How do we reconcile the character Jesus embodied with the broken church we see today? Pastor Amy and Pastor Brent guide a discussion regarding abuse in the church, specifically spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and abuses of authority. Hope and healing is possible, but it starts with recognizing and owning the flaws embedded in our churches’ cultures and systems.
[Introductory video shows headlines of abuse in the church]
Amy: How do you feel? Sad, dread?
Amy: Angry? Well, this morning we’re going to tackle a heavy topic. A few weeks ago, we asked people to shout out what questions you think a new generation of followers of Jesus are asking. And there are a lot of good questions that people had. There was a young woman who’s a recent college graduate who’s just growing in her relationship with Jesus, and she grabbed me after the service, and she said that her questions were too heavy to shout out. And I said, ‘What are your questions?’ And she said, ‘Well my first and most significant question is: How do I, with integrity, continue to participate in a system in the church body that has caused so much pain and abuse for so many people?’ And I said, ‘I think that’s a good question.’
Brent: Maybe some of the people here today kind of have that same question.
Amy: Yeah. You may have asked that, and Brent and I have asked that question. Thirty years ago, the apologetics questions that people were asking: Where do I go when I die? And is it Calvinism or Arminianism? And people still love to discuss these things, but a lot of the students that I interact with, a lot of the younger Christians that I know, they’re not asking those questions. They don’t feel as essential to them as questions like this.
Brent: Well, part of that is because the montage that we just made; that was a small, small portion of what it could have been. We could have sat here for the next six hours and just run headline after headline after headline and praise God these things are finally coming to light. They’re not being hidden anymore, but if you’re sitting out, and you’re watching these headlines, of course you’re going to look at this and go ‘Huh? What is going on? I thought these were the people that were supposed to be against this?’ And I have to admit, I mean I’ve shared with Amy my own skepticism towards the American Church, the white Evangelical American Church, to be able to deal with this because I see things happen over and over again where a pastor will step forward. Even just recently, I think it was last week or the week before, a very well-known Southern Baptist pastor was credibly found to have sexually assaulted a woman. After six months, four men not affiliated with the church that he was a part of but four other pastors said he was now qualified to return to the pulpit. He did last week or the week before last, and he preached in the same city that he had sexually assaulted the woman in. I’m sorry, I just sit there, and I look at that and go: This is garbage. This is absolute garbage. I understand when the world looks at the church and says, ‘You guys have no credibility, and if that’s your Jesus, I don’t want to have anything to do with him.’ I get a little fired up, sorry.
Amy: Yeah, you’re gonna get angry, Brent, today, but that’s good.
Brent: I get a little fired up. [laughs]
Amy: This happens in all sectors of our world, right? Power and abuse and all those things. It’s not limited to the church, and it bothers me in all the other places that it happens, but it doesn’t surprise me fully. But it’s so shocking. The church should be the one place where there is safety, you know? Where there is a sense, a deep sense, of security, and where you can be most vulnerable, and you will be well taken care of–not taken advantage of–and so a lot of the questions that I’ve been asking and Brent’s been asking and many of us have been asking is: How did we get here? How is this so much of our history in recent history? How did we get here, and why is this happening in the church? It feels important to kind of own and name that Christian culture has somehow actually been a breeding ground even for abuses of power. So how has that happened, and why has that happened? Those are a few things that we’re going to begin with this morning.
Brent: And a week or two ago, as we were thinking about this topic, I reached out to Amy and I’m like: We need to make sure we mention patriarchy because–
Amy: I said, okay, then you have to get up on stage and you have to say that. [laughs]
Brent: Because I do believe that patriarchy is part of the problem. I think it’s this idea that males are in charge, and you weak, little women, you know, serve us because that’s the way God designed it or at least that’s what we say. I think this system of patriarchy has bred this environment that has led to some of this. It’s created this system that’s toxic for everyone, not just women, and what I hate about this idea of patriarchy is that those that hold so tightly to it really distort the Bible in order to make it stand firm, and so what they love to do is look at some passages of Paul where it says that women keep silent in the churches, or a passage of Paul in Timothy where it says, ‘Oh I do not permit a man a woman to speak or to teach a man,’ you know, or things like that. And in that Timothy passage that Paul’s saying and that the reason is because of creation and the fall and it’s like, okay. Let’s take a look at that then, please. So patriarchy, where does that come from? Genesis 3:16 is where we find that, and it says, ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Yeah, the big problem is that Genesis 3:16 wasn’t God’s design. That’s not how God made it to be. That’s what happened when sin entered the world. And as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, are we supposed to be living as citizens of the fall or citizens of the Kingdom? Citizens of now or citizens of the way God wants it to be?
