Yesterday, Andy Savage, pastor at megachurch Highpoint in Memphis, resigned finally after a sordid few months when his church gave him a standing ovation despite admitting that 20 years ago, while a youth pastor, he forced a youth group member to perform oral sex on him.
I remember watching this story as it broke. On January 5, Jules Woodson’s story (the victim; she has chosen to make her real name public) appeared on The Wartburg Watch site: I Thought He Was Taking Me for Ice Cream. She recalled how she was 17-years-old and vulnerable from a parents’ divorce, and the youth pastor befriended her. One night, instead of driving her home, he took her to a secluded place in the woods and asked for oral sex. She felt she had no choice. The next day, she reported it to the associate pastor (someone who has consensual oral sex does not report it to a pastor the next day, by the way). Nothing was done. The next week she told her small group, and the church dismissed Andy, but never revealed why. They even threw him a going away party!
He stayed out of ministry for a few months and moved back home to Memphis, but within a few years he had founded Highpoint Church.
When I read that report, I knew he should resign immediately. I knew it was going to blow up, and blow up big.
I know some people who know Andy, and I phoned and said, “can’t anyone tell him to resign today? This is a mess, and it will blow up big in this climate, and I want to make sure he’s getting good counsel.”
But instead of resigning, that afternoon he issued a statement admitting to the “sexual encounter”, but saying he was taking a leave of absence. And that Sunday he read a statement to the church admitting to a consensual, immoral relationship. The church gave him a standing ovation. He went on a friendly national radio show a few nights later, and again portrayed it as consensual. He said they had a “mutual, organic moment.”
Again, Jules reported it the very next day to a pastor. Those are not the actions of someone in a “relationship”. And I think many men may not understand how completely traumatic forced oral sex is, especially to a teenager. I won’t go into details, but that is not pleasant, to say the least.
The press went crazy. It was covered on CNN, Fox, the New York Times. It was even the most read article on The Washington Post–“Megachurch pastor receives standing ovation after admitting to abusing a teenager”.
At issue is this one simple fact: When clergy is involved, there can be no consent. There is a power differential. Texas even has a clergy sexual abuse law. The DA in Texas said that he could have been charged at the time, but now the statute of limitations had run out.
In fact, last month Larry Cotton, the associate pastor to whom Jules originally reported the abuse, resigned, stating that it WAS against the law, he should have reported it, and it was not consensual.
But Highpoint members continued to defend Andy. It became a circus. On March 9, The New York Times produced a powerful video documentary showing Jules’ reaction to Savage’s “confession” in the church that day, along with ridiculous tweets from Highpoint Church members.
Finally, finally, Andy did the right thing.
I wish he had taken more responsibility in his statement (he said that “many wrongs occurred” rather than admitting that he COMMITTED many wrongs; and he still does not explicitly say that he committed a crime, which he did; plus he called it a “relationship”, which it was not.). But at least he resigned.
And what I really want to talk about today is this propensity we as Christians have to defend those who are accused, for fear that we will lose the ministry they created. We often close ranks, thinking that we don’t want to give God a bad name. Because more people know the senior pastor and like him than know the victim, more people tend to support the pastor. We don’t understand the victim’s pain, but we see the pastor’s ministry.
This is a mistake. What I heard again and again, even from pastors grappling with this situation, was this:
But Andy had a great ministry. Are we really saying he had to give all that up?
Or even this:
“Are we really saying the world would be a better place had Andy not gone into ministry at all?
I get it. But here’s a question for everybody:
Do you not think that God could have used someone else?
Let’s look at a Bible story that I think is very analogous to this. The people ask for a king, and God calls Samuel to anoint Saul. Samuel does, and Saul becomes king. He actually does a decent job. They have some military victories; the country is united. But later on, Saul commits a grave error. He performs a sacrifice to God that he was not legally supposed to do. He justified it to himself (I feel right about this), but he overstepped his bounds and his position.
So God rejected Saul as king. And God called David instead.
When the prophet Samuel confronted Saul, Saul couldn’t believe it. He listed all his amazing accomplishments for God (1 Samuel 15:20-21):
I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king….
Samuel told him that wasn’t the point. He had overstepped God’s law (verse 23):
For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.
It doesn’t mean that God rejected Saul as a person. He simply rejected him in the role of king. Saul could have stepped down and God could have used him in another way (maybe as a military commander), but Saul had done something which disqualified him from the monarchy.
Instead of owning up, though, Saul stuck around. Saul thought he’d still be a really good king! And the nation needed him. And the fact that Saul hung on cost so many people their lives in the wars that followed. He had supporters who loved him and who hung on both out of loyalty and gratitude. And many lost their lives needlessly.
David, though, turned out to be an awesome king. Had Saul stepped down, as he should have, David could have stepped in. God had already prepared him.
Looking back on that story, if you were in Israel at the time, wouldn’t you have been on Saul’s side rather than David’s? David was the interloper and disrupter. Saul was their king who was doing cool things! Of course you defend the king. In retrospect, we think it was so obvious that David was God’s guy. But I don’t think it was as obvious at the time.
I believe that had Andy Savage left the pastorate altogether after his disqualifying failing, another person could have founded Highpoint. God already had a David in the wings. Had things gone the way they should have, shouldn’t we have faith that the church could have flourished, and then this scandal could have been averted?
And what about Andy himself? Like Saul, God never rejected Andy as a person; only as a pastor.
Do the right thing, and God will still use you. And there is no safer place to be that in God’s will.
And it was God’s will that Andy Savage own up to what he did back then, and humble himself. And then God would have been able to fully use him, without all this baggage. Apparently he’s a great speaker and great at marketing; he likely could have gone back to school and gotten his MBA and worked in the corporate world. He could have still ministered in a church, just to adults. He could have run a Celebrate Recovery group. He could have spoken at men’s retreats. He could have run Bible studies for businessmen at lunch times. He could have done lots of things and God likely had those prepared for him! God was not going to waste His gifts, but God also cannot be mocked.
But Andy didn’t do the right thing at the time. So God gave him another chance: resign when the story breaks, rather than causing two and a half months of turmoil in the press for all to see.
The lesson, to me, is to never assume that you are so indispensible to God that God would want you to avoid doing the right thing. And when your secrets find you out, don’t delay. Take responsibility.
And for the rest of us: be careful about supporting people who have done something that disqualifies them from ministry. Remember, Jesus doesn’t need us protecting His reputation by sweeping things like this under the rug.
No amount of “good deeds” since make up for assault. Some things are disqualifying for ministry. But they are not disqualifying from a life serving God. There are ways to serve God without being a pastor; if you have committed a crime or abused those under your authority, then you’re not to be a pastor anymore. So humble yourself and serve God elsewhere.
There is another story in the national news right now about sexual abuse in churches.
The leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries covered up sexual abuse in their churches for years, requiring adherents to not report to police but to handle it internally. Rachael Denhollander, of Larry Nassar fame, has publicly taken them on, asking for an independent inquiry. Instead of complying, they have accused her of nefarious motives and ignorance.
Detailed statement, NOT including all available evidence.https://t.co/LOYkWNAeKq
— Rachael Denhollander (@R_Denhollander) March 17, 2018
For years, C.J. Mahaney, who was head of the organization at the time, has skirted responsibility, and big names at The Gospel Coalition have supported him. It is time for them to remember the story of David and Saul. It is time for the church to stop trying to protect those in power, and start protecting the vulnerable. It is time for all of us to get this right.
Why is it that we protect those in power rather than protect the victims? What can we do to change this church culture? Let’s talk in the comments!