My private email and comments both here and other places have repeatedly brought up the issue of the victim’s sin. In this post I would like to suggest some thoughts that I think are biblically sound and will clarify why I think the victim’s sin, particularly in this case, is a moot point.
Clear through all the emotionalism and remember that the conflagration is about the public handling of an adult/child relationship that ended up in a pregnancy. The words that are bandied about are “church discipline” and “public confession.” It is fair to analyze the situation and try to determine where, if ever, there has been an unbiblical mindset about public sin.
Here is the obvious problem. The sin has been made public by God. Pregnancy is the result. Pregnancy is public. Out of fairness to Chuck Phelps we need to remember this obvious fact. At this point, it is no longer an issue of keeping things quiet among as few people as possible. I have experienced having to deal with an illegitimate pregnancy that demands some kind of acknowledgement of the situation or leadership could appear to be ignoring and covering up a matter of immorality. It’s a damned-if-you-do-dammed-if-you-don’t scenario sometimes. I am not among the accusers who think that Chuck Phelps was deliberately covering it up. I think he’s the product of a sub-culture and so vainglorious that he can hardly conceive of the possibility of having failed.
I do not know him or the church well enough to assert that they were absolutely not covering up sin. However, if he was covering up immorality (or so inclined) he would not have ordered up a pregnancy and he certainly could have been a lot more discreet about placing both the victim and the perpetrator on the platform in the same evening. I imagine it was a catastrophic attempt to combine discretion and openness at the same time. I speak as a fool here because obviously he was put in a place where he had to react to what was being handed to him, but some people pretend as if he was part of a conspiracy. Pregnancy is public. He had to react.
However, I agree with the angry critics because it was the victim, not the perpetrator, that got the short end of the stick and I think it is right to say that she was wrongly treated because of a systemic abuse of victims in fundamentalist circles. I insist on the word “systemic” because I do not think that IFB people consciously scheme about how to make people suffer. They are rightly offended by the rants of some of the angry “survivors” because they know themselves to be sincere, loving, and earnest in their desire to follow the way of Christ. While it is granted that there are some abusive monsters in the sub-culture and that there has not been a conscientious and honest effort by the IFB circles to purge them out, all of them pleading the “autonomy of the local church” to justify their silence, I disagree with the extremely angry survivors that every IFB is a perverted child abuser (or so they imply). But I do agree that abuse is systemic in the culture of IFB. It is systemic because of the general IFB understanding of church, discipline, sin, authority, and the Bible. Thus, I get both sides angry at me.
The pregnancy was obviously the result of sin. The most obvious sin is the sin of an adulterous adult taking advantage of weak minor who obviously had a troubled past. What is not so obvious is whether the victim was complicit or not. Sadly, it seems that many people think that this must be determined or at least admitted before any proper judgment can be made. This is why there is still so much hurt and confusion to this very day and why many more victims will continue to remain in painful silence.
I would suggest that this confusion is the result of fundamental misconceptions that most churches (not just IFB) embrace concerning sin and church discipline and the need for “going public”.
If you think of sin as things that you do or don’t do, you will trick yourself into thinking that you can adjudicate guilt.
IFB, particularly, tend to think of sins, not sin. They tend to think of sin in terms of violations and transgressions or the breaking of rules. Legalistically, they tend to believe that certain sins deserve certain strokes and, as is typical for legalists, buy into the eye-for-an-eye adjudication of faults and sins. Therefore, many church people agonize over whether it is fair to pin 93% of the blame on the adult man when the underaged girl may be actually 28% culpable. They, therefore, struggle to find a way to deal with the sin in a way that “sentences” fairly. They truly try to adjudicate guilt.
What outsiders do not fully understand about the IFB culture is that it is a culture of sentencing. Judges sentence. Judges pronounce what kind of treatment a convicted person is to receive. The girl who wears pants is judged worldly and sentenced to shunning. More gracious persons will not actually shun her, but in their minds will judge themselves to be superior and less worldly. Judges make both negative and positive pronouncements. The IFB judge often judges himself, his church, and his culture to be above reproach and they have such a flawed understanding of sin and the gospel that the admission of sin is a devastating and terrifying thing to avoid. Witness the dogged determination to refuse any hint of error by some. And so the sentencing continues. . . The person who goes to the movie is judged worldly and sentenced to exclusion from service in the church. The pastor who attends the TGC conference is judged “new evangelical” and sentenced to separation. And so it goes.