Let’s back up to Genesis 2:18 before the fall, and you see it says, ‘The Lord God said it is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ What did God do? God created woman in that moment to be a helper for man, not a slave, not a subject for man. In fact, in the beginning when man was ruling over creation, we were ruling together. We were co-rulers with God over creation. Are we, as followers of Jesus, supposed to be perpetuating the bad theology of the Fall or living as citizens of the Kingdom? To pull us back to the way God designed it to be. Sure, you can look at the New Testament. You can look, and you can say, ‘But the Bible talks about patriarchy.’ Yeah, the Bible talks about, you know, bigamy and all these other things. Just because it’s in the Bible, doesn’t make it biblical. And we need to understand that sometimes things are in the Bible not because it’s what we’re supposed to do, but as the warning of the opposite. And we can’t build a theology that continues to subjugate women because I think when we do, we begin to view women wrongly. We begin to see women not as equals in partnership, in working together for the kingdom, but we see them as all poor women. And when we get to that place, it’s a breeding ground for abuse.
And I get it. 1 Peter says this: ‘Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner.’ Well sure, some women are weaker than men. Some aren’t. What is Peter talking about? You see, if you view this through a patriarchal lens you’ll go, ‘That’s right, women are weaker. We’re supposed to have power.’ Unless you really look at the context of what Peter’s talking about here. Weaker is not just because women aren’t as physically strong. It’s those in society that are viewed as less than, the marginalized, the victims, those that, as a result of their position, could easily be taken advantage of. Not somebody to abuse or lord over. Peter’s actually looking and saying,
‘We’ve got to turn this upside down. The culture says, yeah, lord over them, and I’m saying, no, no, no, no. You honor them, you elevate them, you lift them up in the position they need to be. You don’t get to lord over anybody. Jesus is Lord. You’re not Lord. Everybody else is on the same level. And when you look, when you begin to talk about spiritual gifts, nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘Well, men will have these more important gifts, and women can serve and make coffee and cake.’ Paul in Galatians says that we are one in Christ. There is neither slave nor free male or female Jew or Gentile. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul and the apostles were breaking down the barriers. Look at what Paul says to men and women in regards to marriage, relationships, and sex. He says to them, ‘Women, your bodies are not your own. They knew that, but then he says, ‘Men your body is not your own.’ Whoa, what? That right there’s a mutuality in this relationship, and that’s not just for marriage, that comes into the church relationship.
I was reading an article yesterday by Beth Allison Barr. She’s an author and historian, and she says, ‘I think it’s ludicrous to build an entire gender theology around a handful of texts ripped from their historical context, especially the most restrictive texts, like 1 Timothy 2. I also think it’s interesting that by universally restricting women from exercising authority over men, complementarianism restricts women more today than it did in the world of first century Rome. I guess Russell Moore, who used to be a leader in the Southern Baptist convention, I guess he was right when he argued in 2006 that Christian patriarchy isn’t like Pagan patriarchy. Christian patriarchy might actually be worse.’ Well, I am into that.
Amy: See why I asked him to get up on stage? Amen! And there’s so much in that, even that there are not gifts that are better than the others, and we label men as having these gifts and women is having these gifts. And how many times have I been in environments where it’s like women–women are feelers. You’re all about your emotions and you can’t trust your emotions; you shouldn’t believe your emotions; you shouldn’t ever let your emotions speak to you; and you know what? That silence about women in the Bible talks about the heart way more than it talks about the mind. We have a value for, like, logic and reason, but there is a way that our feelings were given to us by God. Um, and again you can see how–
Brent: Jesus had feelings.
Amy: You can see how Scripture can get twisted, and we’ve experienced that, probably each of us on some small level, and same for men. I always say patriarchy is also bad for men because it puts men in a box that they’ve got to be these like beefy, like tough, strong guys who are just as good at fixing cars and, you know, being logical.
Brent: There’s this push right now, even among Christian American evangelicalism, to have these men’s conferences. There will be ax throwing and monster trucks and flames, and you know all these things associated with what it means to be a man, and it’s just like oh my.
Amy: And you think about in Scripture: one, Jesus was not like that. You don’t see any of that. You know, I mean he had authority, and he was tough, you know.
Brent: And he wept.
Amy: But he also wept. He was tender, and he was among the people and among the most marginalized. And you think about even David–
Brent: A man after God’s own heart.
Amy: A man after God’s own heart who wrote poetry and played the harp. You know, we don’t think about those kinds of things, and so it’s also not good for men because it limits men. How many times, again in the context of ministry, have I heard younger people and here at Ashworth that are men who have opened up or cried or something and it’s, like, oh I’m ashamed. I know God made you that way, and it is good for you to have a tender heart and feelings. And um even though Brent likes to pretend he doesn’t have those things, he does, and it’s part of what makes you.
