20 February 2019

I Walk the Line

(Well, anyway, I try to)
by Phil Johnson

If you have friends on FaceBook or people in your Twitter feed who traffic in evangelical scandals, you must be aware that the religious online community is host to some forums where spiritual abuse is always the topic du jour, and some of the regulars who hang out in those neighborhoods have at times—rather aggressively—accused me of lacking appropriate sympathy for their cause.

So not a few people have asked for clarification regarding whether I am in complete agreement with the article Hohn Cho posted in this space yesterday.

The answer is yes. It's not a totally unqualified yes, but it's a hearty yes to pretty much everything Hohn actually said.

My one qualification: I would say even more. And although Hohn contrasted his opinions with the position taken by Doug Wilson, I don't think Wilson is entirely wrong. (I am also pretty sure Hohn himself doesn't believe Wilson is entirely wrong. Also, full disclosure: both Hohn Cho and Doug Wilson are friends of mine.)

Let's suppose that Hohn's point of view and Wilson's published remarks represent two points on a spectrum of evangelical opinion, with the spectrum's center exactly midway between the two. The fact is, if you go much further from the center than either of these two men, you'll encounter lots of poisonous passions and dangerous pitfalls lying along that spectrum in both directions. That's not a mere guess; I'm not wildly extrapolating into the realm of pure conjecture. There are, in fact, some extremely noisy people with villainous tendencies at both ends of that spectrum.

On the one side, you have the undeniable fact that there's a disastrous epidemic of both spiritual and sexual abuse in churches across north America—and the guilty parties are usually men in leadership.

Furthermore, that's not really a new phenomenon.

Adding to the scandal and compounding the abuse suffered by victims is a tendency among far too many church leaders to give cover to the perpetrators—sometimes with patently nefarious motives; sometimes because of a willful naïveté; and sometimes out of sheer ineptitude. Whatever the underlying motive, any attempt to sweep such abuses under the rug is a sinister transgression. It is a true and appalling injustice and a blight on the reputation of biblical Christianity.

And whatever instinct might cause someone to try to minimize, deny, or excuse such gross evil is inconsistent with authentic evangelical conviction.

My position is and always has been that serious charges of spiritual or sexual abuse should never be automatically rebuffed by the elders of a church. All such accusations do need to be investigated—thoroughly and without partiality. The fact that either the accused or the accuser might be made uncomfortable or feel threatened is no reason to forego a careful inquiry or (worse yet) to declare a verdict one way or the other without actually doing any serious, in-depth, objective fact finding.

To know that someone in the church is guilty of spiritual or sexual abuse and fail to deal with it—whether deliberately or by neglect—is to abdicate one of the essential duties of a shepherd (namely, the duty of guarding the flock against predators). It's tantamount to the negligence of a hireling; it is not the work of a true shepherd (John 10:12).

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the "survivor blogs"—websites that specialize in publishing practically any kind of obloquy or unsubstantiated allegation against church leaders—all in the name of victim advocacy. If the target of someone's incrimination is particularly well known and widely respected, the accusation will inevitably receive maximum publicity and encouragement. No proof is required; the denizens of these forums are expected to treat the accusation itself as sufficient evidence. Visitors who inquire about evidence will typically receive a scolding.

The stated goal is to provide a "safe zone" for people claiming victimhood, and the policy is to discourage as strongly as possible (I'm tempted to say they prohibit) anyone from expressing doubt or asking challenging questions of the person claiming victim status. Typically, a disgruntled excommunicant (or even an angry apostate) will receive the same approbation, sympathy, and encouragement as a genuine victim of sexual abuse. Violations of 1 Timothy 5:19 are commonplace, and remember: if you cite that verse or ask the accuser for evidence, you'll be rebuked (and possibly overrun with a stampede of angry Tweets). You might even be accused of participating in a coverup.

These forums existed and had been weaponized several years before the #MeToo movement demonstrated to the whole world the dangerous potential of the kind of "victim advocacy" where a mere accusation is regarded as sufficient proof.

Also like the #MeToo movement, the survivor blogs serve as vehicles through which feminist ideologies and egalitarian passions are brought in and dropped off in endless succession. The idea is to overwhelm and silence (by sheer intimidation, not by rational arguments) what Scripture teaches with regard to the role of women in the church.

So let's review: It's true that there is indeed an all-too-obvious scourge of spiritual abuse in conservative churches. I do not for one minute wish to minimize the actuality or the atrocity of that fact. But it is likewise true that the practice of publishing accusations without sufficient evidence is just a different form of bullying behavior; it is positively sinful; and it is no solution to the abuse epidemic. It's an utterly abominable practice whose dangers must not be downplayed.

In case you didn't get that, I'm saying that #MeToo-style mob "justice" is every bit as unjust as covering for an abuser. One evil is simply the mirror image of the other.

In fact, let me say it once more, as clearly as possible: to support and participate in unsubstantiated accusations is to sanction a kind of serial abuse.

