Abuse, safeguarding and church discipline

One of my main concerns is to see healthy churches planted into urban contexts. We often talk about the church planting bit but I also try to talk as much as possible about the healthy bit.  When we talk about healthy churches we are thinking both about health in terms of right doctrine/teaching and good culture/practice. This means I’ve written from time to time about the issue of how churches handle abuse. This includes when churches and their leaders or dominant characters become abusive and how churches respond to examples of domestic abuse within their congregation.

The other day I mentioned an historic case that has recently come to light. This was reported by campaigner Julie Roys and concerns an incident at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in California.  Now talking about anything relating to John MacArthur is difficult because he is already a polarising figure within the church.   For many he is already some kind of wolf and for others he is a faithful hero.  This relates to a number of issues during his lengthy ministry.

  • He is associated with Lordship salvation, an emphasis that we don’t first accept Jesus as saviour and later obey him as Lord.  Some have seen this as a form of legalism though many others (and I include myself here) found his teaching on this a refreshing corrective to two tier Christianity.
  • He has been a strong opponent of Charismatic theology and worship. I suspect that his views here would divide many of my friends.
  • Perhaps most significantly, for a long period of time he argued that Jesus only became the Son at the incarnation, that he is not the eternal son.  He insists that he has since revised his view and argues that he always believed in Christ’s eternal deity.  However, this has raised substantial questions about his approach to the Trinity. I personally would argue that you cannot write this off as a minor difference.
  • He hit the news during the pandemic, not just for reopening his church to indoors gatherings against California State regulations but by implying that those who did not take the same position as him were compromised.

So, this particular case risks becoming another way of people going over old battles by proxy.  I am going to attempt to avoid doing that here but please forgive me if personal prejudices do leak out.  I believe that what I’m going to say below should be true and valid and things we would be willing to say when challenging close friends and those we are in full agreement with culturally and theologically.  I also believe that we can identify causes for concern below without jumping to big conclusions about a person’s motives and intent.

For background to the case, you can read the Roys Report.  I would stick to the one article for the time being because there are questions being raised about the narrative being presented. Some people have suggested that Roys is presenting a particularly biased narrative concerning MacArthur and failing to tell the other side of the story because she has it in for him. I will come back to those responses a bit later on.

However, for our purposes now, what matters is the following.

  1. Was Eileen’s husband abusive towards her and his children?
  2. Were the elders at GCC aware of allegations about abuse -whether or not they at that time were able to determine the veracity of the claims or knew the full extent of the abuse?
  3. Had Eileen sought help to protect her family and herself from abuse?
  4. Did the church put Eileen under church discipline?
  5. Did John MacArthur describe the discipline as a means of shaming Eileen?

If the answer to those questions is “Yes” and I would suggest that the evidence available in correspondence, court dispositions and video recordings points to it being so in each case, then I would argue that there was a serious breakdown in terms of the church’s pastoral care of a family and its use of church discipline.

Now treading carefully here I want to suggest a couple of possible reasons why a church could get things so badly wrong in this type of context.

  1. As I mentioned in my previous article, there can be naivety about how an abuse victim will behave and respond. So victims acting our of fear, shame and trauma may not take the steps we would consider rationale in order to protect themselves and gain justice.  Their experience of physical, emotional and/or sexual violence from those who have wielded power and authority over them will affect their relationship with and willingness to trust and talk to others in authority.
  2. Similarly, there can be naivety about how an abuser will behave. That’s why I used Vladimir Putin as an example of how DARVO (Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim Order) is often used by abusers to protect themselves from challenge and inflict further harm on their victims. Sadly it is not unusual for a victim to be told “but they have said exactly the same about you.”
  3. I think there is a misunderstanding of Scripture.  Some have understood passages like Ephesians 5:21ff and 1 Peter 3 to mean that a wife’s submission must require her to suffer abuse.   In Marriage At Work I argued that this was a faulty understanding.  Submission to one another in marriage needs to be understood in the context of submission to others including civil authorities and church leaders and so wives can and should seek protection and redress via those authorities.
  4. I believe that there is some confusion around regarding common grace and the role of civil authorities outside of the church. We’ve seen that, for example in the way that the same quarter of the church reacted to COVID-19 measures, and I wonder if this played a part here too.

So much for what might cause a church to mishandle abuse and discipline, what then of the response when they are challenged after the event. I would hope that where we’ve mishandled things through ignorance and human frailty that the Doctrine of Justification would enable us to honestly and humbly own our failings and be ready to be challenged, to repent, to seek to provide restitution and to learn from our mistakes. 

Sadly, we haven’t seen much of that in response to recent high-profile cases, rather we’ve seen a lot of DARVO behaviours going on.  In this particular case, I’ve witnessed supporters of MacArthur and his church go on the attack against Julie Roys and the original victim, making jokes about them, questioning their motives and using the line I mentioned above that we haven’t heard the other side of the narrative (I’m not sure when we got quite so post-modern). 

What we have seen is that there has been an attempt to distract from the crucial facts and from the needs of a victim and instead to present others as the true victims. Here is a crucial point. If I need to make myself appear the victim and an actual victim of abuse look like the oppressor in order to defend myself then I have a serious problem. 

We should be careful to ensure that what we do in church safeguards victims and brings abusers to justice and repentance.  We should not use church discipline in order to silence people who speak up and we should not use it for the purpose of shaming others.  Rather, the Gospel should be at the heart of how we deal with such matters.

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