Brent: One or two?
Amy: One or two anger, or yeah.
Brent: But like you were saying with the emotion thing, yeah, that one can really get me going because what that does is, you know, I mean you’ve heard it before, I’m sure you know well: You know, women you are too emotional, so we need to leave those decisions to the men who are not emotional, and I mean don’t you just want to righteously slap somebody at that point when you hear it? It’s just ridiculous to deny how we were made the way God made us as if, well, the mind is elevated above the heart. No, God created it all, and yes, the heart can be evil and wicked, but the mind can also be tricked and deceived, and so what if we just embraced who we were created to be? Emotions and mind and all, and stop putting people in a box because well, you might be emotional. Maybe emotion is warranted at some time. Jesus turned over some tables when it was necessary. Jesus wept when it was necessary. I mean, we need to move beyond it.
Amy: Amen. Another piece that I think has really shaped the American church and how we’ve let so much abuse in or been a breeding ground for that is the idea of purity culture. And I don’t know if some of you are familiar with this, and some might not be, but I feel like this was such a big thing in like the 90’s,
Brent: 90’s, yeah.
Amy: I remember going to–
Brent: Yeah, a youth group–
Amy: Like a True Love Waits event, and I learned all about not having sex and why. And one of the only things I remember is like talking about STDs, sexually transmitted diseases, and seeing pictures, and anyway, I say all this to say there were a lot of authors, there was a lot of movement around getting our our young people to not get pregnant or to not have STDs or whatever it was. It was behavior management essentially, and um, and it was shaming for women as well. There was a lot in purity culture that I remember when I was in college. I remember the guys gathering, and we had a ministry on campus, and the guys gathering and having a conversation. And they came and talked to the women and they were like hey, summer’s coming up, and you need to be careful about what you’re wearing because when you wear those–um, we would suggest specifically don’t wear a spaghetti strap. Like, this is real, this was not–
Brent: Cover that shoulder up!
Amy: Um, again there is something messed up about that, and there was a big movement of um courting, and courting can be a beautiful thing, but–
Brent: But, I Kissed Dating Goodbye–
Amy: Yes, but then there was Joshua Harris, who wrote this book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and it gives all this power to the man and again–
Brent: Well, you said in the first service that you had talked to many women…
Amy: I mean, it’s not like this is like 30 years ago. This is recent history. There’s many other campus ministries on campus and on the campuses in Des Moines, and there’s one of them that’s large and, you know, it does incredible things, but there are women that have come to me and said, ‘I’m just waiting like we’re taught–is to wait for a man to hear from God that I’m the one for him, and they pray about that and then they approach me and then they tell me they’re gonna date me and that God told them to do that. I’ve said to say many times, ‘Well, God does speak to women, God will speak to you also and a relationship should be mutual. You can ask God, you know, about your relationship. There’s two sides in this, but can you see how that becomes this breeding ground for weird power dynamics?
Brent: It just–it teaches us to not even be able to have healthy male-female relationships because every time–evidently the thing, the only thing, a woman’s good for is to sleep with or have sex with because, it’s just ridiculous, because there’s no responsibility for the guy in this culture, like you said; don’t show a shoulder, don’t wear spaghetti straps. I mean, that’s what the Bible says–if your right eye is offended then tell the woman to put more clothes on. No, that’s not what the Bible says, you know, and yet somehow this purity culture was all about, ‘Oh you poor guys, you’re just animals; you just can’t help it; you’re just so bad, and we didn’t teach self control and talk about the Holy Spirit and walking with the Spirit and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit. We heaped all this shame and all this garbage on the women as if they were responsible, as if they’re the ones that had to carry that whole weight. Well, you caused your brother to stumble and, you know, we saw this play out in the I Kissed Dating Goodbye and even something older than that–the Billy Graham Rule, and you may love Billy Graham, but I cannot tell you. His rule is stupid, but you know what, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have wisdom, we need to be cautious, we need to be aware. I was in college, though, and a teacher was teaching us about the Billy Graham rule, which is that you can’t ever be alone with a woman. This professor said you know if I was driving to work and it was pouring down rain and I saw my secretary–and this was in the 90’s, so you know it had to be a woman–and she was broken down on the side of the road, I would not stop and pick her up because I couldn’t be alone with her in a car because of what others would think. I’m sorry, that says more about you making that statement than it does about the person that you would be picking up. What’s wrong with you that you look at your church secretary and you think only sexual thoughts about her? What’s wrong with you? He then changed it eventually and said well, I might stop and let her have my car, and I would walk. And I’m like look: What have we done to create this environment that every woman in this room evidently I have to see sexually? That is so perverted and not Biblical or Godly at all, and that’s really what purity culture kind of helped build into the U.S. Instead of seeing women as they are, as co-laborers with Christ, our Sisters in Christ first and foremost. I mean, oh, it just, it drives me crazy a bit.
