False narratives of Christian leaders caught in abuse

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Preacher - courtesy of A K M Adam via Flickr

Preacher - courtesy of A K M Adam via Flickr

When the abusive behavior of Christian leaders is uncovered, all too often the immediate response is not an unconditional admission or a genuine expression of authentic repentance. Instead, a common response is a new narrative. A false narrative.  A narrative that attempts to paint a picture of the situation without any regard for truth.   A narrative designed to protect reputations and preserve future incomes. A narrative designed to keep the leaders in the spotlight and the victims out of the way.

Since many of these leaders tend to be narcissistic, the primary purpose of the false narrative is to enable them to hold onto the spotlight as they crave affirmation and continued relevance in a world that is quick to turn the spotlight elsewhere. Seeking out friendly media interviews is one way that provides opportunities for offending leaders to elaborate and “sell” their new narrative.   Social media is also a very effective means to communicate this narrative because it tends to attract those who crave the leader’s attention and who will be quick to “like”, “share”, “comment”, “reply” or “re-tweet” the leader’s narrative. These same followers will often be quick to vilify and attack anyone who questions or criticizes the leader or the narrative.

Though false narratives vary with each offending leader and each situation, three types seem to be common amongst offending leaders:

Redefine Narrative: Offending leaders are often quick to try and change the narrative from one of abuse to something less offensive and more acceptable to the watching public. One way this is accomplished is to re-defining the abuse with terms such as “mistake”, “misjudgment”, “failure” or “misunderstanding”. Such a redefining is usually coupled with the offending leader publicly expressing sorrow and asking for forgiveness. Do you see what’s happening? The false narrative subtly minimizes the actual abuse, as the offending leader appears to be repentant about a far less serious offense.  The hope is that this approach will prompt many to express support for the offending leader as “humble” and “Godly”, while castigating anyone who expresses doubt or who attempts to point out the false narrative.

Preacher - courtesy of A K M Adam via Flickr

Preacher – courtesy of A K M Adam via Flickr

Shift the Blame Narrative: If the redefine narrative isn’t doing the trick, offending leaders often will take the next step and attempt to begin shifting the blame. We saw an example of this shift the blame narrative two years ago when IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap attempted to blame his sexual contact with an underage female whom he was “counseling” on the fact that he was under a great amount of stress. If that wasn’t bad enough, last year Mr. Schaap filed a court document where he actually blamed the abuse on the “aggressiveness” of the minor victim. Fortunately, the court rejected these new narratives. Unfortunately, many within Schaap’s church embraced them. At the time of his sentencing, the court had received no less than 141 letters from supporters asking the court for leniency.

The shift the blame narrative is not limited to situations involving child abuse. Not too long ago, the world watched as pastor and author Mark Driscoll resigned from his Seattle based church amidst repeated complaints from other pastors and congregation members about his domineering leadership style and ongoing behavior that was verbally, spiritually, and emotionally abusive. When confronted by this disturbing evidence, Driscoll communicated that he had been forced to resign because “a trap had been set”.

False Empathy Narrative: If blaming others doesn’t legitimize the offending leader’s false narrative, empathizing with them sometimes does. Denying the abuse while publicly expressing care for those who alleged the abuse paints the offending leader as loving and kind. The false empathy narrative was clearly illustrated by the public statements released last year by Bill Gothard, the founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after 30 plus women stepped forward to allege that he had engaged in various forms of inappropriate and sexual contact when they had served as IBLP student interns. Though Gothard denies their claims, he focuses much of his statement on expressing admiration for those who have held him “to the standards God requires of me.” In a later statement, Gothard once again denies the allegations while also expressing empathy for the women who reported the complaints. He writes, “However, I do understand in a much deeper way how these young ladies feel and how my insensitivity caused them to feel the way they do.” Though this false narrative can sound genuine and kind, it actually exploits and patronizes victims in a desperate attempt to look good to a watching world.

When it seems as if a false narrative may need help being legitimized, some offending leaders will enlist the help of well-known friends to express support and share the narrative. This was illustrated a few years ago when certain evangelical leaders published statements in support of Sovereign Grace Ministries founder CJ Mahaney after it was uncovered that children in his Maryland church had been sexually abused by church representatives and that some of their parents had been advised against reporting the crimes to law enforcement. More recently, this occurred when well-known Christians stepped forward to excuse the sexual abuse of children by Josh Duggar as “mistakes” and as being “overblown”. The problem with celebrity spokespersons is that they usually have very limited knowledge of the actual truth and often find themselves in self-created awkward positions of having to retract or dismiss their “supportive” statements in order to protect and preserve their own reputations. The tragedy of it all.

The most significant catastrophe in all of this is that false narratives declare to victims that the horrors of their abuse are not nearly as significant as preserving the all important reputation and career of another Christian leader. These individuals find themselves once again exploited and abused by offenders needing to satisfy distorted self-obsessions and who don’t care for anyone made in the image of the God they claim to worship.

False narratives suppress truth, promote darkness, and eviscerate lives. Should they be acceptable in a faith that is centered upon the One who calls Himself truth, light, and the giver of life?

  • Great article, thank you for sharing it! Abuse in churches is not just a Catholic problem. As an activist fighting for the protection of children, the vulnerable and the elderly for the past thirteen years I’ve had victims from every denomination and many non-denominational churches contact me looking for help. We must continue to discuss how, where, when and why clerical abuse happens. With God’s Grace victims will heal.

  • When I started talking about the abuse suffered at the hands of my pastor. The reaction by many people still in the church was that he was only wrestling. They were shocked when I told them that was how things got started.

    Thank you so much for this piece. Your work is very important.

    iamnotbubba
    http://www.perpetuallyhealing.com

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  • “The most significant catastrophe in all of this is that false narratives declare to victims that the horrors of their abuse are not nearly as significant as preserving the all important reputation and career of another Christian leader.”

