with para-church organizations.

  1. Try to see it from their point of view and accept whatever it is, even if you don’t agree.
  2. Ignore it - especially if it’s a personal preference or non-eternal matter.
  3. If that doesn’t work, try to talk with the other side and work out some sort of accommodation.
  4. Abstain or curtail extraneous involvements.
  5. Abstain from direct and necessary involvement entirely but continue to push for resolution.
  6. Leave the organization, but explain why so they know the issue(s).
  7. Actively work against the organization by encouraging others to abstain on the basis of the factual evidence that you have gathered by this point as well.

In the Denhollanders’ case with CJ Mahaney, I think you have to go straight to 5 or 6. It’s not just a preference issue, but a matter of common sense and wisdom. I could also argue that staying at the church they were in could put them at real physical and spiritual risk as well.

GN - you could argue that abstaining from going is the same as separation, but as I understand it, the entire point of separation is to motivate change. If they don’t know why you are separating or abstaining, then you can’t call it separation. Make sense?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells


G. N. Barkman

It’s worth noting that “rear ends in seats” are indeed part of the voice of the customer. Smart people look at the trends and start asking why those trends might be so—so refusing to come is going to, by and large, end up with people realizing why.

If you’ve got smart people running things, of course. :^)

With regards to the cases where I’ve left churches, there are (obviously) times where I’ve gotten all the way to #7 in Jay’s list (thanks, Jay, good list). And while I’m not interacting currently with people considering an SGM church—there are none within 80 miles of where I live—I place myself at #7 with regards to SGM until they come clean on the “don’t report” policy and produce a new one that clearly says “do report.” I do so having a hunch that other churches I’ve been a member of probably have worked, at least informally, with that policy as well.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Apparently SGM responded to this, so Rachael posted another statement online on Thursday, March 1. Here’s the link, and here’s a lengthy snippet. Sections underlined are her emphasis:

I have prayed and considered for nearly three weeks whether to respond to the statement by Sovereign Grace Churches posted on February 13th. This blog post is the most extensive statement by the organization with respect to serious questions that have been outstanding for nearly a decade. However, the response is misleading on several vital points, and leaves many disturbing questions unanswered. Because of this, I have chosen to respond in greater detail and renew my call for Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC, formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM)) to submit to an independent third-party review of how they have handled reports of abuse.

This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals. Research bears out the claim these experts make. Because many churches are ideologically committed to the theories that lead them to handle abuse so poorly, many church leaders are very sincere, yet sincerely wrong. Sadly, these leaders and institutions also remain resistant to outside accountability or input. This is a serious problem that damages the gospel and pushes the most vulnerable away from hope and refuge. Addressing this issue is not damaging the Gospel, it is instead seeking to restore the Gospel and Christ to their rightful authority and priority over institutions and mishandled theology

This is not a case of being asked to be “judge and jury”, anymore than any of us were, or ought to have been, “judge and jury” in other instances where similar allegations and concerns were raised against other institutions. What is being asked is that we apply the same level of intellectual honesty and scrutiny that we apply to groups outside our own community where such allegations are made. Given the standard set in Scripture for what a Christian ought to be and in particular a Christian leader, I would suggest this standard ought to be even higher than we require of, say, state universities.

Put simply, what we ought to have done is treat the concerns and allegations expressed as very serious. As potentially damaging to the Gospel. As potentially deeply damaging to God’s children. We ought to have truly listened and considered that those close to us could have fallen in serious ways or made serious mistakes. We ought to have to urged and required that serious matters like this be subject to a transparent, public, independent investigation that is conducted by a group the survivors also trust, just as we expect and require such accountability for secular institutions.

Penn State University is a byword for sexual assault scandals. Yet it took Penn State a mere six days to commission a truly independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Jerry Sandusky. It took Michigan State University an excruciating seventeen months to finally request a similar investigation into the Larry Nassar case. Yet, it has been more than seven years and Sovereign Grace has steadfastly refused this sort of accountability in the face of multiple instances of abuse within the organization – even though they have been asked multiple times to clear the air.

