What is the cost of Christian obedience?
Is it a little? Or a lot? A public prayer at an altar? Or your job? Abstinence from alcohol? Or your home? Chocolate for Lent? Or your friends? Steady church attendance? Or your best friend? A rote blessing before a meal? Or your parents? Prayers before bed? Or your spouse? Giving up flashy wardrobes? Or resigning to God your daughter and your son? Your personal time? Or your church?
Do you desire God, as Christian singer Natalie Grant says, “More than Anything”?
Would you pay any price?
If the price of obedience was high, would you still choose good? Speak truth? Would you still be obedient, not to people’s perception of you, but to God?
Easier said than done.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence and you’re reading this, we don’t know what your disclosure cost you. Many have paid plenty for truth. We can only speak from our own experiences and share experiences of others (read Rachael Denhollander’s words below), but the cost is worth mentioning.
Private disclosures of sexual violence, as many of you know, do little to force change. Real change. Authentic change. And here’s where so many get this issue wrong. Sexual violence isn’t just about the offender as a sinner.
Misguided persons who see sexual violence only as sin, rather than as both a sin against God and a crime against God’s creations, allow offenders to escape accountability–the very premise underlying Christian salvation. Men’s hearts can only be changed if they desire change, and it’s accountability that helps men realize their sick condition that they may desire the cure, God. The only thing between a person and God is the person. Our will for another to change won’t make it so. The fact is, if a man elects to keep his appetite for sin, he will continue to sin. And this particular sin is too harmful for us to ignore.
For this reason, sexual violence incidents in the church are public issues. People holding sexual violence disclosure as a personal event, rather than a public health and safety issue, contradict the Bible’s call to tend to the whole body of Christ. They neglect the commandment to love thy neighbor. For while the change of a man’s soul is dependent on that man’s decision to resign himself to God, we as Christians still have a responsibility to our neighbors. We are called to be Samaritans.
Easier said than done. We get it.
It’s hard to imagine Christ’s internal struggle when he prayed, “Father, if thy be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” But in praying over what to say, how to say it, when to say, and to whom something should be said, we’ve prayed similar, agonizing prayers. We prayed again and again…with tears…over scriptures. We took every shortcut. We waited and waited. Silence was cheaper, easier.
Silence is not obedience to His will. When God calls you to speak, you speak, whatever the cost.
Some criticize sexual violence survivors for waiting to speak. What those critics don’t understand is many of us didn’t wait. We spoke. Then, we were rushed into forgiveness and shushed into silence at ages when we did not even understand the gravity of what had occurred and the danger that still existed. Why did we speak again? Years later? We can think of at least three reasons.
First, we are prompted to speak when a church member who once engaged in sexually violent behavior behaves badly again. Second, we are better at recognizing red flags, and when such signs are blatantly and undeniably before us, we have cause to speak. So what if others didn’t believe us–then or now? In light of the truth experience has forced us to know, our fears of what others might think are small. We are older. We understand better. Young people’s safety supersedes our selfish fears.
The third reason, though, is the most important. It was His will, God’s will, for us to speak. We don’t know why, and we are not privy to His plan. But we know this: speaking truth was right. It was good. Our expensive truths protect others. Yeah, truth didn’t feel too good for us either. In fact, others’ reactions to the truth felt unbearable sometimes. Our disclosures came with giant heaps of regret. Those of us who are chronic conflict avoiders preferred existing in a false sense of “neutrality.” But the truth is, there is no position of neutrality when it comes to sexual violence.
God may not speak to us as He spoke to Moses. Yet, he does communicate. He has a way of putting our regret to rest when we do His will. When we remain obedient, not to people, but to Him.
(For me, I got a phone call. A voice on the other side of the line said, “Yeah. He admitted it. He admitted everything.” Not only that. The caller told me the offender had “admitted” he’d “done it to others,” confirming what I knew but hoped wasn’t true. I simultaneously felt sick to know others had suffered at this guy’s hands and relieved to know no other would have to suffer by his hands again.)
Imagine how many young people could be saved from the life-long pain of sexual violence if people had a little less fear and a little more courage, a little more faith, a little more Christian obedience.
The Cost of Christian Obedience
If you haven’t heard the name Rachael Denhollander, allow me to introduce you. Denhollander is a thirty-something mom, a conservative evangelical, a lawyer. She’s a regular person. She’s an obedient Christian.
Denhollander is the strong woman who ignited the firestorm of more than 150 sexual abuse disclosures against disgraced gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar. Denhollander was the first to publicly disclose the abuse she suffered decades ago, and her testimony was critical in ending Nassar’s terror and bringing him to justice.
Denhollander said this about Nassar:
“It was clear to me at 15 that this was something Larry did regularly. When I began to realize how much of it was sexual assault, I knew two things: I knew I wasn’t the first, and I knew he wouldn’t stop.”
And on making Nassar’s abusive conduct public–to the press–Denhollander said this:
“In terms of how my faith played a part in making that decision, God is the God of justice, these things are evil, and it is biblical, right, and godly to pursue justice. I had to make a decision to do what was right no matter what the cost was. I felt I was the best one in a position to do that. At the time I went forward to Indy Star, I didn’t know that there were any others at all. About two weeks after I went forward to them, someone else did contact them. But that person did not feel ready to speak publicly yet, and I completely respected that decision. I felt that because of my worldview and because of the support system that I had, I was the one positioned to bear that cost and that it would be worth it regardless of the outcome.”
Amen, Rachael Denhollander.
Readers, if you proclaim to be a Christian, and if you belong to ANY church, then you should read Denhollander’s interview with Christian Today.
Denhollander explains how, too often, Christians “gloss” over suffering with Christian “platitudes” like “God works all things together for the good.” And while these are beautiful biblical truths, as she says, there is a danger of churches misapplying these truths to downplay real, harmful human actions. Denhollander also speaks about how the concept of “forgiveness” has been used to sweep away the severity of sexual violence and cover a multitude of, not only sins, but crimes.
“We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”
In her courtroom statement, Denhollander speaks about the high price of having a voice. She talks about the steep costs of advocating for other victims. Denhollander says her advocacy cost her friends, and it cost her church. It left her “alone and isolated.” Yet, Denhollander never lost her faith. She searched the scriptures for God’s perspective on sexual abuse.
When asked what scriptures resolved her faith in the wake of the abuse, Denhollander quotes John 6. In that chapter, Jesus asks his disciples, “Will ye also go away?”
It is Simon Peter who answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Yet, Denhollander draws a distinction between her trust in God and in her lack of trust in the Christian church’s response to sexual violence. She doesn’t speak from a vengeful, angry heart. She speaks from an obedient heart. She candidly admits that had her own sexual abuse occurred from inside her church community instead of from the outside world of gymnastics, she would have faced greater personal costs. She would not have had so much support.
“The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there. The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only not have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.”
On proper Christian forgiveness and misapplied forgiveness used as a “weapon” against survivors of sexual violence, Denhollander says this:
“Forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.”
To churches and Christians worldwide, Denhollander says, God doesn’t need your protection–He needs your obedience. That obedience comes with a cost, as the chronology of the Old and New Testaments show us. Here are the two things Denhollander wants you to know:
“First, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection. It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.
Second, that obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”
Note: If you are a survivor of sexual violence, here is a link to RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Hotline. We advocate reporting criminal violence to police (report to the local department in the jurisdiction where the crimes occurred). But we understand not all survivors have a support system that makes reporting safe. Whatever you decide, know you are not alone, and we believe you.