About two weeks ago Dee and I were contacted by Wesley Heilman. Wesley is a former member of Immanuel Baptist Church of Louisville, KY. You may recall Immanuel Baptist Church is also the former church of Rachael and Jacob Denhollander, pastored by Ryan Fullerton. Here is what Wesley said in his email:
“I was a member of Immanuel for five years and went through an abusive experience, and have since been processing the experience, learning about church abuse, and talking with other people who have had similar experiences there. Todd had written about Rachael Denhollander, who was a member there, and that situation was worse than I think he even realizes.
Anyway, the short of it is that another former member and I have started a website devoted to sharing testimonies of former Immanuel members, and writing articles that expose the abuse. It is called WhyILeftImmanuel.org. I thought Todd would be interested. The last thing I remember him writing was that Immanuel had written a public apology to Rachael, and Todd said he’d have to wait and see whether any fruit would come of it; well, I recommend he read my article “Immanuel’s Fake Apology to Rachael Denhollander.” Nothing has changed there, and the apology is condemned as highly manipulative by the work of both Dr. Wade Mullen and Dr. Julia Dahl (image repair theory and such things).
We are hoping the website will lead to others coming forward with their stories. I have heard others that I don’t have permission yet to share, and heard that there are many other stories as well, and I myself keep finding articles to write about what’s happening there, digging deeper and exposing more problems. But just wanted to make Todd aware, and would be interested in his thoughts. Thank you!”
I went to Wesley’s website and read several of the articles. I immediately thought two things – Wesley is a very gifted writer, and this story needs to get out. I then talked over the phone with Wesley and asked his permission to reprint his article on The Wartburg Watch. Wesley granted permission and his article follows. I echo what Wesley said above; “I hope this story will lead others to come forward with their stories.”
In May of 2018, Immanuel Baptist Church, of Louisville, KY, sent a statement to The Washinton Post that purported to be an apology for their treatment of Rachael Denhollander, a former member of their church who, after leaving, went on to take down Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor who had been molesting young gymnasts for decades. Unfortunately, despite the careful crafting of Immanuel’s apology, a close examination of it in the context of what actually happened reveals a textbook manipulation strategy, and a church that feels threatened and is more interested in doing damage control for their reputation than repenting and reconciling with those they’ve hurt.
What actually happened, then? It began with Immanuel inviting C.J. Mahaney to preach at our church in 2016. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace denomination had grown international by the early 2010’s, when things began to fall apart due to accusations of sexual abuse in SGC churches and alleged cover-ups of these instances by SGC pastors. In 2011, Mahaney stepped down from his position as head of the SGC network under accusations of various sins, culminating in the release of 600 pages of church emails and documents by former SGC board member Brent Detwiler. In 2012, an SGC leader named Nathaniel Morales was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexual assault, and a lawsuit was filed against SGC alleging other instances of sexual misconduct. Mahaney rebooted himself with a church plant in Louisville in 2012, moving close to his powerful friend Al Mohler and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Mohler has since cut all ties with Mahaney after Rachael’s continued exposure of SGC following the Nassar trial.)
Rachael, for her part, is a lawyer, and had been following the situation and compiling her own case against SGC. She called it “one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen.” She was an Immanuel member at the time, and her husband was a small group leader, and they became concerned when Immanuel invited Mahaney to preach. They asked to speak with an elder.
When we first sat down to discuss our concerns, I said, “I want to be very careful how I express our concerns—” only to be cut off by the leader.
“I definitely suggest that you should be,” he said with a firm nod of his head.
I was shocked. What is that supposed to mean? I’ve never even talked to this pastor before. He doesn’t even know me. (Rachael Denhollander, What Is A Girl Worth?, p. 141-42)
Rachael then expresses her concerns and offers her information, and though Immanuel isn’t interested in taking a closer look at the Mahaney situation, they apparently take a very careful look at Rachael’s Facebook posts on sexual abuse. They call a follow-up meeting where they express offense at her posts:
“The leader from our church whom we’d asked to talk with…told me that the church leaders felt that I had disparaged the elders by expressing my concerns about their support of SGC when two close friends of ours, also church members, had asked about it (145-46).
This leader tells her that she has been divisive by expressing her concerns to them, then says:
“You’ve posted on this issue of SGC, and your position is different from the position the elders have taken…You cannot discuss SGC in any context where another member might hear that your position differs from the leadership’s” (146).
They later bring their own document outlining four ways they think Rachael disparaged them, and finally come to an agreement that it was a misunderstanding caused by a single word:
“They agreed it was a misunderstanding caused by my use of the word ‘inaccurate’ to describe the posts our elders had put up that were, in fact, inaccurate. They’d even acknowledged they were inaccurate. I felt helpless” (147).
