False Narratives of Christian Leaders Caught in Abuse
By Boz Tchividjian
When the abusive behavior of Christian leaders is uncovered, all too often the immediate response is not an unconditional admission or a genuine expression of authentic repentance. Instead, a common response is a new narrative. A false narrative. A narrative that attempts to paint a picture of the situation without any regard for truth. A narrative designed to protect reputations and preserve future incomes. A narrative designed to keep the leaders in the spotlight and the victims out of the way.
Since many of these leaders tend to be narcissistic, the primary purpose of the false narrative is to enable them to hold onto the spotlight as they crave affirmation and continued relevance in a world that is quick to turn the spotlight elsewhere. Seeking out friendly media interviews is one way that provides opportunities for offending leaders to elaborate and “sell” their new narrative. Social media is also a very effective means to communicate this narrative because it tends to attract those who crave the leader’s attention and who will be quick to “like”, “share”, “comment”, “reply” or “re-tweet” the leader’s narrative. These same followers will often be quick to vilify and attack anyone who questions or criticizes the leader or the narrative.
Though false narratives vary with each offending leader and each situation, three types seem to be common among offending leaders:
Redefine Narrative: Offending leaders are often quick to try and change the narrative from one of abuse to something less offensive and more acceptable to the watching public. One way this is accomplished is to re-defining the abuse with terms such as “mistake”, “misjudgment”, “failure” or “misunderstanding”. Such a redefining is usually coupled with the offending leader publicly expressing sorrow and asking for forgiveness. Do you see what’s happening? The false narrative subtly minimizes the actual abuse, as the offending leader appears to be repentant about a far less serious offense. The hope is that this approach will prompt many to express support for the offending leader as “humble” and “Godly”, while castigating anyone who expresses doubt or who attempts to point out the false narrative.
Shift the Blame Narrative: If the redefine narrative isn’t doing the trick, offending leaders often will take the next step and attempt to begin shifting the blame. We saw an example of this shift the blame narrative two years ago when IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap attempted to blame his sexual contact with an underage female whom he was “counseling” on the fact that he was under a great amount of stress. If that wasn’t bad enough, last year Mr. Schaap filed a court document where he actually blamed the abuse on the “aggressiveness” of the minor victim. Fortunately, the court rejected these new narratives. Unfortunately, many within Schaap’s church embraced them. At the time of his sentencing, the court had received no less than 141 letters from supporters asking the court for leniency.
The shift the blame narrative is not limited to situations involving child abuse. Not too long ago, the world watched as pastor and author Mark Driscoll resigned from his Seattle based church amidst repeated complaints from other pastors and congregation members about his domineering leadership style and ongoing behavior that was verbally, spiritually, and emotionally abusive. When confronted by this disturbing evidence, Driscoll communicated that he had been forced to resign because “a trap had been set”.
False Empathy Narrative: If blaming others doesn’t legitimize the offending leader’s false narrative, empathizing with them sometimes does. Denying the abuse while publicly expressing care for those who alleged the abuse paints the offending leader as loving and kind. The false empathy narrative was clearly illustrated by the public statements released last year by Bill Gothard, the founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after more than thirty women stepped forward to allege that he had engaged in various forms of inappropriate and sexual contact when they had served as IBLP student interns. Though Gothard denies their claims, he focuses much of his statement on expressing admiration for those who have held him “to the standards God requires of me.” In a later statement, Gothard once again denies the allegations while also expressing empathy for the women who reported the complaints. He writes, “However, I do understand in a much deeper way how these young ladies feel and how my insensitivity caused them to feel the way they do.” Though this false narrative can sound genuine and kind, it actually exploits and patronizes victims in a desperate attempt to look good to a watching world.
When it seems as if a false narrative may need help being legitimized, some offending leaders will enlist the help of well-known friends to express support and share the narrative. This was illustrated a few years ago when certain evangelical leaders published statements in support of Sovereign Grace Ministries founder CJ Mahaney after it was uncovered that children in his Maryland church had been sexually abused by church representatives and that some of their parents had been advised against reporting the crimes to law enforcement. More recently, this occurred when well-known Christians stepped forward to excuse the sexual abuse of children by Josh Duggar as “mistakes” and as being “overblown”. The problem with celebrity spokespersons is that they usually have very limited knowledge of the actual truth and often find themselves in self-created awkward positions of having to retract or dismiss their “supportive” statements in order to protect and preserve their own reputations. The tragedy of it all.
The most significant catastrophe in all of this is that false narratives declare to victims that the horrors of their abuse are not nearly as significant as preserving the all important reputation and career of another Christian leader. These individuals find themselves once again exploited and abused by offenders needing to satisfy distorted self-obsessions and who don’t care for anyone made in the image of the God they claim to worship.
False narratives suppress truth, promote darkness, and eviscerate lives. Should they be acceptable in a faith that is centered upon the One who calls Himself truth, light, and the giver of life?
Boz Tchividjian is the founder and executive director of GRACE.
This article was originally published on August 28, 2015 for the Religion News Service (RNS). Used with permission.