Amy: I think the other piece that I’ve felt in recent years is purity culture has created a lot of shame and secrecy over our bodies and sex. God made us for pleasure. God gave us a body, and we are–it says in Scripture that we are a temple of the Holy Spirit. He knit us together in our mother’s womb. We should know our bodies. We should be able to talk about our bodies and what we need and how they work. And I’m amazed–amazed at how little Christians know in particular. Christian women, it feels like, ‘Oh, I can’t, you know, I feel too much shame,’ so they go into relationships and they haven’t–they don’t know anything about their body or what they need or, you know, how to take care of themselves. A lot of that comes from purity culture and this secrecy and this shame around even our physical bodies, which is actually what God gave us. It’s key to who we are and how we relate to each other. I think the same thing about men and again, working with a lot of young people, I was just in awe of all the young guys who are like, ‘Man, I struggle with porn,’ but they never felt freedom to talk about it. It was just this secrecy thing. It was like, ‘I don’t know. No one ever talks to me about sex. We definitely don’t talk about that in the church context. Nobody ever talks to me about, you know, my body and how it works and those things. I’m learning about it from Playboy and now whatever is online, you know.’ That is a huge disservice that the church did, and again, that might feel really distant from abuse, but it’s not. I think it’s connected because again, we have lived so much of our lives with these things in secrecy and shame rather than talking about things.
Brent: We talk about them in the terms of Bible, and that’s what really locks us in–is we put the Bible on top of it, and then you can’t question it because it’s Biblical and therefore there’s no other answer and there’s no other way and that just locks us into these handcuffs. It’s not purity culture that was bad, but the way it was presented. Absolutely. But we want to encourage sexual fidelity and marriage only and these kinds of things. [Laughter]
But as you keep going on, I mean, it’s like there’s more things that build into why we’ve got this system. And another one is just more distorted theology around authority and power, and I hope this isn’t an issue here because one of the things I strive for is to know that we are all together in this. It’s not Brent, the hired holy man, or Amy, the hired holy woman, you know? We are all the family of God, and we’re working together. Yes, God does lay some responsibility on us as leaders, but that doesn’t necessarily give us free reign to do whatever we want to do.
We’ve created this idea in Evangelicalism that well, that person can’t be questioned really really seriously. We insulated these celebrity pastors and mega church pastors, and what we did is we created this crazy platform for them to not be questioned, and so that when questions did arise it was always pushed back on and they were told, ‘Well you are trying to damage Jesus.’ And there’s probably no greater example of this than Ravi Zacharias. You know, there’s people that came to know Jesus through his ministry, but before he died, a few years before he died, a woman came forward and she said that they were in an inappropriate texting exchange. Pictures were being exchanged, maybe even a physical relationship, and the board kind of stepped in and was like, ‘No, this is an attack from Satan, and we need to make this go away, and so they paid her off and made her sign a non-disclosure agreement, which, just for the record, those have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ. A non-disclosure agreement shouldn’t even be anything we’re talking about. And then after he died just a few years ago, all hell broke loose. The number of women that he had been sexually abusing for years. He bought massage parlors for some reason, which is goofy and weird in its own way. He would have sex with women who were not his wife, and afterwards he would pray with them and talk to them about how God was blessing their time together. I only tell you this because that is pure unadulterated evil. In my opinion, there is nothing we can do but to call it evil. When I think about what he did, I think about Jesus saying there will be many that stand before me in the last days and say, ‘Lord, Lord did I not do many wonderful things in your name and cast out demons?’ And Jesus says, ‘Depart from me; I never knew you.’ How could somebody who’s going around the world with an international ministry do such evil things in the name of Jesus? Those are the things we hear. The board made him untouchable when he was alive. It was only after he died that all these things began to come out.
Amy: Yes, and one of his, um, victims–I listened to some sharing that she did about her experience, and she said that Ravi told her and many people then came out saying this–basically said, ‘Don’t say anything about this. Can you imagine if you spoke out against me? Can you imagine the amount of damage that would cause to Jesus and the Kingdom of God in the church?’ Because so many people have come to faith through this ministry, and I think it’s easy to be like well, we are not Ravi Zacharias. When we’re this distant, I mean, it feels so personal because it’s in Jesus’ name, which we talk about, but it’s also still in our churches. It’s still in our culture in many ways, and it’s sneaky. It’s that, like, again, you can’t question someone or if you question someone, you’re considered somebody who’s stirring up disunity or you’re creating conflict or you’re making Jesus look bad or Ashworth look bad or whatever it might be, and that’s dangerous.
