What Disqualifies A Pastor From Ministry?

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When she was 17 years old, Jules Woodson’s youth pastor drove her to a remote location and sexually assaulted her. That pastor–Andy Savage–resigned from the megachurch he pastored in Memphis, Tennessee, when news of his past assault surfaced. But last week, just 18 months after stepping down from ministry, Savage announced he’s planting a new church in Memphis. And Jules Woodson is sick about it.

What should we make of situations like this? Should pastors who commit serious sin be disqualified from ministry? 

This week on The Roys Report, I’ll explore this issue with Jules Woodson and Julia Dahl, a clergy sexual abuse survivor and advocate. Also joining me will be Mitch Little, an elder board chairman and lawyer who’s represented some of the women who accused Bill Hybels of abuse—and John Armstrong, author of a book addressing the issue of pastor disqualification.

Show Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited slightly for continuity.

Segment 1:

JULIE ROYS: Hi, I’m Julie Roys. And on this episode of The Roys Report, we’re going to be discussing sexual abuse. So, if you have any children listening, please keep that in mind.

ANNOUNCER: In the midst of all of today’s noise and confusion, we need a voice that cuts through the chaos to bring wisdom and clarity. Welcome to the Roys report with Julie Roys—an hour-long show exploring critical issues related to faith and culture from a uniquely Christian perspective. Now, here’s your host, Julie Roys.

JULIE ROYS: Lawyers can be disbarred, and doctors can lose their license. But what about pastors who betray their office? Should they be disqualified? Welcome to The Roys Report, brought to you in part by Judson University. I’m Julie Roys. And today we’re talking about a major issue in the church right now. Sadly, there have been several high-profile pastors, who have either been fired from their congregations or resigned amid scandal. But then these same pastors go to another church where their sins are less known, set up shop, and then they pastor again. For example, celebrity Pastor Mark Driscoll resigned in 2014. That was after an investigation at Mars Hill Church found that Driscoll had a pattern of intimidation and bullying his staff. Driscoll also is accused of plagiarism, misusing funds and airing inappropriate sexual comments. Yet Driscoll resigned before the elders at Mars Hill could publicly disqualify him. And he refused to submit to the church’s restoration plan. Then, less than two years later, Driscoll started a new church in Phoenix. And now, Driscoll has even returned to the conference speaking circuit. Just this week, he spoke at the Ignite Conference Southwest alongside big-name evangelical speakers like Ed Stetzer and Erwin McManus. Similarly, in Memphis, Tennessee, a pastor who resigned from a megachurch after admitting that he had sexually abused a minor, announced that he’s returning to ministry. Pastor Andy Savage resigned from Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee about 18 months ago. It was then that Savage admitted that he had sexually abused a teenager when he was a youth pastor at a church. But now, just 18 months later Savage is back and planting a new church in Memphis called Grace Valley Church. Closer to home, James MacDonald, who was fired in February from Harvest Bible Chapel for a plethora of misdeeds—he  recently spoke at a men’s conference for a Chicago megachurch. And that church, New Life covenant Church, has now accepted MacDonald into fellowship. And many wonder if the church is paving the way for MacDonald to return to the pastorate. Yet just this past Sunday, the Elders at Harvest Bible Chapel did something that may prevent that. They publicly stated that they consider James MacDonald disqualified from being an Elder or Pastor. They added, without showing the fruits of repentance MacDonald should not be allowed back in ministry. So, should more churches be disqualifying disgraced pastors? What about Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels for example? Should he be disqualified? Or what about Charles Lyons—longtime senior pastor of Armitage Baptist Church here in Chicago. Pastor Lyons just resigned this week after disclosing to his congregation that he sexually abused an under-age female relative when he was a teenager. Lyons told the Chicago Tribune that his crime is not automatically a disqualifying offense. But is it? Is that correct? Or should abusing someone even when a teenager disqualify someone from the pastorate. And if you’ve been following, I posted about this on Facebook. There are people on both sides quite passionate about it. Well, joining me to discuss this issue are four guests today. Joining me in the second half of this program will be attorney Mitch Little. Mitch is the chairman of the Elder Board of a megachurch in Dallas Fort Worth area. He’s also an attorney who represents victims of clergy sexual abuse. Also joining me in the second hour will be John Armstrong, president of Reformation and Revival Ministries, and the author of The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders. But joining me now is Dr. Julia Dahl. She’s a practicing physician, pathologist, and an advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Julia also was an early member of Highpoint Church where Andy Savage used to pastor. So, Julia, welcome. It really is a pleasure to have you on the program.

