I follow the women’s gymnastics team every four years when the Olympics take place. I don’t know if I’d ever heard of Rachael Denhollander until a couple of weeks ago when her victim impact statement against uber-pervert Larry Nassar went viral. Now a 33-year-old lawyer, she spoke powerfully to condemn Nasser’s actions in abusing what now totals at least 265 teenage girls while also clearly presenting the gospel. She is credited as being the first person to take a public stand against abuse and was the driving force behind bringing this doctor to justice and ending his reign of terror.
We have also come to find out that she was asked to leave her church a while back because she took a stand on behalf of the victims in the Sovereign Grace Ministries sexual abuse scandal and against the way the “restoration” process was being handled. I have searched for details on this without much progress. She advocated for those who were abused and the elders of her church sided with the leadership of the SGM, telling her and her husband that they were not a fit for that church. They used the fact that she was an abuse victim as evidence against her. The sad fact is that the church has too often sided with the abusers against the abused.
Every time I have heard her, or read her, I have been amazed. She strikes the perfect tone when she addresses these difficult issues.
Rachael Denhollander’s Victim Impact Statement. (in print)
Rachael gave an interview with Christianity Today which laid out her story in more detail and shared the sad history of her removal from her church for siding with victims of the SGM scandal. It is a must-read.
I wish I’d never heard of Rachael Denhollander – or at least for these reasons. It would be wonderful if children were not sexually abused as she was. Would that churches sided with the abused and ministered to them instead of so often circling the wagons to protect the reputations of the abusers. I wish Rachael Denhollander could practice her faith and her law career and raise her family in anonymity. I am guessing that she would agree – that if none of this ever happened she would be thrilled.
But it did happen. And since it did I am glad there is a voice such as hers as a spokesperson. I have seen plenty of Christian testimonies in the public square – sports, politics, celebrities – and many make me cringe. Hers gave me chills! I would make several brief observations.
1. She understands that forgiveness does not abrogate the consequences of sin or negate God’s judgment.
Perhaps the line I read that struck me the most was this:
I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
Her God is no pushover who winks at sin and says, “It doesn’t matter.” She understands guilt and wrath and judgment. As she says, we can only understand the full glory of God’s grace against the background of the darkness of sin and the holiness of God’s character. She says some harsh things to Dr. Nassar but all within the context of repentance and coming to faith in Christ.
2. She has chosen grace instead of bitterness.
It is difficult to counsel a person who has been abused to seek grace rather than vengeance or bitterness. I remember a discussion on this blog in which I was told that abused women were not required to follow the biblical injunctions to forgive those who sinned against them – as if it was an exception clause. As you watch her speak, you see her relentless strength but get no sense of a bitter heart – in spite of was the doctor did to her or how her church mistreated her. She has chosen to live in God’s grace. All of us have been sinned against, though few as egregiously as she has been.
But she seems to have found the way of God through that. Instead of becoming mired in hate and vindictiveness, she has prospered because she chose to obey God.
Folks, think about it. In her victim-impact statement, she hoped that the man who sexually molested her as a teenager would repent and find the grace of God. She told the man who put her through hell how to get to heaven! She returned good for evil, grace for sin. She loved her enemy and prayed for the one who persecuted her – all that “Jesus-stuff” we tend to ignore.
I hope when I grow up I will be the Christian she is!
3. She is relentless is advocacy for the victims of abuse.
It is amazing to me how the church rallies around well-known figures who are accused of sin, and in the process generally attacks those who accuse them. Sure, there are false accusers out there and they should be held accountable, but most are not.
When we wrote about the shameful story of Andy Savage, we received many comments asking us why we were accusatory, why we were setting ourselves up as the sin police, why we were attacking a good man. Not a one of those who spoke to defend Andy Savage showed concern for the victim of his abuse. That tends to be how it goes. Question the story. Blame the accuser. Defend the leader.
Rachael stood up for the victims of Larry Nassar. She advocated for the victims of the leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries, even though her own church leaders turned their guns against her. In this, she is a model for all of us. The church absolutely must become a place of refuge and safety for the abused and not just for the abusers!
How many bitter enemies of the church have been created by the leadership of the church telling them to keep their pain quiet and not rock the boat, by believing their victimizers instead of them? This must stop.
We live in a world filled with victims of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the church is not immune to that. Rachael Denhollander is a wonderful example of how we can respond – upholding the holiness of God, responding with grace and not bitterness, and advocating for the victim.
May her tribe increase…and decrease.