Rachael Denhollander Claims Evangelical Church Is 'Perpetually Stuck' When Addressing Sexual Abuse

Sexual assault survivor Rachael Denhollander addresses disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar in Lansing, Michigan on January 24, 2018. | (Screenshot: CBS)

Rachael Denhollander, the woman who led the charge in bringing down USA Gymnastics physician Dr. Larry Nassar for his sexual crimes against gymnasts under his care, is speaking out again about abuse in the evangelical church. The evangelical church is "perpetually stuck" when it comes to dealing with it, she says.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Denhollander — an attorney who was once a gymnast who Nassar abused and who has been speaking out about her concerns regarding the failures of Sovereign Grace Ministries and other churches in handling sexual abuse — commented on the controversy over statements Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson made 18 years ago during an interview in which he was asked whether wives should submit to their husbands, even when they are abusive.

Denhollander began her post, "When it's in our own community — evangelicals," by saying that the most powerful question she has ever been asked is: "Do you care? Do you care enough to do something about it?"

"And this is where we are perpetually stuck when it comes to abuse, or mishandling abuse, in our own communities. We all say we care. But when it costs, it suddenly doesn't matter quite enough to bear the cost even of just speaking up," Denhollander said.

"The test of how much we care is how we respond when we have to reckon with 'our own.' Because make no mistake, it is *most* painful when it is in my own community. It costs the most when we speak up against those closest to us. And yet it is within my own community that I am *most* accountable for how I respond," she wrote.

Last week, a blog posted an audio interview of Patterson in 2000 with the Council on Biblical Womanhood and Manhood in which some suggested that he appeared to support women staying with their abusive husbands rather than divorcing them. That interview has since generated controversy and calls for Patterson to step down as president of the seminary. 

Patterson, 75, who is considered a key figure in what was known as the Conservative Resurgence within the Convention, said in the interview that while he never counsels a woman to get a divorce, he does support separation and, according to him, he even received threats at one point when he helped an abused woman leave her husband.

"... on an occasion during my New Orleans pastorate, my own life was threatened by an abusive husband because I counseled his wife, and assisted her, in departing their home to seek protection. In short, I have no sympathies at all for cowardly acts of abuse toward women," Patterson added.

He also said that, in his ministry, he has "never counseled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that's always wrong counsel." He followed that with a story about a woman he counseled and advised to pray for her abusive husband. Later, she showed up at church with two black eyes. Patterson said she was angry with him. But unbeknownst to her at that moment, her husband had entered the church, repented for his actions, and gave his life to Christ. 

In a statement released on the seminary's website on Sunday, Patterson responded to the backlash, saying, "I have never counseled or condoned abuse of any kind. I will never be a party to any position other than that of the defense of any weaker party when subjected to the threat of a stronger party. This certainly includes women and children. Any physical or sexual abuse of anyone should be reported immediately to the appropriate authorities, as I have always done."

Denhollander, in her post, further reiterated that evangelical institutional failures in handling domestic and sexual abuse, especially those of Sovereign Grace Ministries, deeply harms the Gospel's witness.

"This damages God's children. It damages the Gospel. And it should matter. Even, and especially, when it hurts and costs. Not because we want the church, or the Gospel damaged, but because we want it seen in all its true beauty, and this mars it horribly."

Yet evangelicals are divided on the issue of divorce, another Southern Baptist leader noted Monday. 

Writing on his blog, Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College — the undergraduate institution of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky — observed that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul say that a person must be divorced if there is marital infidelity or desertion but that a divorce can be permissible in those two situations.

While abuse "appears not to be listed as one of the exceptions when divorce is allowed" he said, "I think this is a misreading of the biblical material."

"When it comes to abuse, one's view of divorce is not the immediate issue. Those who hold the 2-exceptions view and those who hold the 'no divorce ever' view must agree on this: No matter what one's view on divorce is, all faithful Christians must be absolutely clear that abuse is a sin and a crime," Burk elaborated.

"Faithfulness to Christ means confronting abusers and protecting the abused — which will include removing the abused from the presence of the abuser and reporting the abuse to civil authorities."

Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: BrandonMarkShowalter Follow Brandon Showalter on Twitter: @BrandonMShow

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