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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.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

22 thoughts on “When Repentance Isn’t

  1. I read the “quasi” apologies of Gothard and Phillips. Didn’t bother with Driscoll’s as it was just too long. I thought Phillips’ apology looked pretty genuine and think you’re being unfair calling it quasi. Unless you mean that his apology can only be real if he also disavows his complimentarian views.


    • Hey Mark, thanks for commenting. I hope you are right about Gothard. I guess my reaction, right or wrong, was that the delta between what he was repenting over and what the girls/women who are suing him charge him with is pretty huge. If King David sets the example for us, then we look deeper than the sin we are confronted with to root causes, for example. That said, I appreciate you pointing out that Gothard’s stance might very well be genuine and while maintaining good boundaries, we ought to extend the assumption of repentance and forgiveness towards him. As to his complementarian views, I don’t think one has to disavow them — I can hope for that because I think that theology is complicit in his sins towards women, but not causal.


      • Karen, your response to mark seems to refer to Gothard’s apology as the one that Mark liked. However, Mark approved of the Phillips’ apology, which was in my view grossly deficient. This is especially the case since he has also threatened to sue several of his friends who confronted him about his sins before he confessed, and since his and his attorney’s responses to the recent lawsuit by the female victim of his abuse have deneid some things that he supposedly confessed in his apology.


        • raswhiting, you are absolutely correct and I thank you for pointing that out! I must have been having a brain freeze! (or more likely trying to read blog comments on my iPhone while waiting for school to get out!). I agree with you about Phillip’s apology. To bring my comment to Mark and this one together, I suspect that Phillips’ apology from his point of view is genuine but the fact that it so widely misses the reality of what apparently happened is what gets to me. His apology makes it sound like it was a mutual “affair” between him and his children’s nanny, so that the person he really needs to apologize to is his wife and children and maybe his ministry because he let them down. But his victims’ contention is that he groomed her from a young age to function in a sexually-submissive relationship with him. If this is true, the abuse here is egregious — sexual and spiritual at the very least) and in no way is addressed by Phillips’ statement. Plus he seems determined to play the “I’m in legal proceedings” card which tends to protect the perpetrator (the case of Al Mohler and SGM comes to mind here) as Christians pile on to give their support in the “absence of information.” So to Mark, I am sorry I misread your comment … my bad! Given that you saw something genuine in Phillips’ comments, perhaps you’d like to weigh in?


  2. I had one of those types of apologies given to me after the abuse I’d suffered. I know, because when I tested the strength of that apology it crumbled into nothing more than further abuse. http://livingliminal.blogspot.com/2014/04/magic-words-syndrome.html


    • Thanks so much for stopping by livingliminal. I read the post you attached. Uggh. I’m so sorry this was your experience. I have read and heard so many stories of spiritual abuse and the “magic words” that are supposed to change everything (as if!) and just how arduous it is to recover from this type of abuse. I experienced some of this — not nearly as egregiously as so many others — but I certainly understand and can empathize with the basic cadence of abuse and recovery. Thank you so much for writing and for posting your story here for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Karen, I couldn’t agree more. You have hit the nail right on the head, and unfortunately, the end of the story is not yet told. When people don’t know they are abusing, they see anything relating to that as ‘issues’ that need to be worked out, rather than something in the depths of their personhood that must change.

    And I agree totally about the evidence. Bible says worldly sorry leads to death but Godly sorrow is actual repentance and life comes out of that. When people have done the wrong thing, you really know they’ve grasped it when they say the whole of it, without pretense or equivocating. I don’t think any of the above have come clean yet, but God has His ways…


    • Thanks so much for this Bev … you are absolutely right about the delta between “issues” and “personhood.” I love that you brought into the discussion 2 Cor 7, that repentance leads to salvation. Indeed it does! Not only “eternal life” as we tend to think about it, but the salvation that starts in the here and now because of Jesus, salvation from the power of sin and darkness, and so we are truly free to live honest lives, even to the point of publicly confessing our sin, that bless and serve others.