Granted, there are many levels and varieties of the judging/sentencing, but it is part and parcel of the IFB culture.
The reason why we are told not to judge is precisely because it puts us in the impossible situation of determining an appropriate sentence. James is clear:
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
I wish I didn’t have to waste everyone’s time by explaining that “not speak evil” does not mean “never say anything negative about a person.” Even Paul spoke negatively of people and groups. This passage is referring directly to slander, the intentional misrepresentation of the truth about an individual that often results in judging and unfair sentencing from all kinds of people who have made themselves judges. There is only one lawgiver and judge. Former IFB who are screaming maniacally for the resignation of Chuck Phelps, for example, and claiming that every IFB pastor is complicit in abuse are no less judgmental than the IFB they deplore. But IFB are foolish to not get past the extreme anger and look at the reality of its culture. It is a culture of sentencing that also promotes male authoritarianism and therefore is very susceptible to decreeing harsh sentences on weaker victims.
(That was a charitable way of putting it.)
The IFB Culture is shaped by determining the rightness and wrongness of a person or group by externals.
Since their whole culture is shaped by determining the rightness and wrongness of a person on externals, many within the movement find themselves wringing their hands over how to punish fairly. Invariably, they become guilty of a blame-the-victim bias that clouds their judgment. Insofar as a church thinks that it must properly adjudicate a punishment or sentencing with exact justice on its sinning members it will never arrive at justice and actually end up perpetrating injustice. This kind of understanding leads to unbelievably inappropriate questions such as the alleged question to the victim: “Did you enjoy it?”
Parenthetically, while I do not want to go on the word of one person about something that dates back so far on what was or was not said, I will affirm that I believe that such a question could have been asked. This is based upon other stories I have been told by victims who sought counseling. The inappropriateness is obscene, I think, but it is rooted in a sincere attempt at truth-finding. The excessive amount of probing and invasive effort of trying to get to the bottom of a thing combined with an unhealthy confidence in the discerning powers of authority (“I see a red flag” statements) is all deemed necessary because the pie must be cut fairly, the sentencing must be precise. If the man was 99% guilty, but the girl had 1% of inclination to dress immodestly, good judges must not let that 1% go unaddressed.
However, there doesn’t need to be any more truth-finding. And this is why Chuck Phelps and the IFB generally are rightly under so much criticism.
Here’s all we need to know about TA: she’s a sinner. As a youthful sinner she would have been prone to youthful desires: security, attention, friendship, sexual, etc. As a sinner, even a redeemed sinner, she would have days when those desires were strong enough to become idols in her heart. As a sinner she could be deluded and deceived. As a sinner she could lie and misrepresent herself and others. It is complete reasonable to assume the remote possibility that she idolatrously thought a man would give comfort instead of the God of the Bible. It’s just irrelevant.
Her defenders may rage at me for suggesting what is simply a theological fact. Some want to paint all victims as if they were the Virgin Mary, pure as the windblown snow. This is simply untrue and not helpful to constructive dialogue. Where I agree with her defenders, however, is that all these theological facts are moot points when dealing with a criminal abuse because we are not judges, a pastor is not a judge, and the church is not a courtroom. Paul said it best: “It is the LORD who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor. 4:4-6).
So, how does the Lord judge? In this case, it’s so obvious it should not have to be explained to pastors. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul told the Corinthians
For though I am absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing (v.3).
Paul could “already” pronounce both judgment (“he’s guilty”) and sentence (v.4), because he was appealing to a higher authority, the authority being God himself, that had “already” made Himself clear on what He thought about such activity. And, and, and, and, the pagans’ opinion on such activity was also “already” known. I would also suggest that there may have been a civil authority in Corinth that also deemed what the man did as wicked because Paul said, “it is a kind that is not tolerated even among the pagans” (v.1). The Corinthians, however, were arrogant because they were handling (or not handling) the situation as an autonomous church! They acted without regard to the higher law of God and — at the very least — the higher moral standard of the society in which it lived.
