I found it difficult to complete my recap series and summarize day three’s morning session—First, because the talks were so rich and full of compelling content that it’s difficult to condense into a concise summary and, second, because even 48hrs later, I remain physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausted. This conference was one of the most intense, personal, important, moving, challenging conferences I’ve ever attended. The stakes are immensely high and the movement frustratingly slow.
Here is my summary, though I don’t really do these talks justice in my meager attempt here so perhaps this will motivate you to go listen for yourself to Rachel’s interview and Mary’s address on ERLC’s FB page and Diane’s keynote message as soon as it is available online (Note: if you don’t want to wait, here is a different version of the same address by Dr. Langberg given at the AACC annual meeting last year but without the direct application and pointed words to the SBC).
Saturday was a powerful day.
Diane Langberg opened with her keynote address, “Suffering and the Heart of God – How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores.” I already mentioned this in a previous post, but GET THIS BOOK by the same title.
The talk focused on the impact of sexual abuse, especially in the church, and our response to it. When we do not heed the cries of the vulnerable, “rejection not care becomes the dominant influence in their lives … our response to their vulnerability exposes who we are.”
Langberg spoke of her own experience of treating those of clergy sexual abuse and drew several insights from it. Power and vulnerability must be considered together. She spoke of different kinds of power we may have—physical power, verbal power, emotional power, theological, positional—that can be used for good or evil.
Clergy have a particular power that can be used to confuse the vulnerable and step-by-step abuse them. Clergy are often assumed to be trustworthy and given power before looking for character and integrity. Even among the most theologically sound pastors, “A preacher’s teaching can be absolutely orthodox and the man be false.”
Langberg challenged us to see that “Christendom, like all institutions when threatened, tries to protect itself…We must see things for what they are and call them by their right name.” However, the church increasingly prefers power to truth. In one of her most poignant moments, Langberg admonished “One of the most powerful deceptions in the church is that mission is of chief importance… Mission is not our master. We ignore the direct command of God to expose the deeds of darkness because it hurts our mission. But when we do that, when we cover up or are complicit with such evils, we have joined forces with the Prince of Darkness.”
We must care for others and not prioritize institutions and systems over people. “Jesus was not crucified for our systems. They are not eternal, we are.”
She continued, “I believe the voices of victims today are the voice of God to his people – THEY are the prophetic voice. We have silenced them and he is using the megaphone of the media to bring it to light.”
After recalling her experience seeing the infamous killing fields of the Cambodian genocide, Langberg made a connection to the clergy abuse crisis. “Every victim that has been ignored or thrown out make up the killing fields of the church. The Southern Baptist church has created a killing field.”
She continued noting the SBC was formed to preserve the bondage of souls—a system of slavery was chosen over the souls of people—this is the fruit of that founding. It seems clear that our God is calling us to see, hear, listen. We must stop labeling our sinful hiding as protection of the church of God. Godly words hiding ungodly, dreadful deeds. If we do not obey him, we do not love him. And if we do not love him, we break the heart of the Father. (Note: This is as close as I could get to directly quoting but am unsure I got the exact words so I left out the quotation marks. Where I did use quotes, I may still be in error so check everything against the video when it is released.)
Mary Demuth was up next with a short address, “We too: How the Church can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis.” As she recounted her survivor story, she noted that not one human being would protect her. No one was safe. Many chose complacency rather than protection. Mary compared the church to her story and how so many choose to protect institutions or choose complacency when they should act.
In her recounting of Scripture, Jesus had equally strong language for those who passed by and did nothing. Mary exegeted the passage of Scripture from 1 Cor 12:21-26 and noted that the Greek words to describe those parts of the body that are often unwanted appear “weak, strengthless, without honor, despised, unseemly—as a survivor of abuse I have often felt this way.” But scripture describes those parts as “necessary, essential, valued in superabundance, becomingness, and to render glorious.”
I thought Mary’s exposition was compelling and offered a new, more complete perspective of Paul’s teaching here.
She then referred to 1 Cor 1:27-28 “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”
In a powerful moment, she spoke for survivors and advocates, “We are not a drain on your resources, we are a gift to you.”
She continued by stating that “This is an US problem!” She described what was happening in the SBC as a “holy moment” to pray and repent “for the abuse we have committed or enabled.” She concluded her message with a charge: “As followers of Jesus Christ whom we love and we praise and adore… we’d better love well now.”
Herbie Newell, president of Lifeline Children’s Services spoke next. He addressed the need to address sin in the church and noted, “Until we stop abusing our own, we will never be the safe haven for those around us.” He stated that caring well means not only wrapping around the abused but coming alongside men with accountability. Here he referenced pornography and pervasive sin within the church. “We need to reckon with the gospel and sin in our own lives so we can …reach others.”