  4. Tim, What a good post. So sad but true — Power always corrupts if not bathed in prayer and accountability and humility. Power is nothing to grab hold of without realizing it will corrupt anyone. Thank you for this post. Thank you for your love for women too in the church. I love my church and I love many things about it. But I belong to a denomination that says women can’t be pastors. I don’t agree but I do know I am where God wants me to be. BUT, I have told my youngest daughter, who speaks boldly about Jesus now at the age of 11, that she will most likely have to join a different denomination to preach in the church if God so leads. And that is fine with me. I’ll be her biggest and loudest supporter! Thank you Tim!


    • Hi Jane, I am in the same situation as you (basically). I love my church too; we have a part-time female pastor for women’s ministry and a full-time female pastor for children’s ministry, and both women are clearly pastors, but neither teaches from the pulpit nor executes the same leadership as our male “lead” pastors do. Our elder board is all male as well and the stated interpretation of Scripture is complementarian. I feel like I’m in the place God wants me too, but I feel so out of place and the dissonance is getting worse as the months tick by. AND I have daughters too, 11 and 9, who truly cannot fathom a God who values men above women, so I wonder how long before they become frustrated and disheartened at the intrinsic discrimination at our church and want no part of it 😦


      • I guess Karen we just have to pray and do what God wants us to do AND keep teaching our sons and daughters men and women are equal in God’s eyes and should be in ours. There is “neither male nor female” in Christ. Not sure why people dont’ get that!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The phrase “there is neither male nor female” used by the Apostle Paul is referring to “unity” in the Body of Christ…not “sameness.” You’re not suggesting that Christians somehow “lose” their maleness or femaleness when they become a believer are you? Jews didn’t “lose” their Jewishness, Gentiles didn’t “lose” their national identity. But these “differences” were not to bring dis-unity into the Body of Christ. “United” is a more accurate term to use with this verse than “equal.” Think “oneness without sameness.”
          See: http://www.amazon.com/Equality-Christ-Galatians-Gender-Dispute/dp/1581341032


          • Hey Paul, I can’t speak directly for Jane but for myself I can say no, I am not suggesting that Christians lose their maleness or femaleness when they become believers (or at anytime). The entire point of the Epistles emphasizing unity is because the early church was a hodgepodge of people who until then did not associate — Jew & Greek, male & female, slave & master. Their gender and socioeconomic position came with rigid rules about who went where, who associated with whom, etc. So Paul preaches unity in Christ, unity in the Kingdom of God as Jesus describes it — the fact he does so emphasizes that we are NOT all the same. We, the Church, are diverse.

            I think this is one reason why it is so essential that we challenge the complementarian model: we need each other. Diversity strengthens the Body as we learn to make room for each other.

            I keep hearing people say that egalitarians think men and women are the same. No egalitarian ever says that. Think “unity, not hierarchy.”

            Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you came over Jane. I can’t take any credit for this great post; it’s all Karen all the way!


  5. Reblogged this on Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another and commented:
    The Bible tells us that those who teach are held to a higher standard. It’s not a standard of perfection, but it is one of responsibility. And when those in leadership stumble, the church should help them just as it should help any other member of the body. The responsibility of leadership is not extinguished, though. Stumbling should lead to repentance and sincere efforts to admit wrong and seek forgiveness. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, as my friend Karen points out in this post, and it hurts people.


  6. Each of those men present themselves as so “manly” (whatever that means), yet their ability to take responsibility is completely undeveloped. I think you’re on to something with the problem perhaps being reflected in the fact that none of them have a relationship with someone on a level they consider equal to their own. Of course, that would be easier for them to achieve if they saw that their level is supposed to be that of a servant, not of a leader. (And don’t get me started on the heresy of “servant-leadership”. I have a whole blog post on that scheduled for next week.)

    I am so glad to have someone who calls me on things and helps me see how things are viewed at a distance further than the tip of my own nose. My wife tells me what’s what, and that is a blessing from God.



  7. Squidly, you are probably the only reader I have who gets that comment 🙂 Its why I adore you.


  8. Flaccid apologia….


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