Despite this realization, Immanuel continues trying to find the fault to be with Rachael:
“You’re a very intelligent woman, Rachael,” one of the elders said. “It would be easy for you to plant ideas without directly saying something. Are you sure you haven’t used your communication skills to do that?” (147).
Rachael had not been planting ideas but had simply been concerned about victims of abuse. This concern stemmed from her own experience of sexual abuse during two periods of her life (first in church as a child, later by Larry Nassar), a fact that she confessed to Immanuel (147). But part of Immanuel’s response to her confession was to accuse her of projecting these men’s abuse of her onto Mahaney. Rachael says in her interview with Christianity Today, after the Nassar trial:
“This part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded…My status as a victim was used against my advocacy.”
Immanuel then commands her to be completely silent on the issue:
“I was told not to post about SGC anymore in any context and not to discuss it with anyone in the church, or anywhere a churchgoer might see or hear” (148).
Rachael gives an apology, despite not having done anything wrong (strangely, even by Immanuel’s own admission), and then removes all of her Facebook posts related to SGC or sexual assault. Despite her response, however, the elders then decide that she had “done too much damage” (202) and created “too much baggage” (148), and they remove her husband from his position of leadership over their care group, and shut down the group. The Denhollanders’ appeals are fruitless.
Around this same time, an opportunity opens up for Rachael to begin exposing Larry Nassar, and to file a police report, which she does, and the subsequent media coverage grows national. The investigation takes a severe toll on Rachael, with no offer of help or support from Immanuel.
“Jacob and I continued to be isolated from our church…The pain from that experience ran deep and greatly compounded the exclusion and grief Jacob and I felt” (202).
Then, in perhaps the strangest moment of the whole ordeal, the leaders reach out to the Denhollanders after their van gets broken into and Jacob’s work tools stolen—while still not offering any help regarding the Nassar case:
“I posted about it on Facebook,” [Jacob] said, bemused. “Four leaders in the church called to see if we needed anything.”
I exhaled slowly. “Four leaders called to check up on us because of the van?”
”Yeah,” he said, irony in his voice. “Within two hours.”
I dropped my head into my hands. “Are we even on the prayer chain for this national investigation?”
He let out a soft laugh. “Nope. We’ve never heard a word” (220).
Rachael continues enduring the investigation and lawsuit, during which she is forced daily to relive and describe repeated instances of sexual abuse; is routinely exhausted while trying to juggle the lawsuit, work, and raising several children; is forced to release her private diary detailing her trauma not only to the judge and jury, but to Larry Nassar himself; and suffers from daily nightmares related to the abuse. In the context of Immanuel’s treatment of her throughout this time, a visit to her former church in Michigan elicits this response:
“I wanted to cry with relief simply to be in a church that felt safe” (177).
But, again, with Immanuel:
“In the middle of it all, daily life continued. Jacob and I tried to work through things with our church, but we made no progress” (214).
Finally, Rachael and her husband find another church. Eventually, in 2018, Nassar is convicted and sentenced to over 100 years in prison, after more than 150 woman testify against him, in what had become one of the largest sexual assault cases in American sports history. Rachael becomes a national hero, writes an article in The New York Times where she mentions that she lost her church, and is interviewed by Christianity Today, where she gives more details of how she was treated by her church. (The following year she also wrote a book detailing her whole experience, and was voted one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of the Year.) Immanuel, according to themselves, enters into a “season of deep self-examination,” and eventually comes out with a public statement, sent to TheWashington Post.
The statement attempts, among other things, to give reasons for Immanuel’s failure toward Rachael, and the crux of the apology is here:
“Rather, our failures stemmed from not listening to and properly understanding Rachael’s concerns about our invitation to have Sovereign Grace Church leaders preach to our church. We simply did not have the categories to fully discern what Rachael was saying at the time. This misunderstanding then played a role in our seeing the Denhollanders’ articulation of these concerns as divisive instead of informative.”
And the entire apology hinges on a single sentence: “We simply did not have the categories to fully discern what Rachael was saying at the time.” This, according to Immanuel, led to a “misunderstanding” that caused all of their evil treatment of Rachael; and so the real culprit in this situation, the cause of all the problems, was Immanuel’s supposed lack of “categories.” So let’s take a look at “what Rachael was saying,” and the “categories” needed to discern these things.
