As one week gives way to another, I attempt to provide a roundup of the themes that were prominent among Christian writers in the week that was. This week people were discussing a pastor who had been called out for sins committed 20 years ago and they were expressing sympathy for the girl he victimized. They were discussing how to properly handle such allegations and wondering whether such sin is a permanent disqualifier from ministry. Christians were also thinking about Oprah Winfrey and whether she may be taking steps toward a presidential run in 2020. These were just some of this week’s headlines and happenings…
Andy Savage and Pastors Who Commit Sexual Sin
A story broke this week that has ignited or reignited a number of important conversations. It was the news of a “sexual incident” involving megachurch pastor Andy Savage. Though he is currently teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennesse, this occurred 20 years ago when he was youth pastor at StoneBridge Church in The Woodlands, Texas. At that time he developed a relationship with 17-year-old Jules Woodson that led to him offering to drive her home from church after an event. Instead of taking her home, he took her to an isolated place where they participated in sexual acts. The Washington Post has the full account of what happened then and in the days and months that followed.
Within hours this story had been picked up by many major American media outlets. Highpoint Church quickly came to Savage’s defense and, in Sunday’s worship service, provided him a plattform to apologize and explain. After he did so, the church stood to applaud him in what has since been called “the standing ovation heard round the world.” Though the story broke through blogs, most people learned of it through headlines in the mainstream media like this one: “Megachurch pastor gets standing ovation after admitting ‘sexual incident’ with teenager.” Savage was soon placed on leave of absence pending a third-party investigation while both he and Highpoint’s lead pastor Chris Conlee saw Baker cancel the release of their forthcoming books.
Many Christian blogs and media outlets responded with sympathy toward Jules Woodson and with rebuke for the handling of the situation by Savage and Highpoint Church. Many people pointed out this was not rightly a “sexual incident” but an actual sexual assault because Savage was in a position of spiritual leadership and authority—he was her youth pastor. Though he has since insisted the acts were mutual, this has only highlighted the reality that as a pastor he bears full responsibility for his actions. Authorities have said they will not investigate or charge him because they have no ability to do so under 1998 laws.
Many other writers (rightly) pointed out the impropriety and terrible optics of a church standing to applaud their pastor for his confession while still others discussed whether sexual sin is always a permanent disqualifier from pastoral ministry (I believe it is). Some (rightly) praised Austin Stone Church for taking immediate action in regard to Larry Cotton, a pastor of their church who was at StoneBridge at the time this happened. Their statement read, in part, “In light of the seriousness of these accusations against Larry Cotton, we feel that due diligence is appropriate to ensure Larry’s qualification for his current role of leadership. In order to remove our potential bias from the situation, we have placed Larry on a leave of absence while an investigation by a third-party organization is undertaken. We will provide a full report to the church after its completion.”
Key reading includes Ed Stetzer’s Andy Savage’s Standing Ovation Was Heard Round the World. Because It Was Wrong; Jonathan Leeman’s Forgive, but don’t return repentant pastors to pulpit; and Ruth Graham’s How the Evangelical Culture of Forgiveness Hurts Victims of Sexual Abuse.
This week also saw the 2018 Golden Globe Awards. The moment everyone was speaking about in the aftermath was Oprah Winfrey’s speech which many took to be an early campaign address on her path to the White House. While many Christian bloggers commented, most left the punditry to a couple of professionals: Ross Douthat writing for the New York Times and Elizabeth Dias for Time.
Douthat wrote a column titled Oprah: Prophet, Priestess … Queen?. He points specifically to the religion Winfrey espouses and says, “her essential celebrity is much closer to the celebrity of Pope Francis or Billy Graham. She is a preacher, a spiritual guru, a religious teacher, an apostle and a prophetess. Indeed, to the extent that there is a specifically American religion, a faith tradition all our own, Oprah has made herself its pope.” Her faith is not aligned with any of the major traditions, but something populist and self-made. “But in between secularism and traditionalism lies the most American approach to matters of faith: a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.”
Meanwhile, Time magazine pointed out that “beneath their vastly different images, Winfrey and [Donald] Trump share the same populist theology. Both preach a gospel of American prosperity, the popular cultural movement that helped put Trump in the White House in 2016. … Winfrey and Trump both preach a gospel of wealth, health, and self-determination, following in the relatively recent prosperity gospel tradition, which broadly speaking says that God wants people to be wealthy and healthy and that followers are responsible for their own destiny here on Earth.”
Al Mohler covered this story in an episode of The Briefing, saying “By any measure, Oprah is a very big factor on the American scene, but it’s really interesting to note that over the last 20 plus years Americans have come to know the major messaging Oprah is trying to send. It is a message perfectly fitted for our postmodern and post-Christian times, a message that is mostly about self-actualization and, for that matter, the development of the self as the primary lifelong project. Oprah is all about affirmation, and, in particular, about the kind of affirmation that is particularly acceptable and celebrated in not only elite culture but in what we can see is the cultural trend line, the trend line towards self-affirmation. And that means that in terms of a moral worldview the center of it actually is the self and the major verb that could be used in a moral sense is indeed affirmation or its close cognates such as acceptance and celebration.” Gene Veith rounded up these stories and a few others. The Babylon Bee took the opportunity to make a jab: Nation’s Progressives Suddenly In Favor Of Electing TV Personalities As President.