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Once we’ve confessed

How should churches handle sexual sins from 20 years ago? 

Andy Savage preaching at Highpoint Church in Memphis Handout

Once we’ve confessed
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All agree what happened, but the aftermath roils a cauldron of disagreement.

Parked on a dark, empty road in 1998, college student and youth pastor Andy Savage asked 17-year-old Jules Woodson to perform oral sex on him. Woodson, a member of Savage’s youth group at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church (WPBC) in Texas, says she complied reluctantly, believing “this must mean that Andy loved me.” Both agree Savage experienced immediate conviction of sin, leaped from the vehicle, and collapsed before Woodson. She recalls, “He was on his knees with his hands up on his head, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. What have I done? Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone Jules, please.”

Fast-forward 20 years. Andy Savage is married, the father of five sons, and a pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis. Savage claims his sin against Woodson “was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago.” He disclosed his sin to the leaders of WPBC (now StoneBridge Church), to his wife before they married, and to the staff at Highpoint before joining the ministry. Woodson counters that WPBC hid from the congregation the specific sin Savage committed and then allowed him to resign without public confession.

Savage confessed his sin before the Highpoint congregation in January and apologized: He has now taken a leave of absence. Church members gave him a standing ovation, which was not appropriate: news of sin, even tempered by repentance, should prompt mourning rather than applause. Woodson recently said the Texas church 20 years ago told Savage “he couldn’t talk to me and they told me I couldn’t talk to him,” but Savage stated, “Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules.” To what extent they did or did not reconcile is unclear.

Christians differ over how churches should address sins ministry leaders commit. Matthew 18 describes church discipline as a private process that involves the congregation only if the offender refuses to repent. But James 3:1 states church leaders “will be judged with greater strictness.” Savage believes WPBC handled his sin Biblically: “I apologized and sought forgiveness from [Woodson], her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation.” Woodson disagrees and charges WPBC with a “big cover up.”

Christians must love truth and hold church leaders accountable. Unfortunately, the details of a 20-year-old disciplinary action now reside only in the memories of WPBC’s leaders. Without those details, Christians should shun uninformed judgment. Proverbs 13:16 cautions, “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” The congregation’s ignorance of Savage’s particular sin may testify to a shameful cover-up. It may also testify to the church’s fidelity to the privacy of the discipline process. The debate is now playing out publicly: An online petition calls for Savage’s resignation, and Christian publisher Bethany House has canceled the scheduled July publication of Savage’s book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage.

None deny Andy Savage disqualified himself from ministry. He and WPBC conceded as much when he resigned. But later the leadership of Highpoint Church declared him qualified. Some Christians acknowledge Jesus restored Savage as a man but claim him forever disqualified from office. After all, the Scriptures require an elder to possess character “above reproach.” But 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 address a prospective elder as he is now, not as he was 20 years ago. Is the man now above reproach? Peter’s restoration demonstrates that a man who committed gross sin can resume public office within the church. If Paul intended to disqualify any man who was ever reproachable, then he disqualified himself and many Christian leaders since.

Savage was not self-righteous: He confessed. If he were reinstated to office three weeks after sinning, the story would be very different. But by all accounts Highpoint Church observed Savage carefully in a context of accountability over the course of years before making him a pastor. Despite this cautious process, backlash persists.

Cultural backlash against the church may indeed indicate an error or moral failure. It may also indicate no such thing. Jesus never sinned, yet the world hated Him. At best our culture requires the church to support Woodson by crucifying Savage. Christ commands us to love both. At worst the culture deplores Savage as an irredeemable monster and the church as complicit in sexual predation. The world cannot grasp the wonder of Hebrews 11. Men of great faith are also men of great sin. Abraham, Moses, and David delved deep into sin, but Christ delved deeper into mercy. To diminish the former diminishes the latter.

Christian backlash presents a different challenge. Good Christians are calling for Savage to resign. Were the church to force his ouster it would send a powerful message to the culture: We police our own and will not tolerate abuse. The culture would applaud. But maybe the culture needs a different message: Jesus restores not only the abused but also the abuser. The culture is not rooting for the restoration of Harvey Weinstein. It does not want a wicked predator to know the mercy of Jesus, but the church should want just that. Each Christian must acknowledge, “I am the abused and the abuser.” Blessedly Jesus restores both.

In all this the church must not forget Jules Woodson’s wounds. Those who have suffered at the hands of a wolflike shepherd deserve the church’s utmost care. Jesus is tender with the wounded: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” His church must offer the same tenderness, binding up Woodson’s wounds with the love of Christ.

Twenty years ago on a dark road Andy Savage abused Jules Woodson. The only cure for Savage, Woodson, the church, and the world is: Jesus.

—Russell St. John is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course

Russell St. John Russell is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and holds several degrees, including a Ph.D. from the London School of Theology. He covers religion and the church for WORLD. Russell resides in St. Louis.


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