Brent: And this protective atmosphere, this defensiveness that happens has got to be gone away with. You know what? I think it’s so interesting that as you look and you know, you had the Catholic abuse scandal that was horrific, and Protestants got to sit on the side and go, ‘Not in our camp,’ until it came to our camp. You know what I’m saying? Until we found out, you know, we’d like to look at the Catholics and we said, ‘Oh, it’s that celibacy thing. If they’d let those priests get married, it wouldn’t be a problem.’ Oh, until you look at all the Protestant stuff that was going on, and it was by married men that were abusing other women and children in their churches, and you go oh, maybe that wasn’t it. Our chickens did come home to roost at that moment because we realized it. And then even the Southern Baptists were able to go, ‘Well we’re not like those Protestants.’ You know, they hid behind church autonomy. They said, ‘Oh but we can’t do anything,’ and they said, ‘Oh, we can’t keep a list, until it was found out that they did have a list of 700 names of men and people that they knew that abused others, and they were keeping it quiet. Oh yeah, the church has blood on our hands. I mean, period. That’s all we can say; that the church has been complicit in all of this from the beginning, and we’ve done everything as much and as wrong as the world to cover it up. The reason we did that was because what was more valuable to us was not truth and was not honesty. It was reputation. It was brand. It was ego. It was pride that became the most important thing to us. And we said, ‘Let’s protect ourselves and our celebrity pastors at all costs, and the victims, uh, that’s just, you know, casualties along the way.’ I mean, it’s ridiculous. We lived as systems-centered churches, as Scott McKnight said, when we needed to be people-first churches. If the thing we’re most concerned about is our reputation, then we’ve missed the boat because that is not what Jesus was concerned about at all, and that is not what Jesus left us to do. And if we can’t be authentic and real… You said earlier, if we can’t be the safe space for people to come in and talk about these things, let’s shut the doors, sell the land, and move on because there’s better things that we can do with our time on a Sunday morning.
Amy: I read a book by Rachel Den Hollander, who was the first woman who broke this story. She was an Olympic gymnast, and she’d been abused by Larry Nasser, that whole story, and there was so much that came out, but I didn’t realize this until I started reading her book that her story is–actually the first time she was sexually abused was in a church by a pastor, and she talked about how we have this weird idea that we’re protecting Christ or we’re defending Jesus name. We don’t want Him to look bad, but actually, we’re protecting Christendom. You know, we’re protecting ourselves. We’re protecting Church. We’re protecting a system, like Brent said, a system over people, which is very much unlike Jesus. And it reminds me of the Pharisees, where everything is about what’s on the outside. Protect, you know, we want to keep up an image, and at this point in talking again with a number of younger Christians like this woman who asked me this question, I’m like, we want to protect a reputation that we no longer have. Like the church in America does not have a shiny reputation. I think the best thing we can do is say, ‘Yeah, we’ve screwed up. There’s a lot of pain. There’s a lot of casualties, and we want to do better. We want to change, and we want to be more like Jesus and to own our stuff.’ That’s the whole basis of our faith: repentance and forgiveness and mercy and restoration. I believe that that’s what this new generation is asking the questions about. That’s what they want to hear. They want to hear honesty. They want to hear not excuses or a defense or cover-up. They want to hear honesty.
Brent: So what does Jesus say about this? That’s the question, right? And as Amy and I kind of talked about this over the last couple weeks, Matthew 18 came to mind. The disciples, you know, they didn’t catch it, and they’re like, ‘Who’s the greatest, Jesus? Tell us who’s going to be the best, who gets the best seats in the house. You know, in Matthew 18, starting in verse 2, it says, ‘He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.’
That is powerful. When Jesus begins talking about a child, He moves to talking about little ones, and He’s not talking about children anymore. He is talking about the marginalized. He’s talking about those that the world looks at, those that don’t have power, those that can’t defend themselves. And this is such a powerful verse, powerful passage in this moment, because Jesus is tearing these things down. I mean, did you see what He said? He said, ‘If you cause somebody who is vulnerable, somebody that doesn’t have power, somebody that’s marginalized, if you cause them to stumble, it’s better for you to go tie a stone around your neck and drop yourself into the middle of a lake than it is for you to cause them to stumble. Wow.
Amy: Yeah, and it’s interesting because I mean, I read this passage a few times this week. I’m like, oh the harsh language, and I think you know, we do see Jesus using hyperbole here, but the message He’s sending clearly is this is not okay. And what he’s saying, to take extreme measures. That’s what I see. He’s, like, cut your eye out, you know, the onus is not on the vulnerable person, the onus is on the person with power. And so I think: What does Jesus say to folks in power, folks in positions of power, folks who could be the abusers? He says, ‘You better take extreme measures, you know, if you feel like there’s even an inkling in you to take advantage of someone that’s vulnerable. You take extreme measures to stop that.