Especially in a culture like ours where victimhood is deemed a desirable status, and a significant percentage—maybe even a majority—of the most heavily publicized "hate crimes" turn out to be manufactured by the "victims" themselves, it is foolish to think we can actually help victims or deter abuse by credulously accepting every claim of victimhood as if it were gospel.

That's the short version of what I'd add to what Hohn said yesterday—without taking anything away from the point he made. There's a vital biblical balance to be struck in this complex issue, and keeping your equilibrium is like walking a fine tightrope. The key to it is impartiality—a virtue that's hard to maintain consistently whether you're an advocate for victims' rights or a church leader tasked by our Lord with staying on guard against wolves, phony apostles, devils in angelic dress, self-appointed apostles, all-purpose critics, divisive people, false accusers, and all others who would abuse the flock of God.

There's still more that could be said. For example, every qualified church leader needs to serve the flock, not lord it over them (1 Peter 5:1-3). Being a leader in the church necessarily entails being a slave and an advocate for spiritually oppressed and suffering people (Matthew 20:25-28). These are not different—much less adversarial—roles. It is to the wretched shame of the whole church that even within the fellowship of faith people have begun to think of victim advocacy and church leadership as disparate duties. Both are heroic and perfectly compatible roles as long as we maintain a high regard for truth and a willingness to go wherever the evidence leads.

But woe to the church leader—or the lay Christian who advocates for victims—if he or she judges with partiality. We're told repeatedly that God is no respecter of persons, and He strictly forbids us to be. Those who spurn objectivity in judgment have therefore abandoned a crucial aspect of Christlikeness and holiness. They are scoundrels, not spiritual heroes.

And there are lots of scoundrels hanging around both poles of this particular axis.

Phil's signature


Michael Coughlin said...

Most of the same principles you cite near the middle of the post apply to the current accusations of racism in our culture too. In the effort to overthrow the perceived oppressors, those who advocate for victims often associate with enemies of Christ, use illicit tactics to advance their cause, and not only ignore rational argumentation, but even ignore evidence to the contrary of their view after it comes to light. It's actually great presup, just with a bad supposition...

Having said that, it is also true that errors occur on "both sides" and so there's the quandary we find ourselves in. Walking the line is the only godly way someone who is not omniscient may safely and righteously proceed.

Did I forget to mention, "Good post?" Sorry. Good post, Phil.

Jerry said...

Phil, I agree that both extremes are not helpful and I usually avoid the sites that seem to only focus on these issues. In most cases (I'm thinking of one in particular w/ W in the title) the site owners use any accusation of wrongdoing as a springboard to attack reformed theology and/or push an egalitarian agenda unless the accused is an Arminian egalitarian, then their theology isn't questioned, or they are accused of being a closet Calvinist (Paige Patterson comes to mind). On the other hand, most well-known, associates of the accused, especially when they speak at the same conferences, appear to instantly denounce accusers and defend their buddy, even when the evidence is voluminous and overwhelming, as in the case of Mahaney. I would suggest that they even go farther and attempt to use their positions of influence to stifle those who do attempt to investigate the accusations on behalf of the victims (Mefferd's claim, which seems credible, that Mohler tried to skew her investigation and/or shut her down as one example).

Many would say because JM (and you) didn't call on Mahaney to step down until a proper investigation had been performed and continued to speak at conferences with him, that you haven't always walked the line as your this post claims. Maybe JM did make that call and maybe you did as well, but I didn't see it and would be thankful if you could address this claim.

There is also the case of Tom Chantry & ARBCA where it has been said that you did not walk the line and aggressively came to the defense of Chantry. I never saw your comments on this so I don't know if this is true or not and I withhold judgment because I haven't seen this first hand and I haven't seen specific evidence. Since Chantry has been convicted in a court of law of at least 2 counts of abuse and is being retried on 3 others (plus I believe an additional 9 counts, although I could be wrong on the numbers), I would appreciate your response or please point me to where you have already addressed the claims. I haven't seen you make a strong statement on Chantry since his conviction, one way or another, and the apparent cover-up by ARBCA, including Tedd Tripp as part of the 3 man, internal, investigative committee that failed to report Chantry and appears to have swept it under the rug. I continue to give you the benefit of the doubt on this but I belive a response is in order since you have been continually accused publicly.

If I'm out of line, that is not my intent and I'm open to correction on either my tone or for any other reason if the way I have written this response is inappropriate in any way.

Andrew said...

As someone who admires Rachael Denhollander, Doug Wilson, and Al Mohler, I greatly appreciate this article.

Jim Pemberton said...

It's a question of epistemology. Where we are certain that a crime has been committed, we need to act. Where we are uncertain, it's typically a matter of trying to balance giving the benefit of the doubt to both an accuser and the accused. You don't want a guilty person to have destroyed the life of a victim without justice, whether it's some kind of sexual or other kind of abuse, or whether it's a false accusation. Only an impartial approach can appreciate the difficulty of that tension in the midst of a lack of knowledge.