DR JULIA DAHL MD:  Thank you, Julie.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, also joining me is Jules Woodson. Jules is the woman whom Andy Savage sexually abused when she was a teenager. And Jules I know this is never an easy thing to talk about. So, I really appreciate you coming on the program.

JULES WOODSON:  Thank you, Julie, for having me.

JULIE ROYS:  So, I know for both of you this question of disqualification of an Elder or Pastor is not academic. This is very personal—and especially for you, Jules. And I know at the beginning of the program before we even came on, I said, “How are you doing?” You’re like, “Hanging in there.” This has been tough for you. This man who abused you when you were a teenager, now he’s announcing he’ll be a part of a new church. When you first heard that he was coming back, I mean, how does that strike you as the person who was abused by him?

JULES WOODSON:  Well honestly, it was shocking news. His repentance just has not seemed genuine at all. Based on multiple issues—not only the issue of him sexually abusing me 21 years ago. But he has lied about it. There was a cover up. He was not honest and forthcoming with every church he had been at since. So, there is a real pattern of deceptive behavior that unfortunately, I feel is a very—not only biblically, but morally and ethically—a disqualifier from the pulpit.

JULIE ROYS:  And yet we see these pastors so quickly turning around and coming back in. And Julia, I know, you’re part of a profession, that if a physician has crossed sexual boundaries, you’re kind of done right?

DR JULIA DAHL MD:  In most instances, yes. There is a Federation of State Medical Boards that sets the precedent for physician behavior. And through the generations of physicians, we take the Hippocratic oath or the oath of Geneva. And throughout our training from day one when you have your white-coat ceremony, we’re educated about the ethical obligations that physicians have to their patients. There are also regulated behaviors by the Federation of State Medical boards, the AMA code of ethical conduct. And each state has its own regulatory agency. There still is sexual abuse that occurs from physicians on patients. And that is unfortunate. A recent study was published where it’s a minority of physicians—less than 2%. It does occur despite the education that we receive. As a physician, we are trained to know that there’s an authority gradient between ourselves and our patients. Our patients are coming to us in completely vulnerable states, challenged with their health. And it is our obligation as the care provider in a helping profession to uphold those ethical standards. When a physician is detected to have committed sexual abuse against a patient, disciplinary action often includes complete loss of licensure. That violation of trust is so severe that you are removed from the profession. And that’s completely appropriate.

JULIE ROYS:  And yet in the church, we don’t have a governing board per se, especially in the Evangelical Church. I mean, if you’re Catholic, you do have some sort of magisterium and you have some sort of way of dealing with this. But it seems in the Evangelical Church, we don’t. And so, there’s this public trust; and that seems to be the only thing. There’s no professional society of pastors that I know of, that that you adhere to. Although there is ordination and Jules is it . . . you were saying something about how you had reached out to the organization that ordained Andy Savage, is that correct?

JULES WOODSON:  That is correct. I actually just did that. I reached out to the church, Germantown Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee, where Andy was ordained. I, myself and my family actually attended his ordination ceremony shortly after he was hired by my church. I have called and requested that they revoke his ordination. Now I do realize that that probably will not stop him from being able to start a new church. However, it sets the precedent. It makes a statement saying that this type of behavior—when you abuse your authority and your power as Pastor to sexually abuse someone—then you have disqualified yourself from that leadership position.

JULIE ROYS:  And how long ago was that that you reached out?

JULES WOODSON:  It was actually this morning.

JULIE ROYS:  It was this morning. So, we’ll wait to hear how that goes. But I hope there’s some sort of response from them. But is this church that Andy’s planting right now, is that with a specific denomination? Or is it just an independent church?

JULES WOODSON:  To my understanding, it is an independent church. I have reached out to the Southern Baptist Convention—the SEC. They don’t have any record of this new church requesting to join or being supported by the SEC. So, to my understanding, it is kind of a nondenominational thing.

JULIE ROYS:  Okay. But Highpoint was a part of the SBC—the Southern Baptist Convention. Is that right?

JULES WOODSON:  They were. They were a part of the SEC. And then shortly after I went public with my story, they withdrew themselves from the SEC.

