It has been an eventful week on the topic of sexual abuse and the church. The Houston Chronicle published a series of articles on the scope of the problem within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—a problem which has been exacerbated by the relative lack of oversight, information sharing, and accountability within the highly decentralized organization. High-ranking SBC leaders have already spoken out, acknowledged the magnitude of the problem, and promised reforms. Among them is Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., whose response is central to the purpose of this piece.
The statement he made is a good model for taking ownership and responsibility for one’s own past words and actions. Although a few critics have persisted in demanding Mohler’s resignation or questioning his sincerity, and others are (perhaps more understandably) adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the general response from interested Christians has been appreciation and gratitude to God. The latter group includes internationally recognized sexual abuse expert and survivor advocate, Rachael Denhollander.
I was, however, somewhat surprised to see criticism of Mohler from the other direction, with one commenter Monday calling it a “gratuitous and unnecessary apology” in the midst of an article that missed the point so badly that I can only assume it originates from a massive blind spot. The author of that article, Doug Wilson, is certainly no stranger to either controversy or verbal pugilism. Despite that fact, I cannot recall even a single time over the past decade (or more) that he has ever actually issued a material apology or owned up to a significant mistake in thinking. Perhaps the blind spot lies somewhere therein. More likely, however, is the reality that Wilson’s perspective on sexual abuse is so astonishingly wrong-headed that it has led to tragic results in at least two cases, which have been documented thoroughly in the public record. If the records are a bit too dry for you, Rod Dreher went into the Sitler case in some detail a few years ago.
Given Scripture’s clear admonition to us in Matthew 7:3–5, one might think that Wilson is not the most appropriate or helpful messenger on the topic of either apologies or sexual abuse—Mohler heeds his own conscience in extending his own apology and seeking forgiveness for his own overt statements and actions in support of C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Churches (formerly known as Sovereign Grace Ministries). That is precisely where Wilson misses the point. He spills much ink on the concept of the presumption of innocence, even though, aside from some secular Title IX administrators and other radical left wingers, most people are not really contesting that point—certainly not that I have seen within the church.
The point here relates to integrity of speech. Mohler is not apologizing for his presumption of innocence. He is apologizing for going far beyond that in his own past: overt statements of support for Mahaney and Sovereign Grace, which he made without sufficiently investigating the other side of the story per Proverbs 18:13 and 18:17, and with partiality in judgment per Proverbs 24:23 and 28:21. Obviously, Mohler is personally convicted over these matters, and when one has erred publicly, one ought to make amends publicly as well. As someone in a position of spiritual authority myself, I would be loath to get in the way of a man moved by the Spirit to correct himself, lest he risk grieving the Holy Spirit per Ephesians 4:30, or searing his conscience per 1 Timothy 4:2. For any Christian minister, we know from 1 Timothy 1:4–5 that maintaining a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith is fundamental to efforts toward loving instruction and advancing the kingdom of God.
There is, however, another important point to consider here, and that is the fact that an elder must be above reproach and have a good reputation with those outside of the church, as clearly stated in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. One need not discard the presumption of innocence, or the requirement for a charge against an elder to have two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). It is clear that there exist differing levels of proof and that the Bible nowhere requires conviction of a crime—which requires “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” under our criminal justice system—in order to establish that an elder is not qualified for the office. Wilson seems to imply the opposite. Indeed, for many matters relating to moral failure, there will never be a criminal conviction (e.g., adultery is not enforced as a crime in any US jurisdiction).
Instead, even in the T4G statement (since deleted), that Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan released to defend Mahaney and Sovereign Grace, they indicated, in an apparent nod to being above reproach and having a good reputation with those outside of the church, that “a Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry.”
What Mohler now seems to acknowledge is that the charges against Mahaney and Sovereign Grace were more serious than he initially believed. As a trained attorney, Denhollander has done an admirable job of highlighting precisely why this is—her detailed March 1, 2018 summary not only provides a credible charge with witnesses that has existed for years (for those who took the time to investigate),1 but also, in my view, establishes a prima facie case that demands a substantive response. It is light-years more substantial than mere gossip, biased axe grinding, or anonymous complaints.
Sadly, from my perspective, the response from Sovereign Grace has been to attack straw men, disingenuously deflect, point to procedural maneuvers as a vindication, and steadfastly refuse to address the issue in an (increasingly vain) effort to move along in the apparent hope that people will just forget about it.2 They are also eager to tout their relationship with Ministry Safe as an apparent talisman against criticism—though Ministry Safe has become the go-to organization for many major insular entities when accused of sexual abuse (including Doug Wilson’s own denomination, and others such as the United States Olympic Committee, Bob Jones University, and Nazarene Global Ministries). At the risk of seeming jaded, I have become rather skeptical of how strong the safeguards implemented by the husband-and-wife legal team at Ministry Safe truly are.