The other balance is between discretion for the sake of preserving the honor of a victim and public knowledge for the sake of transparency. In the past, we have erred on the side of discretion. These days we err on the side of transparency.

Phil Johnson said...


1. Only once did I *ever* speak at a conference with Mahaney, and that was years before the allegations about sexual abuse in SGM were made public.

2. I never "came to the defense" of Tom Chantry, much less "aggressively."

In both cases, called for a thorough investigation and took a wait-and-see stance.

What you seem to suggest is that refusing to jump on the accusatory bandwagon without sufficient evidence is tantamount to "defending" the accused. That's a position that takes you right into the heart of one of the evil extremes I'm cautioning readers about in the above article.


Now, for the record: Here's what I wrote about both cases (Mahaney and Chantry) more than 2 years ago in (of all places) a comment at the Wartburg Watch:

Though I have absolutely no connection with SGM, I deplore the execrable abuse and subsequent cover-up that took place in that denomination. I haven’t made any personal accusations against CJ Mahaney in that mess because I haven’t seen any actual proof that he was personally involved in the abuse or the cover-up. (I have already been scorned by the survivor community and threatened by Brent Detwiler merely for saying that—so you can save your breath this time). But I still don’t think Mr. Detwiler’s famous leaked emails provided actual proof that CJ bears personal responsibility for the sexual abuse of children. Until I see proof of his guilt, I’m going to stick with my conscience on that, rather than jumping on anyone’s bandwagon.

With regard to Tom Chantry: I also have no firsthand knowledge of the evidence in that case, and like every other morally sane individual who has no more knowledge of the facts than we’ve seen in news reports, I’m awaiting the outcome of the trial. For the record, I’ve never met Tom. We know each other only through online correspondence. It’s true that the charges against Tom don’t fit my longtime impression of him. I realize my knowledge of him is limited by the normal drawbacks to online relationships. But is it actually “wicked” of me to withhold making any judgment against him till I know more?

There seems to be an unwholesome thirst for vengeance and demand for speedy condemnation in the survivor-blog community when a pastor is the one being accused. That’s clean contrary to the principle of 1 Timothy 5:19.

The complementary principle is in James 3:1: Pastors (and other church leaders) who are found guilty of malfeasance deserve greater condemnation. If a fair trial finds Tom Chantry or CJ Mahaney guilty, I will still stand by that. I have no agenda to protect any pastor from the consequences of actual sin. On the other hand, I deplore with equal fervor the practice of those who think they have a calling to orchestrate clamorous declarations of guilt when allegations are made against a pastor.


Morris Brooks said...

Don’t understand why JM or Phil should have to say anything about CJ. The did not defend him and were not involved with him. Who are you to hold them accountable?

Same applies to Phil and Cahntry. Phil does not have to satisfy you. He did not defend him or promote him after the charges came out. The situation spoke for itself. What else needed to be said or what else could be added?

TripPCA said...

I always look forward to the balance and Biblical responses of ministries like GTY when serious issues come up that involve the church. We live in a contentious culture with so many self proclaimed victims, it gets a little wearisome. However, when there are real victims, like the children and teens abused at SGM and other churches, it is a tragedy. Let us not forget that these young people will carry these experiences for the rest of their lives. Anyone who has had trauma counseling understands that it isn't like a broken limb that gets repaired and then the patient is good as new in a couple of months. Trauma's effects live on. Yes, Jesus heals and does heal, but it isn't a quick fix. With all the concern about who said what and when, or didn't respond in a timely manner, or may be simply doing damage control, that's on them. Let us pray for these, the ones who couldn't defend themselves and let us not be so naïve as to allow such a travesty to ever happen again.

Bob said...

So you have me confused. You seem to agree with Wilson's main point (not to rush to condemn without due process) and yet also agree with Cho's post (claiming that Wilson has missed the point). It is a strange line that you are walking.

Phil Johnson said...

Bob: keep pondering. And maybe re-read the previous post. If you thought Hohn was arguing against due process, you missed his point.

Gabe Rench said...

But Phil linking to anonymous blogs is not practicing due process. Especially in light of the Church’s need to emphasize biblical justice, I would think Hohn should delete those links, and apologize to Wilson for circulating a false report (Ex. 23:1).
Sincerely Gabe

Gabe Rench said...

For some reason my avatar is not showing up. My full name is Gabriel Rench. I did want to mention Hohn’s anonymous links, and then keep my name anonymous.

terriergal said...

I'm sorry but I can't separate the words of Doug Wilson on this (which if taken in a vacuum, might be true) from the actions of Doug Wilson, which actually flesh out what he *means* by the words he uses.

Unknown said...

Which actions? I don't follow Wilson very closely.

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

I'm pretty sure Gabe meant, "I did NOT want to mention Hohn’s anonymous links, and then keep my name anonymous."

Gabe Rench said...

Should read: I did not want to...