JULIE ROYS:  That’s interesting. Well, I know, something that a lot of people don’t know is that Harvest Bible Chapel, for example, was a cooperating church with the Southern Baptist Convention. They’ve been completely silent on the whole scandal with James MacDonald and him being removed. And I think that’s kind of typical, unfortunately, that these denominations often are kind of hands off. We let these churches run as independent churches. That can be a good thing in some ways, but it also has its drawbacks, and I think this is showing it. Again, you’re listening to The Roys Report. I’m Julie Roys. Joining me today, Jules Woodson, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and Dr. Julia Dahl, a physician and advocate for clergy abuse survivors. We will be back after a short break. Hope you can stick with us.

Segment 2:

ANNOUNCER: Now we return to The Roys Report. Here’s your host, Julie Roys.

JULIE ROYS: Should pastors be disqualified from ministry for sexual misconduct? What about for lying or bullying or financial misconduct? Welcome back to The Roys Report. I’m Julie Roys. And today we’re talking about the difficult issue of disgraced pastors and whether they should ever return to ministry. Some say, “Yes, God’s grace is sufficient to cover any sin.” Others say, “No, though God can forgive any sin, the qualifications of a pastor require that a pastor be above reproach. Once you’ve committed certain sins, that simply isn’t possible.” By the way, if you’d like to join our conversation today, I encourage you to do so on social media to get to us on Facebook. Just go to Facebook.com/ReachJulieRoys. On Twitter, our handle is @ReachJulieRoys. Also, I want to let you know that today I’m giving away copies of The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of Its Leader. This was a book authored by one of my guests who will join me in the second part of today’s program, John Armstrong. John is the president of Reformation and Revival Ministries. And this book is an excellent resource for trying to discern this important issue from a biblical perspective. So, to enter that giveaway, just go to JulieRoys.com/giveaway. But joining me now is Jules Woodson, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse—specifically, Andy Savage [who] used to be the pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee. And Dr. Julia Dahl, a physician and advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors. And Jules, we talked a little bit in the first segment about your experience. But a lot of people don’t know your story. And it’s not fun to recount. But I think if we don’t know the story, we don’t really understand why this is so severe and why this is such an issue. So, Jules, if you would tell us what happened. Again, this was 20 some years ago, but it’s a really horrible thing that Andy Savage did—and to you.

JULES WOODSON:  And one of the things I’d like to point out is that just because a survivor has told their story multiple times doesn’t make it any easier to tell. That being said, I met Andy Savage when I was 14 years old. He had come kind of as a volunteer and prospect for our open youth pastor position. Andy was very charismatic, outgoing. He ended up getting the job as our youth pastor and shortly after, was ordained as a minister. There was many things I look back now as an adult, and I see the grooming process that took place. He paid me special attention. He would tickle me and accidentally touch my breast or whatnot. But there were things that went on that are certainly red flags. Another one of those things is that Andy was not to be alone with any of the females in the youth group. That rule was broken multiple times. And everybody knew (to include the senior pastors) that that rule was being broken. There was no accountability. Both protections are in place to keep everybody safe. And that rule was broken multiple times, leading to the night I was sexually assaulted. He was supposed to be giving me a ride home. He was supposed to take me straight from the Church to my home. And he decided to take me down a dark, dirt road. I asked him where we were going. He was would not be forthright. And he said, “You’ll see.” And he took me down a dark dirt road and turned the lights off on the truck and asked me for oral sex and started fondling my breasts. Shortly after he jumped out of the car, made a huge scene and stated, “Oh my god, oh my god, what have I done? You have to take this to the grave with you.” Within 24 hours I reported the assault to my associate pastor who directly told the senior pastor of the church. They asked me when I reported, “So, you’re telling me you participated?” And it was at that moment, I knew that they were blaming me, that they didn’t believe that this was an assault. They saw it as a consensual sexual sin. Let alone I was a minor and he was my youth pastor. I had known him for years. So, there was definitely abuse of power. That dynamic was so severe in my case. And it seems that no one seems to understand that. They covered it up. They did allow him to resign from the church. They threw him a going away party. And then within I believe it was six months, he was working at another church and with young adults. And was not upfront about what had happened back in Texas.

JULIE ROYS:  And that was never reported to authorities. I mean, that should have been, that’s a crime. Correct?

