Responding to abuse in the Christian community: Part 2 of 2


by David Mitchell

In 2006 Ted Haggard, American megachurch pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a married man and a father, was exposed for homosexual activity.[1] At first, he lied. Then he confessed. He wrote this in his resignation letter the same weekend:

“There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life. For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”

I have been reflecting on the tragic report on Ravi Zacharias. It’s deeply sad for all who are affected. It’s humbling for the church.

And I believe it’s a fresh alert to watch over our flocks and over own souls, especially as leaders.

In Part One of this response to abuse in the Christian community, my wife Agnes wrote about becoming a refuge for the victims. Here I’d like to ask how we can guard our hearts from failure as leaders.

Positively we could call it walking in the light. Negatively we could call it accountability. Fundamentally it’s about being known.

Consider what Haggard admitted. I think that people we respect in Scripture could have made similar confessions. Even the Biblical heroes are not really heroes: David misused power to commit adultery and murder. Abraham lied and neglected to protect his wife from abuse. Twice. Peter denied the Lord and gave in to racist legalism. Noah got drunk out of his mind. And I know the interpretation is controversial, but a plain reading of Romans 7 has Paul, the Christian, saying, ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7:15). In C S Lewis’s words, we are glorious ruins.

Haggard’s letter continues:

“Through the years, I’ve sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me. Then, because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint them. The public person I was wasn’t a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.”

There are two facts David, Abraham, Peter, Noah and Ted Haggard have in common. One, they committed serious sin. Two, their sin was brought to light and they experienced restoration. Thank God for grace.

So, I believe the million pound question is this: what if David and Abraham, what if Ted and Ravi, had brought their temptation to light before it overcame them? What if they practised accountability? What if they walked in the light? What if they had been really known?

John gives an answer:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

1 John 1:7 (NIV)

What does it mean for you to walk in the light?

Walking in the light keeps you connected to the reality of God. It knits you to authentic Christian fellowship.

Colin Kruse comments: “Walking in the light does not mean that those who do so never sin, but that they do not seek to hide that fact from God.”

And that honesty makes all the difference. Ironically, bringing what makes you ashamed into the light melts your shame. God applies the power of Christ’s “violent death on the cross”,[2] his blood, to your conscience, so you know that despite yourself you are clean.

We need to regularly experience this grace, because it is the critical factor to release the Spirit’s transforming power in us. (See: Galatians 3:1-5; 5:16-23)

Probably on an organisational level, many of us would do well to put more robust accountability structures in place. It’s definitely important. However, those structures can’t address the heart. I think they serve more to protect potential victims than to stop a fall – they are not the first line of defence.

I believe that begins in the heart.

So let’s have those talks about accountability structure with our leadership teams and our boards.

But let’s guard ourselves on the level of the heart. Off-hand, I can think of about five guys in my life who I can talk to about pretty much anything – and I do. They hear me confess my sins and fears and help reorient me to the fullness of the gospel. They know what my weaknesses are and they help me navigate them. Honestly, they are life to me.

Sometimes we need more than a friend. I find that good Christian counselling has helped me process issues on a deeper level than I could go on my own.

Whom do you choose? It’s not just anybody who can fulfill this role in our lives. I think the key is people who can hold both grace and truth together.

A few weeks ago an apostolic pastor and I were on the phone. As we talked, he probed, ‘How are you doing spiritually?’ I was thankful he felt free to ask. Thankful that he cared to ask. And I felt safe with him being the one asking the question, because we’re building a genuine friendship and history together.

And I think knowing that any of us can struggle means we take practical preventative steps. When I was an Arrow Leadership student we wrote out a personal plan for ethical behaviour. My wife has full access to my phone. I know a guy who has asked another guy to ask him often what he’s looking at on his computer, because knowing the question is coming serves as a means of grace as he battles temptation. All these steps can be life to us too.

Let’s walk in the light. Let’s be accountable. Let’s be known.

Let me leave you with four questions:

  • What has been your experience of walking in the light?
  • How is that going for you right now?
  • Do you have a next step you should take?
  • Is there someone who would welcome you asking, ‘How are you doing, really?’

[1] Gayle Haggard, who chose to remain with her husband, tells their story in Why I Stayed: The Choices I made in My Darkest Hour (Tyndale, 2010).

[2] Colin G. Kruse. The letters of John (p. 64). Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000.

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