The crux of his message was the story of rescuing “Betty” who was being trafficked – her life was “changed from victim to victor” when she met Jesus. His scripture of choice was the passage in John of the woman caught in adultery.
I’m generally a fan of Lifeline, but for me, this message fell a bit flat. The tone was different and contained a lot of Christian-ese language and phrases. I think I was most uncomfortable with the use of the woman caught in adultery as his text when dealing with the abused. Maybe his talk would have had more of an impact on day one, but I felt like this message lacked the power and prophetic voice of the other Saturday morning speakers.
Interview with Rachael Denhollander by Russell Moore
As the interview began, Rachael noted that her first experience with sexual assault was in the church and that the message she internalized from her church was “if you can’t prove your abuse, don’t speak up because you will lose everything.” She spoke of her experiences coming forward in the Nassar case and what it cost her. She described what is it like for a person to be scared to come forward and the shame involved. “Survivors fear of coming forward is very well founded because most of the time when they speak up they are trampled on.”
She then moved quickly to address specific issues in the SBC. She gave the specific example of Jennifer Lyell and how she was treated by Baptist Press and members of the SBC Executive Committee. She called on us to hold leaders accountable to not trample on survivors. “It is up to you as members of the SBC to surround these survivors with care; to make sure that the truth is told; to understand what abuse looks like; so that victims…are protected and cared for; to hold your leaders accountable to not trample on these survivors.”
She spoke of SBC polity and how the checks and balances of our congregational system work through accountable to messengers and members. “That’s you!” she pleaded, “That is you, individually in your churches, individually in your capacity. It is up to you. to change the tone and the culture. It is up to you to elect people who are going to tell the church and fight for survivors. It is up to you to surround them with care and support so that that fear of coming forward becomes no longer well founded.”
In response to Dr. Moore’s question about an example of a church that responded well, she referred to Tates Creek Presbyterian Church and pastor Robert Cunningham. In their case, they immediately announced to the congregation, gave a lengthy public statement, immediately brought in independent organization GRACE to do a full review of current policies and investigation, notified congregation where to go for help and where to report.
Look for organizations that are trusted in the survivor community – away from those concerned about preserving money loss. “You cannot serve God and money.” You need an organization that will lead you to be “proactive and survivor-centric.”
Let me inject here that the advocate/survivor community does not trust MinistrySafe in this regard and sees them being more supportive of churches/institutions than survivors. I won’t comment on that only to note that I believe this is the context behind Racheal’s specific mentioning of GRACE being trusted.
She had more to say about specific actions churches should take and the importance of speaking the truth and of handling Scripture well.
The climax of the interview, and really the entire event, was Rachael’s response to Moore’s final question: What IS a girl worth?
“Everything!… Because we are made in God’s image and we need to treat each other as if we’re made in God’s image. And that means taking our failures seriously. That means repenting where we have erred.”
She then gave examples of the specific repentance that is needed in the SBC. Specific repentance says “I am sorry that I did ______ and identify the specific failures and that it hurt you this way. To identify the damage that they did and then to ask the question, ‘How can I make this right? What do I need to do?’ Brothers and sisters, it is not too much to expect our Southern Baptist leaders, to expect our pastors, to expect ourselves to model that kind of specific, biblical repentance.”
She encouraged everyone to read Christa Brown’s book, This Little Light which chronicles what has been going on in the SBC and so that we understand “where to repent and how to change.”
Then Rachael does what previous speakers had only done by allusion, she named names of those who had covered up abuse. She specifically names Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines and their helping cover up for Darrel Gilyard’s decades of abuses and sexual assaults.
She references Paige Patterson’s vilification of Christa as being as bad as an abuser herself for “harming the body of Christ.” And because no one listened and chose to cover up his abuse, Tiffany Thigpen was later assaulted by Gilyard. “Tiffany could have been saved. Christa should have been saved. Had we listened, these people could have been saved.” She continues with more…
You need to just stop now and listen to the last five minutes of Rachael’s interview if not the whole thing.
We must heed Rachael’s call to “Stand up and fight!”
There was no real way for Dr. Moore to wrap up the interview – it was a true “drop the Mic” moment that resulted in a standing ovation and extended applause and the virtual end of the conference.
I’m still processing everything I’ve heard. There are many take-aways from the training, but this last session was a powerful call to action. In the end, the survivor community is right. It is not our words that matter, it is the actions that follow. How we respond to what we’ve heard is what really matters.
Will we truly care well? Will we change? Will we “stand up and fight” for the abused? Those questions remain to be answered. I hope the answer is YES!
Other posts in this series:
#CaringWell: An Opportunity for the SBC and My Local Church
Before the Conference – Acknowledging Problems Surrounding #CaringWell