Redeeming the Bad Report
“It’s okay to speak up. Even if you’re not perfect. You need to tell your story. All of it.” The words from my seminary professor seemed simple, straightforward. But I’d been wrestling with how to speak up for weeks.
It’s been more than a decade since that conversation and the confrontations that followed. They were painful but empowering. It was the start of exercising new faith muscles and replacing heresy with truth.
Have you ever traced your thinking from the fruit back to the root? I’d say the fruit of thinking I couldn’t tell the truth about someone who was acting in an abusive way unless my own motives, behavior, and words were perfect revealed some pretty rotten seeds. Seeds planted a long time ago with deeply entrenched roots. I’ve been weeding this patch for a while, but in the last few days, with God’s help, I think I’ve finally ripped them out.
A triggering conversation last week alerted me that I still had some work to do here. As I listened to a friend talk circles around a difficult situation, my heart went out to her. “Just tell it to me straight. I don’t know these people and am not going to tell anyone,” I finally said. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I used to talk that way too. I remembered the conversation with my professor, and I got curious.
Just when were these seeds planted?
I remembered who sowed these seeds, but I was hazy as to when. As I researched, I learned he started promoting a particularly heretical view of Matthew 18 about 1976 and expanded it multiple times when it suited his twisted purposes.* He argued it was vital and that, if he could only be remembered for one thing, he hoped this “rediscovery of forgotten truth” would be his legacy. #ofallthings
The logic – or illogic, rather – goes something like this: If you have an issue with someone, before going to them to reconcile, first examine your own heart to be sure that you have absolutely no sin. If introspection leads to the discovery that you DO have sin (big surprise, right?!), then you must first deal with it before pursuing reconciliation with the other person. This soul-searching might result in feeling the need to ask the person you have an issue with to forgive you for something (like, say, feeling angry for the way they treated you) before explaining how they had hurt you. He also taught that the one with a grievance would essentially disqualify herself from even deserving an audience if she talked with anyone else about the issue besides the other person involved.
Of course it’s wise to search our hearts and address any known sin in the process of pursuing reconciliation. That’s the mote and beam idea and it’s biblical. (see Matthew 7:3-5) But it’s also a far cry from how this was applied in practice.
Curiously enough, this man “rediscovered” this just about the time he and his brother were coming under scrutiny for sexual misconduct in their ministry for the first time. (Remember, 1976. Not current events.) So, in practice he instituted a principle that he claimed was biblical and that placed the responsibility on the shoulders of a person who’d been hurt to deal with her own sin before confronting the one who hurt her. And, God forbid she should tell anyone else she’s been hurt. Because that would be a “bad report” and could cause others to “not think the best” of the one hurting her.
It’s twisted, I know. But Bill Gothard sowed this rotten seed in the lives of millions for more than four decades until he was finally removed from the organization he founded. In doing so, I believe he planted seeds that are still bearing fruit we see rotting in many evangelical and fundamental churches today. It’s time to redeem the idea of the bad report, friends.
Follow Matthew 18, by all means, but if your life contains fruit linked to his horrible teaching, friend, rip.it.out.
In my case, the fruit looked like this: I’d spent weeks soul-searching, repenting of anything I could think of, and talking myself out of confrontations until I finally broke down and told my professor I was working for a narcissist. He listened to me circle the issues at a dizzying pace before gently challenging me to just tell my story straight already. And that I wasn’t the problem; I was exposing the problem.
The details of Gothard’s heresy have been addressed at length by others, and you can follow the links provided if you’re interested in a deeper dive. (I’ll warn you, it’s nauseating!) But, as I’ve reflected on my own story and thought about what might serve the ongoing conversation in the community of survivors I’m part of, a few observations came to mind.
When I first started speaking publicly about my experiences with “The Institute,” more than one person approached me with “concerns” that my doing so reflected poorly on God, making Him less appealing to those who don’t yet know Him. By telling my story, they feared I was throwing up roadblocks that would keep people from knowing and loving Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard this line of thinking too?
I’ll be honest; I wrestled with that feedback for a bit. Because, I love God and His people and I certainly don’t want to do anything to discredit Him.
What I’ve come to believe is this: if God’s reputation rested solely on the shoulders of His children, the Holy Spirit would’ve inspired a different Bible.
Think about it. Scripture is peopled with men and women who failed, hurting themselves and others. Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden. Daily. And even they blew it. Three chapters in, and we’ve got our first “bad report.” One of the most hopeful things about the inspired word of God is that it’s filled with people we can relate to: broken yet beautiful, because they’re made in His image.
This is us, friends. God has always been fully aware of what He was redeeming. Thankfully, His reputation is secure with or without us. Isn’t that grace amazing?! Do we have a role to play in being the hands and feet of Jesus in our world today? Of course. Does His plan implode if we mess up and the world sees it? Um, no. We are not that powerful!
So, rather than speaking about sin in the church somehow undermining God’s credibility, I would argue we do more to hurt the One we claim to love when we actively work to cover up things we know are wrong. God has always been about the business of redeeming broken people because that’s all He’s ever had to work with. (Except Jesus, of course.) And this is no surprise to the watching world. No surprise.
I wonder, if we’re honest, if we’re more interested about covering up for the sake of our own comfort than because we’re so concerned about God’s reputation. I say this to those critical of speaking out, not those who aren’t yet ready to talk about the ways they’ve been wounded.
Here’s a second observation about this particular heresy. If the requirement for “going to one who’s offended me” is having no sin, then no one but Jesus can do it, right? If that’s the case, why even include Matthew 18 in the Bible? The fact that Jesus taught this to His disciples implies that perfection is not required in practice. Obedience, yes. Perfection? No.
His teaching in this area is consistent with so many things Bill Gothard claimed to discover (and rediscover). He created an impossible standard, brutalized those who failed to meet it, and craftily used it all to camouflage his own sin and the sins of other men in his inner circle. This is the very essence of spiritual abuse. And it reeks of brimstone. #betteramillstone
As it turns out, speaking out back in the day opened the door for some helpful adjustments at the church I was serving at the time. The person causing problems refused to change, so she left, and a department that was dysfunctional began moving toward health. I moved on too, and it turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened for me.
Since then, I’ve realized that God doesn’t sugarcoat the sins of His children. They’re on full display in His word as well as throughout history. And the penalty for all of it is in full display on the cross. This is the gospel. This is grace.
Our job now is to invite others to join us as we walk toward our forever home being honest about the hard, broken things we face on the way.
I wrote last week about finally laying to rest the shame I felt over being deceived for so long. I was so embarrassed by the rotten fruit. But, here’s the thing: when we smell rotten fruit, the stench serves an important purpose. It reveals that rotten seeds are still there and we have more weeding to do. And that’s necessary for our flourishing and restoration.
I think that embarrassment is one reason we shy away from sharing our stories from the past, especially ones that could sound like a “bad report.” But, I also wonder if it’s possible that those who continue to defend Bill Gothard and others like him have not yet considered that, perhaps, full exposure and the ripping out of wretched fruit are precisely what needs to happen. What if, as Dan Allender suggests in Bold Love, the implosion of an abuser’s life is what HAS to happen if there’s to be any hope of repentance for him (or her)? What if the “bad report” is part of God’s plan for their redemption?
I know it’s redemptive for one who’s been bludgeoned with the Bible to speak their truth. Reclaiming one’s voice is a necessary part of healing from spiritual abuse. For some of us, biting our tongues has seemed less painful than speaking out sometimes, but bad things must be named and heard. Some offenses are worth taking up for those who cannot help themselves. And, could it be that telling the truth, especially when it’s hard, is actually evidence of the boldest love?