Brent: Because you are responsible. That’s what Jesus is saying–you’re responsible for what you do is essentially what Jesus is saying. And you look at everything else He’s saying. It’s on the screen. This was just kind of a quick thing. He says he loves the least of these, that this is where His passion is. This is where His heart is–is to protect them. He says He hates evil more than we do when we might be willing to cover it up and and gloss over it and not give it the attention it deserves. Jesus is like, oh, no matter how much you may think you hate it, God hates it more. Just rest assured. And it tells us that, you know, what God will intervene. God will intervene in some way at some time.
Amy: I think the other thing that Jesus would be saying is that for those of us who have cared more about our reputation, He would call us Pharisees, say you treat us like He did, the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He’s talking to them, and He’s like you guys care so much about your dill and your mint and your cumin, you know all your spices, and you’ve neglected the important matters of the law, which are justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He calls them whitewashed tombs. He’s like, you’re a mess on the inside, and you look good on the outside. I think again we have, as a church and as people that make up the church, we have got to just in general let go of that pharisaical thing in us that always wants image and optics over what’s really going on. And I think I’ve loved this last year that Brent, in particular, has really led us into doing more kinds of spiritual formation things, like what we’ll be doing at the retreat this Saturday. And all those things are not just for us. My mom always calls it belly button gazing, like you know, you like look internally, and it feels like–
Brent: Naval gazing.
Amy: Thank you. Naval gazing. But it’s not that that’s not why we do it. We don’t do things. We don’t look inward, and we don’t reflect on how we’re feeling and what we’re doing and what things are coming up and what patterns are in our life to just gaze inward. We do that so that we can reflect on where we really are with Jesus, following Him, and what needs to be dealt with.
Brent: And create space for the Holy Spirit of God to deal with us whom need to be dealt with.
Amy: Yes, so when the inside is beautiful, it may be really messy, but when there’s room for Jesus to work in there, then you don’t have, as you know, these whitewashed tombs. Things going on where we’re trying to protect our image. No, we long to actually be transformed people who look more like Jesus. We’ve got to be people who are willing to look and own our mess and own all these abuses and this pain on the outside.
In Amos 5, I love this passage, um, it says, ‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.’ I mean, it’s just this very dramatic language, like I don’t want your offerings. I don’t want your grain offering. I don’t want your sacrifices. I don’t want any of it. He says, ‘Away with the noise of your songs! I won’t listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ And again, there he was, calling out folks who were not paying their hired hands well. They were taxing people who were poor. I mean, it’s again, it’s this treating the most vulnerable and most marginalized in their community like junk and then also being super religious.
Brent: It’s focusing on the wrong thing, yes, and that’s what we’ve done. That’s what we as a church have done. We focused on the wrong things. We’ve focused on power. We focused on status. We focused on results. Well, how big is your church, and how big is your budget, and how many books has your pastor written, and how many followers do you have on Instagram? And all these things. And we focused on celebrity. And I think this is a reckoning moment for the church, where God is saying to the church in America, ‘Yeah I hate your religious festivals. I hate what you’re doing in my name. Yeah, I’m not affiliated with that.” And this is an opportunity for the church to decide: Will we respond? How will we respond? Because as it says on the screen, how we’ve behaved and responded has revealed the true character of our hearts. Period. Is that not a convicting statement? I think this is the moment where Jesus is saying, as he said in Luke 8:17: ‘For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.’ It is time for the light to shine, and it starts with us. It starts in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Amy: And I appreciate, I made a joke about it, but I appreciate your anger. I do. I think that it feels like Jesus. That’s how He is. He’s angry at this kind of injustice that’s been done in His name. Angry at a level that we probably don’t even know fully. And then also, you see in Scripture His tenderness to people who are hurting. And so if you in this room have experienced some kind of spiritual abuse, some kind of physical abuse, in Jesus’ name, or you know people who has, I want to remind you, and these feel like even trite words, but they’re not because they’re words from Scripture; that it says in Psalm 147:3 that ‘He heals the brokenhearted and He binds up their wounds.’ One of the passages of Scripture I go to all the time is Psalm 34:18: ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and He saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ Earlier on in that Psalm, it says that “His eyes are on the righteous, and His ears are attentive to their cries.’ He hears you. He sees you. He knows you. He weeps with you, and He’s committed to your healing.