JULES WOODSON:  I was 17. I was mortified, especially after speaking with the pastor who seemed to blame me. I grew up in the purity culture. It was, you know, you didn’t even think about sex, much less, do anything sexual until you were married. So, I was totally embarrassed about what had happened and did not feel comfortable going to my parents, which is why I went to my pastors and who were his boss, because I thought that they would do the right thing. And as a 17-year-old, I didn’t understand the process or what needed to take place. But absolutely the police should have been called. Those pastors were mandated reporters and failed to report.

JULIE ROYS:  And yet when you hear Andy report this—and again, he did eventually resign from Highpoint when this came out, but you know, initially it was, “This is an old sin. It’s no big deal.” I think the thing that made headlines was the fact that the congregation when he confessed it—which was under duress, because you were coming out with it—they applauded him, which was just horrific. But Julia…

JULES WOODSON:  I had actually tried to reach out to him privately. And he refused to respond or even acknowledge my communication. And that’s when I felt the need to go public. 

JULIE ROYS: Yeah. So, Julia, you were at Highpoint when Andy came. And he’s saying he told the church when he first came. You’re saying now it didn’t really go down that way.

DR. JULIA DAHL:  So, the story that Chris Conley tells is that Chris Conley, who was the lead pastor of Highpoint Memphis, is that Chris Conley was aware of Andy Savage’s assault of Jules Woodson and that Andy Savage had gone through a restoration process, which is clearly untrue. Andy Savage moved from Texas back to Memphis, worked for his father for a short period of time, then went to Germantown Baptist and was volunteering. Soon after that started kind of a nightclub single scene for Christian seekers, which is really kind of how Andy operates. And Chris Conley wanted to be planting a church—Germantown Baptist was planting churches—and the idea of Highpoint came together where there would be four lead pastors so that you’d avoid the whole lead pastor celebrity culture. And Andy was recruited into that environment and put actually over the youth and engaged in kind of a nightclub scene at High Point, despite the advice of elders in the church. But Andy was able to draw a crowd. He would bring in good Christian music, including Todd Agnew. And the story that wound up getting told about Highpoint’s history is that it was planted by Chris Conley and Andy Savage, which was actually dishonest. There were four original pastors, including a man named Keith, whose last name I had forgotten, but Brad Dunlop and Mark Murdock and Chris Conley. And because there was some strife amongst that group, some senior pastors, Wes Richardson and Stan Hayes joined the group. And there was an elder vote shortly thereafter in 2005 or early 2006, where the elders voted against Andy Savage becoming a lead pastor because of behavioral issues that he had displayed and because of uncertainty about his level of spiritual maturity. So here’s a man who went from committing sexual assaults, didn’t go through a restoration process, sold his bill of goods to Germantown Baptist, aligned forces with Chris Conley, is basically voted out from the elders that Chris Conley demands that Andy savage be one of the lead pastors because he’s the DNA of the church, which leads to most of the other lead pastors leaving. And so it isn’t just the sexual assault, which is horrific, and Jules has my heart for that. And it was an absolutely horrific thing. But this pattern of consistent lying and covering up for the sake of building their co-dream of a megachurch, is not the fruit of the Spirit. It is not in accordance with what God’s will is for His church. And yet it can be manipulated by men and covered up. And for those reasons I believe that both Chris Conley and Andy Savage, personally, I don’t think they were ever qualified for ministry because of their level of dishonesty and some narcissistic traits. But because of these actions of covering up the sexual assault, and additionally covering up after the sentence…

JULIE ROYS:  Ok, Julia, hold on that. We need to go to break. When we come back, we’ll come back and wrap this up about Andy Savage. Again, you’re listening to The Roys Report. I’m Julie Roys. With me today, Dr. Julia Dahl, also Jules Woodson and we will be right back after a short break.

Segment 3:

ANNOUNCER: More of The Roys Report. Once again, here’s Julie Roys.

JULIE ROYS: Well, according to Scripture, pastors must be above reproach, faithful to their wives, not violent or quick tempered, or a lover of money. But what happens when a pastor fails to live up to this standard? Can he be restored in ministry? Or is he permanently disqualified? Welcome back to The Roys Report, brought to you in part by Judson University. I’m Julie Roys. And today we’re talking about an issue that, sadly, is extremely relevant. Over the past several years, a number of high-profile pastors have resigned or been fired for misconduct. Yet all too often these pastors leave in disgrace only to return somewhere else. And when they return, they often admit their past failings but they do so cloaked in language of grace and mercy, implying that anyone who doesn’t embrace their return is just cruel or unforgiving. We’ve been talking about the issue with Andy Savage who is a megachurch pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, came out that he had abused Jules Woodson when she was a teenager, and he was a youth pastor. He finally resigned because of that. A lot of deception and cover up involved with that. And Dr. Julia Dahl, also joining me; an advocate for clergy abuse survivors. And Julia, I had to cut you off before break. I hate going to break in the middle of something like this—so serious. But Julia, you were saying when he came to the church, [he] wasn’t really forthright. And this is just indicative of the problems in the church of actually vetting our pastors that we put up on the pulpit, correct?

