An Open Letter to Rachael Denhollander on #SBCtoo

Dear Rachael,

This past week, the Houston Chronicle published a three-part series on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In response, you asked: “Pastors, where were you? When we were pleading for you to speak up against your peers or the leaders your support props up, where were you?”

I want (and need) to answer your question.

Ten years ago, I was thirty-two years old, almost three years into pastoring my second church. We were recovering from some heart-breaking and regrettable division while walking into new conflicts. I was in the throes of life-paralyzing depression, not knowing how to handle what was happening.

My heart and mind were (as they so often are now) a jumble of conflicting desires and aspirations. On the one hand, I sincerely desired to glorify God, preach the Gospel, and shepherd a healthy church. On the other hand, my heart nurtured ambitions of personal glory, wishing to be known for my preaching and be influential within reformed evangelical circles. To go back and separate my decisions—the righteous from the unrighteous—is like trying to untie the Gordian Knot. That can only be remedied by the sword of the Gospel.

I idolized pastors and theologians within my tribe (a struggle that long-preceded pastoring). I had attended the inaugural Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in 2006 (and every conference afterward until 2018). To me, these men (including CJ) represented the pinnacle of evangelical leadership, the ultimate “inner ring.” What they said was received with little discrimination on my part. Their recommendations—whether of books, doctrine, practice, or people—carried great weight.

I found my way into networks and friendships within these tribes. It felt good to be connected. I felt important. I met and became friends with remarkable pastors—men who I love, respect, and admire to this day. Those partnerships did me spiritual good. They helped me learn to pastor better. They provided a support base through difficult times. I cannot overstate how helpful they were to me.

Nevertheless, at the same time, my sinful flesh perverted these relationships. An undiscerning loyalty grew in my heart. I refused to listen to concerns that might conflict with what these men said or did. Fear of losing these relationships kept me from listening to hard questions and pursuing good answers.

When Wade Burleson raised concerns about sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, I read them but did nothing. Why? Because I did not hear anything about it from the Southern Baptist leaders I trusted. (I am not here implicating these leaders. They may have spoken, and I simply did not hear it. I am condemning only myself. What they did or did not do is immaterial to my responsibility to listen, investigate, and act as a pastor of a church in cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.)

At one point, a church member (and friend) asked of my awareness of concerns about sexual abuse cover-ups within Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches) and CJ Mahaney (one of the co-founders of T4G). He mentioned that evidence had been posted online that seemed worth considering. Though I was aware of such posts, I brushed them (and him) aside. I assured him that the other founders and plenary speakers would not be such close friends with CJ and partner with him in T4G if there were any warrant at all to the concerns. Based entirely on the implications of their on-going partnership and silence in the face of concerns, I refused to investigate for myself. This was sinful on my part. (On recalling this conversation, I contacted my friend and asked his forgiveness. I failed as a friend and as a pastor.)

At another point, a trusted acquaintance explained to me what was “really” going on in the lawsuit with CJ and SGC. (Due to the promise of confidentiality, I am not at liberty to share details.) The gist of the explanation was that the accusations were entirely baseless. My understanding was that this was little more than a liberal egalitarian attacking a complementarian pastor. When this lawsuit was settled, the accuser(s) would move on to another target. I believed this explanation. I shared it with friends and pastors to assure them that all was well. I did not investigate for myself. This was sinful. I cannot recall everyone with whom I shared such assurances—but to those that I did, please forgive me.

Throughout this time, the Lord began to shape and break my heart in many ways. In pastoral counseling, I have shepherded countless women (and some men) who suffered abuse of various stripes. (And, I might add, I sometimes shepherded them poorly.) Listening to them, I began to hear and see how and why they felt voiceless and defenseless. I saw how often their stories were minimized, brushed aside, and disbelieved. I witnessed how difficult they found it to speak and to be heard. It was too easy for Christians to either condemn them (for where they were, for what they wore, for what they’d done, for what they didn’t do) and to apply quick-fixes with spiritual-cliché band-aids.

At the same time, I experienced false-accusations, abuse, betrayal, and other sufferings through church controversy. While this initially made me defensive of pastoral heroes, the Lord used it to help me hear the cry of the poor. When I was mistreated, many expressed sorrow and support for me in private, but not many stepped up to actively stop it. When I was attacked, some minimized it or applied quick fixes. I had “friends” who refused to listen to or follow me as a pastor merely because influential pastors said and believed otherwise. I learned what it was to be the victim. Through this, the Lord stirred in me a desire to see, hear, and respond to those who experienced abuse.

In 2013, I resigned from being a Lead Pastor and spent one year out of pastoral ministry. During that time, I worked for a mission agency that plants churches among the poor. The Lord used the incredible men and women in that ministry to continue to challenge and change my heart. They wrote and spoke boldly about how the evangelical church too often overlooks, stereotypes, and mistreats the poor—and how such prejudices can be engrained in systems and institutions. They included women in ministry in remarkable ways (in a particularly challenging context)—and did so as conservative, Calvinistic complementarians! They did not take themselves seriously but took the Gospel very seriously. They did not fear man but asked hard questions of influential people. The Lord used them to shake my heart and mind and to stir me to think differently. I am so thankful for those men and women. I am so sorry for the ways I’ve failed so many.

