Why We’re all Responsible for the Scandals in the Church

The Catholic sex abuse scandal is revolting. That Theodore McCarrick sexually abused seminarians is horrific enough. But reports that the Vatican knew about it and did nothing shocks anyone with any sense of propriety and justice.

Plus, now there’s a grand jury report revealing that more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania have been credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 victims. And law enforcement officials in 10 states have launched similar investigations, suggesting the abuse is rampant.

Decent Catholics are outraged and rightfully so. They’re demanding resignations and change among church hierarchy.

And Protestants, who at one time might have used the scandal as an opportunity to throw stones, are realizing that we live in a glass house too. From scandals involving Bill Hybels to Mark Darling to Sovereign Grace Ministries and Bob Jones University, it’s clear that we have our own problems. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church doesn’t have a monopoly on sex abuse or the ability to cover it up.

But what’s the solution?

“Laypeople need become part of the solution. Sadly, if we’re honest, we have to admit we’ve been part of the problem.”

Many proposals aim to reform the system. Certainly, the Catholic Church and its hierarchy need to change. Protestant denominations need to change too. And I’m heartened, for example, that Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear announced that he will form a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group.

But as Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse recently wrote to fellow Catholics, relying on church leaders to solve the problem may be futile. “Most proposals for reform require cooperation from the very same people who have already failed us,” she said. “These ideas still leave us, the ordinary Catholic in the pew, at the mercies of men we no longer trust.”

As Protestants, our leadership is much more decentralized, and I believe there are godly church leaders we can trust. Yet Morse makes an important point. Laypeople need become part of the solution. Sadly, if we’re honest, we have to admit we’ve been part of the problem. She explains:

If the witnesses who are potential whistleblowers knew they would be supported by faithful Catholics, would they be more likely to blow that whistle? Yes, obviously. If the guys doing damage control thought the whistleblowers had alternative sources of support and employment, would that fact reduce their ability to silence the whistleblower? Yes, of course.

All this points to one thing: Being the backstop, the backup plan, providing the alternative support system means that we are changing the incentives under which the Church operates. 

Having blown the whistle on wrongdoing at a major Christian institution this year, I resonate with Morse’s sentiments. Too often, people shoot the messenger. And it’s about time we reverse this pattern.

“(I)t’s common practice for elders to protect their own. . . . But this response works only because the congregation allows it to work.”

Rachael Denhollander, one of Larry Nassar’s sex abuse victims, understands this pattern well. “When I did come forward as an abuse victim,” she told Christianity Today, “this part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded.” Sadly she concludes that the church is “one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse . . . There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”

Unfortunately, it’s common practice for elders to protect their own. That’s what happened at Willow Creek and why the entire elder board resigned. But this response works only because the congregation allows it to work.

When Hybels initially called the accusations in the Tribune flat-out lies and the elders rebuffed the women, congregants at Willow Creek reportedly cheered their support. I’m sure many church members regret that decision today, and feel they were duped by their leadership. But it should serve as a sobering lesson for all of us.

In the past six months, I’ve received dozens emails and messages from people sharing their stories of wrongdoing within the church and Christian institutions. Every time, I’m grieved and feel a responsibility to help.

Yet so often when I ask these people if they’re willing to speak to me on the record, the answer is no. And sadly, my response to them then is, “Then there’s nothing I can do for you.”

These people fear retribution from leaders. But they equally fear being shunned by their friends, colleagues, and/or church members. If they knew they could count on their community to stand with them, things would be dramatically different.

People of God, we are facing a very unique moment. Sadly, our churches and Christian institutions – Catholic and Protestant – are deeply flawed and desperately in need of reform. But God is beginning to expose the darkness, making this an important opportunity.

I speak with many people who say they’re powerless to change what ails the church. We’re not powerless. But as long as we think we are, then we are.

Certainly, if we’re going to seize this opportunity, our leaders need to lead in the right direction. As Scripture makes abundantly clear, they will be held to a higher standard and will be called to account (James 3:1; Acts 20:28).

“If you have witnessed wrongdoing, the onus is on you to speak. And please, don’t say you don’t have the ‘personality’ to speak up. Courage is a character quality, not a personality trait.”

But as laypeople, we have a responsibility too. First, those with knowledge of wrongdoing need to speak up. Leviticus 5:1 actually calls it sin when someone fails to testify about a public charge that they have witnessed.

If you have witnessed wrongdoing, the onus is on you to speak. And please, don’t say you don’t have the “personality” to speak up. Courage is a character quality, not a personality trait.