DR. JULIA DAHL M.D.:  Absolutely. When you become a physician, you have to take a number of board examinations. And you have to go through fairly in-depth credentialing processes. And that doesn’t appear to be occurring within the church. And I think predators are using the separation of church versus state to have autonomy and also, in many instances, set up these little fiefdoms that in some ways—in medicine—you can avoid that because there are strict ethical rules. And those ethical violations would result in suspension of privileges, loss of privileges, loss of licensure, or an inability to participate in insurance programs. And we don’t see that in the church. What I witnessed with Chris Conley and Andy Savage was a pretty profuse pattern of dishonesty and an unwillingness to submit to authority. And ethical violations that would have had them thrown out of hospitals or losing their licenses in the states where they were, “practicing medicine,” can’t be applied to them. And they can just hang out a shingle or meet in a building and call it a church without an ethical foundation. And that ethical foundation isn’t something that, these aren’t people who fell. An ethical foundation is about character. And that character—whether it was developed over time or whether you’re revealing that there was lack of character from the beginning and with the degree of dishonesty and the other behaviors that I’ve witnessed from Andy Savage and Chris Conley—it does not speak to someone who would have passed the equivalent of board exams to become a physician. And they’re utilizing an unregulated industry, which evangelicalism is becoming an industry to, unfortunately, bilk believers who want to believe in something good and in worst-case scenarios, commit sexual atrocities that are violations of a person’s soul.

JULIE ROYS: And what you described, Jules, just absolutely horrific. And thank you for the courage to say that and to say it on radio. It is hard to do. But thank you for describing that and helping us see this horrible crime that was committed against you. And Dr. Dahl, for the way that you unpack that. I mean, you’re right; there’s just no professional controls the way there are in other things. So just, “thank you.” I want to invite now on attorney Mitch Little. He is chairman of the Elder Board at Bent Tree Bible Church. That’s a megachurch in Dallas Fort Worth area. He’s also an attorney who has represented victims of clergy sexual abuse, including some of the women who brought charges against Bill Hybels of Willow Creek. So, Mitch, welcome to the program.

ATTY. MITCH LITTLE:  Thank you for having me on, Julie.

JULIE ROYS: Also joining me is John Armstrong. He’s the president of Reformation Revival Ministries. He retired from public ministry just in June 2019. But he continues to write and teach and speak. He’s also the author of the book that we’re giving away today called The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders. So John, welcome. So glad to have you in studio here, ‘cause John does lives nearby in Carol Stream, Illinois. And by the way, we are giving away John’s book today. If you want to if you want a chance to win that giveaway, just go to JulieRoys.com/giveaway. But gentlemen, John, I was able to see you. You were sitting here during that first couple of segments listening to Jules and to Julia and wincing. I mean, just almost, it’s just painful to hear. You wrote a book, and also an article that came out in Christianity Today. This was, you know, about 10 years ago, right?

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTONG:  25 years ago.

JULIE ROYS: Oh, it was that long ago—25 years ago—but proposing that sexual misconduct would be a disqualifying offense. What happened when you published that?

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTONG:  Well, it’s interesting to hear the sadness of this story today. And to realize what I thought—in 1995—is that I’m writing a book that, number one, that will not be met with a whole lot of approval, will not sell many copies, I will not get invited to conferences to speak on this subject. And 25 years from now—I thought this Julie—this book will be needed more than it is right now. And all that’s been proven true. And I must very quickly say, part of the experience side of this for me was to be asked to speak—are you ready?—on this book to 100 pastors of the network of Mark Driscoll, by Mark’s invitation. 

JULIE ROYS: Oh, my goodness. Wow!

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTONG:  So, I’m deeply touched in that context. Almost everyone you’ve talked about today—I have lived my life, I’m 70 years old—I’m a contemporary or a little bit older. And I’ve known them all. I’ve experienced them all. And I’ve always had this deep sense, “something is wrong.” So, when I hear this, it’s both heartbreaking—but actually, it’s not sad to me. Life has taught me that this is the way it is. And this reference that was made earlier to this Evangelical Churches being, “an regulated industry,” my does that say it to me today. It’s an unregulated industry. The Catholic Church has taken all the hits because it is regulated, and it failed, okay, by their own admission. And I’ve been deeply involved in that issue too, so I’m happy to talk about it. But evangelicals have no accountability. And it is an unregulated—not an unregulated church—an unregulated industry. I think that’s the key word. And I one more comment, and that is, as I listen, I’m reflecting on Ephesians 6, which refers to the principalities and powers that we wage war with. And I’ve listened to 50 years of evangelical preachers and peers and writers say, “This is about your own warfare with the evil one and with the demonic spirits. Put on the helmet, take the sword, fight the enemy day by day.” It is not about that at all. It is about the church. It is your—our struggle. It is the Church’s struggle. And the principalities and powers are the symbol in Pauline language of the demonic realm, which brings death. So just put death in there and say, “Who brings death?” The principalities and powers. “What do they use to bring death?” Unregulated industries that are called Churches. Now there’s an indictment. But I’ll stand by it because these churches—in many ways what we’ve heard today—are evidence they’re not really functioning as churches.

JULIE ROYS: No, they are an industry. In fact, I’ve written about it—the evangelicalism industrial complex or the evangelical celebrity machine. It’s insidious, and we need to call it out. We need to talk about these things. When we come back, Mitch Little will be joining me as well as John Armstrong. You’re listening to The Roys Report. I’m Julie Roys. And we’ll be right back after a short break.

Segment 4:

ANNOUNCER: This is The Roys Report with Julie Roys.

JULIE ROYS: Well, should pastors who have committed a serious sin ever be allowed to pastor again or are they permanently disqualified from ministry? Welcome back to The Roys Report. I’m Julie Roys. And today I’m talking about this serious issue with elder board chair and attorney Mitch Little and John Armstrong, president of Reformation and Revival Ministries. We also heard from Dr. Julia Dahl, a clergy abuse survivor advocate and Jules Woodson, who is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. And by the way, if you’re just joining us and you want to hear what you missed in the first part of the show, I will be posting the full audio of this program to my website later today. And the first part was outstanding with guest Jules Woodson, someone who was sexually abused by her former megachurch pastor Andy Savage—he was her youth pastor at the time that the abuse occurred—and Dr. Julia Dahl, a physician and an advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors. So if you want to listen that full audio, just go to JulieRoys.com and click on the podcast tab. Also, I just want to let you know next week, I’m going to have a special program with highlights from last week’s RESOTRE Chicago Conference. This was an amazing gathering of people in the Chicago area, many of whom have been victims of spiritual abuse. We heard some amazing messages from Nancy Beach, who talked about her faith surviving abuse. Wade Mullen spoke on how to identify and recover from spiritual abuse, Lina AbuJamra delivered this powerful testimony about the devastation she’s experienced from an abusive pastor and her struggle to forgive him. Yours truly talked about how this is what I truly believe—I do believe this to the depth of my heart—being that we are in a move of God to purify His church. It is happening. And you’re not going to want to miss this special program next week. So, I just encourage you to come back and listen about returning to our topic today. We are talking about what should disqualify pastors from ministry. And I want to talk about to you, Mitch Little. who is representing—I know you’ve represented a number of clergy abuse survivors, but some of them have been—the women that have brought accusations against Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church. And we talked just before the break about this, “evangelicalism industrial complex.” When these women first came out with their stories—just like Jules Woodson experienced when Andy Savage first admitted this, as he called it, “sexual indiscretion,” I think it was—he was cheered by his congregation. When Bill Hybels came out with his, when these women had brought these accusations and he denied them in front of the church, and he got a standing ovation. What is going on in our churches that this is occurring?

ATTY. MITCH LITTLE: Julie, it’s wild. So, as someone who stepped into the Bill Hybels Willow Creek situation, I think the Lord was preparing me as a lawyer and as an advocate to step into that situation because I saw what happened with Jules and Julia Dahl and what was going on at Highpoint. And I watched it from afar. And what was fascinating to me, as that situation began to unravel for Andy Savage, was the church lost the ability to contain or control their message. And it was really social media and people outside of the system, speaking truth into the system, that created change. The thing that’s most disturbing to me is you look at you look at the qualifications for overseers and deacons in 1Timothy 3. Where were those people? Where were those people when the incident was reported? Why weren’t they the ones bringing goodness to the church? Why were people outside of the system having to inject it into the church, like a vaccine? That to me is disturbing.

