Hugh Freeze, Liberty University, and the Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse

By Julie Roys
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What do you do when you’re caught red-handed in a public sin?

If we follow the example of King David, we own it and say, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and accept the consequences. But too often, those caught in sin cover. They manipulate. And they deceive—even within the Christian community.

Dr. Wade Mullen

People caught in sin resort to these tactics so much that Dr. Wade Mullen, who heads the MDiv program at Capital Seminary, made the study of the tactics evangelical organizations use when facing scandals the focus of his doctoral dissertation.

Dr. Mullen joined me last week on my radio program, The Roys Report. And he explained in detail these tactics, which often involve spiritual abuse. Mullen described spiritual abuse as “an attempt by a person to use all that encompasses another person’s spiritual life—their beliefs, their faith, their experiences, their hopes” to coerce or manipulate that other person into “serving the abuser’s agenda.”

Yet Mullen said these tactics are often quite stealth and hard for those being manipulated to detect. So rather than explain these tactics in abstract terms, I asked Mullen to comment on a convocation at Liberty University, where I suspected these tactics were being used.

Some Background

The convocation featured Hugh Freeze, the former head football coach at Ole Miss, who resigned amid a scandal involving Freeze repeatedly calling sex-related businesses on his university-issued phone.

Coach Hugh Freeze

Prior to the convocation, Freeze—an outspoken Christian—had said nothing publicly about the scandal that had led him to resign. Just last week, I published a story showing that even now, Freeze is telling a version of his story that doesn’t match the facts.

But at the convocation in January 2018, about six months after his resignation, Freeze got up in front of 13,000 students at Liberty University and vaguely apologized to them for something he had done while at Ole Miss, some 700 miles away.

At the time of the event, this must have seemed a bit odd and unrelated to anything at Liberty. However, 11 months later—at about the earliest time Freeze could be hired and avoid a NCAA suspension—Liberty hired Freeze as its new football coach.

A “Team Performance”

Ostensibly Freeze came to the convocation in 2018 so he could “tell the faith family I am sorry.” Yet Mullen said the convocation was more likely a “team performance” aimed at earning the endorsement of the student body so Liberty could hire Freeze as its next head coach.

After the program aired, Scott Lamb, Liberty Senior VP of communications, disputed this interpretation. He said that at the time of the convocation, Liberty didn’t know that its former coach, Turner Gill, was going to retire in 11 months. Lamb added that Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. had offered Gill a multi-year contract extension, but Gill turned it down.

However, when Gill announced his retirement on Dec. 3, 2018, Liberty said it would conduct a “national search” for his replacement. A mere four days later, Liberty hired Freeze, making it appear that Freeze had been waiting in the wings all along.

Four Steps of Spiritual Abuse

Mullen said Liberty employed four typical “macro-level,” spiritually abusive tactics in its convocation with Freeze. These included:

  1. Define the situation so people don’t define it for themselves.
  2. Use excuses to manage people’s perception of the situation.
  3. Claim forgiveness as an entitlement.
  4. Get Endorsements.

In addition to these “macro-level” tactics, Mullen said Liberty also employed several “micro-level” tactics like “exemplification” and “polishing.” Mullen said those on the receiving end, like the students, often don’t grasp the truth behind the scandal being covered up or whitewashed, because the abusive people are defining everything for them.

Define the Situation and Manage Perceptions

Early in Freeze’s 20-minute message to the students, he references a “private sin,” which he claims was in his “rear view mirror” before it became public in July 2017. He then claims that his faith is real despite a “season” of struggling with sin because Scripture says “every single one of us are (sic) broken.”

Freeze’s narrative was also reiterated after Freeze’s talk by Liberty VP of Spiritual Development, David Nasser. Nassar told the students that shortly before the convocation, he met Freeze’s “accountability partner.” This man reportedly told Nassar that Freeze had confessed his sin to him and another friend, as well as Freeze’s wife, a year before it became public.

Reiterating Freeze’s words, Nassar said Freeze’s sin, which Nassar had earlier called a “mistake,” was in Freeze’s “rear view mirror” and “there was a great victory.”

Mullen said those on the receiving end, like the students, often don’t grasp the truth behind the scandal being covered up or whitewashed, because the abusive people are defining everything for them.

However, these accounts are missing a major detail. According to Sports Illustrated, Freeze called a massage company just seven months before his calls to sex-related businesses became public. So apparently, Freeze’s “sin” didn’t end after his alleged confession and the situation was hardly a “great victory.”

Mullen said the narrative Freeze and Nassar offered is a prime example of how an institution defines a scandal for its audience and tries to “blur the reality” of what happened by omitting details. Freeze and Nassar also used excuses to manage the opinions of the students and were “strategically ambiguous,” Mullen said, referring to Freeze’s pattern of patronizing sex-related business as a “mistake” or “a private sin,” rather than specifically naming what he did.