Brent: And even when you look to Jesus and how He interacted with vulnerable people, you get this understanding. In John 4, the woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, you know He engages her, and she’s like, ‘Who are you talking to? Me? You’re not supposed to talk to me.’ In John 8, the woman called out in adultery, you know, you want to talk about an abusive situation; dragged out naked or half naked in front of a crowd so that they could make an object lesson for you, out of you, for their religious point. And Jesus says, ‘Let he who’s without sin cast the first stone.’ They all leave, and Jesus then looks at her and says, ‘Where are they, the ones that were going to accuse you?’ And they’re gone, and he says, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.’ Or even Luke 7: He’s at the home of a Pharisee. He’s having dinner. We talked about this last summer, and this woman with a terrible reputation comes in, and they’re like, ‘How dare you let her let her touch you.’ Jesus is like, ‘I’m here for her.’ The compassion, the love, the tenderness that He continually shows time and time again is a reminder that no matter what you’ve been through, Jesus is there.
You know, the greatest tragedy, I mean, there’s all kinds of big tragedies associated with this, but I think one of the greatest is just the shame that comes with somebody that is abused. You convince yourself it was your fault. You convince yourself you should have done things differently. I don’t want to tear, I don’t want to create disunity in the church. And so when you just heap on yourself all the shame, all the shame, all the shame, and shame is an incredible isolator. I mean, it is the thing that just keeps you from reaching out and going anywhere and speaking up and doing anything. And I mean, Satan’s just sitting in the background going, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what I want.’ Now is the time for the church to stand up and say, ‘We will be the place where you can come and you can speak the truth.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s against me or Amy or anybody else in this place. This is going to be a real place. This is going to be an authentic place. And we will respond. And when we see injustice, when we see abuse taking place, we’ll speak out. And I’ll just tell you on behalf of what I’ve seen, I’m sorry. I really am sorry. It breaks my heart to see what has been done in the name of Jesus, and the damage that it has caused, and the people who have been turned away from Jesus because somebody did something to them in His name. Just because you have a flag with the name Jesus on it doesn’t mean you’re representing Him, just so you know. Just because you pray with somebody after abusing them doesn’t get God’s blessing, you know what I’m saying? I mean, it is time for the church to step up and lean into this and say, We will be the safe place for people to come and whatever we have to do to make that happen, we will. We will deal with it.’ You know, there is an element in America. We’re so individualistic to a, to a sinful fault, in my opinion, because oftentimes we would look at this, and we’d go, ‘But we didn’t do anything here at Ashworth?’ Oh, so what? We’re culpable. We’re on the hook. Daniel was in exile, and you look at some of his prayers, and why did he pray? He prayed prayers of confession for his people? He didn’t do it individually, but he prayed corporate prayers of confession. That’s where we need to be his people. We need to confess. We need to pray these prayers of confession on behalf of the people who in our name have done vile, evil, horrible things in the name of Jesus.
Amy: And so a few things that we want to do at Ashworth: How do we respond? What needs to change? Going forward: One, we will get angry with you, to listen and get angry. We’ll weep with you, but we want to have more than that in place. And this might seem strange or even over the top, but I think this is what’s needed at this point. We talked a lot this week about what is our response, and what’s even a next clear, next step that we can take that shows you all, even as our church, as this church right here, that we are serious about this. We do not want to be a place where, you know, I guess what I’m saying is we want to take extreme measures so that abuses of power don’t happen. Um, so that these kinds of things don’t happen. And so one of the things we talked about was well, if that, if something did happen, were to happen, with, you know, an interaction that somebody had with Brent or I or somebody on our staff, they would probably not want to approach us, you know and tell us about that. And so we started to think: How can we utilize our Deacon team? And so I talked with Trisha Wheelock this week, and she’s essentially willing, and we’re setting up a process. It’s in process right now, but as a safe person that you could reach out to. Again, it sounds, probably sounds kind of weird, but she’s like our church’s Victim Advocate, you know? Who would say, ‘I will be the voice. I will be the voice that will join your voice and go to the Elders, you know? And that creates safety for a person who could be potentially abused, and it also creates safety for the leadership too. Um, again, we want to put real boots to what we’re talking about, and we want to create things, and so you’ll see something more come out about that, but um, we want you to feel like this is a place where you can share; where if you see abuses of power or leadership or dynamics that are unhealthy, that those could be addressed, um, and that your voice will be heard, and that we take those things very seriously.
