America’s Evangelical Leaders Could Learn a Lot From Rachael Denhollander

Our congregations would benefit from future pastors who’ve been influenced by women like Rachael Denhollander.
Rachael Denhollander
 (WXYZ-TV Detroit)

If you’d like to see a clear representation of the Gospel of Christ, then I humbly suggest you do not look to the leaders of American evangelical Christianity, to men like Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr., or Franklin Graham. These men have sold their credibility and authority, not to mention their witness, as a result of their shameless pandering to Donald Trump, and their willingness to explain away all of his gross and obvious moral failings.

Instead, let me point you to Rachael Denhollander.

Denhollander was the first survivor to speak publicly about her experiences with Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics team doctor who was sentenced up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing numerous girls and young women under his care. Over a hundred women, including some of the biggest names in American gymnastics — Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman — have accused Nassar of molesting them.

During Nassar’s trial, more than 150 women came forward to make statements concerning the myriad ways his abuse had affected their lives. Denhollander gave the final statement (read it here) before Judge Rosemarie Aquilina handed down her sentence. To call Denhollander’s testimony powerful would be an understatement.

Denhollander details how Nassar abused her for nearly a year and manipulated her and her family. She explains how the system failed her, silenced other survivors, and defended — indeed protected — Nassar. She talks about how Nassar’s abuse affected her marriage, her family, and even her parenting. She outlines the cost and sacrifice required to bring him to justice. And finally, she demands justice for all of the women who survived Nassar’s abuse.

Her statement is heart-wrenching, and I can only imagine the bravery required for Denhollander, as well as all of the other women, to reveal such horrifying details in public. (For what it’s worth, I absolutely agree with Anthony Bradley that ESPN should give Denhollander the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.)

But then Denhollander addresses Nassar directly, and the moral and spiritual clarity in her words is undeniable.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

[T]he Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

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.

Every time I read these words, I get emotional. Not only because of Denhollander’s courage, but because her words contain such a powerful and beautiful distillation of the truth that exists at the very core of Christianity. The truth that we are all sinners, and even if we think of ourselves as good people compared to a monster like Nassar, we still deserve God’s wrath. That is what God’s justice requires.

And yet, God’s mercy is also there for those who are truly repentant. Which means that there’s hope. As Denhollander puts it, the Gospel of Christ “extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.” The fact that it does so gives us the power to forgive horrible wrongs committed against us without ever downplaying or dismissing them, which is exactly what Denhollander has done.

In contrast, consider the message many contemporary evangelical leaders have sent while defending Donald Trump’s moral indecency.

When Family Research Council president Tony Perkins was asked about the president’s alleged extramarital affair with a porn star — a story that seemed to go away only to come roaring back in recent days — he replied that Trump has been given a “mulligan” and a “do-over” by evangelical Christians because he’s been so supportive of causes that matter to them. As Perkins puts it, “From a policy standpoint, [Trump] has delivered more than any other president in my lifetime.” Policy achievements, apparently, cover a multitude of sins.

Meanwhile, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. talks about evangelicals’ willingness to forgive Trump for his moral failings:

He’s not the same person now that he was back then. I believe he’s changed. And Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart it’s the same as committing adultery… You’re just as bad as the person who has [cheated], and that’s why our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, that we’re all sinners, that we all need Christ’s forgiveness and that’s why evangelicals are so quick to forgive Donald Trump when he asks for forgiveness for things that happened 10, 15 years ago.

Technically and theologically, much of what Falwell says is true, but he’s playing a moral equivalence game here that distracts from the issue at hand. In other words, as Cornelius Plantinga explains in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, all sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad: “The badness or seriousness of sin depends to some degree on the amount and kind of damage it inflicts, including damage to the sinner, and to some degree on the personal investment and motive of the sinner.” Falwell’s equivocation overlooks the real harm that Trump has done to actual human beings, starting with his own family.

But Falwell’s statements concerning forgiveness also overlooks another very important point: Trump rarely apologizes or asks for forgiveness for the wrong that he’s done.

