In our better moments of spiritual self-awareness, we Christians are forced to acknowledge our capacity for actions and ideas that shatter an individual and collective “witness” as followers of Jesus. It’s been like that from the start. Judas Iscariot betrayed him with a kiss. After declaring absolute loyalty, Simon Peter denied Jesus three times: “I never knew the man.” The brothers James and John, perhaps anticipating the Prosperity Gospel, demanded “the best seats” in the coming kingdom. In every era of its history, certain Christian individuals and institutions have compelled an “orthodoxy” from others they refused to require of themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that kind of gospel cheap grace.
In The Cost of Discipleship (1937), Bonhoeffer called us all to account, warning:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace. . . . Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, ipso facto, a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God (emphasis mine).
I returned to Bonhoeffer’s admonition after reading a heartrending series of articles recently published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram regarding years of sexual abuse perpetrated by various “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist” ministers, individuals often protected and “moved on” by their pastoral supervisors or church constituencies.
“Underneath it all is a powerful emphasis on ministerial authority, with pastor-figures as ‘God’s anointed’ whose leadership is not to be questioned.”
After months of research, a group of Star-Telegram investigative reporters documented “at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions” based in 40 states and Canada. Their study suggests that some 168 “church leaders” were accused or convicted of sex crimes against children, with as many as 45 of them continuing in ministry after being identified. The articles detail occasions when women and children were sexually molested by pastoral figures who were then moved on to other churches or church-related ministries. The accusers, almost all females, were often ignored, doubted or blamed for enticing the men.
The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) movement has its origins in the 1920s and the infamous “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” that divided American Protestants around issues of biblical authority, creationism, “new science” and the nature of Christian orthodoxy. By the 1950s, the movement claimed some of the country’s largest congregations, many begun as “church start-ups,” others through schism with older Baptist denominations. Although asserting their autonomy as free-standing congregations, most IFB churches participate in certain loose “fellowships,” Bible colleges and evangelism programs.
“Not only did the abusing ministers betray their calling, they did so at the expense of some of their church’s most vulnerable constituency.”
IFB churches stress congregational independence, the classic “Five Points” of fundamentalism (Biblical inerrancy, Christ’s virgin birth, his sacrificial atonement, bodily resurrection and premillennial second coming), the necessity of personal conversion and strict adherence to fundamentalist doctrine and personal moral codes. Underneath it all is a powerful emphasis on ministerial authority, with pastor-figures as “God’s anointed” whose leadership is not to be questioned. As one abused female commented:
You have a system of belief where what the pastor says is true, and you cannot disagree, the deacon boards don’t disagree, you don’t go against what the pastor says because the ingrained thinking is he’s God’s man, and you don’t lift a hand against God’s anointed.
The Star-Telegram reporters conclude that many sex abuse cases were covered up because:
- Supervising pastors enabled abusers to find other churches or church-related schools in which to work, even when they knew of accusations of abuse.
- The accused ministers were recommended to other ministries without informing those ministries about allegations of sexual abuse. Thus, “in a culture where well-known pastors are elevated to near-godlike status, their recommendations are weighty.”
- In certain situations, victims were pressured to remain silent since accusations could “ruin the alleged abuser’s ministry.” Or, the women were to blame. One female accuser commented to reporters: “There was a prevailing belief that it was always the girl’s fault, even a child. Because if a girl was being modest and obeying God nothing bad would happen. And boys and men were simply unable to control themselves, so it was up to the girls and women.”
The cases documented by the Star-Telegram staff sound strikingly like predatory acts committed against children by Catholic priests, many protected by church hierarchy. The crimes are heinous, made more so because the perpetrators were ministers to be trusted as caring representatives of Christ’s gospel, and because Independent Fundamentalist Baptists portrayed their churches and pastors as occupying the moral high ground, beyond the sexual immorality perpetuated by secular culture and permitted by “liberal” churches that “compromise with the world.” Many of the sexually abused Baptists testified to the rigorous moral code their churches instilled into them, an ethic preached but personally ignored by the ministers identified in the newspaper’s series.
“When did pastors and congregations move from protecting ‘the little ones’ to protecting their abusers – all in the name of the gospel?”
The Star-Telegram study should be another wake-up call to all religious communities across the theological and denominational spectrum. Not only did the abusing ministers betray their calling, they did so at the expense of some of their church’s most vulnerable constituency. What went wrong? Was “gospel ministry” simply a means of getting away with the sexual abuse of teenagers? When did pastors and congregations move from protecting “the little ones” to protecting their abusers – all in the name of the gospel? How did the “new birth,” a radical transformation demanded by all Baptists, particularly the ever-evangelistic Independent Fundamentalist ones, become a mere salvific transaction, a once-saved-always-saved indulgence with negotiable ethical implications? Is it no wonder that Americans are leaving or avoiding the church in droves?
Bonhoeffer remains adamant:
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [we all] must knock.
Independent Fundamentalist Baptists thought their unflinching orthodoxy would preserve their gospel integrity in a sinful world. It didn’t. The rest of us had best take notice.