JULIE ROYS: Well, and I think John, you hit the nail on the head when you talked about this, how do you put it? I said, industrial complex. That’s how I’ve referred to it, but

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTRONG: Well, it’s a complex that has been created by post war factors that have come home, finally, as you say, to a point where the hope is a purification. A radical purification. The church is declining. It’s decreasing. It’s failing at every level. And where there’s honesty and recovery and truth and what we’re talking about, there’s hope for change.

JULIE ROYS: But when you blow the whistle, and I found this out when I was at Moody Bible Institute, you blow the whistle, they actually removed the three top officers as a result. But I got fired. So, we’re punishing the truth tellers, which is an indication—as Wade Mullen talked about last week at the Restore conference—that is an indication of a spiritually abusive system. And I will say this, I think the entire evangelical industrial complex is a spiritually abusive system, because what we do is the entire complex is leveraged to silence whistleblowers and punish them. And instead, the wrongdoing pastor—like Mark Driscoll who bullied and did all these other things—goes on to get on the speaking circuit. And who does he speak with? Other pastors who—oddly enough, Ed Stetzer just wrote something about how John Christ, comedian, who supposedly committed these atrocities against women, he’s talking in Christianity Today about how we need to stop this code of silence. Yet he’s speaking with Mark Driscoll this past week. And Mark Driscoll again, somebody who bullied and abused his congregation. But interestingly, because we’re talking about, you know, sexual abuse. But there’s also Mark Driscoll—wasn’t guilty of that, he was guilty of bullying and intimidation—and Mitch, this is something I think a lot of people don’t know. But the stuff with Bill Hybels we heard a lot about the sexual abuse. But isn’t the bullying and the intimidation and the way that he treated his staff, almost, I mean, equally as bad as the sexual acts?

ATTY. MITCH LITTLE: So, I would call all of those acts a precursor to sexual abuse. And I think Dr. Dahl would agree with me that acts of out of control behavior, intemperate behavior, disrespectful behavior on the part of a pastor, they’re boundary testing by a pastor. And I think that is a precursor to much more serious things like sexual abuse. Now, Julie, the question that I would pose to you is what do all of these situations have in common? In my observation is, what what’s the what they all have in common is a person with an extremely powerful rhetorical gift. Whether you’re talking about somebody like a Bill Hybels, or a Mark Driscoll or even a John Crist, so much of the Evangelical Church is being driven by a person with a rhetorical gift. And so, the church—and even elders or elders are guilty of this in these situations. Nobody knows who the elders were at Highpoint. Nobody knows who the elders were at Willow Creek. That rhetorical gift allows people in the church to insulate themselves from criticism, even among the people who are supposed to be overseeing them. We as a church have to observe that and we have to change it.

JULIE ROYS: And let me just pose the question to you. Do you believe that sexual indiscretion is disqualifying permanently or not? And is that the only disqualifier?

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTONG:  I think it’s instantly disqualifying. The question of whether it’s permanently disqualifying is a more pragmatic one. So, I want to explain what I mean. I think anytime you have a pastor who’s disqualified from either preaching in the pulpit or leading a church, there is a process by which they could be restored. First of all, they have to completely repent. Second of all, the process has to be restorative. I think oftentimes, when we’re looking at it from the perspective of a pastor, we say, “Well, that person needs to be restored to ministry.” What about the victims who need to be restored? What about the Jules Woodsons of the world? The people who have been abused by Mark Driscoll while he’s been in leadership? What about those people? So, I think that oftentimes this type of behavior is permanently disqualifying. Not because there is some biblical standard that they can never meet again. But the people who are the abusers are never willing to meaningfully engage the process of repentance and restoration of the people that they harmed. And so, it becomes permanently disqualifying. 

