Erik Strandness reflects on a recent webinar on sexual abuse and looks at the lessons we must learn

Unbelievable? recently aired a panel discussion addressing abuse in the Church. The webinar entitled, ‘Falling from Grace: Addressing power, leadership and abuse in the Church’, featured abuse survivor and advocate Rachael Denhollander; author, theologian and former RZIM employee Amy Orr-Ewing; Rise And Fall Of Mars Hill Podcast presenter Mike Cosper; and trauma and abuse specialist Diane Langberg. It was a thoughtful discussion that addressed the reasons why abuse is such a problem in the Church and offered helpful ways forward.


Stealing heavenly treasure

The Church has been rocked by numerous scandals involving leaders using their positions of authority to inflict sexual, intellectual and emotional abuse. Sadly, these abuses have resulted in many walking away from their faith because they mistakenly believed that the Church and Christ were interchangeable. As Langberg noted, we “equate Christendom with Christ and they are not the same”. A misunderstanding which she believes leads us to “worship and protect…Christendom, thinking we are protecting the name of God and his work, which is not true”. 

The fault for this misunderstanding lies at the feet of both a culture intent on marginalising Christianity by imputing the sins of the Church onto Jesus, as well as a Church that tries to limit the investigation of its abuses by claiming theological immunity. Salvation is found in no other name, but when the Church fails to practise what it preaches, the incarnate Word becomes cultural slang for abuse. 

We need to remember that Christianity is facing a church crisis and not a Christ crisis. Jesus isn’t the problem but rather those who use his church as a staging area for abuse. If church leaders would spend more time exercising authority like Jesus, we might be able to make our way out of this mess. The answer may be as simple as changing the posture of our leaders from lording their power over others to stooping to wash the feet of those they are called to serve. 

We need to tirelessly guard the deposit of faith in our houses of prayer but must also be willing to throw out the criminals when they transform it into a den of robbers intent on stealing heavenly treasure from those who have sincerely invested in Jesus. 

Character testing

Abraham Lincoln put it well: “Nearly all men can handle adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lord Acton’s saying still rings true long after he wrote it: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” (Tom Gilson – Too Good to be False)

Elevating men and women to positions of power should never be taken lightly. Power should be considered a test of character and not a perk of leadership. If we are willing to take Lincoln’s warnings about power seriously then we should be more attentive to the ways in which it is wielded than to the metrics of organisational success. 

Cosper noted that “spiritually abusive pastors are often prioritising outcomes over relationships, outcomes over community”, which creates a utilitarian vision of church that is more interested in attendance numbers than individual soul formation, and more concerned with offering collections than warning others of the danger of serving two masters. Churches don’t need CEOs to manage their organisations, they need shepherds to tend to harassed and helpless sheep. The character of a church leader therefore should be measured by how zealously he or she pursues the one lost sheep and not how they get the other 99 to tithe.  

Have we lost our mind?

I’m tired of the body of Christ giving Jesus a black eye. Aren’t you? I’m tired of the Church obsessing over itself from the neck down and neglecting the all-important fact that Christ is its head. I’m tired of a church that spends all its theological gym time giving better definition to its doctrinal six-pack and then behaving as if it is out of its mind. As the panel made clear, it’s time to revisit our theology of authority, not by innovation, but by scripturally screwing our head on right. 

The yeast of unhealthy authority has already been theologically baked into many churches which makes it very difficult for those who have been abused to understand, recognise and address their situation without feeling like an apostate. The well-meaning piety of the abused has been used as a weapon against them. Denhollander believes that we need to “reexamine our theology because our ideas are driving our actions”. She is not encouraging a new theology but wants to reclaim the idea of authority that got lost when the Church embraced worldly power as its leadership paradigm. 


Little old ladies 

I find it fascinating that at the Lord’s Supper, soon after Jesus discussed his suffering service, the apostles began to argue about who was the greatest. Jesus then gave them a sobering lesson in what true authority and leadership looked like:

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)

Orr-Ewing noted how Ravi Zacharias progressively deviated from this teaching and that as his celebrity grew, he no longer followed the rules of the other staff members and began to manifest a “grandiosity and love of the green room”, spending more time reclining at the table than serving others. 

When we look to hire a pastor, we want to make sure they are good communicators and organisers, but do we ever ask them about their serving skills? We want to know how they run a meeting but fail to ask how they bend a knee. Sadly, when pastors expedite church growth, they distance themselves from the flock. As Cosper noted: “Ministry success allows leaders to create layers of insulation between themselves and the people that they are supposedly serving.” 

I think, if the truth be told, we must acknowledge that the greatest people in the Church are not those preaching from the pulpit but those who are folding bulletins in the back room. I strongly believe that if Jesus were to attend church today, He wouldn’t be standing on stage with the pastor but would be serving in the fellowship hall with the little old ladies pouring coffee and dispensing cookies.


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Guarding the golden goose

We all love a well-prepared, thoughtfully delivered sermon but when that becomes the carrot on the Christian schtick then church becomes a meeting of the minds and not an encounter with the living Christ. Cosper expanded on this idea.