Brent: We will always be the place that takes it very seriously. Um, when I was 19, I was a freshman in college, and I took my first church job, and I was in a small Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. And I had a small youth group, about six, seven kids. Not many. Most of them were the pastor’s kids. Two of them were the pastor’s kids, and I’d been there a few months, and one day the pastor’s daughter comes into my office. She was 13, and she sat down and just, you know, we’re just back and forth chit-chatting. No big deal. And then all of a sudden, the conversation changed, and she started crying, and she began to tell me how the previous youth pastor would come get her out of Sunday School, take her to another part in the church, and sexually abuse her. And her dad, who was the pastor, and this guy was connected in other ways. His in-laws were the finance committee, and all this, whatever, garbage. And her dad’s response, and I don’t necessarily fault him, I think it’s a hard decision. You know, hard to know how to navigate this, but his response was to go to the guy and say, ‘He didn’t deny it, but if you’ll leave quietly, we’ll just let this go.’ Nineteen-year-old Brent was a little more emotional, I think, than 48-year-old Brent, and I went to the pastor and I said, ‘You will go to the cops, or I will go to the cops, but one of us is going to the cops because we have released this predator into another church, and that is not something that we will do.’ So he and his wife decided to go see a counselor, a therapist, and through that interaction, because a counselor is a mandatory reporter, they went to the police. That guy was arrested. He was put in jail for five years, like he needed to be, you know. Nineteen years old, I didn’t know which way was up, but there’s a reason that I experienced that, I think, and it’s because it shaped me in my ministry. Because it’s important to me. It’s important for me to know that we are a church of authenticity, where we don’t just wear masks when we come in, and everything’s hunky-dory all the time. That we’re a real place, and whether you experience abuse here or somewhere else, this is a place where you can come in and share and that you’re going to have a community that believes you; that puts their arms around you and walks with you through it. And ultimately, I’ll tell you what I hope in my desire, is that whatever we walk through with people, is that we will be able to show them the real Jesus, not the Jesus the perverted screwed up, the Jesus that they’ve been exposed to, but the real Jesus. And I hope we would be able to help them separate that painful experience with religion and faith to help them experience the Jesus who is loving and compassionate, and who is there so that they can fully experience hope and healing in their life.
Amy: So the final thing I guess I would say is we’re going to send in our weekly email this week some resources, books, and things you could read things that might just be if you want to learn more or understand more, or if you feel like, oh I need this. It is touching something that I have not dealt with, you know. And also, we’re available to talk, to pray, to process, um, and we want to, we want you to feel freedom to share. And I know it can be hard, but if there is something even that’s coming up for you today, grab one of us. Would you email one of us? Call one of us? Set an appointment with us and come talk? Um, let us pray for you, and even both of us have connections to even folks who are professional, who walk through some of these places of abuse with people.
And as we close, I want to pray this prayer for us. I, um, was reading from this woman, her name is Bethany Clark, this week and I loved her words here. It’s a prayer of confession and repentance, um, and so I’m going to read that for us on our behalf, on my behalf, and Brent’s behalf this morning, so wherever you are, if you’re joining us online, close your eyes and just listen to this and let this be the prayer in your heart too.
Jesus, as you left this Earth, you called your followers to live in a new kingdom of love and justice and healing. We confess that the church that once turned the world upside down has not followed your ways but has done evil. People have loved power more than people. Where you demonstrated compassion, there are leaders who have abused those in their care. Instead of nurturing truth and justice, there has been a culture of silence and secrets. Leaders have covered up injustices and silenced those who speak up. We repent of ambivalence and apathy towards injustice. We repent of being the tax collector who said, ‘Thank God I’m not that sinner.’ We have often closed our eyes and ears to the cries of our brothers and sisters. With the ones who’ve been hurt by the very people who were supposed to care for them, with those who’ve been physically, emotionally or spiritually abused, we cry out. With those who no longer feel safe in a place where they should find God’s love, we mourn. We grieve the disappointment, confusion, and pain that comes with learning that those we looked up to or were our teachers have caused harm. We sit in the pain with those we’ve lost friendships and been shunned by church communities for speaking out or leaving unhealthy churches. Oh God who hears, it should not be this way among those who call themselves your followers. With those who’ve had to fight to be heard and understood, we lament. With those who’ve been mistreated in churches due to race or gender, we cry out, ‘How long, O Lord?’ We groan along with creation waiting for the day when you will make things right. Come quickly, Jesus. This burden is too heavy for us to carry. Help us, Holy Spirit. Help us in our own belief. Shine Your Light into our midst and reveal our blind spots. Open our eyes and ears and hurts and hearts. May we truly see and hear the hurting. May we be quick to listen and slow to speak when our brothers and sisters share their experiences. May we not be in a hurry to move on but be willing to sit with the discomfort, mourning with those who mourn, as long as it takes to bring healing. Lead us pastors and church members in creating a culture that nurtures goodness and empathy, grace, truth, justice, service, and Christ-likeness. May we walk in the way of Christ, the way of love. Through faith in the name of Jesus, and through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Amen.