Picking the top Evangelical sex scandals of the last decade isn’t easy. They’re all amazing? But do you include Tullian Tchividjian — Billy Graham’s grandson — kicked out of churches for lots of sex with married women, then getting a new church this year?
Ravi Zacharias caught in 2017 in a sexting/adultery drama?
They’re not even competitive! Let’s count down my favorites.
10. Bill Gothard’s sex factory
In 2015, the TLC reality T.V. show 19 Kids and Counting, about the very reproductive Duggar family, was cancelled after only five molestations. Josh Duggar was then age 27 and working as the director of a Christian lobbyist group. But at 15, he’d gotten gropey with four sisters and another girl. Then he was revealed as a member of Ashley Madison.
Some time after the molestations he’d been sent to the family’s Evangelical guru, Bill Gothard, who’d for decades run a seminar called “Basic Life Principles.” Unmarried and childless, Gothard saw the Bible as a guide to having a crazy number of kids.
In 2016, the accusations against Gothard went public. A lawsuit by ten girls was withdrawn owing to issues like the statute of limitations, but Patheos summarizes: girls as young as 13 were groomed for molestation, with allegations ranging from groping to rape by Gothard, as his organization overlooked reports of sex abuse by others.
9. Barnabas Piper gets a divorce
Evangelicals often think their clerics can’t be divorced or have any “wayward” children. John Piper, who’d arisen to the status of America’s most punishing cleric, had some difficulty keeping his brood of boys in line, and it’d been a professional problem. His son Abraham, at age 19, hadn’t been sure he was his dad’s kind of Christian. This was read as a violation of Paul’s letters, but fear not! Pastor Piper moved to “excommunicate” Abraham — a symbolic murder. Problem solved.
In 2017, after Piper had retired, another of his sons announced he was divorcing. Problem was, Barnabas himself, after making a show of having been a little rebellious, was now working the circuit as his father’s son. This could be a career-ender? But with some fancy P.R. steps, it wasn’t.
“It ended in death, though nobody died,” he writes of his marriage. With no representation of his wife’s side, he framed his divorce as her abandonment, saying it felt to him like a physical death, thus meeting Evangelical requirements for divorce. His career in “ministry” continued!
8. Eugene Peterson goes off script
In 2017, religion journalist Jonathan Merritt heard that Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor revered for decades of sermons, essays, memoirs, and his Message Bible translation, wasn’t so anti-gay.
If Merritt (who is gay) hadn’t asked, nobody would’ve ever known. But in an interview published in Religion News on July 12, he pops the question. Peterson replies “they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” that “we’re in a transition,” and “it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” Asked if he’d perform a same-sex marriage, he said yes.
The day the interview was released, Evangelicals went on the attack. The LifeWay chain of bookstores said it would “no longer sell his books.” The next day, Peterson released a statement. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
7. Bill Hybels gives a mean massage
Evangelicals didn’t weather #MeToo very well, as in a 2018 exposé in the New York Times of megachurch pastor Bill Hybels. His secretary in the 1980s said he’d hit her up for some sexy massages and hanky-panky.
That first back rub in 1986 led to multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. The incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex. Ms. Baranowski said she was mortified and determined to stay silent.
More women came forward and Hybels, naturally, denied it all. His board believed him, so long as he accelerated his planned retirement. But with the accusations badly exposing them to the #MeToo’d public, they realized that wouldn’t cut it. The elder board announced a mass resignation — during a church service to a stunned congregation.
6. The Nashville Statement rained out
For Evangelicals, staring at John Piper is how you start thinking about human sexuality? In August 2017, he and many of the most famous clerics of Evangelicalism gathered in Nashville to release the ‘Nashville Statement’, a declaration of holy war on feminists, gays, transgender people, etc. As ThinkProgress noted, this was essentially ‘inventing a new kind of Christianity that’s all about sex’.
The optics could have been better. At the time, much of the Houston area was underwater courtesy of Hurricane Harvey. And a picture went around on social media of Joel Osteen’s massive Lakewood Church closed while thousands of refugees were displaced.
Though nominally Evangelical, Osteen wouldn’t be expected to be part of the Nashville crowd. Yet for a moment he had to represent the movement? In times of need, the doors are closed.
5. The playboy of Liberty University
Liberty University isn’t that great of a name for the most restrictive place in the nation, after an Amish farm maybe.
Run by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the dead titan of right-wing Evangelical politics, it’s been a beacon of Evangelical morality and politics. Sexual contact? Going to dances? R-rated movies? All banned.
