Highpoint Church Teaching Pastor Andy Savage's refusal to admit that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl while he was her youth pastor 20 years ago makes him guilty of "sin-leveling," a Netherlands-based discipleship director argued.
"Savage seems to see what he did to Jules as being the same as two unmarried adults having consensual sex: a common indiscretion that requires repentance but not jail time," Becky Castle Miller, who also serves as a writer and speaker on mental and emotional health, wrote on the Jesus Creed blog. "The view that all sins are equivalent is called sin-leveling. It's a problematic perspective because it only considers God's moral law, not the damage on another person nor the breaking of civil laws.
Savaging confessing to sexual impurity with Jules Woodson but not to sexual assault means that churches "don't understand sex crimes," Miller argued.
"Applied to sex, sin-leveling sees rape as no different from premarital fooling around. The sin is between the person and God, God is the only one who needs to give a response, and if the sinner repents to God, he is forgiven, and the sin is forgotten," she wrote.
Woodson went public the 20-year-old incident earlier this year and more recently opened up about it in The New York Times. She said she trusted Savage as her youth pastor (of Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, now known as StoneBridge Church) at that time and had looked up to him.
Savage has claimed that the incident was consensual.
"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. In agreement with wise counsel, I took every step to respond in a biblical way," he said.
In a separate statement he added: "I did not force anything. I did not ask for anything. I did not request anything. This was a very mutual organic moment that we shared.
"The atmosphere was very flirtatious. That flirtatious environment continued to move forward, which led to us making out, some heavy petting. It was a very mutual, spontaneous, physical moment. Our hormones were obviously very much in that moment, and she performed oral sex."
For Woodson, it was clearly "sexual assault."
"What happened was a crime," Woodson told The New York Times. "This is not something the church should handle internally ... We as a church, of all places, should be getting this right."
Miller, who serves as the discipleship director at an international church in the Netherlands, insisted that what Savage did was immoral, unethical and illegal.
"If Savage had had sexual contact with a minor outside his role as a youth pastor, that would have been illegal, because minors cannot consent to sex with adults. If Savage had had sexual contact with a woman his age, and she did not consent, that would have been illegal, because it would have been assault," she argued.
"Woodson had confided struggles and vulnerabilities to Savage. She trusted him. He took her to a place where she was isolated and frightened, and he initiated sexual contact. She complied to keep herself safe, but she did not consent. Under Texas law, she could not have consented."
Since the statue of limitations had passed by the time Woodson filed her police report, Savage has not faced charges in the case.
Savage's current church, Highpoint, and its lead pastor, who was aware of the incident before hiring him, have stood by him amid the allegations. After much pressure from the public, Highpoint Church placed Savage on leave while an independent investigation into his ministry is conducted.
Miller concluded, "This case shows us that American Christians still have much to learn about: consent, power differentials in sexual relationships, clergy sexual abuse, criminal penalties for criminal offenses, [and] the differences between the immoral, illegal, and unethical aspects of sexual crimes."