First, Rachael had said to them that the case against Mahaney and SGC looked very bad, that she (a lawyer) had spent a long time studying these things (p. 147), and that they should look at the information before inviting Mahaney to preach at our church. Now, what categories do you need to be able to discern this? Simply the understanding (the “category”) that one must make informed decisions rather than uninformed decisions. This is not only common sense, but is Biblical: “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way” (Prov. 19, Rom. 10). However, instead of understanding that a file coming from a lawyer, whose husband is a leader in your church, is a situation in which you could hardly be more likely to get reliable information, Immanuel rather slanders Rachael and insults her professional capabilities:
“I was accused of sitting around reading angry blog posts all day. That’s not how I do research. That’s never how I’ve done research.”
Immanuel was, apparently, taking it on faith from a friend that Mahaney was in the clear:
“Our church, the [elder] confirmed, was relying on the personal word of a prominent pastor who had supposedly looked into and then overseen [Mahaney’s] return to authority” (142).
The likely candidate for this prominent pastor is Mark Dever, who is close with Mahaney, and who is Ryan’s favorite preacher. Dever’s word would have gone a long way with Ryan, but Ryan appears to have forgotten that it is written, “The first to present his case seems right, until another comes along and questions him” (Prov.). This prominent pastor was the first to present his case, and Rachael was the one to come along and question, but Immanuel ignored Biblical wisdom and supported Mahaney without looking into the issue further.
Now, how could Immanuel lack the “category” of looking into carefully-prepared information on a very serious subject? The answer is that they certainly did not lack it, because when information surfaces that they don’t like, they pursue it, analyze it, and parse it with zeal. As we’ve seen, after the first couple meetings with the Denhollanders, and after Rachael confesses to them her own abuse, Immanuel comes back in another meeting with “a list of four things I was believed to have said that troubled them” (147). They discuss things “for hours” (147), and in the end determine it was a misunderstanding over Rachael’s use of the word “inaccurate” to describe some elder posts. And even having failed to find sins, and realizing the mistake was on their part, they then continue digging, looking for invisible sins and craftily-planted subversions.
So when Immanuel finds information threatening to them, they show a meticulous concern for scrutinizing and analyzing it, even to the point of looking for secret, hidden things. Thus, not only is the need to make properly-informed decisions common sense and Biblical, but Immanuel demonstrates their understanding of how to gather and analyze information when they find it to be in their interest. Therefore, this is not a “category” that they were lacking.
Secondly, Rachael informed them that she had been sexually abused herself. What “categories” do you need to “fully discern what Rachael is saying” here? You need two: 1) You need to know what sexual abuse is; and 2) You need to know that it’s very damaging and requires supporting an abused woman. Somehow these “categories” were beyond ten elders with numerous seminary degrees and decades of pastoral experience between them, even though they don’t appear to have beyond anyone else. When Rachael first told Jacob about her abuse when they were dating, he responded:
“I am so sorry.” …He was looking at me gently and with grief… “This is not your fault,” he said firmly but kindly.
“I don’t expect you to say or believe that,” I answered.
”But I know it’s not,” he said softly. “It was abuse. That’s never your fault.” He paused again. “I’m angry on your behalf, and I’m hurt for you…You need to know this does not diminish your value. This doesn’t make me think less of you…All this does is give me direction for how to best serve and care for you” (121).
Rachael’s former church in Michigan knew how to respond:
“[Pastor] Andrew bowed his head briefly and looked back up. “I am so sorry, Rachael,” he said, grief evident in his voice. Zach, the second pastor, spoke up. “How are you two doing handling this? This has got to be incredibly difficult.” …They asked our preferences for communicating to the church. How could they pray for us? How could they support us? …”We will be holding you up” (177-79).
“Our church family in Michigan was no less involved, offering places to stay, childcare, and prayer support,” (273).
Rachael’s new pastor In Louisville, after she had left Immanuel, knew how to respond:
“He’d searched for our social media profiles to make a friend request, and the Google results weren’t what he’d expected. He said he was so sorry. He was praying for us and was ready to help,” (251).
And Rachael’s family also knew how to respond:
“My parents did everything they could to lighten the load” (192).
How can ten pastors not have the “categories” to “fully discern” compassion in that moment, when everyone else had these categories intuitively?
Once again, Ryan’s Bible talks about these things. In 2 Sam. 13, David’s daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. She is counseled by her brother Absalom “not to take this thing to heart” (as so many victims are), and then she “remained and was desolate in her brother Absalom’s house,” demonstrating the damage done to a sexual abuse victim. David himself “was very angry [when he] heard of all these matters,” (a response Ryan and the elders weren’t able to summon themselves). In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped, with two of her brothers then killing the men involved, and their entire village; “Should they have treated our sister like a prostitute?” they asked. Their action was evil, and the action of Absalom when he later killed Amnon (“for Absalom hated Amnon because he had violated his sister Tamar”), but the episodes demonstrate how the deep pain of sexual abuse extends beyond just the victim and onto those close to them.