Apologizing just isn’t Trump’s thing, as he explained back in 2015: “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.” But even on those rare occasions when he does apologize, it’s hard to sense any genuine repentance. For example, his apology for the Access Hollywood tape — which, in another, more civilized age, would’ve meant the end of his presidential campaign — was as much an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton as any admission of wrongdoing on his part. More likely, it was an attempt to diminish his own failings by comparing himself to the Clintons and their misdeeds.

In light of Trump’s own words and behavior, it’s difficult to take Falwell et al.’s talk of sin and forgiveness seriously. Their language certainly sounds Gospel-ish and includes some of the right terminology, but it’s also clear that their defense of Trump is politically, not theologically, minded. (As usual, Alan Noble makes some good observations here.) There’s no sense that they’re holding Trump accountable in any real, substantive way. Not in the way you’d hope or expect from Christian university leaders and the like, at any rate.

Furthermore, it’s hard to take their words about forgiveness seriously when you know they wouldn’t extend similar “grace” to other, less favored politicians. Is it at all surprising that evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, who spoke so forcefully against Clinton’s extramarital dalliances, have been pretty quiet concerning Trump’s? Is it at all surprising that character counts as long as the character in question is, say, a Democrat’s, and not somebody who happens to be pushing through certain preferred policies?

If it is surprising, then you haven’t been paying attention.

I don’t want to make this all about politics, at the very least because I don’t want to reduce or take away from Denhollander’s bravery. And yet, the disparity is so striking.

On the one hand, we have a woman who was violated in unspeakable ways, and has put everything on the line in the pursuit of justice for herself and so many others. On the other, we have spiritual leaders who enjoy unparalleled privilege and access to the world’s most powerful man. The former communicates concepts like sin, forgiveness, guilt, and accountability with moral clarity and righteous power that the latter trip over themselves to muster, even with all of their political might. The former speaks out forcefully against sexual sin, asking for both justice and mercy. The latter explain away sexual sin through hand-waving, moral relativism, and political maneuvering.

Some might respond to my lament by pointing out that Hillary Clinton is also guilty of defending sexual abusers. But I’m more bothered by the words of supposed Christian leaders who claim a calling to promote the Gospel of Christ than I am by the words of politicians, and especially politicians who don’t actually hold any office at this point. Clinton should be held to account for any negligence, but the Bible makes it clear that Falwell and other evangelical leaders hold a greater responsibility and therefore, face a greater accountability.

This issue extends beyond American politics and into American pulpits. On a recent edition of the “Desiring God” podcast, John Piper was asked whether women professors should be allowed at seminaries. Piper answered thusly: “If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded?”

In other words, how can women who aren’t allowed to be pastors (based on Piper’s interpretation of the Bible) therefore be allowed to teach men who will become pastors?

I’m not going to dive into the complexities of Biblical gender perspectives or stake out a complementarian or egalitarian position, but Piper’s response does make me wonder.

In light of the many sexual assault allegations and revelations that have appeared in recent months (e.g., Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Larry Nassar, and yes, Donald Trump) and the Church’s tone-deafness in response to sexual assault (e.g., the recent Andy Savage debacle), maybe our congregations would benefit from future pastors who’ve been influenced and taught by women like Rachael Denhollander who bravely speak out against sexual abuse and assault rather than men like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham who have proven time and again that they’re willing to turn a blind eye to gross sin for political gain.

That’s a largely emotional statement, and I’m no doubt sidestepping and oversimplifying numerous issues. However, I’m sick of how our porn-addled society views women. I’m equally disgusted by the terrible job that the Church has done to condemn such abuses, by how often it fails to be a safe space for abuse survivors, and by how much damage it does by supporting and promoting damaging views of sex and gender.

The behavior of Falwell, Graham, and their ilk is part of a larger symptom in our culture and our churches, and it must be addressed with the same moral and Gospel clarity with which Rachael Denhollander confronted her abuser.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .