In the past 18 months, the church has seen two very well-known Christian figures fall from grace in the media. First Mark Driscoll did a Citizen Kane sort of nosedive off his Mars Hill tower, and now the Duggars are in the middle of a child sex scandal. It’s been a strange year.
As I reflected on that last night, it occurred to me what these two situations have in common.
In both cases, the disgraced parties had flaming red flags in their background that were easy to find, but the majority of people didn’t ask questions until a good old-fashioned media scandal made the problems too blatant to ignore.
Am I the only one that finds that upsetting?
Growing up in the Bible Belt, you hear a lot about the need for discernment.
Make sure the teachings you hear line up with the Bible. Don’t let people tell you just anything about faith.
You also hear a great deal about the shallow morals of the media.
News outlets and gossip columns are all about preying on people’s dirty laundry. The media trades in money, sex, and perversion.
Well, guess what? The two large and public ripples within Christendom this year had to do with the media airing dirty laundry about money and perversion, and it took people by surprise because they hadn’t looked closely at the troubling aspects of their heroes’ teachings. If that ain’t irony.
For example: I was beyond shocked that money was the thing to finally bring down Mark Driscoll. Really? I thought. Money?
When he openly mocked women, Anglicans, and gay individuals, people somehow found ways to excuse that by appealing to traditional teachings on gender roles. When he preached about how pastors should be listened to unquestioningly, people didn’t blink. When he ignored the proper exegesis of Bible passages so they’d support his opinions, most people didn’t notice or care. When he crashed a conference he disagreed with and then made very misleading statements about their reaction on social media, everyone was like, “Meh.” When he publicly implied that pacifism could jeopardize one’s salvation, no one said a friggin’ word. I began to think there was nothing he could do or say, no theological or exegetical taboo he could commit, that would make those around him do a double-take.
But a money scandal, and a public one to boot—now that’s the sort of thing that people should care about, right? It was only after the money scandal that ex-pastors were able to come forward to convince everyone that Mars Hill had a problem behind the scenes. Oh…no, wait, ex-pastors had come forward before, and that still hadn’t led to Driscoll being removed or reprimanded.
So it really was about the money. That, and the Moneygate media frenzy that ensued. Remind me again how Christians are supposed to be discerning about our morals and theology and not swayed by money and media scandals?
The Duggars are a similar situation, although not identical. It’s right and just for people to be up in arms when it turns out that children have been sexually harmed. I’m glad the media caused a stir, and that so many in the church stood up and said “No” to that.
But again, why did it take a full-blown public scandal for people to look closer and ask questions?
Writer after writer after writer had previously expressed concern over the Duggars and their belief system. I’m not linking you to cynical news hounds who love to ridicule religion; we’re talking about people who lived the same theology as the Duggars and recognized afterwards that it had destructive tendencies (in many cases, these alarmed writers were/are still Christians).
The groups the Duggars support, and are supported by, are well-known. That ghastly victim-blaming Gothard manual for dealing with sexual abuse? You can find discussions of that in blogs from survivors of Gothard’s extreme movement. For that matter, it’s public knowledge that Gothard himself fell from grace some time ago for grooming and sexually preying upon young women. (And by the way, the Duggars supported him after this came to light).
Oh, you say the secular media has reported that the Duggars use rods to spank their kids and endorse fundamentalist writers whose dangerous child discipline methods have been implicated in at least three deaths? People were writing about that in connection with the Duggars back in 2011.
Despite all this, it seemed to me that the majority of evangelical church culture, as well as TLC viewers, kept supporting the Duggars and assuming that people only disliked them because they were conservative and wanted bunches of kids. (Laying aside, for a moment, the fact that the Duggars’ belief system does not allow them to prevent pregnancy even by natural means, rendering the question of how many kids they “want” utterly null and void to their life choices).
To be honest, I get why people wanted to believe in them. In a world where stay-at-home moms sometimes feel looked down upon and misunderstood, Michelle Duggar appeared to bring dignity to the role in the eyes of the public. Everyone wants to see their lifestyle positively portrayed.
But again, we Christians like to pride ourselves on being discerning. We’re told to measure things—even teachings from other Christians—against scripture, and to be on guard against misleading teachings. We’re raised to base our values on something higher than what sells in the gossip columns.
Yet we keep missing the warning signs and paying attention only when the gossip column gets hold of it. Why?
Why don’t we ask more questions about our leaders and spokespersons? Why do we fail to listen when people bring up thoughtful concerns about leaders based on logic and sound theology and responsible exegesis, but we do give much more credence when there’s a big media scandal?
Again, I’m not criticizing people for paying attention to the media scandals. When news outlets report on something horrible like money scandals and sexual abuse, yes, please, care about those things! But don’t wait for the media frenzy to tell you that something’s fishy with one of your role models. If we can’t spot shady theological teachings on our own, then folks, we’ve got a problem.
And unfortunately, there’s that pesky detail of self-reflection that always comes up right about now. I have heroes within Christendom that I don’t like to question, either. I praise churches and speakers and movements without a ton of motivation to look harder at them. I suppose one of these days I’m going to be on the other end of an obvious but missed red flag that I won’t acknowledge until the media waves it in my face.
So when that happens, feel free to write a blog post back at me. Hopefully, if we all start paying more attention, we won’t get blindsided so often.