In the TA case, the law of the land had “already” judged. End of story. Whether EW was prosecuted or not, whether the police failed or not, whether it was consensual sex or not, the law of the land says that sex between an adult and a minor is heinously wrong and intolerable. There is no need for the church and pastor to decide to what extent a person was or was not guilty, and to what extent their desires were or were not engaged, because the church discipline is not about adjudicating fairness, spiritually or legally.
Chuck Phelps is rightly under scrutiny because it is suggested that he did not react as strongly as he should have in compliance with a law of the land that outlaws something that “even the pagans do not tolerate.” It is noted that he notified the police, etc. However, if the police really were negligent (and I do not have the unfailing belief in the police that some of Phelps’ critics have), it was the pastor’s job to be a good citizen and pursue justice with energy because of higher laws with stricter standards than some local churches.
What is beyond dispute is that an adult man slept with a child. If the law will not live up to its own standard, it is incumbent on citizens to live up to that standard. If a man murders a child in our church and we all know it, we will not allow him in our fellowship when he has not asked for forgiveness for precisely what he and we know he was guilty of. And if the law bumbles in the prosecution of said murderer, we will not shrug our shoulders and embrace him back into our community as if he had done nothing. We may start a former-murderers’ bible study, but we will not allow the family of the victim to perceive from us that said murderer should be accepted in the fellowship without due justice. As Christians we are also citizens and as citizens under God’s servant we do everything we can to promote justice. Therefore, we will beat the doors of justice repeatedly because we know that the murderer is guilty by a higher law, the law of the land.
The Corinthians should have dealt swiftly with their particular immorality. A church that does not convey to its people that it is subordinate to the laws of the land or the higher standard of the pagans and does not use the pagans’ own laws to prosecute offenders is a church that is no longer safe. In the Corinthian church there was no need for discussion, a swift excommunication was sufficient.
Church discipline is two part: a/discipline and b/excommunication. In neither part is it about slicing the pie perfectly and assigning the right portion to each person. It is about making disciples and empowering the church to make one simple sentencing. Yes, the local church is sanctioned to make only one sentencing. The excommunication of a person from a church is a sentence:
Said professing brother is persisting in an activity that is already judged by God to be sin. The church has done all that we as a body can do in the spirit of gentleness (Ga. 6:1) and in compliance to our Builder’s prescription (Mt. 18) and because of his none repentance we are now agreeing to treat him as if he were, in fact, not a believer. We do not know his heart. God has only authorized us to act accordingly in his response to our efforts to restore him.
The sentencing avoids judging the heart. It merely states that the church has done what it can do for biblical fellowship and the sin cannot be covered anymore.
The process of church discipline as given in Matthew 18 is actually about covering sin, not exposing it. Love covers a multitude of sins and Jesus actually gave to the church a means by which they can justly cover sins. If your brother sins against you and you address it and he repents, end of story. If he doesn’t, enlarge the circle. And so on. The sin only gets as public as the person wants it to be by refusing to repent. And 1 Corinthians 5 suggests that it’s more than just the scandalous sex sins that should get the discipline, but greed, etc.
The issue is unrepented sin. Sin that is cherished despite long and patient and increasingly larger exposures may prove a person to be an unbeliever. Excommunication is the formal statement of the church in saying that the person is not behaving, in the church’s estimation, like a believer. But the whole process is a love process to keep the sin covered.
However, there are some sins that cannot be covered up. This would include sins that affect leadership, etc. (I won’t go into all that in depth here), but particularly sins that affect the helpless. God’s servant, the law of the land, is here to punish evildoers (Romans 13) and it is crystal clear what God’s servant (the law of the land) deems as evil. It is therefore the church’s duty to treat the perpetrator as a criminal even if the law is slow about pursuing justice. The church’s autonomy does not give it the right to function toward any of its members in a way that is clearly against the law.
