Out in the light
Why expose the church’s most shameful sins?
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Last week, WORLD Magazine published an investigative report on sexual abuse in Protestant churches, a three-part special section showing the problem’s severity and prevalence even within evangelical circles.
Sin, of course, knows no boundaries. Sexual abuse is not merely a Catholic problem or a Protestant problem, but a miserably human one. There’s nothing new about physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yet ... oh, the disappointment! How it stings, especially when in some of these cases, it’s apparent the church deliberately chose to ignore or minimize the abuse rather than expose and uproot it.
A couple of weeks ago, I told a pastor’s wife that I was working on the investigation, and she grimaced: “Is it ... necessary to publicize this?” I asked her what she meant. She said, “Do you have to write about what happened? It’s not glorifying to God’s name at all. Yes, we should report any crimes to the police, but why air out our dirty laundry to the world, and give them more ammunition against us? It’s just not good testimony. Our mission is to save souls, not deter them from Christ.”
Now, this pastor’s wife is someone I respect, someone who for more than two decades faithfully served in ministry, visiting the poor and sick, holding the hands of people who weep. But what she said disturbed me, and I found myself unprepared to respond Biblically.
So I decided to formulate some thoughts in response to these concerns. Here are five reasons why I believe that Christian journalists should expose sexual abuse:
1. It is what God calls us to do.
Ephesians 5:11-14 states, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’”
1 Timothy 5:20 commands that the persistent sins of spiritual leaders be exposed: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
The Scriptural metaphors of light and darkness make clear that we expose sin so that Christ shines brighter than the wretchedness of sin. Exposing sin glorifies Christ by pointing to our desperate need of Him.
2. The Bible exposes specific sins, even in great characters—and especially in great characters holding positions of authority.
We all know of the infamous scandal between King David and Bathsheba, recorded in 2 Samuel. The Bible goes into detail about their affair, devoting a whole chapter to it in the same pair of books that extol David as a man after God’s heart.
The narrative uncovers David’s pride and lust. It reveals the deaths that emerge from David’s gross violation of power. It describes how David pulls bystanders such as Joab into the cover-up of his sins. The Bible pulls no punches, because God regards sin seriously. By exposing it, God shows us that His justice is fair.
3. The church is watching.
As a pastor’s daughter, I know that people tend to place their church leaders on an impossible pedestal. Yet the Bible does list specific qualifications for elders, who are examples to Jesus’ flock (Titus 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 3:2-7; 1 Peter 5:3).
And so church members closely watch how their leaders handle matters of sexual abuse. When leaders pursue a thorough and transparent investigation, they display justice, righteousness, compassion, and integrity—and that’s edifying to the saints, and healing to the victims. But when the saints perceive that their leaders have covered up or mishandled a situation, it hurts the entire church—members leave in disgust, join the leadership in doing wrong, or keep silent about their own experience with abuse.
For victims who feel unheard or dismissed, their spiritual shepherds have breached a trust they cannot easily earn back. Understandably, these hurt members become calloused toward church authorities. They doubt every motive from church leaders, worried it may be another effort to manipulate them into silence and compliance. When sin crouches in darkness, so too lurk misunderstandings, chaos, and gossip.
4. The world is watching.
Can a church truly emanate the fragrance of Jesus Christ when secret sins putrefy within its walls? I’ve heard Christians complain that secular media slurp up with relish any sex scandal that tears apart the moral authority of faith-based institutions. Perhaps that’s true, perhaps not, but what we do know for sure is that they’re watching us.
When Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to accuse Larry Nassar publicly of sexual abuse, stood in court and preached repentance and forgiveness and grace through the language of the gospel, even left-leaning publications such as CNN and The New York Times covered it.
Yes, the world watches. It watches when we sin—and it watches more closely how we respond to sin. Even though the world may deride our faith and morals, it still expects us to be different. Publicly responding to sin with integrity is a greater testimony to the gospel than is sweeping sin into the dungeons of secrecy.
5. For the sake of the sinner’s soul.
Of course, once saved, always saved. But what does it say about the state of someone’s soul when the sinner continues to sin for a long period of time— without any trace of conviction or repentance? Does the sanctifying Spirit reside in this person at all? Silence is healthy for neither the abuser nor the victim. When a person continues to sin without consequence, he or she becomes more numb to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, and becomes bolder under a false assurance of safety from God’s wrath.
Not every sinner will respond as King David did when Nathan exposed his sins—casting himself before the “abundant mercy” of God with “a broken and contrite heart,” knowing only God could render him “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51). But that should be our prayer and hope for the transgressor, even if he or she writhes with excuses and threats when we expose the sin.
But these are rather abstract points. Here’s a real-life example of why I believe it is right to expose sins in the church, even if the process is painful and embarrassing.
While researching our sex abuse story, I interviewed a middle-aged woman named Donna Hudson. She decided to tell me her story after she heard that a young woman, Sarah Jackson, had accused her pastor, Cameron Giovanelli, of sexually abusing her when she was 16. Hudson told me Giovanelli was her pastor and marriage counselor at Calvary Baptist Church in 2009 when he began flirting with her, telling her how beautiful she was and how she deserved a man who treated her better than her husband (now ex-husband) did.
Here’s Hudson’s account: Those flirtatious compliments from Giovanelli transitioned into explicit text messages about what he would like to do to her sexually. She was unhappy in her marriage and was flattered that an attractive, charismatic pastor like Giovanelli would show interest in her. She figured he must be as lonely as she was, so she flirted back. Then one day, when his wife was away, Giovanelli invited her to his house, where they had oral sex, Hudson said. (Giovanelli didn't respond to requests for an interview.)
The affair ceased after about five months, Hudson said. She said she promised Giovanelli she would keep quiet about it. And as time passed, the prick of conviction sharpened inside Hudson. Eventually, in 2010, she stopped going to church. She felt overwhelming shame and guilt, and felt that God would not forgive her for what she had done.
She withdrew from the church and from God. Over the years she struggled with depression, and the toll of carrying her secret damaged her health, Hudson said. She says when she saw that Giovanelli was still boldly preaching and serving in ministry, it confused her: Was their affair not a sin? How could Giovanelli seem so OK?
When the new pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Stacey Shiflett, spoke up for Jackson and publicly condemned the cover-ups of sexual abuse within his own denomination, Hudson decided to confess her past affair. She met with Shiflett and his wife to share her story. For the first time, she said, she saw a pastor “put his reputation and church on the line to fight for what’s right.” And that left a deep impression on her.
In Hudson’s case, the exposure of an ugly truth seems to be turning her back to Christ, not deterring her from Him. When I last spoke to her, she said she was still nervous about going back to church, but she wants to, and when she does, she said she would return to Calvary where Shiflett now pastors. After talking with the Shifletts, Hudson said she now believes that God has forgiven her: “They didn’t make me feel worthless. I felt for once that I am worth something.”
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