When Repentance Isn’t

High profile Christian leaders are dropping like flies these days. Psalm-51-10-web

First went Bill Gothard, founder and leader of the hugely influential Institute in Basic Life Principles. He was accused by more than 30 women of sexual misconduct. You can read the backstory here if you are interested and you can read Gothard’s quasi-apology here, presented (as difficult as this is for me) without comment.

Next up (or down as the case may be) was Doug Phillips, founder and bombastic leader of Vision Forum, a Christian organization that promoted Christian patriarchy, homeschooling, and Quiverfull beliefs. He confessed to a lengthy and cliché-drenched extramarital affair with the oh-so-young nanny and has since been legally charged by her with grooming a minor for sexual abuse, among many other violations of appropriate pastoral and professional conduct. You can read the story here and his (yep) quasi-apology here.

As these stories were unfolding, Mark Driscoll, founder and boorish leader of Mars Hill Church, a mega-church based in Seattle and incorporating 15 additional churches in 5 states, was publicly charged with plagiarism. His accuser was summarily silenced by the evangelical money machine, her job threatened unless she publicly apologize to Driscoll, which she did. Only it turned out he actually had plagiarized, several times over and apparently with impunity, though not one person that I am aware of ever publicly apologized to her for, um, doing her job as a journalist. But I digress, because soon thereafter it was discovered that Driscoll had paid a marketing firm to purchase (possibly with church funds), a large number of copies of his book, Real Marriage, to make sure it got onto the NYT “Best Sellers” list. You can read the plagiarism story here and the Real Marriage marketing story here. Once exposed, Driscoll and clan again made a quasi-apology and tried to move on. Except that shortly thereafter, a number of ex-pastors from the Mars Hill franchise came forward apologizing for serious spiritual abuse of congregants and then pointing to Driscoll as an abuser himself. Again, you can read here about the details and you can also read a copy of Mark Driscoll’s (wait for it) private quasi-apology (leaked to Reddit).

As I have watched these dramas play out over the past few months, I’ve wondered if there is a thread that connects them. Certainly these fellows share a particular view of women — they hold complementarian beliefs wherein women are subordinate to men by virtue of biblical mandate — and it is tempting to wrangle out a causal connection.

But I suspect there is something more fundamental going on here: in a nutshell, power corrupts, no less so in the Church. The problem of course is that in the Christian gospel and in the Church it birthed, there is no such thing as the exercise of power one over another. The gospel is a great equalizer, the “rising tide that levels all boats” as the old saying goes. This is illustrated perhaps nowhere more blatantly and counter-culturally than in the Epistles where Paul takes aim at the Roman household codes (where men ruled authoritatively in their homes, girls were married off by fathers and uncles to secure economic and social bonds with other kin groups and children and slaves were economic assets). In scandalous contradistinction, in the New Covenant brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus, men serve their wives in love and together husband and wife steward their children with compassion, tenderly and for the child’s well-being. Slaves are honored as equal participants in the life of the extended family and community, and the religious privilege of Jew over Gentile yields to extravagant spiritual gifting, given without distinction by the Holy Spirit to everyone, regardless of gender, ethnic heritage, age or social status.

These men — Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll — they all seemingly forgot this and set themselves up in a hierarchy, with rich white men at the top of the heap and (conveniently) themselves at the tippy top. They created organizations where the seconds-in-command were mini-versions of the head honcho, where disagreement was verboten, where the privileged doled out gifts to a favored few, where women were valued only to the degree that they were complicit in their own oppression.

What also strikes me was that in each case, there is no “Eve” for these “Adams.”  Gothard was single and intentionally surrounded himself with young and impressionable (and only the most attractive) girls — they weren’t old enough to be called women. Phillips’ entire marriage was based on the idea that he was the boss and that his wife was not his equal, therefore insulating him from any attempt on her part to play her God-given role as ezer (the Hebrew word in Genesis to describe Woman at her creation; it is smartly translated “a strength corresponding to” and from which the Bible translators managed to conveniently infer “helper” or “helpmeet.” But whatever to that). Driscoll is certifiably sexist and his wife, Grace, while she seems like a delightful person, is a study in subjugation. She barely answers a direct question without first gaining visible approval from her overbearing husband.

I wonder how things might have been different if any one of them had relationships with women (wives, other pastors, friends) that were actually based on equality.  We hear all the time how (male) pastors and leaders in the church need to insulate themselves from female parishioners so as to avoid sexual sin, but I’m going out on a limb here to posit just the opposite.  I wonder, would we see a massive decline in this sort of pastoral sin, if instead of women being subordinate in the church, they were elevated to equal standing? Would we see men discovering all those stereotypes of the femme fatale are really just that — stereotypes — and we all have far more to gain by engaging with each other as partners, as family, than we do by keeping men and women separate and situated on a hierarchical ladder that leaves some in the risky position of having too much power and others in the equally risky position of being excessively vulnerable?

And I keep coming back to those quasi-apologies. Some argue they are carefully crafted for legal protection, but I think there is a more subtle and insidious reason they are so flaccid. When you exist in a hierarchy and you are at the top, it takes an extraordinary shock to the system to see your own privileged position and then see even further the ways in which you use your privilege to subordinate others. I’m thinking the reason we have such weak repentance from Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll is because at some level they still do not really see what they did as wrong. Their intent was beneficent imperialism, you see, and OK, so they might have missed the mark by a wee bit. But abusive? No way. They were just fulfilling their God-given role as Boss … and so the argument goes.

I’m suggesting that leaders who are insulated at the top ranks of a hierarchical system operate with an impunity that only “leaders” have, and this impunity blinds them to their need for repentance.

In the case of Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll, I hope I am wrong, and time will tell.

You know how we will know if these men are really repentant?

You will see Psalm 51 play out in the public square, as modern day Davids stand in their pulpits saying, “Let me tell you the story of how I stole a woman for my own satisfaction, murdered her husband to cover up the deed, and only repented because God, who loves me with an impossible and unrelenting love, sent me a prophet to drive me to my knees.

About karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.