We can be motivated by conscience, like Las Casas was, the words of Sirach reverberating in his mind. We can recognize, as Las Casas did, the ways in which our wealth is ill-gotten, and avoid both scrupulosity and complacency in our response to that recognition. We can be troubled by our own relationship to the status quo and use our position within it to advocate for those without. Or we can be motivated by the approval of others, like Sepúlveda was, more interested in intellectual accolades and social capital than the mandates of the Gospel.
Here is what I know: I know that evangelicalism has its Las Casas and its Sepulvedas. I have a few people in mind who I’d clearly put in the Las Casas category, but won’t name them because I don’t want to embarrass anyone. And some of our Sepulvedas are obvious—Falwell Jr, Metaxas, D’Souza, Jeffress, etc.
But there is also something I don’t know. Where exactly is the line between Las Casas and Sepulveda?
I have no problem IDing Jeffress as being on the Sepulveda side. But what about Sovereign Grace or the Paige Patterson controversy?
Are the people who try to protect the men implicated in them making the errors that Sepulveda made? Or are they just trying to follow due process, be thorough, and make sure no one is falsely accused? That point is obviously very important—false accusation can ruin lives. Accusations are not proof, after all, and we should not make false accusation—one of the ten commandments is quite explicitly about that very thing.
But the distinction between “protecting a status quo that benefits oneself” and “trying to sincerely follow due process,” is not always easy to discern. Sometimes it is. The folks I named above—Jeffress, D’Souza, etc.—have clearly passed it. But most cases aren’t that clear cut. There are always more appeals that can be made, particularly given that many cases of assault do not come with an obvious smoking gun that proves the guilt of the accused.
And even when you do get a smoking gun, some people will find ways to quibble with the evidence in the name of “just being fair” or “hearing both sides.” That’s the entire story of the 2016 election, after all. If you brag about grabbing women by the pussy and you’re named Donald Trump, there are professing Christians who will defend you. If you’re Donald Trump and you pay a porn star to sleep with you immediately after your (third) wife gives birth to your son, there are conservative Christian leaders who will say, “ehh, let’s give him a mulligan there.”
One does not recall seeing that word when Nathan confronted David.
What further tightens the screws for me is the fact that I have known many people victimized by abusive Christians either sexually, physically, or verbally. When I read stories like the ones connected to the ongoing Patterson saga or the Andy Savage story or the Sovereign Grace story, I’m not just thinking of a Jane Doe I’ve never met and will never meet. I am thinking of friends of mine and people I grew up with, many of whom have left the faith in the aftermath of their abuse. I can picture their faces as I read these stories. What I can’t do is imagine what it must feel like to them when a man like Savage stands in front of the congregation and is applauded for confessing to horrific crimes.
Almost 10 years ago Michael Spencer predicted a coming evangelical collapse. There are many different reasons for such a collapse, of course, and Spencer cites most of them. One he lands on in the opening pages of Mere Churchianity is that America’s evangelical churches don’t look very like Jesus. If he could read Catherine’s piece, I rather suspect he’d say that we look more like Sepulveda.
And what disturbs me is that I think he’d probably be right.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).