Back in pulpit after scandal, Tullian Tchividjian insists sex with former congregants was not abuse

Billy Graham's grandson, Pastor Tullian Tchividjian preaches to a gathering of The Sanctuary church in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Sunday August 18, 2019.
Billy Graham's grandson, Pastor Tullian Tchividjian preaches to a gathering of The Sanctuary church in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Sunday August 18, 2019. | Screenshot: YouTube

As he gets ready for the fall launch of his unaffiliated The Sanctuary church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, who was stripped of his preaching credentials in 2015 due to extramarital relationships with former congregants, says they were all “consensual” and not an abuse of power.

Speaking through a spokesperson, Tchividjian, 47, told the Palm Beach Post in a report Saturday that said his “infidelity in 2015 was completely wrong, morally and ethically” but rejected claims that he used his role as a pastor to inveigle the women into sexual relationships.

“I don’t care what role a person has, a consensual relationship between two adults is not abuse. And some of these people will try to make the case that, ‘Well, because you’re in a position of authority, it is abuse,’” Tchividjian said. “And I’ll go, ‘OK I can see how that has been and can be used by people in those positions.’ ... (But) that just was not true for me. I was not abusing my authoritative role to try and find women.”

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Tchividjian lost his job at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as well as his marriage to his now ex-wife, Kim, in the summer of 2015 after the church discovered an adulterous affair between him and a parishioner on the church's server. He was also deposed of pastoral credentials by the South Florida Presbytery. He later confessed to another affair that resulted in his firing from Willow Creek Church in Winter Springs, Florida, where he was hired after he left Coral Ridge.

Despite Tchividjian’s view of his relationships with the women, Rachel Steele, one of his former parishioners at Coral Ridge who says she had sex with him a few times between May and June 2015, told the Palm Beach Post that she didn’t feel like their relationship was consensual even though she wanted to have sex with him.

There was an element, she said, of surrendering “to what he wanted.” She argues that she was groomed and he did abuse his position as her pastor.

Tchividjian, she said, had baptized her children months earlier and had been offering her and her now ex-husband marriage advice she considered counseling.

“He was my spiritual leader. You know, he was my go-to. He was my teacher. ... He definitely had a place of authority in my life,” Steele told the publication. “You trust a man like that a lot more.”

Tchividjian told the publication that he was not serving as a counselor for Steele at the time.

In late 2016 however, the board of GRACE, an organization that exists to empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse, condemned Tchividjian’s actions, as a "gross misuse of power."

The board on which Tchividjian's uncle, Emmanuel Tchividjian, and brother, Boz, are members said they were "deeply disturbed" as the scandal snowballed after multiple women came forward with confessions of extramarital dalliances with him at the time.

"One of God's shepherds used his position of authority, his gift of words, his intellect and personality to draw you in when you were vulnerable and in need of care. All power belongs to Christ. Any power we have is derivative and sacred and to be used only for His glory and the good of His people. Anything less is an abuse of that power," Grace told the women in a statement on the situation.

"You have been victims of the gross misuse of power God intended for your good. We grieve with you. We stand with you in the light. You have with courage exposed the deeds of darkness. Thank you, for we as the Body of Christ need your voices,” it continued.

Other critics, like independent journalist Julie Roys, have openly expressing misgivings about Tchividjian’s return to ministry.

“After an extramarital affair & getting defrocked by So Florida Presbytery, Billy Graham's grandson @TullianT is back & planting a church in South Florida. No apology for sexual misconduct & pastoral abuse, just denials. #badcelebritypastorsalwayscomeback,” Roys tweeted Sunday morning.

She later revealed that she was blocked by the preacher on the social network which prompted several other critics of his ministry to reveal that he gave them the same treatment.

As he makes his return to the pulpit, Tchividjian is arguing strongly that he has a message that many people will appreciate.

“Some people think that I should just shut up and crawl in a cave and never come out because I’m not qualified to be leading spiritually in any way because of everything that I went through and everything that I did,” he told the Palm Beach Post. “Other people champion it because they go, ‘It’s about time that churches are led by people who know what it feels like to, you know, fall on their face and be in the gutter.’”

In his message on Sunday, he argued that “real Christianity” is “much more scandalous than most of us realize.”

“I wanna focus your attention this morning on Mark 10. I’m gonna read verses 17-22 and then also verse 27. This is part four or a short series that I’ve entitled ‘Upside down Christianity.’ And the whole purpose of this series has been to look at various episodes in the life and ministry of Jesus and to show how Jesus turned conventional religious wisdom upside down and inside out,” he began.

“In fact, his very existence confronted and contradicted the religious establishment of his day. By looking at different episodes of his life we get a sense of what real Christianity actually is and it’s much more scandalous than most of us realize,” he noted.

Near the end of his message, he veered into his own scandal and what he had learned from it.

“I’ve been very open, upfront and honest, painfully and uncomfortably transparent about my life completely coming off the rails in 2015 as a result of choices that I made. And I still deal, and I don’t think it will ever fully go away. It’s probably a gift to me honestly, because it keeps me dependent on God and makes me realize afresh that His grace is undeserved,” he said, noting he was still struggling to get over it.

“I still deal with a level of guilt and shame and regret for how I hurt my family and how I hurt my friends and how I let people down back in 2015. I screwed up and people got hurt because of me. And because of that, I still deal with,” he said tearing up and his voice slightly cracking.

“It is like it happened yesterday when I think about the moment I sat my three children down … in my living room to tell them what I had done and the look of their face and the words that came out of their mouth. I will never ever forget. And my relationship with my kids, it always has been, unbelievable. But I will never forget the ways in which I hurt them specifically, the ways in which I let other people down and hurt other people,” he said. “The way that I betrayed my first wife and all of those things. Ok.”

He noted however that because “Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail without fearing that God will leave me or forsake me.

“God’s love for me, God’s acceptance of me, God’s approval of me has nothing to do with me and has everything to do with what God in Christ has done on my behalf.”

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