My Silicon Valley startup job continues to be a conduit of many blessings, not the least of them being the way it compels me to keep social media pushed to the outermost edges of my time. That necessity is why I wasn’t able to do much more than glance at the headlines and now viral images from the Houston Chronicle and NBC News reports about abusers of young girls and boys hiding in plain sight for years inside SBC churches and New Tribes Mission-led ministries, until this weekend. I believe that choice was entirely Spirit-led, and not just because I was striving to obey Paul’s exhortation to be faithful with my time during the work week. I believe it was because God knows my personal history, and my heart on this topic, and how crushed with grief and anger I would have been had I read it earlier.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
I’ve alluded at times to the various ways I’ve been adjacent to the sin of childhood sexual abuse. Each time I’ve done so, I’ve noted that I’m not free yet to be specific about the details of the most serious of those situations (although one day I may be). What I can say is that my story has parallels to the ones emerging from the New Tribes Mission scandal, and it spans multiple generations.
Even with the constraints that keep me from being able to tell my story, God has still given opportunities to redeem it. There are distinct patterns to the stories of sexual abuse:
- the way it’s perpetrated;
- the way perpetrators manipulate and exploit the trusting to hide their wickedness;
- the ways victims’ appeals for help are all too often dismissed or denied by those with a specific call to listen and protect;
- and the circumstantial, emotional and spiritual devastation victims and their families experience when the truth is never believed and earthly justice is never pursued.
People who have experienced abuse, or been adjacent to it, are uniquely equipped to recognize those patterns.
This ability is what helps abuse victims and survivors identify and try to help one another. It enables us to translate the words and actions of abuse survivors as they process their suffering that those who are privileged to have no experience of abuse misread, misinterpret and, if I’m being honest, sinfully judge out of their experiential ignorance. And it also produces in us a strong compulsion to warn those who don’t have our same educated instincts, when we observe yet another story, another pattern, beginning to unfold.
We know how the story all too often ends. We can’t bear for others to be unwittingly complicit in enabling the consequences if the pattern isn’t broken. So we we try to speak out. We warn. We entreat. And when we are ignored, we lament. We grieve.
I followed the SGM story closely for all of those reasons. The patterns were crystal clear. The responses of those with both authority and spheres of influence to disrupt the pattern were textbook. I and other women writers in the TGC ecosystem at that time spent every point of relational capital we had ever earned, privately appealing to different brothers in that same ecosystem to simply listen, if not to us, then to those with direct knowledge and experience who could help inform their understanding and correct their false assumptions. We kept our conversations confidential. We hoped that our trustworthiness would set us apart from those judged to be watchbloggers and gossipmongers, earning us future opportunities to be heard and believed. Our hopes were dashed.
CJ Mahaney’s path back from reproach to respectability then honor followed the usual pattern. He spent a season out of the limelight until an invitation to speak at T4G 2016 signalled his return, even though none of the issues that prompted his season of exile had been resolved. A few brave men in ministry spoke out publicly, beseeching T4G to rescind the invitation. Most women I know were silent, at least in public. When even the loud and public voices of men weren’t heeded, what could be accomplished by the gentler, quieter voices of women?
Mahaney’s T4G session providentially coincided with the one time of day I more often have to listen to livestreams relatively uninterrupted-my dinner prep time. I don’t remember what I was cooking that night. But I do remember leaning over my chopping board next to something simmering on the stove and listening as the audience silence signalled Dr. Mohler was approaching the stage.
As Dr. Mohler began to pour words of blessing onto CJ Mahaney like an Old Testament father onto a son, my heart sank. And then came the now infamous joke about whether there might be anything controversial on the Internet about him, and references to unpopular sports teams. (Dr. Mohler had apparently missed this lengthy piece in the Washingtonian, published just two months earlier.) My stomach churned. My eyes swam with tears (and even now they are falling afresh down my cheeks as I type.) My heart brimmed with righteous indignation. And I decided I had to write *something*.
The Bible is replete with warnings about not sinning in the midst of anger, and of the importance of bridling our speech. I take those warnings seriously, as a Christian, but also as a woman whose greatest gifts and most besetting sins have always involved words.
The Bible also contains a notable collection of stories about how even the righteous words of women are too often wrongly perceived and dismissed by men. There’s Hannah, whose silent tearful prayer of distress was misjudged and rebuked by Eli the priest as drunken emotionalism. There’s the widow appealing to a judge Jesus calls unrighteous, who grants her appeal not because it’s right, but because she won’t stop bothering him. Then there is Pilate’s wife, and the women of the resurrection.
The Bible makes it crystal clear how wrong these responses were. But all too often, even today and even among Christians, when women speak with any kind of intensity – out of anguish, out of righteous anger, even out of unmitigated joy at the discovery of a resurrected Savior – all too often they are judged as overly emotional, as gossips with unbridled tongues. They’re ignored at best, and vilified and slandered at worst.
That’s why, even as I wrestled over what to write, I knew that the way that I wrote was every bit as important.