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTRONG: Most of my peers in the 80s 90s, early 2000s—and I did a lot of research with peers—who were fallen, who were quoted in the book—anonymously, in every case, but I know them, they’re friends, they all were fallen, they all left the ministry—every one of them would say to me, “I have no desire—nor do I plan—to ever go back into ministry. I am not qualified.” And they will tell you why they believe about themselves, they disqualified themselves. So, I would agree with Mitch that there’s no clear biblical text that says, “how long, how many months, what is the process.” But what I think we would agree on if we pursued this for a very long is that the qualifications are so high—and it’s a character issue—that if the character is damaged, the bigger the person, the higher the position, the larger the fall. The character fallout is so damaging. If a man is 24, and he’s out in a country church, and he falls and he gets help, and he comes back at age 40, and he’s married and has a family, that’s a totally different dynamic than what we’re talking about here. So, I would not say, “Never.” But I just think that even back in the 90s when I wrote this, the typical evangelical response was, “Well, yes, they ought to be out of the ministry for six months.”

JULIE ROYS: Well, here’s the thing. I think you can be forgiven right away,

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. 

JULIE ROYS:  before God you’re forgiven. Buidling trust—it takes years. Absolutely years. 

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. 

JULIE ROYS: And some people, I would say, James MacDonald, he doesn’t have enough years to build the trust for the way he destroyed it. Same thing with Mark Driscoll. Same thing with Andy Savage. I mean, there’s just not enough time. I mean, Andy Savage is a younger man, but still this is so severe they would have to show things over time. And you bring the qualifications of elder I mean, just listen to these, “blameless or above reproach, faithful husband to his wife, not violent, not quick tempered, not a lover of money, good reputation with outsiders, a lover of what is good, self-controlled, holy, devout.” I mean, they’re long. It’s not easy, according to Scripture. In 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1, it’s not easy to be an elder. And yet, for some reason—and I think you’re absolutely right that we hear when these pastors fall, “Oh, we feel so bad for them.” And why do we, you know, I mean, I hear so little talk about the victims. And the other thing and I think Jules, you talked about this, about the congregations that are enabling this. 

Talk about that.

JULES WOODSON: It’s really unfortunate. Because not only is a pastor who restored himself, doing a disservice to themselves. But it’s doing a disservice to the body of Christ. But there are people who are supporting these people, these powers of personality, they’re enabling this behavior. Being a pastor is not about being seen or heard. It’s about serving others. And when you abuse the power that you have been given to serve others, you can absolutely be forgiven. But you should not be restored to a position of power.

JULIE ROYS: And we just have a little bit of time left, but I want to get on this. How do we fix the system? So John.

DR. JOHN H. ARMSTONG:  Well, we have to stop empowering our leaders based upon their—as was said by Mitch—their rhetorical skills—their public platform skills. That would be such a major shift right there that the church wouldn’t look like what we think it is—at all—if we began to practice that. This is why the late Vernon Grounds, at seminary graduation, would hand out a piece of a towel after you got your certificate. And he said, “I want you to put the certificate in your drawer and put the towel on your desk.” It kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Are we washers of feet? Or are we people with certificates and certifications and credentials and platform abilities who can lead big churches?

JULIE ROYS: Mitch, give you a chance. We just have a little bit of time. But your final thoughts?

ATTY. MITCH LITTLE: Yeah, Julie, the Bible tells us how. So when you have someone who is in the position of an elder or a pastor, and they’ve transgressed in a way that diminishes the sexual dignity of someone in their church, or has harmed members of the congregation or people that they’re on staff with, we need to bring it before the church, we need to tell the church what happened, and we need to subject that person to public criticism. Usually, it’s something that churches try to conceal. They try to whitewash it over. That’s not a biblical methodology for dealing with that level of sin at that level of leadership. We have to do what the Bible says bring it before the church so that it can be a lesson to everyone else in the church.

JULIE ROYS: 1 Timothy 5:20. And that’s what Harvest Bible Chapel—the elders when they discovered qualified James McDonald for being an elder or pastor—they look to that. They said, “This is what Scripture says.” For some reason we’ve forgotten 1 Timothy 5:20. We need to get back to it to publicly, publicly disqualify these guys. And I think James 3:1 says not many of you should become teachers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We’re not judging pastors more strictly. In fact, I would say we’re, we’re judging pastors less strictly than we do other professions, which is just a crime. I mean, pastors, they should be judged by the highest standard. Again, my thanks to Mitch Little, John Armstrong, Dr. Julia Dahl, Jules Woodson. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. And just a reminder, if you missed any part of this show, just go to JulieRoys.com. We’ll have the whole audio posted within the next hour. Thanks so much for joining me. Have a great weekend.

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