Hear the relevant excerpt from Freeze’s message and Mullen’s explanation:

The Forgiveness Credit

After vaguely referring to this “private sin,” Freeze then talks about love and asks the students at Liberty to forgive him. They respond, saying, “We forgive you!”

This is an example of what Mullen calls claiming the “forgiveness credit.” It’s when a person trying to manage a scandal asks (or sometimes demands) forgiveness without having actually named his sin.

Mullen said the offender often claims, “Forgiveness has been credited to me from God. Therefore, you ought to accept that, as well.” Mullen said the “forgiveness credit” is a powerful tactic because people often miss the fact that the wrong has not yet been defined. “The truth has not yet been revealed and confessed and discovered,” he said. “And many times, forgiveness is being used to prevent that discovery of truth.”

Even so, Mullen said Christians often accept the leader’s vague apology. And once this happens, they’re stuck. If someone brings up the offense, the person who’s committed it simply claims the “forgiveness credit” and urges everybody to move on.

Hear Freeze’s request for forgiveness and Mullen’s response:

Getting Endorsements

According to Mullen, the final step in securing people’s support after a scandal is getting endorsements. This is when the organization brings in several, respected people to vouch for the person caught in a scandal to reassure their audience that the person is either innocent or reformed.

At Liberty’s convocation, several people functioned as endorsers. One was Freeze’s wife, Jill Freeze, whom Nassar interviewed after Hugh Freeze’s message. Jill Freeze called her husband the “godliest man I have ever known.” And she said God helped her focus on her own “bad traits” in the wake of revelations about her husband’s “bad traits” (i.e. repeated infidelity).

Another “endorser” who came to Liberty for the convocation was Freeze’s pastor, Hugh Henderson. Henderson leads a multi-site megachurch in Mississippi called Pinelake Church and vouched for the authenticity of Hugh and Jill Freeze’s faith. “I’ve watched (Hugh and Jill Freeze’s) faith journey,” Henderson said. “And they are real and true in their faith.”

But perhaps the strongest endorser for Freeze was someone from the student’s own community—David Nassar.

When Nasser introduced Hugh Freeze, he called him “one of the great offensive minds of the game.” Nassar added that he’s been “so impressed” with Jill and Hugh Freeze’s “love for the Lord” and their passion “to see God glorified.”

According to Mullen, Nassar calling Freeze one of the greatest offensive minds of the game was what researchers call “exemplification”—an attempt to establish someone as an “exemplar,” or ideal model.

Mullen said Nassar then engaged in so-called “polishing”—highlighting the positive attributes of Freeze to strengthen his endorsement. “(Nassar) is saying, ‘You know, I’ve gotten to know this guy. We’ve had a couple meals together. And so, I can vouch for his commitment to the Lord, the strength of his faith,’” Mullen said.

Below is audio of Nassar’s statement and Mullen’s explanation:

Falwell Completes the “Set-Up”

At the end of the convocation, Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. completed what Mullen called the “set-up.”

Falwell expresses how proud he is of the Liberty students for saying they forgive Freeze. Then he contrasts the forgiving students with the “so-called Christians” who “read Twitter comments” and are “the most judgmental, unforgiving group of people in the world.”

Falwell says these people are like the “generation of vipers” and religious hypocrites who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery.

Here, Falwell really isn’t addressing people outside the Liberty community, Mullen said. Falwell is talking to the students because they are the ones whose endorsement of Freeze Falwell seeks.

“He’s really now putting the students into one of two camps,” Mullen said. “There’s no middle ground. There’s no room for critical thinking, even—ironically—in a place of higher learning . . .  

“You must either forgive and extend love and grace—and if you do, then . . . you are like Jesus—and if you don’t you are like the religious leaders who wanted to pick up a stone and kill the woman who was caught in adultery. . . . What do you do if you have a problem with this? . . . You can’t say anything. It’s a setup.”

Mullen said people entrapped in this way need to combat the manipulative tactics with truth. They need to go back to the definition that’s been offered concerning the scandal and see if it matches the details. “And when you look at the details, the details often disrupt that definition. . . . (O)ften we miss some of that because the abusive people are defining everything for us.”

Hear Falwell’s comments and Mullen and my conversation about it:

Click here to hear the full audio of the radio program with Wade Mullen or read the transcript.

Below is the video of Liberty’s Convocation with Coach Freeze:

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7 thoughts on “Hugh Freeze, Liberty University, and the Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse”

  1. The #1 reason folks within an organization (such as in a church or other non-profit) do not speak out quicker in response to perceived issues is— the “I can’t rock the boat syndrome”. In order to advance one’s influence within the group or board, one must be a “team player”. The head “anointed” leaders themselves often are unwilling to receive even the most simplistic “suggestions” without repercussions to the individual making them. Thus, the leader is basically unaccountable and those working around him/her are handcuffed from beneficially informally implementing or saying anything contrary to the will of the power holding big kahunas within that structure. Overlooking obvious immorality and questionable conduct or or ignoring overall ethical issues in my experience is usually one of the first things to be winked away or disappear altogether.

