Tonight Elizabeth Vargas from 20/20 will air an exposé of Independent Fundamental Baptist churches . From what little I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like she understands the word “independent,” but nonetheless I’m inclined to think that there is a systemic inclination to abuse and cover-up in these circles because of the unbiblical views of authority and autonomy in what is clearly a movement (or, in sociological terms, a “collective”) called Independent Fundamentalists. I am not exactly sure what to expect from Vargas, but having cut my teeth in the exact circles some of the exposed churches are from (and actually having been in and knowing people quite well who were in them), I can expect a circling of the wagons, we v. them isolation, and victim rhetoric as if they are being targeted by the bad, liberal media. Chuck Phelps will be deemed by some as a martyr and many will be more irate at the victims than at the atrocious malady of abuse that finds fertile ground in the sub-culture of fundamentalism.
But this exposure is not about being a Christ-follower. It is about — in the most charitable of analyses — a mishandled situation involving a child who was raped and publicly humiliated. At the very least, Phelps’ et. al. clumsy leadership is on display. And that by itself is fair, particularly because when leaders are that clumsy, people get hurt. Badly. And teachers, the Bible says, get the stricter judgment (James 3:1).
But, supposing Vargas is unfair? What if she drops the word “alleged” and flatly accuses all IFB across the board of abuse? What if she presents IFB pastors across the board as if they are all alike rapists? Some will say it’s a form of suffering.
Fine. It will be suffering. And so it should be. But it’s not suffering for what is right.
Peter said it plainly: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:14-15). The word “meddler” (ἀλλοτριεπίσκοπος) can be translated in various ways, but one correct understanding of it is “infringing on the rights of others.” Bumbling something this serious is, at best, meddling. Everybody watching should start considering the lives of children and victims of abuse, their rights, with extreme caution and reverence. The “suffering” happening tonight is because leaders bumbled. And consequently meddled.
Make no mistake about it. Humans are rarely just. Something may be unjust and unfair. In fact, the men and churches involved may have to deal with some suffering. But it won’t be because they did good. It will be because they screwed up and promoted a system that makes victims, not offering meaningful and lasting healing to helpless children abused by sexual predators. They are not making news because they lived a quiet and peaceable life in Christ Jesus. They’re making news because they hurt children. Whether they were sincere or not is irrelevant. Whether they were conniving politicians conspiring to cover-up sin or bumbling klutzes who do not know how to think outside of the framework of their myopic groupthink, it does not matter. The suffering of public exposure does not make them martyrs. It makes them chastised saints.
And if they are chastised saints, it means that no saint ultimately escapes the pain of it. There are some graceless victims, I’m sure, who may feel that points are being scored against the “IFB cult.” True enough. But, ironically, they themselves become sectarian if they think that licks can be made on IFB people of God and not affect them. We’re all one body. In some sense, we’re all being chastised. Chastised saints, indeed. But there will be no martyrs tonight unless its the victims themselves who never signed up to be sexually assaulted in the first place.
Know the difference. And pray for all involved.