This understanding comes directly from the Bible. If Immanuel’s elders truly lacked it (all of them?), they are too incompetent to be, or ever have been, in pastoral ministry.
Or did Immanuel also fail to read James? “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” “Widows and orphans in their distress” can be extended to all manner of the “least of these brothers of mine,” as Jesus said, among whom are undoubtedly victims of sexual abuse (in their distress). This is a basic Christian principle—but Immanuel didn’t have a category for this? Not only did they respond to her confession with slander, but they then proceeded to shut down the very group designed to give this woman care! Could anything be less Biblically appropriate?
The very issue at hand was their support of C.J. Mahaney, whose church had faced these exact kinds of issues, with accusations of sexual abuse from Sovereign Grace leaders. One of them, Nathaniel Morales, was charged with sexual abuse and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2012, well before Rachael brought her concerns. Immanuel (friends with Mahaney) hadn’t heard? They didn’t look into the issue at all before or after Rachael brought her evidence? They indeed had heard, because when these accusations surfaced, an Immanuel pastor prayed “for SGC to be able to endure these false accusations” (141). Their pastor friend had undergone a gigantic scandal that split his church, causing 1500 people to leave his flagship church and over 30 SGC churches to leave the denomination, with Mahaney himself having stepped down from his position as head of SGC under admission of various sins the year before—and they didn’t look into it enough to give themselves any “categories” to “discern” Rachael’s concerns? This is not a situation where you simply take another pastor’s word that a preacher is good to go, and let him stand in front of your congregation, especially when you have a lawyer in your church calling the decision into question on the basis of carefully-gathered information.
But the most shocking part of this whole “categories” issue is an unbelievable sermon Ryan preached just six months before they issued the public statement to Rachael. About a year and a half after they had begun opposing Rachael, and as the Nassar trial was wrapping up, with hundreds of women having come forward to testify against him—in the midst of all this, Ryan preaches a sermon on December 3, 2017, entitled, “How Jesus Changes Everything for Women.” In it he addresses a question from a woman asking his thoughts about “the sexual harassment scandals in the media.” His response is hard to believe. He begins by explaining that accusations of sexual harassment and scandal have recently increased, and after mentioning Trump’s comments about grabbing women, lists a number of then-recent examples of people who stood accused (not even convicted): Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, and Garrison Keillor. Larry Nassar, whose trial ended in conviction just a month after this sermon, is conspicuously absent from the list.
Ryan then details ways that Christians should respond to this situation in the culture, saying, “First we should expose the sin of sexual harassment and sexual assault. We should call sin “sin.” We should speak of men who can’t keep their pants on at work and can’t use their positions of power and authority without demeaning and degrading and manipulating women. We should treat them as sinners.”
He then quotes Eph. 5, which says to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Then, with seemingly no irony or concern for the way he treated Rachael, says, “Christian women should be those who speak up against any kind of sexual harassment or assault.”
He then, incredibly, in the midst of the Nassar trial concluding, and while Immanuel did absolutely nothing to stand by Rachael, goes on to say, without any hint of trouble in his conscience:
“And what an amazing thing it would be, what a Christmas gift it would be, for those who are subject to harassment and assault, if others were standing up for them.”
Yet as shocking as this statement is, Ryan goes even further, into a statement that is simply inexplicable:
“And if you lose your job for speaking up for righteousness, you will not be a loser at Immanuel, you will be among the faithful!”
Six months after this sermon, Ryan tells the world that Immanuel “simply did not have the categories to fully discern what Rachael was saying.” Your sermon was all about these categories, Ryan. The very nature of the sermon was to give people the categories to handle these issues! You listed cases of men who stood accused of these very things, and preached that “It’s always a circle of silence that allows these things to go on,” and that it “affects every level of our popular culture,” indicating you had done your homework on sexual abuse cases and the circumstances surrounding them.
So we see that Immanuel could not have failed to have these “categories” that they say they were missing. Instead, when we look into the issue, we uncover disturbing hypocrisy and hard-heartedness. Therefore, the lynchpin of their apology is removed and, as expected, the rest of the apology falls apart upon careful examination.
Here is the next problem with this apology:
“Rather, our failures stemmed from not listening to and properly understanding Rachael’s concerns about our invitation to have Sovereign Grace Church leaders preach to our church.”
Immanuel claims that their failures stemmed from not listening to Rachael’s concerns, and yet they refuse to acknowledge the reason why they failed to listen. It was not a lack of “categories,” as we’ve seen. Why was she met with immediate hostility? Why didn’t they help her at all in the midst of a national investigation, particularly in light of their reaching out to her when Jacob’s work tools were stolen? You can’t just say “We failed to listen” and then not examine your motives for such an obvious and terrible failure.
And it is simply not true that their errors came from a simple failure to listen to or properly understand Rachael’s concerns. She told them that she had been sexually abused, and they responded by saying that she was projecting Nassar’s abuse onto C.J. Mahaney. That is not a simple failure to listen or to understand her concerns about Mahaney. Their decision not to look at Rachael’s case against SGC was the failure to listen, and by definition their subsequent lack of information led them not to understand Rachael’s concerns. (That’s how it works, guys: you understand someone’s concerns by looking at the information that caused their concern in the first place.)
No, their attack on her—that she was projecting her abuse onto Mahaney—was simply gross and unwarranted slander. It was not only false, but where was their evidence for that accusation? How do they even know that that’s something abuse victims might do—they don’t have “categories” for these things, remember?
But why attack her at all? Because she was being “divisive”? (“Our misunderstanding led us to take her comments as being divisive.”) Even if she was being divisive, that doesn’t give you carte blanche for slander. Even Michael the Archangel “refused to bring a slanderous accusation” against the devil himself! (Jude 1:9) Your slander did not result from a “lack of categories,” nor did the immediate hostility that Rachael faced when she brought the information, nor did your gross failure to care for a woman still suffering the scars of sexual abuse and embroiled in a national investigation!
And they cannot even say they were sinfully holding some kind of grudge against her because of the “misunderstanding” that convinced them she was “divisive,” because they later reached out to help her and her husband over the stolen work tools. So they have a category for understanding stolen work tools (for which the Denhollanders filed a police report), but they don’t have the categories for something that is so serious that it requires a much larger police report? For something that is national news? It wouldn’t have mattered what it was at that point; those are obvious grounds to even the most simple-minded person to pay attention and give support!
Nor could they have missed what was going on. It would have been a gross and inexcusable oversight if they had, but they didn’t, as we see with the van incident, and as Rachael mentions their awareness during the trial:
“In the middle of it all, daily life continued. Jacob and I tried to work through these with our church, but we made no progress” (214).
So Immanuel’s failures did not stem from a simple failure to listen, and even if it had, they would have to give reasons for why they failed to listen in the first place.
Immanuel also claims that the “misunderstanding” stemming from their lack of “categories” then caused them to see Rachael’s concerns “as divisive”; but even this raises huge red flags. Their view of “divisiveness” was this:
“‘You cannot discuss SGC in any context where another member might hear that your position differs from the leadership’s.’”
“I was told not to post about SGC anymore in any context and not to discuss it with anyone in the church, or anywhere a churchgoer might see or hear.”
This is not only disturbing, but also blatant hypocrisy, as it is the exact opposite of what we were told in the “Introducing Immanuel” class that is required for church membership. I attended the class twice, in fact (in late 2010, and again six months later), and heard the same Ryan schtick both times, where he told us that Immanuel was a church with an open mind, where you were allowed to hold your own opinions and disagree on things. He used Revelation as an example, saying that there were elders who disagreed on the interpretation of Revelation. Yet here is a woman with a differing opinion getting completely shut down.
This claimed open-mindedness was so far from being true, in fact, that Ryan destroyed his relationship with one of the most influential members in Immanuel’s early days ten to fifteen years ago, a leader named Jim Rairick. The split in their relationship began when Ryan wanted Jim to preach more like him, and Jim said he was comfortable with his own style. (“You teach too much,” was Ryan’s criticism.) This didn’t sit well with Ryan, who began attacking Jim for years until he was forced to leave. Not satisfied with that, Immanuel began going after Jim’s brother, who was forced to leave with his family as well. Ryan has created such problems in that church for so long, in fact, that back in 2010, Jeff King (the counseling pastor who came with Ryan to Immanuel in the early 2000’s) told Jim Rairick that he was leaving Immanuel because he was tired of cleaning up all the messes Ryan creates. (He stayed for some reason, and one can only wonder what he thinks now.)
And with Rachael, even when they came to understand the error was on their own part (acknowledging that their own posts were inaccurate), they shut Rachael down. So it couldn’t have been simply that they saw “Rachael’s articulation of these concerns as divisive,” because once they got past that “articulation” (i.e., realized she was right), they still considered her divisive. Realizing the error was on theirpart, they then look for imaginary sins in Rachael:
“It would be easy for you to plant ideas without directly saying something. Are you sure you haven’t used your communication skills to do that?” (147).