Secondly, we need to support those who testify. This doesn’t mean we blindly believe everything we hear. But at the very least, it means we examine the facts, and reserve judgment until the truth becomes clear. And in a he-said, she-said situation, we don’t show partiality by simply believing the one with the most power and charisma.

Also, once we determine that someone is telling the truth, we do all we can to support that person, even if it costs us. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened at Willow Creek had John and Nancy Ortberg not been willing to risk their reputations by speaking publicly in support of Hybels’ alleged victims. They chose what was right over what was safe, and that made a huge difference.

We can help heal the church. And despite everything I’ve witnessed and read, I still believe in the Bride of Christ. Now may be a season of judgment and discipline. But God loves His church. And if we cooperate with what the Spirit is doing, I have no doubt that she will emerge purified, humbled, and radiant.

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20 thoughts on “Why We’re all Responsible for the Scandals in the Church

  1. No, we are NOT all responsible for these scandals. The only ones responsible are the perpetrators and those who know yet say nothing and/or protect them. To say all are responsible is a bald-faced lie.

    • Perhaps the headline is not the best. If you read the whole article, though, I think it’s clear that what I mean is that we’re all responsible for fixing the culture that allows these scandals. And to the extent we have failed to support victims and whistleblowers, and given our leaders a free pass, we are responsible. Would you not agree that that is part of the problem?

      • “We” is still a problem, because I’m one who has exposed false teachers as well as other “misbehavior” in the assembly, and I would NEVER give a free pass to any scandal. Part of the problem is, yes, MOST people just turn their backs on problems, but that doesn’t mean all of us do.

        • I think you’re interpreting my use of the word “responsibility” differently than I intended it. You clearly have taken responsibility for being part of the solution. And that’s what I’m saying we all must do. We must own the responsibility for fighting sin and do all we can to expose it. Eph. 5:11

  2. Susan Vonder Heide

    Too often across denominational lines there has been an attitude of Pastor So and So says this so it must be true or Father So and So says this so it must be true. Church leaders are not little deities and should not be treated as such. They should be respectfully listened to but not in a way devoid of wisdom and discernment. God alone is God.

    • a carlson

      Just what I was thinking. Being a pastor is just one role in the body not the head. Can’t help but wonder with the child abuse what the relationship is between the children and the parents. Our kids were open about feeling like an adult was behaving inappropriately and we confronted and took action. The broader problem is church discipline and training in receiving/giving confrontation.

  3. Renee

    As a former member of Willow Creek (I say former because, while I was a member previously, they rolled out a new membership initiative awhile ago for which I did not sign up for. I still attend and consider it my home church.) I’ve come to realize that the congregation are more like spectators or consumers with a very small percentage being connected to the executive staff and pastors (the wealthiest, I presume) or having a voice. To this degree, I guess you could say that “we” are responsible because we took whatever was told to us as truth; but, it’s very hard to be seen and heard at Willow and, as we’ve seen with some other news stories, if you’re not in agreement with their narrative, you may get a not-so-nice letter from the WC legal team.

  4. Susan Vonder Heide

    The subject of who has a voice in churches and who doesn’t is an interesting one. If somebody has not made themselves obvious to church leaders by huge donations or a loud voice or whatever and is just a person in the pew but feels a need to say something they may or may not be heard. A good church leader will want to hear what people think and will have a discerning but teachable spirit. A smug self absorbed church leader (or a church leader who has been wounded by criticism and who can no longer distinguish between nasty malicious criticism and a gentle truthful stating of concerns) will choose to ignore any comments other than “Wow, aren’t you wonderful.”

  5. Joe Smithe

    I resonate with your main point that there is a responsibility we all share as members of the body to confront sinful behavior. I also agree that the power dynamics of Christian organizations make dealing with sinful behaviors of leadership challenging (to say the least).

    Where I have concern (and I only raise it because of you referencing your role as whistleblower) is in the mechanisms used to bring certain matters to light.

    Social media seems great for reporting events or actions, sharing informed opinions, etc., but not great (I would even say detrimental to our discourse within the body) for calling out sin.

    I think the power dynamic produced by hierarchies and leaders which protect those in power are similar to those produced when popular writers rally their base and press for change.

  6. Joe Smithe

    Here is what I mean:

    In an organization, power resides with a “ruling party” (a board of directors, group of key leaders, etc) and that “ruling party” makes judgments about individuals and groups that are generally uncontested.

    In social media, affinity groups (what I see as social media’s equivalent of “ruling parties”) come together and make judgments based on the testimony of individuals or groups (some of which may be correct…some of which may not).