Just because the officers of the law do not prosecute a crime (through inefficiency or negligence) does not mean that we are not accountable. We have a neighborhood watch in our neighborhood. We have no legal power, but we see to it that the law is being obeyed and when it is disobeyed we make the necessary ruckus until the officers and judges enforce the law. In the same way, it is fair to ask whether or not Trinity and Phelps made the necessary “ruckus” for justice. I find it very hard to understand why people cannot at least grasp an understanding of why so many outsiders are scandalized. We may not know all the complicating facts, but cease the belligerent defensiveness that admits no wrongdoing whatsoever and admit that at the very least it appears like the victim suffered more than the perpetrator at the hands of the church.
I believe Tina’s account. But for the sake of illustration, let’s imagine she was a worldly-wise, sultry 15-year-old seductress. (And if you imagine this about Tina, look at her pictures from the time. Hardly.) Let’s say that she seduced EW and was madly in love with him. The issue that the church must decide is not moral culpability before God, but moral responsibility. And God has a servant assigned by Him specifically for that role: government.
The law of the land has already stated who is morally responsible. The adult is responsible. To say that the church needs to wait until he is arraigned, prosecuted, judged, and sentenced is equivalent to watching a murder and saying that it cannot make a judgment call until the legal system has gone through due process. Even though they witnessed it.
So, our hypothetical nice father of four goes to prison and the sultry skank walks. The seductress needs to be “disciplined” through due process that is long and patient, a loving and spiritual training in morals and satisfaction in God, while the criminal gets summarily excommunicated. She may confess her sin immediately and enjoy the covering of her sin, no public humiliation, no name in the paper, no standing before the church. Why? Because even though the minor may dress like a prostitute, it is next to impossible to know her heart and understand her motives. Since they were alone we have no idea if she might have suddenly felt scared and remorseful. We simply cannot and will never know. Pastors of all people should know that the psychology of a child is fragile, vulnerable, and particularly susceptible; especially those who have abuse in their background already. It seems unconscionable that anyone would allow a minor (even if she said she wanted to) to stand before an assembly. Even if she didn’t realize it then, years later she’d suddenly realize how humiliated she had been and how she was acting naively.
The only thing we know with certainty and absolutely is that the adult is morally responsible. Because God’s servant said so. Not the preacher man; the law.
I personally do not believe that every immorality has to be brought before the body. If EW had committed adultery with an adult and had confessed privately and the circle of offense was properly enlightened (spouses, etc.), I don’t think adulterers need to be made public examples and told to publicly confess. Public confessions are not usually necessary, not in the Bible, and usually are demanded only of those who have done particular sins, thereby giving them a permanent scarlet letter. In our own church we have adults who have sinned morally and they have confessed it biblically. The whole congregation does not know because they do not need to know. I do think, however, that even the petty gossip ought to be publicly exposed if he does not repent of his sin even after a long and patient effort to restore him via the process of discipline.
People ask if TA was guilty. My response is that we have every reason to take her at her word. And, assuming that she was guilty, she should have never had to stand before the public. The pregnancy was public and therefore it was the responsibility of the leadership to explain to the congregation the pregnancy and it should have done it with more transparency. Hindsight is 20/20.
They should have honored the morals of the pagans and reacted in such a way that showed that the heinous sin was the adult’s, not the child’s. Instead, a child bore the pregnancy, traveled a different place, experienced placing the baby for adoption, and wore the scarlet letter in her church when she got back, being refused to enter back into the school system. And the perpetrator passed his sin off as adultery and continued life as a member in good standing.
The attempts to sound the depths of the heart of an abused child to find out how much self-love and sin were actually in that immature heart during the time of the alleged crime is to pour salt in the wounds while attempting to do something that only God can do. It is none of our business and it is inappropriate to raise the question as if the answer determines how the thing should have been dealt with.
One does not have to be an expert in human psychology to listen to TA and see her pictures to know that she was not a wily teen seductress. And to attempt to probe her emotional/spiritual state at the time (“purposes of the heart”) is a business that only God is qualified to do. Children are led by adults to their gods. If an evil pervert tricks a child into believing in him as a god of acceptance, safety (because the child is afraid for his/her life), or even pleasure, it is unChristian to stone the child for idolatry.
Is the victim a sinner? Yes. Is she guilty? No. God’s servant has already said who’s guilty. Focus on that and quit asking questions that perpetuate the blame-the-victim ideology.
Will one day the Lord reveal the purposes of every heart? Yes. But that is not our business.
Filed under: ABC 20/20