To make this so much worse, they went after the Denhollanders even after Rachael “apologized” and erased all of her SGC-related posts from her Facebook page. Despite having done that, they then removed her husband from his position of leadership over their small group and shut the group down. She had pointed out a valid error in their opinion on the Mahaney situation, had apologized under duress for it and erased the offending remarks and everything relating to it—and where is the “forgiveness sought and received” that they boast about when it is sought from them? C.J. Mahaney steps down from leadership, has his church collapse, has outstanding accusations that he covered up sexual abuse in his church, and by just getting a word from a friend, Immanuel invites him to preach. This was not “too much baggage” for Immanuel. But Rachael Denhollander, acting on professional knowledge and standing up for victims of abuse, and on the basis of their disagreement between the use of a single word, and despite her fully submitting to Immanuel’s “rebuke”—this is “too much damage” for her husband to be teaching or leading anyone? If this is cause for someone to be removed from leadership, how have they not removed themselves from leadership now after all the damage they’ve caused?
The real question is, was “Don’t muzzle your congregation” even a category of blindness Immanuel was repenting of to Rachael? (What makes me think it wasn’t?)
Seeing their faults
Immanuel then gives a strange expression of their own hard-heartedness couched in language meant to give the public the opposite impression. After going on and on about how hard they supposedly worked to figure out whether they had done anything wrong—with “flurries of questions, conversations, clarifications, reading of articles, talking with church members and soliciting of advice from church leaders”— they then say:
During a long, hard pastors’ meeting in which we were beginning to see some of our faults, one of our pastors said, “We have been given a gift.”
“…in which we were beginning to see some of our faults.” This comes after Rachael’s New York Times and Christianity Today articles in January of 2018. How is it possible that Ryan could preach such a sermon as he did on Dec. 3, 2017, and not even begin to see his faults then? He laid out a program for how to address the issue of sexual assault, encouraging women to speak up against it, after several meetings with one woman who did so at Immanuel, after removing her husband from leadership, after shutting down her care group, after her becoming embroiled in a very public, national-level lawsuit, and after watching her leave their church for another—and all of it did not cause him even to begin to see his faults?
How hard-hearted is this man? How did his conscience not flare during his sermon at every reference of his as to how to care for abused women? Did he treat Rachael’s life and suffering, and his abusive treatment of her, as being so light and unimportant that subsequently studying the very issue of sexual assault and preaching about it to the church, exhorting the women of Immanuel to speak up against abusers, and assuring them they would be supported if they did, did not cause him even to begin to see the discrepancy? How is that humanly possible?!
Ryan and Immanuel were, by their own admission in this statement, in sin at this very time (“we acted sinfully unloving”). Yet David says in Ps. 32, “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer” (Ps. 32). How could Ryan feel no remorse even as he preached against the very lack of support for abused women that he himself was committing? He showed no trouble in his spirit at all! Or how could the gospel “continue to be clearly demonstrated in and through your lives” as you say, when you’d been living in sin for years? When Israel sinned, God wouldn’t go out with their armies. What gospeling were you doing while holding onto your sin? Was God pleased with you? Was he blessing you and your ministry? How, then, are there other people speaking out against you publicly regarding how you treated them during this very time?
So even when Immanuel attempts to express its supposed-penitence, we uncover severe problems.
Furthermore, Immanuel gives no indication that they are going to follow up with any kind of restoration of the wrongs committed to Rachael and her family. In the book of Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector is converted by Jesus. Tax collectors were notorious for extortion. Upon his conversion, Zacchaeus says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” His repentance not only involved changing his mind about how he was living, not only involved restoring what he’d taken, but it involved putting four times as many resources into fixing the problems as he did in creating them in the first place.
One of the ways that principle would have been evident from Immanuel would have been if they had actually repented to and reconciled with not just the Denhollanders, but also the many other innocent people whom they’ve harmed over the years and driven out of their church in the same way they drove Rachael out. They make it sound like they’ve restored all their relationships—(“He has allowed us to seek and receive forgiveness from those we have failed.”)—but this can only mean Jacob and Rachael, and at most their care group, because they certainly haven’t reconciled with the rest of us, those who have no public pressure behind us. (Although a manipulative public apology is a poor way to demonstrate reconciliation with the Denhollanders.) And this gives a very hollow ring to one of the many articles of their self-praise, when they assert that “God has increased our sensitivity to the concerns of the abused.” God doesn’t seem to be dealing in retro-active sensitivity with Immanuel.