    There isn’t exactly a reasonable eans of exposing sin. I’m sure it could be effective…I’m just not sure it as accurate or appropriate as serious matters such as those you note here deserve.

    I’m wondering to what extent using social media to play the whistleblower produces similar evils (hurting those who are innocent and creating a new power block from which those who think differently are excluded) to those you note regarding some leadership structures in the church or other Christian institutions?


  7. Joe, I didn’t use social media to expose wrongdoing. I exposed it through a series of articles on my blog documenting the wrongdoing by giving the testimony of first-hand sources. I also went to all of the accused and invited them to respond to the accusations against them. That doesn’t hurt the innocent. It provides accountability by arming supporters and other constituents with the truth.

    The only thing I used social media for was to point people to the sourced articles. That’s simply getting the word out. But I don’t make my case on social media. It is far too abbreviated a forum for that purpose.

  8. Joe Smithe

    I suppose I was considering a blog post a form of social media. While I can appreciate the efforts you made to hear from firsthand sources, there certainly has to be some acknowledgment that certain firsthand sources are less reliable than others, correct? At what point in reporting events from one side (even when the other side is not willing to speak) do you run the risk of skewing a story because you don’t have the full perspective?

    I’m not particularly interested in opening previous conversations from other posts up, nor is this an attack on you or your work. More (I hope) a deeper engagement with what you’ve written in this post.

    Surely there is a right and wrong. I wouldn’t question that. But there are also dynamics that keep us from seeing a situation as clearly as we might (e.g. being English, middle-class, and growing up in South Africa gives me a different perspective on the structure of evil and how well-meaning actions might end up causing harm).

    Those who offered firsthand accounts may not have had the perspective needed to actually assess a situation rightly, whereas those who refused to speak with you may have felt that they were caught between a hostile institutional leadership and a journalist whose audience had already formed an opinion.

    Again, as you’ve rightly pointed out (in my opinion) we all do have some responsibility to call out sin. My question here is about the medium we use to report these matters to ensure a redemptive result.

    I understand that reporting as you did had no impact on innocents. I find it difficult to believe that in reporting from one perspective (even if the other side wouldn’t respond) didn’t skew the conversation so that some of those whose actions had been judged wrongly by your firsthand sources were not adversely impacted. Should they have spoken out? Maybe. Either way, it should keep us from considering the positive and negative implications of the manner in which we call out sin. Again, I’m not saying we should not confront sin…I’m simply suggesting that a public forum where anyone (including me) can chime in may create a dynamic in which we silence those who are being harmed in institutions rather than giving them a true voice.

  9. Joe Smithe

    In my last paragraph, I meant to say “I understand that you think reporting as you did had no impact on innocents”.

  10. Before I went to confront the MBI trustees with the information I had, a professor remarked to me: “Julie, speak for us because we feel like we have no voice.” Professors complained through proper channels: administrators, ombudsman, faculty concerns committee. They were shut down. Then some came to me. I went to several trustees, who buried the information. I spent dozens of hours investigating and gathering information. I flew to Detroit to meet with trustees on my own dime. I did everything I could to get MBI leadership to take appropriate action and avoid publishing. Finally reporting on my blog was my last resort.

    If you have a better medium or solution when appropriate leadership has completely failed to do its job, then please inform me. But I get a bit weary of the armchair quarterbacking from outsiders, as well as insiders who stood by and did nothing. Of course innocent people got hurt — lots of them. But they were getting hurt before I spoke. When leadership sins, everyone suffers. That’s why Scripture says they will be judged more strictly.

  11. Joe Smithe

    I thought that the tone of my comments and questions had been kind. Perhaps I’m taking too much offense, but I don’t appreciate the airmchair quarterback comment. I can appreciate the frustrations of having others critique your decisions publicly when perhaps they don’t have the whole story or perspective that you have.

    I’m sensing defensiveness in your response, so I’ll apologize if I’ve offended. It was certainly not my intent. I was simply seeking clarification about your thoughts on the matter. It seems I have it. What I think I hear you saying is something like the following:

    As long as it is perceived that all other routes to resolution have been resolved and there are (some…all?) of the members of a group saying they are not getting an appropriate hearing (or their way after an appropriate hearing?) then we can take actions that will hurt different people who are innocent justifying the whole thing as being intended to hold leaders accountable.