  2. Susan Vonder Heide

    I am not familiar with this particular situation but, just speaking generally, it is true that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Having said that, there is a difference between forgiving somebody as Christ has forgiven us and saying that it is fine and dandy for the person to function in a responsible position much as before. Those are separate and distinct issues and need to be addressed separately.

  3. I shake my head when I read that Jill Freeze called her husband “the godliest man I have ever known”. Her circle of godly men must be quite small with a group of one man. Her statement sets a very low standard for her son-in-laws (to-be). Thus the role model Hugh provides for his three daughters in a husband is exemplary. I wonder if President Falwell will allow Hugh Freeze to continue to recruit with female guides.

  4. I am always torn between what level of
    confession is owed, especially when the sin does not involve me nor is against me.
    This reminds me of the time I was part of a church in which the Sr Pastor stepped down. He confessed his sin to his family and the board of elders, who read a letter from him to the church along with announcing his resignation. The sin was not against me so I accepted and forgave as he stepped down to focus on spiritual restoration and rebuilding his family.
    I strongly disagreed with those who wanted to know what happened, as it did not involve them. I failed to see why they felt they deserved or needed to know every detail of every minute in which he lusted after, pursued, and laid with another woman. I see that confession as owed to his wife and family. I saw sharing any other details as humiliating to the family he was working to rebuild, and opening them up to the added insults of gossip. And let’s not play games: Christians are good at disguising gossip as “prayer requests”, “expressing concern”, “informing the flock” and all the other spiritual terms we know.
    My question is simply: when is enough enough? Just because someone doesn’t tell YOU every little detail does not mean they are not “truly repentant” or don’t deserve forgiveness—especially if their sin does not involve you. Confession is about agreeing with what God says about our sin, not being humiliated (or humiliating others) by reliving or reporting every single detail to any Christian who asks. Repentance is about turning away from our sin and toward God, not answering every question that may not even be your business.
    Where do we draw the line? Why do we feel we are owed every detail of what Freeze did—especially if we didn’t even know his name until this hit the news? Isn’t withholding forgiveness until the confession is to our level of satisfaction equally manipulative and abusive?
    I’m genuinely interested in responses.

    1. @M H
      God calls us to confess our sins and pray for one another so that WE ourselves may be healed when we fall into sin (James 5:16). So confession isn’t really for others as much as it is for ourselves.

      In addition, there is no such thing as “private sin.” We are accountable, one to another, as Christians. Whether or not someone else’s sin personally harms or affects us isn’t the issue. We are a body–parts and members of one another and most importantly, Jesus Christ. You may not think or feel so but whatever we do affects one another. God created it that way.

      What this man, and this school is doing is bringing shame to Christianity and dragging the name of Christ through the mud. People are turning away from the Christian faith (and more importantly Jesus Christ) because of hypocrites who want to publicly say one thing and do another. People are not stupid. They watch and judge how the body of Christ handles it’s own scandals. When they see us covering them up, manipulating them, “massaging” them and giving ourselves blanket forgiveness, they don’t see Christ reflected. They see our sin and they turn away.

      People demanding that the body of Christ forgive him when he hasn’t actually confessed his sin publicly don’t want to SUBMIT to the process of confession, forgiveness, healing and restoration as set forth by God himself. Amazing. How prideful and arrogant. Freeze’s sin was public. It was in the news. We all fall into the trap of wanting forgiveness our way but that’s not God’s way. The Bible sets clear guidelines for confession, forgiveness, and restoration. Why do you feel Freeze is exempt? Why do you feel that he has the right to ask for or demand a process different than the one the Bible has already laid out for us as believers to follow?

      “We” don’t feel we’re owed anything other than what GOD has told us we are owed. We are owed truth, honesty, uprightness, and true confession and repentance from other Christians. Not because we want the juicy, salacious details. I don’t need or want the granular details of Freeze’s sin and I really don’t think anyone else does. No one has asked for that. However, we are asking Christian institutions to be held to a higher standard that shows they are worthy of the call they claim to be answering. I don’t think asking that people of good moral reputation are hired is too much to ask.

      If Freeze went through a restoration process with his church…good. However, he is publicly representing himself as a Christian on a national platform. Therefore, Christians have the RESPONSIBILITY to hold him accountable via that same platform because he represents us. If he doesn’t want to confess and repent publicly that is his right. However, he should go coach for his local church since his confession was to them.

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