The tone of the article gives the world the impression that Immanuel is a particularly reconciling church, which avowedly it is not. Everyone who reads this apology should understand that there has been a perpetual stream of people leaving this church for at least ten years, including leaders, complaining about exactly this kind of treatment, and that Immanuel has neither altered their ways nor reconciled. Immanuel blusters about “thoroughly repenting” and “fully repenting,” but ironically, saying you’re sorry without restoring the damage would have to be the very definition of partial repentance! How many times will their talk exceed their walk?
And as you read Immanuel’s public statement, ask yourself whether you have ever read a statement more congratulatory toward the people doing the apologizing than this one. Immanuel pats themselves on the back at every turn—about how “Bible-believing” they are, how much they “delight” in the gospel, how much of a “gift” they view this humiliation as, how they asked “flurries of questions and solicited advice from multiple church leaders,” how “fully repenting” they are, how they’re now “listening to Rachael,” how they “applaud” her stand against Nassar, how “joyful” they are in restoration, how they’re all on good terms again, and how “clearly proclaimed” the gospel is through their lives. This last one is simply incomprehensible: “We pray that…the gospel can continue to be clearly proclaimed in and through our lives.” Continue to be clearly proclaimed through your lives? You have just confessed, before the entire nation, to have been walking in sin for years!
Immanuel seems to think it’s their responsibility to protect the gospel and the reputation of the church in the eyes of the world, but they have forgotten the Proverb that says, “Let another praise you and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” A better plan for protecting the world’s view of the gospel and the church would be to actually live it, such that your Christ-like, justice-seeking former members don’t have to declare before the entire country how miserably you treated them.
Watch how they manipulate language to make themselves look good:
“Our particular failures did not stem from discouraging the Denhollanders to pursue justice in the Larry Nassar case…in fact, we applaud those efforts.”
Notice how they didn’t use the past tense: “applauded.” They did absolutely nothing to support Rachael during her stand against Nassar. They were so concerned with her criticism of Mahaney that they gave her no support (no “applauding”) whatsoever. Their treatment of her during her stand against Nassar was so harmful and neglectful that she concluded that “the church is one of the worst places to go” for abuse victims. Immanuel wants the watching world to believe that they care about abuse victims (they “applaud” their efforts for justice), yet when it’s on their plate directly in front of them, they create such a hostile environment that people need to find a new church! Rachael hits the nail on the head when she told Christianity Today that the only reason the evangelical world was applauding her efforts was because she was going after someone outside their fold. “If it had been [SGC leader] Nathaniel Morales, no one would have listened.” Immanuel is living proof of this; when faced with accusations against someone in their fold, they did the exact opposite of applaud.
But do they now applaud Rachael for pursuing justice against a serial sex abuser? Everyone in the world applauds that! Immanuel is so hard-pressed to find anything in support of their own virtue that they take 101-level morality and cry out to the world, “Look! Look! We’re doing it, too!”
They continue this trend with another statement:
“Sadly, many will view our listening to Rachael (and the concerns of other abuse victims within our own congregation) as a condemnation of Sovereign Grace Churches.”
It is simply incomprehensible that, after standing against her and neglecting her for years and laying extra burdens on an already heavily-burdened soul, and giving no help whatsoever, Immanuel now bills themselves as “listening to Rachael.” Rachael’s family listened to Rachael. The IndyStar listened to Rachael. The detectives and the judge and the jury listened to Rachael. And only after they had all listened to Rachael, and judgment was passed in her favor and Nassar sentenced to untold years in prison, and the whole world was listening to Rachael, did Immanuel finally come forward and listen. You are not listening to Rachael, Immanuel; you are simply bowing under the pressure of an enormous sexual abuse scandal amplified by the #MeToo era.
It’s incredible to compare the amount of public relations skill these leaders have to their actual virtue. Seminary degrees and decades of ministry, and a whole network of pastors and seminary professors to get advice from, doesn’t leave them with enough wisdom and virtue to research important situations before making decisions about them, or to refrain from attacking and slandering an abused woman, or muzzling the same woman who is speaking out for justice for the abused. But it does give them enough PR savvy to write a carefully-crafted apology that protects Immanuel’s public image. Simple morality is too high for them, but complex public relations is in their toolset.
Tactics of Abuse
And finally, consider Wade Mullen. Mullen is the director of the M.Div. Program at Capital Seminary, and did his dissertation on the tactics of abusive churches, writing a book called Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse. Included in Mullen’s research were the tactics of false public apologies, and what he says in a podcast about “categories” sounds familiar:
“Maybe somebody brings an accusation to the pastor…and he doesn’t act on it, and then later he’s called out on that, and people ask him, “Why didn’t you act on this red flag behavior that was reported to you?” That pastor might say, “Well, just like everybody else, I’m just now starting to catch up on this. You know, I didn’t know anything about it.” And so he’s suggesting that he didn’t have the ability to do anything else, he didn’t have the foresight to do anything else, he didn’t know what to do with what was presented to him. Therefore he shouldn’t be held accountable, it wouldn’t be reasonable to have him face any kind of consequences.”
