What happens when we stress forgiveness over authenticity and confession?
I want to start this morning with the story that got me thinking in this direction, and then propose 7 guidelines for how we, as Christians, handle taking sides when abuse is made public.
Yesterday I was on my feet too much and threw my back out. So after dinner I headed to bed and lay flat on my back and needed something to do. I decided to watch something on Netflix that I knew Keith wouldn’t like, since it was hard to watch something together with me in that position. I found a documentary called “Our Father” about a case I had read about a few years ago–Dr. Don Cline, a fertility doctor in Indiana, had used his own sperm without telling women countless times, and the resulting half-siblings had found each other through DNA testing on ancestry.com.
So far there are 90 half-siblings, but that’s only the ones who have tested. I imagine there are far, far more.
What made it even worse is that not only did Dr. Cline use his own sperm when he told the women it was donor sperm that would only be used two or three times; he substituted his own when a husband’s sperm was available. Many of the half-siblings did not even know that the father’s sperm hadn’t been used until the DNA testing.
And, to top it all off, most of this took place in the early 80s before frozen sperm was used, so you needed “fresh” sperm–like within the last hour. So the doctor would “produce” the sperm in the next room while the woman waited, not knowing what he was doing just down the hallway.
Those are the basic facts (and you can read more about it in the Atlantic story).
What interested me about “Our Father”, though, was the thread of evangelicalism that was woven through the whole documentary.
The doctor had Bible verses cross-stitched all over his rooms, including Jeremiah 1:5:
before you were born I set you apart;
He used that verse to tell the half-siblings, once they discovered each other and discovered what had happened, that it was all okay because God had planned them into existence.
He never apologized. He never took responsibility for what he did. Instead, he portrayed himself as a saviour, someone who actually gave these women babies who wanted them so badly.
The only thing the state could ever charge him with was obstructing justice by lying to authorities.
He was given a suspended sentence and fined $500.
But at his trial so many members of his church submitted character reference letters.
The documentary interviewed one member of the church who stayed anonymous, and while he acknowledged that what Dr. Cline had did was bad, he also said that we knew that Cline was forgiven, and that all of this had already been taken care of by Jesus.
That’s the juxtaposition I couldn’t get over: insistence that Cline was forgiven at the same time as so many were in absolute turmoil over what he had done.
It was classic DARVO (the method abusers use to excuse themselves): They were reversing victim and offender by painting Cline as the victim. He had been forgiven; so now everyone else had to forgive him, and what was wrong with them that they were still harping on this?
And they were portraying Cline as this pillar of the community simply because he was a well-known doctor and was an elder in the church who used to baptize new believers.
Do church people have no discernment?
The logic of his fellow church members went like this: “He was actually doing a service for these women because donor sperm back then was really hard to get (since it had to be collected fresh, right when she was ovulating). Sometimes the donor sperm just wasn’t available, and he didn’t want to disappoint these women. So he used his own.”
Like they were painting him as a selfless hero!
And let’s remember that he did this even when the husband’s sperm was available, fresh, and right there.
By doing this, these church members were spitting in the faces of the victims. They besmirched the name of Christ. As one of the victims, who was Catholic, said, “you don’t get to use the name of my God to justify what you did to me. You don’t get to use God.” Yep.
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My thoughts on what we should do about publicly defending someone who has done something wrong
I would like to propose a new standard that we use before we, as Christians, publicly defend a friend, colleague, or someone that we respect, when they are accused of abuse or wrongdoing of some kind.
1. Always speak to the victims too
Before you say anything publicly, talk to the other side. So often we only talk to the perpetrator, and they can defend themselves in all kinds of ways and spin the story. But you won’t know the whole story until you also talk to the victims.
2. Make sure that the perpetrator has done everything they can to reconcile, including apologizing and making restitution
If the perpetrator has not apologized to the victims, and if they have done nothing to make restitution, then they aren’t to be defended yet. Think of Zacchaeus, whom Jesus brought back into the fold in Luke 19:1-10. He was a tax collector who had stolen a lot from his neighbors. When he encountered Jesus and was changed, he gave away half of what he had to the poor, and paid back what he stole 4 times over. That’s called restitution.