    Yes, exactly! And when you get, “just forgive and move on” from that leader, followed by, “you’re just bitter and unforgiving”, it tears your heart out.

  • Lilly

    Excellently explained; this is abuser-husband operated our entire marriage. While appearing gentle they are cut throat to the core.

  • HisEzer

    You are so right! One who *demands* forgiveness and throws out hurtful accusations like that is clearly unrepentant. (In fact the very charges they make of unforgiveness and bitterness apply to they, themselves, because in reality they are seething and holding a grudge against the victim for having stood up to them or exposed them…)

  • Exellent!
    You put it in a nutshell, Boz, and the examples you gave are all spot on. 🙂

  • Loren Haas

    A college board creates a false narrative to protect reputations (and maybe donation?) instead of holding the guilty accountable:
    https://baptistnews.com/ministry/organizations/item/30423-baptist-university-responds-to-video-of-former-president

  • Excellent post! As someone who regularly ministers to infidelity survivors and their supporters as a pastor, I really appreciated how well these tactics to avoid responsibility were articulated. The minimize and blame-shift are common ones encountered when dealing with an adulterous spouse, sadly. It hurts all the more when Christ’s name is dragged into it and used to justify such soul rape.

  • Ruth

    What about real false accusations? There were allegations by a woman at a college in Virginia where all charges were dropped because she was uncooperative and changed her story. Yet it was pointed to as really true by many in many forums… what about real false accusations?

  • Loren Haas

    False accusations is not the point of this blog. It is about real abuse and creating false narratives to cover.
    Talking about false accusations is another tactic of abusers.

  • Kristina

    I see what you’re saying and agree with a lot of it…. but I can’t help but wonder if this is a passive-aggressive post about your brother. While I liked Tullian’s preaching and it helped me grow closer in my relationship to God, I am not one of those ‘groupies’ you described. I saw your tweet to Paul Tripp and can’t help but wonder if this blog is just a veiled attack on your brother. Hopefully I’m wrong and your intentions are godly.

  • Kristina

    Kristina, I thought just the opposite regarding this post and Tullian. I didn’t see it as an attack. Mostly because Tullian, although engaging in activity that, along with his wife, ended his marriage, was not part of sexual abuse of a young person. But I thought this was a reflection of the overwhelming sorrow this entire family is going through. Blessings on you and I’m glad you were helped by T’s preaching, as was I. I had the privilege of transcribing some sermons that he hoped to turn into a book, and it refreshed my life, as it did yours, and we are all poorer because he is no longer in the pulpit. I also deeply appreciate the work that Boz has done and is doing.

  • Thank you for speaking up about the abuse. It is such a tragedy that your church preferred to excuse this crime instead of confront it. Grateful for your voice.

  • Susan

    Since Boz has said unveiled things about his brother’s situation, there is no need to assume that this post is a veiled shot at Tullian. Boz works in the area of abuse in churches and if there happens to be some overlap between the way abusers act when caught and the way adulterers act when caught, that doesn’t mean the post has to be a swipe at Tullian. It just means that we sinful humans are fairly predictable in certain situations.

  • Brandon

    Kristina, a post with someone else in mind does not make it passive-aggressive. People often write taking into account what’s happening around them right now. The post seems too specific and too timely NOT to be about the situation with Tullian, at least in part. Certainly this is good and necessary information whether it’s partially about Tullian or not, and there’s nothing ungodly about calling out evil behaviors, even in those we love if private means have failed to change hearts and minds. We do this because we love them, and because we love their victims. Much damage is done by charismatic leaders who’s followers give such weight to their testimony that the claims of their victims are drowned out by the affirming shouts of those starry eyed followers.

  • I was in an abusive marriage and went to my pastor for help. He crossed boundaries and when I needed to leave the marriage I felt it contributed to unfair treatment from him and the church. I attempted to address his behavior with the leaders but they refused to let me talk, unless the pastor was there, forcing me to go up the chain. They said I should talk to the session first, who refused to meet with me after they found out I went over their head. The pastor rushed to make a “confession” and seek forgiveness. It was as you said, a minimized version of the truth that made it sound like the feelings he had for me were in my imagination! I was threatened if I went to the governing body to press charges that all my past mental health issues would be used against me so I dropped the issue. I rarely go to church now and when I do I have panic attacks the whole time I am there. It is hard to push this secret down, and hard to see him still in ministry like nothing happened.

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  • Just me

    This article is incredibly helpful. I have seen this situation played out three specific times during my life, and the pattern in each is just as you describe. The most recent is how BJU handled their sexual abuse issues.
    All during the GRACE investigation, BJU was spinning their own narrative. Once the investigation became public, it was clear that they took many steps to minimize their actions, shift blame to the victims, etc.
    They quickly began to state that those who had protected offenders, were misled and that they actually hadn’t done wrong. Pettit’s most recent sermon (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?sermonID=9215114460) seems to reaffirm their views and they have kept their counseling program that was so horrifically damaging in place.
    It is sad and confusing to see people claim to be followers of Jesus, but cast out the most vulnerable to protect themselves.
    May God shed a bright light to the darkness at BJU and in so many other places that do the same!

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  • Paul S

    Excellent article and very on point about abusers of children. Equating criminal actions with consenting adult relationships is off though. Out society as deemed these legal and for the most part acceptable. In fact governmental office holders such as judges, prosecutors, and police all to often engage in these with little impact on their position. Then narrative of the priest praying on guliable adult women is antequated. And actually serves as a rationalization for those women to deny their shared responsibility. It is part of the “victim” narrative. A better way to approach this is as a sin inside of the body of Christ. Having sensationalist press pander a morals story with all the back and forth gossip and rumours is irrelevant.