A friend asked recently why I had not posted in my blog since April 2021? Events that shook my world in the fall of 2021 immediately came to mind, along with the resulting pain of spiritual abuse that accompanied them.
It began when a close friend confided that she saw online that our church’s newly hired director of small group ministries had been convicted of sexual offenses in another state. Somehow, when he moved to our city, his name was not added to our state’s sex offender registry as his sentence required. Another survivor-friend and I contacted our pastor to express our concerns. To our dismay, we soon discovered that our pastor was already aware of this staff member’s past and that he and his elder team chose to hire him anyway. They believed he had humbly shared his story, repented, received forgiveness, and was now qualified to lead ministry to families in our church based on his personal testimony, which had not yet been shared with the congregation. However, had the pastor and elders googled his name and the word “crime,” or sought access to court records from his trial and incarceration two years earlier, as my friends and I subsequently did, they would have discovered that his crime was not a Romeo-Juliet teenage affair as he professed, but rather was committed against a 15-year-old girl while he was employed as her 21-year-old youth director.
From the onset, our church’s leadership celebrated this new staff member’s contributions to their growing ministry and marginalized our concerns. Fortunately, upon becoming aware of the situation, our local sheriff’s office ensured that he was placed on our state’s sex offender registry and informed our pastor that it was illegal for him to be employed by a church. Nevertheless, even after reviewing details from court documents my friends and I subsequently provided, the pastor still refused to provide the congregation with these facts. Some leaders in the church even wrote recommendation letters to try to help the former staff member get off the sex-offender registry and helped pay for his attorney fees!
I was deeply affected by their failure to protect our church family and by their attitudes toward survivors as they espoused a form of “cheap grace” that assumed we were bitter or unforgiving when we did not share their views. In the end, I left this church along with most of the others who also advocated for transparency and accountability. After being profoundly hurt, I am still prayerfully seeking to recover. Much trauma has occurred since my last blog post.
In response to these experiences, my understanding of grace and repentance has deepened as I have reflected upon both. I do not believe God’s grace erases all accountability for past sins during our lifetimes as many Christians mistakenly espouse. While God forgives sins and forgets them in eternity based on his infinite knowledge of our hearts, the consequences of past failures are still relevant in this life, and the potential for previous temptations to resurface still exists. Therefore, any form of so-called “grace” that requires people to respond to others based solely on a doctrinal stance that fails to consider temptation, accountability, or a need for heart-felt restitution is not scriptural at all, but rather “cheap grace” that greatly harms the cause of Christ.
If forgiveness removes all consequences immediately, we should open the prison doors and free all the inmates who profess any belief in Christ regardless of their likelihood to reoffend. We should also suspend all assessments of character in employment and in personal relationships. “Cheap grace” acts as though perfection has already been fully obtained. While as a Christian, I press on to be perfected in love, I do not believe the full effects of God’s perfecting grace have been realized in my life yet, or in others, nor do I expect others to treat me as if that were so. That will only happen when we see Jesus face-to-face! In the meantime, Biblical grace provides forgiveness while at the same time providing proper boundaries to help Christlikeness grow.
The fruit of genuine repentance is full acknowledgement of one’s sin and a subsequent change in one’s life that is readily observable over time. Repentance also produces deep humility that regrets what happened so much as to run from the prospect of repeating it–unlike in the case of this staff member who applied for youth pastor positions while working for our church. Being broken over one’s sin includes the realization that sin is sometimes serious enough to be defined as crime, or significant enough to traumatize a whole community. Consequently, I believe sexual offenders should not seek to place themselves in positions of authority over past or potential victims, nor should church leaders permit this to occur.
Lastly, in scripture the concept of restitution is very real. How does an offender make restitution to a victim when the courts have forbidden him or her to have contact? Perhaps by acknowledging the depth of harm that occurred in overall victim-honoring-ways rather than expecting others to look the other way and pretend proper boundaries don’t apply in the name of grace. And, of course, if contact has not been forbidden, restitution may include listening to victim(s) tell their stories and responding in practical ways rather than just offering a generalized apology that fails to even include the victim sometimes. For instance, an offender could pay for the cost of counseling to help their own victim(s) or other victims recover from trauma and attain wholeness.
After my departure, my former church wanted to protect their reputation, so they invited GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to train their leadership team in best practices related to sexual abuse. When GRACE learned the extent of their previous and ongoing practices, they suggested an independent review. Unfortunately, the church responded by canceling their contract with GRACE and decided to hire another organization instead.
As all this was happening in our church, another case was unfolding in a nearby county that further highlights the serious repercussions of “cheap grace.” Twenty-year-old Jennifer Cobb testified against her abuser, “Coach Bob,” at his bond hearing in June 2021. Bob allegedly began molesting Jennifer at a local YMCA at the age of 12 while serving as her gymnastics coach. Two local pastors served as character witnesses for Bob at the hearing that day, and Jennifer committed suicide six days later. Her family and others believe the actions of these spiritual leaders influenced her decision to end her life. Once again, “cheap grace” marginalized a survivor and elevated the offender in ways that reduced this young women’s hope for justice and negatively impacted the gospel of Christ for those who would subsequently be touched by her tragic story.
I have observed first-hand how costly “cheap grace” is in terms of the destruction it causes. Because my church’s leadership practiced “cheap grace” toward offenders, innocent youth in the church family were exposed to unnecessary risk. Sexual abuse survivors were retraumatized and spiritually abused. The church community at large was lulled into a false sense of security as their leaders gave lip service to best practices while forbidding the transparency necessary to create a truly safe environment for everyone, including offenders. In addition, people outside the church who became aware of the situation, ended up questioning the ethics of Christians, and in some instances, doubting the trustworthiness of the Christ they professed to represent. The pastor and his team of elders blamed this on “the sin of gossip” rather than fully acknowledging their own culpability. This very sad state of affairs, no doubt, still grieves the heart of Jesus. Thank you for your prayers as I continue to recover from the wounds of “cheap grace” at a different church.
Has your life also been impacted by “cheap grace”? If so, how, and what did you learn from your experiences?
4 thoughts on “The Costly Impact of “Cheap Grace””
By reading your blog, I could feel your deep heart about the grace. Sad to hear the story in church and am proud of your fighting for Godly grace.
You expressed so well things I have been feeling for a long time. I never put it into words. There can be so much pressure to forgive even when no restitution has been made. This indeed is a form of spiritual abuse. I am Catholic. I keep trying to explain to people that my fear of and aversion to priests is a psychological response. It has nothing to do with theology. You can’t help your psychological responses to things. But you put it well…the consequences of sin don’t automatically disappear. My psychological response is due to the morally repugnant and abusive way I was treated by a handful of priests. That is a consequence of their sins.
Thank you so much for your comments. I’m so sorry you were so wounded by priests in the past, and it’s also hurtful when other Christians fail to understand the psychological impact of trauma or to respond with the heart of God. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me from reading the gospels is that Jesus is very different from many clergy leaders who profess to represent Him now. In fact, it was the clergy of his day who opposed him! I pray that you are comforted by His love and restored by His healing grace.