How [Not To] Respond to Abuse Allegations: Christians and Sovereign Grace Ministries

[Trigger warning: child abuse]

As you may know, Sovereign Grace Ministries, an association of Reformed church plants, is facing a significant lawsuit that alleges church leaders covered up the abuse of children by discouraging parents from reporting abuse to authorities and requiring victims to forgive their abusers in person. The pending lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, recently added five new plaintiffs, five new defendants, and 28 charges, including the allegation that some defendants engaged in abuse directly. 

As the situation has unfolded, some Christian leaders have called on their fellow Christians to withhold judgment from Sovereign Grace Ministries. Tim Challies took to his blog today to urge Christians to pray for the leaders of SGM who have been facing “troubling days” and to “maintain a hopeful attitude toward others, even, and perhaps especially, those who have been accused.”

While I think we can all agree that Christians should withhold condemnation regarding the abuse allegations until the facts come out in the case and the issue has been thoroughly investigated and subjected to due process, what baffles me is Christian leaders’ continued support of Sovereign Grace Ministries in spite of the ministry’s repeated efforts to evade external investigation into this matter. 

This week, the Associated Press reported that SGM has asked a Maryland court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that courts should not get involved in the internal affairs of church business. This follows SGM’s statement in November appealing to protection under the First Amendment to defend its freedom to provide confidential pastoral counseling.  "SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse," a representative of SGM said in a November 14 statement.

Yes, we should withhold judgment unless the defendants are proven guilty. But what we can judge, and what we should flatly condemn, is Sovereign Grace Ministry’s repeated efforts to evade any external investigation into these allegations.

As David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Christianity Today in a helpful article on the subject, "the First Amendment is not—and shouldn't be—a defense against child abuse.” 

I bring this up, not to “sow disunity” or “pass judgment on fellow Christians” (criticisms I’ve already received), but to bring attention to a problem that Christians absolutely must confront.  

Over the past year, I’ve been corresponding more regularly with victims of abuse who have patiently and graciously exposed me to the ways in which the Church routinely mishandles abuse allegations by shaming the alleged victims and protecting church leaders. I’m working with several of these smart, inspiring survivors to post a weeklong series here on abuse and the Church, hopefully this spring or early summer. 

What concerned me about Challies’ post in particular was its disproportionate emphasis on protecting the leaders of SGM over protecting the alleged abuse victims.

He writes, “We tend to believe that the side that is slow or hesitant to release information must be in the wrong, that their silence is an admission of guilt. Keep in mind, though, that Jesus did not protest his innocence and that people took this as a sign of his guilt, though he, of all men, was completely innocent." 

My friend Elora Ramirez was floored. “I wonder if he understands the implications?” she wrote on Facebook. “Does he know what that line of thinking does to victims of abuse? Devastating.” 

As Christians, our first impulse should be to protect and defend the powerless, not the powerful.  Furthermore, by characterizing allegations of child abuse as a sad case of “disunity” and “strife” within the church and urging his fellow Christians not to ask too many questions about the situation, Challies only perpetuates the painfully common narrative that those who raise concerns about abuse in churches are troublemakers, out to sow disunity and dissention, and that we are wise to keep this matters quiet. (I don’t think he intended it that way, but it's how it came across.)

Even if these allegations turn out to be false—which they may be—how Christians respond to them sends a signal to victims of abuse about how they will be treated if they come forward. So we have got to put a stop to these shaming narratives that cast the alleged abusers as innocent like Jesus and the alleged victims as persecutors. The effects of narratives like these are simply devastating.  

Dianna Anderson puts it well here:

"You see, victims – especially victims in evangelical environments – are told that their allegations of abuse are private matters, that opening their mouths and saying that things are not okay is “divisive” and “against Christian unity.” It is no small matter for victims to bring forth accusations and to go to court against their abusers. It is no small feat for them to stand up for themselves and continue to speak."

And the fact remains: “slow to release information” is entirely different than evading external investigation by hiding behind the First Amendment, which is exactly what SGM is doing. If SGM indeed has nothing to hide than its leaders should be transparent and cooperative in this investigation. 

So while we should withhold judgment regarding the specifics of these sexual abuse allegations, Christians should flatly condemn SGM’s attempt to keep the facts from coming out by appealing to the First Amendment. That’s an abuse of freedom of religion and an insult to the gospel, plain and simple. 

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Note to commenters: Please remember to refer to “alleged” victims and “alleged” abusers. This is an important distinction to make in a pending case like this one, even though the percentage of false allegations in abuse cases is quite small. 

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