This is the exact kernel of Immanuel’s apology, as I’ve shown above. Mullen also calls out the tactic of abusers in turning away quickly from their apology to promote themselves:
“Many public statements of apology quickly become pitches for why organizations or leaders are still worthy of continued support from their followers.”
Immanuel’s switch from apology to self-promotion is easily evident in their statement. Mullen goes on to explain:
“What they often do is say, “I’m sorry”—perhaps even that’s all they’ll say…It’s very vague. So nobody really knows what they’re apologizing for, but they’re saying the words “I’m sorry” or something like that, and then often what happens is they quickly pivot to…promoting themselves. You know, “These are the things that we’ve learned over the years, this is who we’re becoming in the future.” What they’re trying to say is that, this behavior, although it happened, it’s not like us. So we shouldn’t be linked to this. So they’re trying to separate themselves by promoting their values, or their past success, or their future goals.”
This is part of the abuser’s unwillingness to give up control of the situation:
“What often, though, they’re not willing to do is to give up control—of the narrative…of authority…and most importantly, control of their own image. And what they want to be seen as still is worthy. Worthy of power, worthy of a following, worthy of people’s donations, worthy of the position of power that that abusive person might hold.”
And so the public apology is given as a defense reaction to protect themselves, not as a sincere expression of remorse and repentance:
“I use the term ‘concession’ because I’m trying to convey the image of an organization or an abusive individual who must finally, because the evidence is overwhelming, or because the outcry is so great, must finally concede the basic facts of their behavior and the harm that they’ve caused. But they’re not doing it for the benefit of truth and justice and compassion and restitution, they’re doing it still for their own benefit. They realize that, to not apologize, to not offer some kind of statement that acknowledges this, would actually be worse for them. And so they’re waving a white flag, hoping that the public, perhaps, or victims who are bringing allegations, or a truth-teller, will back off. And so they’re trying to use an apology to disarm people that they perceive as a threat.”
We see Immanuel acting as if threatened from the very first time Rachael sat down with them and shared her concerns. We see them acting as if threatened when they scrutinize her Facebook posts, and charge her with wronging them as elders, but pay no attention to the information she wanted to show them, and show no concern for the harm they were doing to her. The public pressure brought on by the Nassar verdict, in the midst of a cultural movement toward support of abused women, forced Immanuel to concede an apology. But they followed the exact pattern of an abusive institution’s false apology, being very vague about what happened, not stating the wrongs done, excusing their lack of handling Rachael’s information by claiming they didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, controlling the narrative about themselves, and quickly pivoting away from apology and toward self-promotion so that people go away believing they’re a worthy church. It is almost as if Ryan and the Immanuel elders had studied an Abuser’s Handbook and used its apology model as a template for their own. They think they’ve gotten away with a slick statement that diffused their shame before the nation, but all they’ve done is provided a public mugshot to identify themselves as abusers for anyone who understands the tactics of abuse.
So we have seen that Immanuel did not lack any “categories” in the way they treated Rachael, and that others had these “categories” intuitively and without training. We have seen that Immanuel is meticulous in analyzing information and searching for sins in people when they feel threatened. We have seen that they are dictatorial in what they allow their members to say, yet hypocritical in proclaiming the freedom of thought at their church. We have seen that they over-blow damage done to them (even when it’s no damage), with no concern for the damage they are doing to others. We have seen them pontificate about their own virtue to the world while at the same moment confessing years of sin. We have seen hard-heartedness from Ryan that he excuses as “lack of categories” while preaching on the very categories he’s supposedly lacking, with no trouble in his conscience at all. We have seen no promise from Immanuel to restore any of the damage done or to seek out the many others they have hurt, despite their bluster about “renewed sensitivity, etc.” And we have seen that Immanuel’s apology fits a textbook pattern of the false apologies abusers use when they feel threatened.
We have, then: hard-heartedness, hypocrisy, ignorance of Scripture, information-control, pride and boasting, and manipulation amongst almost a dozen elders who all agreed to put those vices in a basket and submit it to the world as an apology. (Incidentally, accusations of similar vices were what led to C.J. Mahaney stepping down.) Could anything be clearer than that Ryan and the elders of Immanuel are abusive leaders and should be immediately removed from leadership?