3. Make sure the perpetrator has been up front and honest.
If there has been a pattern of truth coming out in drips and drabs–like he admits a bit of something, but only a bit, until something else comes out, and then he admits a bit more–then you cannot assume that the truth is actually out.
In Dr. Cline’s case, he first said that there weren’t more than 10 children, then more than 20, then more than 50. There are 90 at the current count, but it’s likely much, much more.
Unless the perpetrator has confessed to MORE than what can be proven, it’s unlikely the perpetrator has actually owned up to everything he or she did, because usually more was done than was actually discovered.
4. Make the victims’ well-being the focus
When we know someone, we naturally worry about them and want them to be okay. We know their family, and we see the toll that this coming out in the open is having on them.
Often the victims just look like an angry mob trying to cancel someone. They may have substance abuse issues, or they may not be as upper middle class as the perpetrator. But the thing is often these substance abuse issues and problems stem from being victimized in the first place. And often victims are chosen because they don’t have the same support systems.
No matter how much you care about the perpetrator, the well-being of the victim should be the main consideration.
5. Do not advocate for leniency unless the victims want it
Maybe what the victims really need is justice. And if the perpetrator were really repentant and understood what they did, they would be willing to accept the consequences of their actions.
The victims should guide what punishment or consequences are given, and we should not ask for less. And that means encouraging civil authorities to be involved when appropriate! Do not treat abuse like internal matters, or say that the church should keep things inside. No, when civil laws have been broken, then civil authorities should be involved and we should all cooperate.
6. Care for the spiritual needs of the perpetrator
Your focus for the perpetrator should not be to get them off the hook, but instead to shepherd them towards a deeper relationship with God, which will mean repentance and restitution, and acceptance of justice. You do not have to make life easy for them, but you can still be with them to talk, to pray, to guide. That accountability may ultimately mean, however, that they are expelled from a congregation if they fail to own up to what they did. And be aware that abusers often say all the right words without doing any real change. If they aren’t owning up to it, don’t keep meeting with them.
And you can help their family deal with this too, with practical help if necessary (remembering that supporting the victims is still the #1 focus).
7. Remember that trust is rebuilt over time.
Finally, when someone has abused their power in some way, and restoration looks like it could be in the cards (it often will never be!), remember that we need one more thing first: time. Before restoration is even considered, all six of the previous points have to have been met: the abuser has to admit everything they did willingly, and tried to make restitution in whatever way possible; the victim has to steer the process and must be supported. But even then we still must give this time.
Especially with spousal abuse, you don’t know if someone has changed just overnight. If they have really repented, they’ll be willing to wait to show it in their character. We’re supposed to be wise as serpents. It’s okay to wait and see.
And remember too that restoration doesn’t mean they necessarily get back what they had before. Some sins disqualify you from church leadership forever. Some sins may mean the marriage should never, ever be restored. We need wisdom here!
I am so sick of hearing stories where the church stands up for the abuser.
I’ll see stories of people who have done horrendous things, and the church shows up in the courtroom to support the perpetrator, and no one is there to support the victim. Doug Wilson is famous for doing this for pedophiles in the church he runs in Moscow, idaho, but there are countless stories of it. Julie Roys recently wrote about how John MacArthur and his church supported a pedophile, even after he was convicted, and excommunicated the pedophile’s wife instead.
The Together for the Gospel conference was famous for supporting pastor C.J.Mahaney, even after he was credibly accused of covering up child sexual abuse, and ignored the victims.
And the SBC has allowed those who abuse to stay in the pulpit, while they’ve for decades refused to be held accountable for abuse.
How about next time abuse happens, the church shows up at the courtroom for the victims, too? How about the victim be the focus?
If we want to look like Jesus, that’s what we’ll do. Because otherwise we just look like monsters.
Dr. Cline’s church looked even worse to me than Dr. Cline. There will always be evil narcissists. There will always be sociopaths. But the church doesn’t have to support them.
This shouldn’t be that hard.
What do you think? Have you seen a church support the abuser, or cover up abuse, rather than support the victim? How can we change the focus? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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