How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

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Practical theology vs. “biblical” theology

James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,” (earlier referenced here and here), addresses the concept of “practical theology,” a branch of academic theology that looks at the real-life effects of doctrine in various contexts.  Poling argues that it’s not enough for theologians and pastors to determine whether a teaching is “right” or “wrong” in the abstract.  They must also look at how those teachings shape communities, families, and individuals, and evaluate whether a doctrine is right or wrong based on its practical implications and applications.

In a way this is a restatement of the idea that moral and ethical evaluation of beliefs and behavior needs to be focused on their effects and implications, rather than on the intentions behind them.  It’s not enough to say that a doctrine is “biblical” or “doctrinally sound” if it leads to harmful consequences for people and communities who try to live by it:

The ways that Christian doctrines and practices affect the everyday lives of ordinary people need to be considered alongside questions of ‘truth’ that is, whether the doctrines and practices conform to the revelation of God in Scripture, history, and rational thought.

Clarice Martin, black womanist New Testament scholar, describes the difference between hermeneutics of truth and hermeneutics of effects:  “‘Hermeneutics’ is not simply a cognitive process wherein one seeks to determine the ‘correct meaning’ of a passage or text.  Neither are questions of penultimate truth and universality solely determinative of meaning.  Also of essential importance in the interpretive task are such matters as the nature of the interpreter’s goals, the effects of a given interpretation on a community of people who have an interest in the text being interpreted, and questions of cultural value, social relevance, and ethics.  What is at stake in hermeneutics is not only the ‘truth’ of one’s interpretation, but also the effects interpretation and interpretive strategies have on the ways in which human beings shape their goals and their actions.”

This form of hermeneutics involves a rhythm or dynamic interplay between biblical texts from the canon and the lived faith and experience of communities of faith.  An interpreter cannot understand Jesus by studying the Bible in isolation, but must be immersed in a community of faith that practices the faith today.

. . . .We need to know how religion functions at the level of the conscious and unconscious formation of perceptions and behaviors; that is, how the symbols, ideas, and rituals about God oppress or liberate the human spirit using the criteria of theology itself.  If the ideas and practices of religious communities are damaging individual believers and their families according to Christian norms, then we have a responsibility to bring these realities to the attention of religious leaders for reexamination. For example, if certain forms of theology increase the suffering of woman and children by refusing to address issues of rape and sexual violence, then we must raise prophetic voices to protest such theologies. – Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence,” 475-6, emphasis mine.

This is both an eminently sensible approach to Christian theology and completely counter to how I was raised to understand “true” Christianity, which is how most traditionalist branches of Christianity approach issues of doctrine.   Doctrine is either right and must be followed at all costs, or wrong, and to be avoided no matter how sensible or compassionate it seems.  No in-betweens.  Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if that makes people feel awful or makes their lives more difficult, that’s just tough luck.  Following Jesus isn’t easy and sometimes involves enduring suffering, because of the effects of sin.  And so on.

I often wondered why this had to be.  If God really loved everyone just as we are – and created us to be just as we are, and if “he” was forgiving and slow to anger and all of that stuff we were taught, why there were all these rules that seemed so difficult for many people to follow, without any comprehensible reason behind it?  Why did following them seem to cause such needless pain and damage in so many lives?  My pastors always denied that persistent problems like domestic violence and abuse had anything to do with the doctrines related to marriage and family life.  If husbands abused their wives and used the bible or complementarianism to justify it, it was because their understanding of the doctrine was sinful, not because the doctrine itself was sinful.

I began to see after a while that “biblical” Christianity seemed to define living a “good” life as following arbitrary rules that seemed unconnected to present-day realities and weren’t necessarily good in their effects on people.  I began to see that the problems I observed with increasingly clarity all around me weren’t coincidental or random.  They were natural, regular, even predictable effects of the doctrines I was taught as “truth.”

Somaticstrength’s recent post on evangelical understandings of forgiveness and how they relate to recovery from incest is a heartbreaking example of this.  Survivors of abuse in fundamentalist or evangelical families and churches often have to deal with widespread enabling and excusing of their abuse, complete lack of support, and repeated attempts to dictate the terms of their recovery – for example, demanding that they must forgive their abusers both in order to be good Christians, and to “heal” from their abuse.  As I commented on her post, this culture of abuse (both enabling abuse and treating survivors in an abusive manner) is a direct product of evangelical teachings on sin and forgiveness:

Demanding that someone’s recovery from abuse look a certain way is completely odious. Unfortunately it’s also completely in-line with the version of Christianity we were raised with; a lot of the teachings contribute to these kind of responses to survivors, and make them seem legitimate and even righteous.

Like the teaching that by far the worst thing we could ever do is sin against God, and that every single little sin we commit is enough to put Jesus on the Cross. And if God could forgive us for making “him” have to kill his son, and no sin against us, no matter how evil, could ever be as bad as our sin against God, then we have no excuse to not forgive any sin against us.