    How would that make us any different than the leaders we are seeking to critique? Again, I’m not suggesting that leaders not be held accountable. I think that we need to do a better job as a grass roots community (as you’ve suggested) in holding people accountable in leadership. The engagement of the church in these matters seems to me to be crucial. Lay Leadership in churches need to be engaged in holding leaders accountable. Churches need to be engaged in holding other church leaders, parachurch organizations and public figures accountable. To your point, it is our responsibility…I am just questioning which vehicles might be used (and used rightly) to transform the body rather than swinging the proverbial pendulum in a different direction.

  12. Sorry Joe. That comment was undeserved. You have been kind. Please forgive me for armchair quarterback comment.

    I am not saying that it’s okay to hurt innocent people. What I am saying is that when leadership sins, innocent people get hurt. That is the fault of leadership, not of the person who exposes the wrongdoing. If a husband is exposed as an adulterer, the wife is hurt. But do we blame the person who exposed the sin for that? Of course not. It’s just really odd to me how the Christian community blames the messenger.

    I have written at length about the need to expose sin publicly and why it’s biblical. I would encourage you to read this article for more of my reasoning on that.
    That is the only recourse when all the other vehicles for reporting within an organization are exhausted. Again, if you have a better solution, I’d like to know what it is.

  13. Joe Smithe

    Thanks Julie. I understand. Very much appreciate your apology.

    I guess the nagging question in my mind is whether we can give the same response to different situations. Certainly, the example you gave of the adulterer makes sense. When we look at a more complex organizational context (and we do often), I am just having trouble shaking Orwell’s “Two legs good, four legs bad”…surely we have to take care not to become the new oppressive leader in the name of liberation. There is likely no perfect way to do that. I just can’t help but feel that we are so often having conversations about leaders in an unredemptive context. As we seek to own our responsibility to confront sin, we cannot forgot our responsibility to participate with God in the process of redemption. We have to attend to the way all parties are impacted and recognize that it is possible to do something good in a way that harms individuals who should never have been in question.

    I guess here is my struggle with public reporting and/or social media (and I’ll end it here and thank you for your engagement as I am sure you have other matters and people to attend to). Leadership needs to be held accountable. When we rally the troops, so to speak, we become the leaders and take on that mantle of responsibility ourselves, but without any particular accountability. We can basically say whatever we like and aside from someone deleting a post or comment, there isn’t a lot of editing when we go straight online. Without making any comment on your particular activities in the past (that is not my intent), I simply don’t see an appropriate accountability structure for public figures online (I may simply be ignorant of it). In the end, I understand how someone might go about defending themselves within an institution. I don’t understand how someone who feels they have been wrongly accused or misrepresented online or through social media can find any true vindication. Thanks again for your responses and graciousness.

  14. MBI has made plenty of public statements and then posted them to social media. They’ve also gone on the radio, spoken to alumni at Founder’s Week, and held town halls. So yes, they’ve done plenty to try and vindicate themselves. And they are the ones with the biggest megaphone, not me.

    As for redemption… There can be no redemption when the guilty party refuses to own its sin. That grieves me deeply, but I am really powerless to do anything about that.

  15. David Jankowski

    Julie, my biggest complaint in the WC/Hybels case was that the Ortbergs, Nancy Beach, and others allowed themselves to be quoted in the court of public opinion in the Chicago Tribune. Surely Bill had no recourse with that strategy. In 1 Cor. 6:1-6 Paul forbids Christians from going to human courts to settle differences, rather we are to be willing to suffer loss. Though the Tribune is not a court, it was worse than a court because it’s impossible to refute charges once they are in the public domain. Technically, Bill’s accusers didn’t go to a human court, but in my opinion what they did was wrong. If they had stayed with their accusations against Bill long enough, they would have won in the right way, in the church. As I understand what happened, they continued to press their argument against Bill with the elders, and eventually “won.” I think it would be interesting to hear what people think about confronting parachurch organizations publicly, as you did. I think there’s a difference between a Christian organization and the Church, but it’s a very fine line.

  16. David, I think suffering loss personally is very different than allowing a pastor (or other Christian leader) to prey on his sheep. 1 Cor. 6 is talking about disputes between two Christians, not sin in a leader. I think the same is true with Matt 18. We misapply these verses when we use them to keep people from going public with wrongdoing in leaders. It’s the Christian culture of shaming and silencing the sheep that permits these kinds of abuses to fester.

    Also, I don’t believe for a minute that Bill’s accusers would have gotten justice had they stayed within the church. In fact, every indication is that they would not have. They already had pressed the issue within the church and gotten nowhere — repeatedly. Why do we make it so hard for people to speak up and do the right thing? I honestly don’t get it.

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