Regardless, considering this background, I literally laughed out loud when Wilson scolded her saying, “[Denhollander] has gotten out of her lane.” It is a backhanded insult that attempts to define and confine her only in relation to her direct testimony as a survivor—when in fact she has become the best advocate for and expert on sexual abuse reform that I have ever known. She is really a textbook example of what earnest and well-intentioned Christian “social justice” advocates might accomplish, were they laser-focused on a real and present issue with tangible and measurable injustices and proposed specific and effective reforms consistent with biblical principles. Her “lane” is precisely sexual abuse and the law, and despite Wilson’s patronizing comment about not being trained to identify ambulance chasers, the legal code of ethics which Denhollander presents and teaches on actually requires lawyers to identify and avoid ambulance chasers.
The comment was so ludicrous, so lacking in self-awareness and situational understanding, that I must wonder whether any of it stems from discomfort that Denhollander has caused by righteously barging into the lanes of coddlers and enablers, of abusers who would vastly prefer that she simply shut up and allow them to remain under cover of darkness, rather than expose them pursuant to Ephesians 5:11.
On that note, as someone who deeply appreciates statistics as a basis of measurement and comparison, especially in relation to demographics, I wanted to challenge Wilson’s attempt to dismiss the Houston Chronicle articles. First, the reporters were only able to catalog cases where reporting could be found, so the count necessarily excludes many rural areas that have very limited reporting and cases that were not considered newsworthy. Second, clearly the cases fail to include situations where direct or indirect or cultural pressure resulted in no report being made. This number is currently unknown due to a lack of studies on the topic, but investigations into various organizations such as the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, Bob Jones University, Ethnos 360 (formerly known as New Tribes Mission), the Independent Fundamental Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention (as mentioned previously), and Protestants generally, sadly seem to indicate a major problem. Third, it has been known from insurance reports since at least 2007, that the scale of the sexual abuse problem in Protestant churches is arguably at least as large as the one in the Roman Catholic Church, which nearly all observers (including Wilson) agree is a genuine scandal.
Finally, I want to say a word about Wilson’s concerns regarding the trajectory of “woke” justice and capitulation on biblical principles to the worldly spirit of the age. Candidly, I share several his concerns, and have said as much on my blog many times. I am well aware that numerous egalitarians are using legitimate concerns over sexual abuse to attack the notion of biblical complementarianism itself, just as certain other social justice warriors are using a legitimate hatred of the sin of racism to attack a biblical understanding of what it means to regard no one according to the flesh, in true unity, which refuses to elevate the importance of trivial surface distinctions between Jew and Greek.
Whether from the left or the right, pragmatic concerns over trajectory and potential results should never trump basic biblical ethics. Mohler obviously believes that in his prior full-throated defenses of Mahaney and Sovereign Grace, he spoke too soon, with partiality, and without sufficient investigation. It is right and proper that he make equally public amends for that, just as it is right and proper that Mahaney and Sovereign Grace provide a substantive response for their actions in light of Denhollander’s prima facie case. The alternative is a cloud of scandal persisting over their ministry, as they are still subject to legitimate reproach and establish and confirm an increasingly poor reputation with those outside (and inside) the church.
An independent investigation, which Denhollander, Mohler, and even Wilson all appear to support, despite the latter’s skepticism about the existence of an appropriate organization—and by the way, my understanding is that although Denhollander has spoken well of Boz Tchvidjian’s GRACE organization, she has not at all insisted it is the only legitimate organization—would be one way of commencing to clear that cloud. With every passing day of intransigence, however, Mahaney and Sovereign Grace make the dispersal of that cloud more and more difficult, and at this point I do wonder whether they will ever recover any credibility whatsoever. Like Wilson, they have badly missed the point, whether it is their responses to sexual abuse cases, their attitudes and actions toward survivors, or their doubling down on a continuing strategy of stonewalling and diversion after being called on it.
Learning from Mohler’s apology, rather than Wilson’s defense, would perhaps be the bare beginnings of a start.
Editor’s note: This was first published in 2019 and appears here by permission of the author.
1. I was one who failed to do so, instead simply accepting the assurances of people like Dever, Duncan, and Mohler, until a bit under two years ago when a blogpost commenter pointed me to Mahaney’s May 22, 2014 statement in which he claimed, “I look forward to the day when I can speak freely. For now, the simple and extraordinarily unsatisfying reality—for myself and others—is that in the face of an ongoing civil lawsuit, I simply cannot speak publicly to the specifics of these events.” And yet even after the dismissal of that lawsuit, Mahaney has refused to address any of it substantively, an omission that seems so out of step with his May 22 statement that it again implicates the issue of integrity of speech.
2. A point-by-point establishment of these patterns is, I have perceived, beyond the scope of this blogpost, but pick just about any public response by Sovereign Grace over the years, and I would be happy to break it down and fill out my opinion more specifically.
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