It occurs to me now that one of the many problems with this argument (you know, besides it being totally evil in the way it completely dismisses the gravity of true evil and cruelty perpetrated by humans) is that no human is God, so why should we be expected to be capable of divine levels of forgiveness?

Then there’s the fact that it makes being unforgiving into a worse sin than being abusive. And it makes a virtue and an obligation out of giving forgiveness cheaply, and even for free – forgiving people who, like it seems with your brother, have never asked for your forgiveness and don’t believe they need it and don’t see anything wrong with what they’ve done. Requiring people to forgive someone who is unrepentant is evil, IMO.

And the corollary of this is the teaching that it’s impossible for there to be a situation between two people where only one person is sinning or is in the wrong, because we’re all sinners. At least, I was taught that – there was no such thing as one person being 100% wrong. The other person could be 99% wrong, but you still had your 1% of wrongness, and that’s what you were supposed to focus on – that and the times where you were 99% in the wrong against that person – not on their sin. It kind of boggles my mind now to think that this was taught to children – I mean, talk about a recipe for enabling and excusing abuse. So disgusting.

The Cross and Sexual Abuse

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse/incest.

In “The Cross and Male Violence,” James Poling argues that patriarchal narratives of the crucifixion provide a kind of script for abusive relationships between men and women in Christian contexts, in which male abusers can take on a godlike role (all-powerful, all-knowing, to be obeyed), and female victims of abuse can play a Christlike role (obedient, subservient, suffering without complaint).  He cites Christianity and Incest, Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker’s study of incest in Christian homes, in which female survivors of incest recounted how their religious upbringing led them to believe that being a good Christian meant they had to be resigned to their abuse and not speak out about it:

You must love your neighbor.  Not much attention was paid to standing up for yourself (Ellen).  You must always be the first to forgive and you must do so seventy times seventy times (Judith).  You must always serve, serve God.  Sexuality before and outside of marriage is bad (Margaret).  faith and standing up for yourself are conflicting concepts (Theresa).  You must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, musn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, musn’t be your own person with your own ego (Amy). (Imbens and Jonker, 271)

Escaping the cycle of abuse is difficult in general, not just under Christian patriarchy.  However, Christian patriarchy explicitly labels suffering in silence as a virtuous emulation of Christ.  Further, it teaches that Christians must forgive anyone who sins against them – even that survivors of abuse must forgive their abusers.  Covering up or keeping silent about abuse is cast becomes righteous behavior, even a spiritual obligation.  Victims of abuse are taught to be more concerned about their abusers and how they respond to them than about their own welfare.  They learn that they are obligated to treat their abusers with love, kindness, and forgiveness, no matter what, without expecting or demanding any change in behavior, much less love or kindness in return.  This adds an additional spiritual and psychological impediment to speaking out about one’s abuse, and creates an environment that fosters enabling or dismissive responses to abuse.  Add in patriarchal teachings about men’s right to lead and women’s obligation to submit, and you have a culture that creates situations in which male violence against women is more likely to occur, more likely to be overlooked, enabled, or justified, and thus more likely to become an entrenched feature of church and family life.

The quotes below from Christianity and Incest (which I found here) explain further how theologies of male dominance and female submission in church, marriage, and family structures are intimately linked with male abuse of female partners and children in patriarchal Christian contexts:

Their Christian upbringing made these girls easy prey. Offenders used Bible passages or church-authorized texts in order to be able to abuse girls and to keep them quiet about it. Mothers were powerless to do anything about it. They were subservient to their husbands in everything, as was and still is requested of women marrying in Christian churches. (page xvi)

“In all of the interviews, the Mother is psychologically or physically abused by the father.” (page 121)

About the offender: “Father thinks boys are more important. He says so: “Good men father sons,” or he shows it in his attitude.” (page 123)

The girls try to keep their rapists away from them in every way possible. Screaming, yelling, or crying make little impression or are labeled “rebelling against Father,” for which forgiveness from God are required (Nell). ” (pages 127 – 128)

“Religion forces women to forgive their rapists, although those rapists have not asked for forgiveness. They are commanded to love their enemies. Moreover, Christian churches stress the love on one’s fellow human being so heavily that the words “as thyself” following “love thy neighbor” have very little meaning for these women.” (page 141)

“God the Father wants only the best for her. He is Almighty and merciful. When something happens to her and she wants it to stop, she must pray hard.” (page 141)

This to me is perhaps the most telling and tragic point, because it drives at the fundamental issue underlying all of these teachings that enable abuse in Christian homes: “Not one incest survivor had learned that it was important to love yourself as well.” (page 238)  In other words, these women had not been taught that they were worthy of love – not from themselves, nor from any one else.  Christian patriarchy teaches the exactly opposite – that we’re all completely unworthy of love, and that God loves us despite this.  And if their churches are anything like the ones I grew up in, they were probably taught that it was sinful to believe they deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.