So I grounded my words firmly in the Scriptures, and distilled all of my distress about what had happened on that stage at T4G into a single paragraph. Other than Mahaney, I named no names. I revealed no confidences. I made no angry demands. I tempered every word so that it could be read in as gentle a tone as I could possibly convey.
Even with all of that painstaking effort, I sent my words off to be published with no small amount of trepidation. To simply reference acronyms like SGM and T4G critically, out loud on the internet, was to risk aligning myself with the watchbloggers and gossips*. But then I thought back to all of the women in the Bible whom God vindicated in the midst of the accusations of their “idle tales”. So I clicked “Send”, and left the results up to God.
In the days that followed, I was thankful that the Biblical issue on which my circumstantial concerns were based was the one that most resonated with readers – that Christian institutions have set themselves up for these kinds of scandals precisely because they have continually used extra-Biblical and even anti-Biblical arguments to keep women from bringing their God-given voices to bear on them. I was relieved when there was little to no criticism that I’d added my name to those calling out SGM and T4G specifically, and Dr. Mohler indirectly. I was not surprised that my words and those of innumerable others were largely unheeded. And I was once again dismayed and hurt as, over the course of the next several months, Dr. Mohler’s words became the justification for so many others in church leadership and Christian ministries to dismiss the situation. That, too, was part of the pattern.
The passing of months and then years dulled the sharpness of my sorrow, but not the memory of it. I continued to think and write about how women’s words in the Bible should inform the way the church thinks about the particular value of women’s words in the church, and in the world. I transitioned into consulting and then most recently into full-time work, where I’ve been given wonderful opportunities to live out the things about which I’ve been writing. Today my work is beginning to bear real fruit, but it’s left fewer cycles to write about it.
Then all of the emotion came rushing back to me this weekend as I read Dr. Mohler’s confession and expression of repentance, a confession for which I’d long prayed. And yes, I cried again.
Dr. Mohler’s admission of his error- specifically, the tasteless joking and his speaking from that podium out of ignorance of a situation that was far different and infinitely more serious than he had realized – and his expression of godly sorrow over it, greatly encouraged me. Unflinching statements of accountability and repentance are an ironic rarity amongst men whose vocation is to teach what it means to repent and believe the good news of the gospel, let alone those called to teach the teachers. I was also encouraged he admitted honestly that his decision to speak out now was in part because of the public pressure he had felt from survivors and their advocates. And not only did he acknowledge that pressure, he affirmed it as beneficial, and he urged people to continue.
Which is what brings me to write this now.
I praise God for His work in Dr. Mohler’s heart in opening his eyes to his hurtful words on that podium at T4G almost three years ago. I forgive him completely for them. And in the spirit of his affirmation that continued pressure from abuse survivors and those who love them is a good thing, would like to gently and respectfully apply that pressure in two specific areas:
- Does Dr. Mohler recognize that the hurt and damage his words caused was not only directly, on the hearts of victims and their loved ones, but also indirectly but much more broadly, as pastors and laypeople who follow him as a role model and leader used his words as justification to deafen their own ears to the cries of those hurt from the situations not only at SGM, but potentially in their own church communities? And would he consider speaking to that issue in the future – to warn those in both the pastorate and the pew of the dangers of placing too much trust in the words of earthly, fallible princes? And that Solomon’s oft-quoted admonition, that the one who states a case first seems right until another comes and examines him, must be applied as equally to the testimony of a seminary president from a conference podium, as it does to a female student at that seminary coming to the office bearing testimony of assault?
- In his honest confession that he ought to have listened to the survivors, has Dr. Mohler taken time to consider the reasons it took so long for him to hear them in the first place? Has he considered that the means some used, and the platforms some built, out of desperation for their voices to be amplified and the truth to be heard, only exist because there were few better, more solid ones on which they could stand? Like so much digital jitter on a bad cell phone call, the messengers were being judged by the instability of the methods of their communication, instead of the veracity of their claims. How can institutions like SBTS and the SBC build and maintain platforms of appeal for abuse victims that are so solid that the unstable, potentially self-serving ones eventually crumble into so much digital dust from disuse?
To this second question I’ll offer one potential answer – the one that was the basis of my post almost four years ago. As you rebuild, consider the clear, repeated warnings of Scripture against pursuing this work without the influence and guidance of the wisdom of women. There are Abigails and Esthers, Deborahs and Jaels, Proverbs 8 women all throughout your organization. They haven’t deserted you, even though they’ve been sorely tempted.
Ask them for the help they’ve been gifted to give you.
Ask them to be your allies in this battle, the allies they were created to be.
And when you’ve commissioned them, listen to them when they speak.
*The Christian “watchblogosphere” is as varied in motives as any other corner of the Christian internet. They have at times amplified half truths, disseminated error, and needlessly fomented conflict and gossip. They have also, often, been the early and only witnesses of truths that innumerable others lacked the courage to expose and call out. Both of these things can be true and cause for contemplation, sorrow and repentance at the same time.