In recent years, the evangelical movement has been experiencing a reckoning when it comes to abuse and church scandals. But for as weary as I am of reading headlines about Christian leaders cultivating cultures of abuse, I’m perhaps even more weary of this two-word defense of these figures: nobody’s perfect.
Due to the work of investigative journalists, painful details of abuse by certain Christian leaders have come to light. For example, shortly after his death in 2020, it was revealed that apologist Ravi Zacharias had engaged in sexually and spiritually abusive behavior against massage therapists for over a decade.
Those who reported on the abuse were attacked for seeking to tear down the legacy of Zacharias’ decades-long ministry. Those who continue their unfettered support of the apologist argue that while he was a flawed man, God still used him to incredible ends.
More recently, the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” chronicled the life of the controversy-addled Seattle megachurch planted by Mark Driscoll. The podcast shone light on an abusive church culture, rife with bullying, misogyny, and spiritual abuse. The church shuttered its doors shortly following Driscoll’s resignation in 2014.
“I made a lot of mistakes…and one of them was going too fast…My character was not caught up with my gifting,” Driscoll said in 2015. He now pastors a large church in Scottsdale, AZ.
Hillsong Church’s global senior pastor Brian Houston recently resigned after it was revealed that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior toward two separate women, one of whom was a Hillsong employee who resigned because of Houston’s behavior but later returned after being unable to find work. Hillsong Church has also been accused of covering up sexual misconduct and abuse, as well as cultivating a toxic leadership culture.
In an email to Hillsong Church members following his resignation, Houston described himself as “imperfect and flawed, but genuinely passionate about God, people, calling and life.” Houston went on to write, “I am determined that my mistakes will not define me.”
In each of these instances, actions that cannot be described as anything other than abusive are referred to by softened language of “mistakes” and “flaws.” While it’s understandable for public figures caught in a web of scandal to use such language in an attempt to salvage reputation, it makes no sense for the rest of us to join in with them in doing so.
Here are at least three reasons why nobody’s perfect is a poor response to scandals and stories of abuse in the church.
1. God Is Not Glib About Abuse.
Because of the stature and influence of certain Christian leaders, many have been tempted to downplay the severity of their offenses, emphasize forgiveness from victims and witnesses, and quell controversy.
This is not how God responds to abuse—even when it comes from someone who is gifted and anointed. When King David forced himself upon Bathsheba and killed her husband Uriah to cover it up after he discovered she was pregnant, these are the words that the prophet Nathan delivered to David, directly from God.
Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife…Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun. (2 Samuel 12:9-12)
To be sure, there’s a thick line between “not being perfect” and “perpetrating outright abuse,” and David fell on the wrong side of it.
As a result, the latter part of David’s life was plagued by conflict, violence, pain, and death. Despite the fact that God had used David mightily in the past, and while he never revoked the promises he made to David, God did not stop David from experiencing the devastation his actions wrought. His life was never the same, and that was the just judgment of God.
God is not glib about abuse. Neither should we be. To do so sears our consciences and trains us to minimize or accept heinous acts, so long as we have a fondness for the person who committed them. Nobody’s perfect. But not everyone is an abuser.
This isn’t to say that we ought to put ourselves in the place of God by exacting judgment upon these leaders beyond ensuring their removal from positions for which they are no longer qualified and are a danger of further harm to others. But it is to say that we should consider their abuses with the same measure of sobriety as God does, even where it concerns his most favored servants.
2. An Unequivocal Denunciation of Abuse Does Not Make Us Guilty by Association.
Often bound up in our unwillingness to denounce abuse and scandal where our favorite Christian leaders are involved is a deep sense of shame. And that’s because, prior to the shocking revelations of what was happening behind closed doors, we admired these people. We learned from them. We may have listened to their teaching and been impacted in ways that deeply shaped the trajectory of our spiritual lives.
And if we were wrong about them, what else were we wrong about? How could they preach things that were so helpful to us while, at the same time, they were doing things that were so harmful to others? You may have a gnawing anxiety: if these allegations are true and as serious as we fear, have you somehow become culpable in their wrongdoing?
For some of us who were close to these leaders, we may actually hold some responsibility for not doing enough to stand against their abuse. There’s grace for that.
Or, maybe you were close to the situation and are experiencing a false sense of guilt, because there actually wasn’t anything you could have done to prevent it. There’s a lot to work out with Jesus and your therapist there. And there’s grace for that too.
For others, we didn’t even know these leaders personally, could not have known what was happening behind closed doors, and are not at all responsible for anything they did. But because we see ourselves as having been even tangentially associated with them, our sense of self-preservation tempts us to downplay or deny what they’ve done. No one wants egg on their face.
We need the courage to admit that we were wrong. We were fooled. We didn’t know. But we do now.
God can and does use broken vessels. But when we see that a vessel has cracks and fissures so extensive that it lacks the ability to hold water, prudence tells us that we should reconsider how much we rely on it.
3. Grace and Justice Are Not Opposed to One Another.
In these conversations, themes of grace and forgiveness often loom large. As the chief virtues of the faith, it’s fitting that they would.
Nevertheless, whenever language of grace is employed to stop our pursuit of truth and justice, we have misunderstood what grace actually is. Grace and justice are not opposed to one another.
Exposing the truth about what victimizers have done and taking appropriate action in response to it is a grace to the abused. Listening to and valuing the voices of survivors restores some of what was taken from them: their dignity, their agency, their valuable contributions to the community of believers.
In order for the abused to experience grace, abusers need to experience justice.
This isn’t to suggest that there is no grace available for those who have perpetrated abuse or built organizational cultures that tolerate it. In the poignant if not uncomfortable words of pastor and author Albert Tate, “Jesus came for both the oppressor and the oppressed.”
However, there is no grace in denying or minimizing the impact of church scandals and leadership abuses. Jesus tells us that keeping harsh realities in the dark is the work of evildoers.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
Whoever does what is true does not fear the light. Some wrongly believe that to be vocally opposed to systemic injustices taking place within the church is tantamount to being opposed to the church itself. But nothing could be further from the truth.
None of this is easy. In fact, it’s all incredibly painful. But in an attempt to minimize our own pain, let us not become guilty of failing to tend to the pain of the abused and mistreated. In our denials, we only deepen their wounds.
Let us take our example from Jesus, who for our sake stepped into the depths of pain that we might be made whole.