Enter Brandon Ambrosino. The gay former student at Liberty (who’d written about his time there) decided to poke around. Politico ran his report of a sex-addled playboy ruling over a sex-punishing fiefdom, rife with mismanagement and back-biting, with a glimpse at the Falwell family’s alter egos as Miami nightclub-going sophisticates.
4. C.J. Mahaney vs. Rachael Denhollander
Like most megachurch pastors, C.J. Mahaney (a signatory of the Nashville Statement) had almost no theological education, but an ability to convince people he was tight with God. Running an expanding network of churches called Sovereign Grace Ministries, centered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, he seemed to be giving the Pope a run for his money.
Then in 2011, word got out that his church community had been a child rape factory, of boys and girls, and Mahaney and his staff were accused of covering it up. A lawsuit by 11 child victims against 13 accused rapists came after the statue of limitations had expired. All the enabling clerics got off, and the church continues to refuse an outside investigation.
Mahaney drifted off to Kentucky to pursue new church projects, as clerics of national reputation vouched for his “personal integrity.” He was slated to speak at the 2018 ‘Together for the Gospel’ conference. Enter Rachael Denhollander, the gymnast turned lawyer who in 2016 had been the first accuser of Larry Nassar, the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor and sexual predator. After her, some 250 women and a young man came forward.
Denhollander and her family attended a church in Louisville that had worked to enable Mahaney to come back into public life. She was asked to leave when she protested. So she started a public campaign to advocate for sexual abuse victims within Evangelicalism, with Mahaney in her sights. Owing to the resulting pressure, he was disinvited from the conference — the most accountability he’d receive.
In an interview in Christianity Today, Denhollander describes how, in the Evangelical world, “a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades.”
3. Joshua Harris divorces Evangelicalism
At age 21, Joshua Harris wrote a book that became, in 1997, a monster bestseller: I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was given to many an Evangelical teenager, as he seemed to promise to lead the way back to what the shrinking subculture wanted to think was called “purity” — i.e. people not touching.
“Purity” is a a concept that, in the Bible, has nothing to do with sex. But knowing little or nothing about New Testament theology, he was a perfect disciple to be picked up by C.J. Mahaney. Re-located to Maryland, Harris kept his show going: in books, speeches, blog posts, playing the part of a married pastor, perpetually tempted by sex. (“The water was great, the beach was beautiful. But it was also crowded with women in revealing swimsuits.”)
When the church’s child abuse scandal broke, he broke with it? Amid the scandal, he made his own headlines, in 2013, commenting on himself being a victim of sexual abuse. He was realizing the church didn’t deal with the issue very well. It gave him a lot of material to think about, later. “But I do think that a very patriarchal, male-centered, low view of women has connections to sexual abuse in different cases,” he later tells Sojourners.
Announcing his divorce, with he and his wife pursuing separate ministries, Joshua leaned into his situation: Why not leave Christianity too? To “deconstruct” awhile. To listen to people? And learn about God.
2. Beth Moore vs. John MacArthur
That women must not “speak” in church has long been the official position of Evangelicalism — owing to a kooky reading of a few lines in the apostle Paul’s letters to early Christian churches. But women teachers — of women — had been queasily “allowed,” like Beth Moore.
In 2018, she started to re-think some things. Like Donald Trump? A long profile in the Atlantic, “The Tiny Blond Bible Teacher Taking on the Evangelical Political Machine,” became a flashpoint in the ongoing queasiness over the new president.
She kept going, suddenly questioning why women weren’t able to speak, and removing from a Kindle version of a book of hers a particularly aggressive attack on gay people. “I know plenty of believers who have been set free from homosexuality,” she’d written, and when removing the passage, was revealing . . . she actually didn’t know those people?
With #MeToo, she spoke of being raped as a child, and helped along a public conversation about sexual abuse in churches. “We will never get healthy if we cannot get honest,” she said this year at a panel on sex abuse hosted by the Southern Baptist convention.
All that got on the nerves of John MacArthur, the reigning patriarch of Evangelicalism. But something changed last October. At a celebration of his 50th year of vocalizing in church, he was asked about women doing the same. “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher,” he thunders. Asked to sum up his view of Beth Moore, he said: “Go home!”
Social media lit up, as Christians seem to realize this was a bad look. Even Erick Erickson, the right-wing pundit and MacArthur fan, had problems. Male clerics taking this approach, he notes, are “speaking only to themselves and convincing hardly anyone.”
1. Donald J. Trump
Could it be that, for Evangelicals, it is really all about power? They met their match in a blond bimbo who, after eight years in a Democrat desert, promised he could get them real power. Problem was, he had a crazy sex history — a “lifestyle” they’d usually torch people for.
Of course they went for it.