In 2015, I reentered the pastorate as an Associate Pastor—I entered a changing man. There are innumerable things God used to change my heart over the previous decade. Too many to list. But I want to mention a few germane to the SBC issue and the role you played.

At one point, I attended a conference at which several Southern Baptist leaders spoke. One of the men, a man I admire, shared some things about his personal policies regarding interactions with women, admonishing the pastors and seminarians to adopt them. I disagreed with those policies but did not think much of it. After the talk, a sister sitting next to me commented, “I was hurt several times by what he said.” I didn’t follow-up on that comment immediately, but I tucked it away in my heart for meditation. Why did I disagree but remain unoffended, while this sister was “hurt”? As I mulled over that question, I began to see what his statements (unintentionally) communicated to women about women. I understood why she was hurt. I wondered how often my ignorant, unthoughtful (though well-intentioned) comments and actions hurt the sisters in the churches I pastored. I resolved to listen, ask, listen, ask, listen more than I commented, assumed and acted in regards to women in the church.

As the #MeToo movement rose, I listened. Twenty years earlier, I would have responded to #MeToo as a calloused, knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk), Rush Limbaugh conservative. I would have mocked and minimized the movement. But now I read and listened and wept. I wept. Reading the stories of complete strangers, I recognized the stories of women that I knew, that I loved. I wept. Reading the stories of how these women were treated, I saw the world that my mom grew up in, that my wife lived in, that my daughter would enter. I wept.

I remember the first time I saw your name on Facebook. You were being (rightly) heralded as a hero for your role as the first woman to speak publicly against Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor, accusing him of sexual assault. Christians celebrated you and your victim impact statement as a model of Christian boldness and grace—which it was.

As I read your statement—which is worthy of all the praise it received—this sentence floored me: “My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report.” I wondered how on earth this could be.

My heart broke again when I read your interview with Christianity Today, particularly these paragraphs:

Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.

The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly.

When I did come forward as an abuse victim, this part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded. One of them accused me of sitting around reading angry blog posts all day, which is not the way I do research. That’s never been the way I do research. But my status as a victim was used against my advocacy.

…rather than engaging with the mountains of evidence that I brought, because this situation was one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen, ever, there was a complete refusal to engage with the evidence.

When I learned that it was a Southern Baptist Church—in particular, a church that networked in the same circles that I did—my surprise vanished. I knew what happened. That had been me. I grieved for you, for victims, for my own callousness. (I am thankful those pastors apologized.)

Soon after, I read your “Public Response to Sovereign Grace Churches” (and subsequent posts). Your meticulous documentation and important questions rocked my world. This was 180-degrees different than the explanation I’d received (mentioned above). I felt betrayed and deceived by men I trusted and admired. T4G invited CJ Mahaney (who agreed) to speak at the 2018 conference. The public statements of the brothers leading that conference did not address the important issues you raised. So, in protest, I canceled my registration and did not attend T4G for the first time. (I’m thankful that Al Mohler has recently apologized for his support of CJ. [Update: Complete apology here.] I’m praying that more men—and some women—across evangelicalism who offered the same public support and justifications will follow his example, publicly repent, and call for a truly impartial, qualified, third-party investigation into the SGC situation.)

Following your example, I resolved to no longer be silent, but to use whatever platform and influence I may have to speak about injustices, mainly to allow my sisters to be heard. I resolved to know and listen to the women in my church. I sought conversations with women in my church and just listened as they helped me understand how to shepherd them better. I’ve listened as women have shared how I offended them or failed to protect them. I’m repenting and learning.

In speaking publicly about the abuse and mistreatment of women, I’ve experienced my share of accusations. I’ve watched friends distance and disassociate themselves. That hurts. But it is not even a fraction of what you and other brave women have endured. I cannot imagine what you have been through for merely speaking the truth in the national spotlight.

This past year has been a wild ride, but a good one. The Lord continues to show me my errors, my wrong assumptions, my cowardice. He continues to open my eyes to the experiences of abuse survivors, as well as women in the church and culture in general. To do this, the Lord used women like you, Karen Swallow Prior, Beth Moore, Elyse Fitzpatrick, countless valued sisters in the church and on social media, and fifteen years’ worth of wise, godly, patient female friends in my local churches.

In my silence and my speech, in my actions and inaction, I sinned against you, against women in my churches, against women in the SBC, and against women in the world. Of you and them, I ask—forgive me.

You asked, “Pastors, where were you? When we were pleading for you to speak up against your peers or the leaders your support props up, where were you?

To answer your question: this is where I was, where I have been, where I am, and (by the grace of God) where I am going.

Thank you, sister, for your part in it. You are valued and valuable in the Kingdom of God—a woman of whom the world is not worthy.

Your brother,

Eric