Not only has there been no loving but firm pressure to submit to accountability and openness, the very dynamic I warned about in the Christianity Today article has been repeated. My gospel presentation and offer of forgiveness to my abuser was heralded nationally… until I applied those same principles to my own community of Reformed evangelicals.

The skill, precision, passion for truth and commitment to Christ that received wide acclaim was instantly denigrated as “zeal without knowledge”, “false accusations” and acting “without the facts”, damaging the gospel. Yet not a single person who levied or repeated this accusation asked, even once, what facts or research I had done, before making that judgment regarding me. As soon as I raised concerns about issues in my own community, it was immediately determined by some that none of the abilities and attention to detail I demonstrated to bring Nassar to justice had been utilized in raising concerns with Sovereign Grace. That I was carelessly and ignorantly damaging the gospel that I had been praised for articulating so well and courageously to Larry Nassar two days earlier.

This is institutional and community protectionism. Brothers and sisters, this is it. We need to realize that the reason we are gaining a reputation for handling these situations so poorly is not because people hate the gospel and make up lies about us, but because we have a real problem in how we think about sexual abuse and how we think about our leaders and institutions.

I warned specifically, “The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only not have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.” And yet, despite this warning, this is precisely what many have already done. Without listening. Without asking before determining I had no facts and was carelessly damaging the gospel. I was applauded for pushing for independent investigations at Michigan State University, and dismissed for asking for the same type of investigation when it comes to Sovereign Grace…

…Surely, we who claim the name of Christ, who preach a Gospel of repentance and grace, who hold the virtues of humility and repentance dear, who recognize that everyone is prone to sin and failure, who understand the need for accountability and avoiding even the appearance of evil - surely we can do better. Surely, those of us who preach the vital importance of costly love and the intrinsic value of humans being made in God’s image should be the most passionate in our pursuit of truth and the defense of the weakest, even and especially when it hurts.

For those of you who find this difficult to hear, please know that those of us who have been victimized and understand the seriousness of these allegations find it far more difficult. This is my community. These are people I respected, supported, recommended and learned from. This not only brings me no pleasure, it brings the deepest pain. I do not want these things to be true in my own community. But finding them to be a reality, I cannot remain silent.

Sovereign Grace is widely held out within broadly Reformed evangelical circles as a model for churches, with leaders who are placed in significant roles of authority and prominence. Thus, what has happened at SGM matters far beyond their own churches. It reflects on the broadly Reformed evangelical community. Our response to it reflects on the Reformed evangelical community. When it is not important enough to listen, to find out the facts, to require accountability and transparency, that sends a message about how much Reformed evangelicals care about sexual assault. It sends a message about what the Gospel says about sexual assault.

Those who hold SGC out as a model for churches and assist in helping SGC and its leaders gain prominence and breadth of influence have a responsibility to those who will come under the SGC umbrella. They have a responsibility to those who see this support in light of the allegations, and the way the victims have been treated.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

dumb, dumb, dumb on SGM’s part to pick a fight with a lady who’d mastered the language of medical journals and more to prove that her abuser was, indeed, an abuser. This is (again) especially the case when sworn testimony in the case that put a former SGM volunteer/lay minister in jail suggested very clearly at least an informal policy of “handle things inside.”

Wondering what to do? Remember that physical evidence exonerated Duke lacrosse players; had it been taken, it would have sufficed to indict Larry Nassar about 20 years ago, before most of his victims were molested. Does your church have the ability to perform a medical examination of sexual assault victims? Does your police department?

Going forward, victims of sexual assault are far more likely to lawyer up. We might as well honor Romans 13 by noting the king’s duty to punish the wicked, especially when they’ve got the tools to confirm or refute allegations in a hurry.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.