The XX Factor

How the Evangelical Culture of Forgiveness Hurts Victims of Sexual Abuse

Pastor Andy Savage talking to his Memphis, Tennessee, congregation on Sunday.

Highpoint Church via YouTube

When megachurch pastor Andy Savage sat on a stool in front of his congregation on Sunday and confessed to a regretful sexual incident from his past, he ended his statement with an apology and a request for forgiveness. “I love you all very much,” he said, at which point the congregation rose to applaud. In context, Savage’s congregants were returning an expression of love, not grotesquely cheering for an assault. Nevertheless, the optics were painful—and so are their implications: The flock’s insta-forgiveness of its pastor illuminates the way evangelical culture, long known for its harsh judgment, is now just as likely to err in favor of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

The incident in question happened in 1998, when Savage was a 22-year-old youth minister at a Baptist church in suburban Houston. Jules Woodson was a 17-year-old high school senior who attended the church youth group. In Woodson’s account, Savage offered to drive her home from an event at the church, but instead he drove her down a dirt road, stopped the car, and pressured her to perform oral sex. When she told another pastor at the church what had happened, she says he suggested that she had “participated” in the incident, and Savage was allowed to resign with no public reckoning or police involvement. (The pastor who she turned to has been placed on leave by his current church over the allegations.)

Savage eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee and co-founded the nondenominational Highpoint Church, which attracts more than 2,000 worshippers on a typical Sunday. He is not nationally famous, but he’s working on it. He hosts a weekly podcast about marriage and parenting and wrote a book about “Biblical manhood,” a phrase that signifies a “complementarian”—as opposed to egalitarian—approach to marriage. His next book was to be titled The Ridiculously Good Marriage: Five Essentials to Start Right and Stay Strong, but the publisher canceled the book this week.

Woodson tells the New York Times that she decided to speak up after all these years when she read a front-page article in USA Today about Matt Lauer’s dismissal from NBC in December. She says she emailed Savage that day, asking, “Do you remember that night that you were supposed to drive me home from church and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?” A month passed with no response, which is when she decided to go public, approaching several bloggers known for writing about sexual abuse within conservative Christian communities.

The story quickly gained steam online, and Savage addressed it on Sunday morning in front of his congregation in Memphis. The church’s head pastor, Chris Conlee, warmly introduced Savage, who sat on a stool onstage to share his account of what happened:

As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. … I never sought to cover this up.

Savage said he never did anything remotely similar again and that he informed his future wife, his co-pastor, and other church leaders about the incident as he advanced within the church. “Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules,” he told the congregation. “Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing.” Woodson disputes Savage’s claim that he apologized to her back in 1998.

Savage did not try to excuse what he did. But he also didn’t really describe it. An audience member hearing about a “sexual incident” would have no sense of the raw details of Woodson’s accusation: that Savage drove her to a secluded area at night, that he took his penis out of his jeans with no warning and asked her to suck it, that he asked her to open her shirt and fondled her breasts, and that he abruptly stopped and begged her not to tell anyone. (“You have to take this to the grave with you,” she alleges he said.) A listener on Sunday could just have easily imagined the “incident” was a kiss or a lingering hug—inappropriate between a youth pastor and his charge but more easily brushed off. Savage also repeatedly emphasized how long ago all of this happened. Between them, Savage and Conlee used the phrase 20 years ago or more than 20 years ago eight times during the service. (Actually, it has been a little less than 20 years.)

Even if Savage had divulged all the details, though, an apology would likely have made them moot. The pastor was not applauded for his transgression but for his perceived realness, repentance, and regret.

Some corners of Christianity have always been quick to forgive: Recall the performative tears of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. But evangelicals have long been defined by the hard line they draw on “sexual morality”—from not letting Bill Clinton off the hook to not accepting the LGBTQ community. A decade ago, young Americans identified evangelicals’ top three traits as “anti-homosexual,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.”

That was then. Today, brokenness—evangelical jargon for a kind of raw humility—has become the buzzword. Authenticity about one’s flaws, rather than a blameless moral record, is the mark of a true believer. Highpoint bills itself on its home page as “a perfect place for imperfect people.” “This church exists for the sole purpose of healing brokenness in every person’s life,” Conlee said from the pulpit on Sunday.

It’s hard to complain about a shift in emphasis from punishment to grace—both concepts are baked into the Gospel message—but it can produce disturbing side effects. In Savage’s case, there’s the implication that repenting means he should suffer no further consequences for his actions. (Even if Savage pursues forgiveness from his victim, his family, and his community, that does not mean he is fit for public ministry.) And there are implications for victims too. As blogger Libby Anne summed it up in a recent post about how “forgiveness” can fail rape victims, “Once God has forgiven someone for a sin, it’s over, and it would be wrong for another Christian to continue making an issue of it.”

Meanwhile, white evangelicals are now eager to forgive on an even larger stage. In 2011, less than a third of them said a person who commits an “immoral” act would be qualified for public office. By late 2016, for some reason, 72 percent of them were suddenly willing to overlook such indiscretions, according to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. “I think that’s inappropriate on all levels and it’s inexcusable,” a young evangelical told NPR after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, in which then-candidate Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. “But I do know this—that we all sin … I’ll offer him the same grace God gave him to forgive him for that.”

As for Woodson, she’s not as eager to move on as Savage is. “It’s disgusting,” she told the New York Times of her former pastor’s apology, which streamed online and was posted to the church’s YouTube page. “It doesn’t matter if I was his only victim. What matters is that this was a big problem and continues to go on.”