“One of my favourite quotes about this, Jamie Smith one time said: ‘The contemporary evangelical church is a 30 minute Coldplay concert followed by a 45 minutes lecture by the smartest guy in the room’…If that’s your primary connection to the Church then, in that sense, it’s your primary connection to faith, spirituality, God…then of course we’re going to elevate the status or the authority of the person on the platform, of course we’re going to subordinate our wills and our judgement to that person.” (Mike Cosper)

We exchange a Jesus who desires to gather a troubled people under his wing for a pastoral golden goose. The danger is that a church built on the back of a charismatic leader is one discretion away from ruin and the bigger the organisation, the harder the fall. Sadly, in our efforts to preserve institutional growth, we extend a longer moral leash to our leaders, and instead of reigning them in we feather their nest in the hope that they will lay more golden eggs. 

Celebrity insulation

It’s not only churches that give cover to their leaders but also the larger evangelistic culture where celebrity preachers, apologists and theologians are shielded from criticism by the company they keep. As Denhollander pointed out. 

“We want to all be able to show up at the conference and share the platform together and do all these great things for God together. We want to be able to mutually endorse each other’s books, do podcasts together, we want all the benefits of co-labouring and none of the responsibility of holding those we co-labour with (accountable).” (Rachael Denhollander)

Once you are part of the evangelical elite you hob knob with other celebrities and unwittingly give cover to abuse because the goal is promotion and not accountability. As we discovered with Zacharias, it wasn’t his theology that disqualified him from ministry but his behaviour, yet for far too long the celebrity he enjoyed with other high-profile Christians shielded him from scrutiny. 

We need forums to promote good teaching, but we also need to be careful when we say we follow Paul or Apollos or Ravi and remember they are just servants who plant and water, but it is God who gives the growth. As Philip Yancey noted, we need to adopt a Jesus attitude towards celebrity: 

“When Jesus met with influential people like Nicodemus or the rich young ruler it never seemed to occur to him that a person with money and influence could be of potential use.” (Yancey)


By their fruits

How do we deal with the resources produced by these fallen leaders? Is it fruit or thistles? Cosper noted that we have many historical Christian leaders who were antisemitic or racist and yet we use their material. So, what are we to do with the resources of those who are still alive or recently deceased? 

Denhollander noted that when you promote the material of those who are still alive, you are effectively re-platforming them. Orr-Ewing, based on the thorough investigation of RZIM, concluded:

“The safe and wise thing to do is not to use those materials…for the sake of the direct victims of Zacharias and just to honour the image of God in every single woman abused…and I think secondly, in terms of the actual content, I would now have massive questions about the legitimacy of it and the huge disconnect between what was being said and what was being lived out.” (Amy Orr-Ewing)

Historical figures present a bit of a problem, and we need to honestly present both their indiscretions as well as their insights. We cannot forget that the Bible is full of ignoble human beings who accomplished God’s purposes, and who, if left out of scripture, would make the Bible a very slim volume indeed. We need only look at King David, a human who did some terrible things and yet was a man after God’s own heart and whose psalms are read to this day. The Bible tells the story of a long line of flawed people who formed a salvation pipeline pumping living water from Haran to Jerusalem to the ends of the Earth and while we need to acknowledge their shortcomings, we must also marvel at the way God used them to achieve salvation even while they were still sinners. 

Cancel culture

I have also lived through the fall of a pastor and had to learn how to separate his edifying teaching from his hypocritical behaviour. Our modern culture, rather than trying to find what is positive, opts to cancel those it finds detestable. Burn them at the stake and toss in their books just to make the conflagration burn even hotter. We need to be very careful if we get into the cancellation game because based on our human behaviour God had every right to cancel each and every one of us but instead chose to renew us for another season of life.

If we cancel people when they err then we are no better than the rest of the world, but if we do not acknowledge their sin then we are liars. So, what do we do? 

I think the key is repentance. If a fallen leader acknowledges their sin and seeks restoration, then we must forgive them. In the case of my pastor, I had to learn to forgive while simultaneously acknowledging that a sacred trust had been violated, which disqualified him from ministry. 


I appreciate the views Denhollander brings to the table because she knows first-hand the pain of abuse. Remarkably, when she confronted her abuser Larry Nassar in court, she made an incredible statement that bears repeating. 

“I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.” (Rachael Denhollander)

Christians should be in the business of forgiveness and that should set us apart from every other worldview. Forgiveness is hard but ultimately freeing. We need to ceaselessly work through the authorities to dole out human justice but must also trust that God will prevail in cosmic justice. I will give Denhollander the last word as she summarises the role of forgiveness:

“Forgiveness really springs from a well understood theology of God’s justice. In the Christian faith, forgiveness comes from the reality that God is going to bring justice and either it is going to fall on the abuser or, if he repents, it will fall on a God who stood in their place. I can look at the cross as a survivor and say that’s how much what was done to me matters to God…The cross doesn’t just tell me how much I need forgiveness or the depth of my sin, the cross tells me the depth of the sin done against me and how much it matters to God.” (Rachael Denhollander)

To watch or listen to the whole webinar, ‘Falling from Grace: Addressing power, leadership and abuse in the Church’, click here.


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.