It’s Not Over – Evangelicals, Abuse and a Call for a Gospel-shaped Repentance

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What a year 2020 has been. What seemed like a localised event far far away has spread to affect so many of us. If it’s not hit your church community yet, it can only be a matter of time.

I wish I was talking about covid. But the reality is that there’s been another contagion rippling across our world:

Abuse by evangelicals.

It’s not over – a stream of reports of abuse

The abuse has taken many forms and been revealed by many brave people. Only this last year we’ve heard revelations about Crowded House under Steve Timmis. Then the rapid unveiling of Ravi Zacharias’s behaviour, with RZIM only admitting to likelihood of some of the offences in the last few days.

What is particularly disappointing about these events and others like them (not withstanding, of course, the actual abuse itself) is the cover-ups and denials that they are accompanied with. So, as just one example, RZIM’s American leadership quite clearly initially sought to suppress the allegations rather than investigate them properly causing prominent members of the organisation to break ranks and call for transparency and openness, not just with the specific allegations of sexual assault by Zacharias but other related matters. Where leadership seeks to minimise these events the eventual harm done is even greater. Genuine transparency is always the better option.

John McMartin

Right here in Sydney another incident is unravelling before our eyes. John McMartin, the former NSW State President of Australian Christian Churches, has suddenly resigned as Senior Pastor [historical webpage – copy] of Inspire Church Liverpool and has been replaced by his son, Brendan. There has been no discernible public acknowledgement of this change. reached out to Inspire for comment.

A senior leader from Inspire told me that the church board were only informed about the allegation when McMartin was charged on 16 December although some leaders within the church had known earlier. No public announcement had been made until a media release issued to today:

John McMartin appeared in court on 16 December 2020 where he was bailed to appear again on 27 January 2021.

The church’s wikipedia page has the following allegation listed:

Brendan and Melissa McMartin were appointed Senior Pastors of Inspire Church in December 2020, by the Inspire Church Board, taking over from Brendan’s parents, John and Carol McMartin, after John McMartin was charged with sexual assault against a 19yo female congregant.

Inspire Church wikipedia page, accessed 31 December 2020

McMartin had been previous criticised by the Royal Commission, along with others on the ACC NSW Executive, for his handling of allegations of abuse against Frank Houston, father of Brian Houston.

Pastor McMartin said that after he reported the matter to Pastor Brian Houston it was his understanding that the National Executive would undertake its own investigations. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, no steps were taken by the AOGA New South Wales State Executive to follow the complaints process in the Administration manual because the complaint had not been made in writing.

Final Report, Book 3 s16.3&16.4. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission cited “Concern for Institutional Reputation” as a contributing factor to poor responses to allegations of abuse.

It’s not over – Anglican evangelicals and the cover-up

All of this is worrying enough, but evangelicals in the Anglican Church will soon be facing up to their own scandal around abuse and it’s cover-up. The long-awaited report by thirtyone:eight into the events surrounding Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse at Emmanuel Wimbledon has been postponed until the first quarter of 2021.

In late June 2019 stories began to emerge of allegations of abuse by Fletcher. At first they were characterised as “light-hearted forfeits” but as more and more victims came forward it became clear than far more serious things had happened.

But then along with the allegations of abuse came reports that Fletcher’s behaviour had been raised on many occasions long before the story finally became public.

What comes next is painful to write. I became a Christian in the mid-1990s as a university student and then moved to London where I got involved at All Souls Langham Place. I was soon attending events run by evangelicals in the Anglican Church including nine thirty-eight conferences (a training organisation in the style of MTS). I eventually attended the Cornhill Training Course in London, a wonderful 2 year experience which I remain deeply grateful for to this very day. The leadership of these various bodies came from a common pool of leaders who were also involved in other organisations such as the now-defunct Reform and the current ReNew Conference. They were men and women I looked up to and sought to model myself upon. I asked for their advice and allowed myself, to the limited extent I was involved, to be directed by them.

This same broad network was also associated with the late John Smyth who, like Fletcher, was exposed as having abused many boys in the Iwerne camps which he helped run.

I very rarely met Jonathan Fletcher himself, but one moment stands out in my memory. In late 1999 my church, All Souls, had a day conference for young men where Fletcher was a speaker. Recollection of one talk came flooding back to me when I heard the allegations about him. He spoke to us on godliness in matters of personal conduct, not least in how we behaved with women. Some of this was addressed to those of us who were in relationships. Fletcher stressed absolutely propriety in our conduct and (and this stands out to me now in hindsight) bristled with what was touching on anger when he answered a question along the typical line of “how much is too much?”. I don’t remember his exact words but I do remember the force of his tone – we ought not to be asking such questions; they betrayed a desire to excuse sin.

It now turns out that even at that time that Fletcher was urging us to the highest standards of behaviour he was also engaging in the terrible abuse that is currently under investigation.

Why spend time outlining this one event? Because it happened at much the same time as something later reported to me.

I have been approached by more than one person who had knowledge of Fletcher’s behaviour long before the allegations were apparently disclosed. One person has related to me being invited to take part in the “forfeits” and (in their own words) thinking “Hell, no!”. They then went to the leadership of Emmanuel Wimbledon about the matter and were rebuffed.

This was all 20 years ago. 20 years ago Fletcher was urging young men to be virtuous and then going back to his rectory where other men of a similar age to me and my peers were treated appallingly. And church leadership at the time were told. I cannot stress this last point enough. Fletcher’s behaviour was being reported and there was nothing being done to stop it. As Sanlon and Tinker have put it in their courageous piece last August,

…it is not just Fletcher’s self-description of his behaviour we object to. It is, more seriously, the decades of management and minimisation of both Smyth and Fletcher’s abuse, by those who were in their inner circle.

An “outrageousness of the silence” by senior evangelicals over Fletcher and Smyth, Anglican Ink

In the past 18 months I have had a number of conversations with others about the whole Fletcher saga. I’m sorry to report that there have been those, some of them well-recognised names in our fraternity, who have urged me to stay quiet and not publish the details and others who have argued that all the details may yet not come out and therefore there is less imperative to disclose. What has become clear to me is that at least one contributing motivation in all this is a concern for preserving reputation.

Have we not learned yet that our reputation will only be further tarnished when the truth does come out, as it surely will? There is certainly much more to be disclosed.

It’s not over – a gospel-shaped response

Another Christmas has been and gone and Anglican evangelicals everywhere have preached the good news of Jesus. We have spoken of light that comes into the world that overcomes the darkness. We have pointed people to the only one who can truly save us by dealing with our sin. My great fear is that there will be those who preached this true gospel over the past week who could do well to hear it again themselves.

Of course, it is true that every minister of the gospel (beginning with me) needs to keep themselves drinking from the fountain of grace as we “truly and earnestly repent of our sins” and “intend to live a new life”. But this piece is about those who now have to repent of their own sin in covering up the sin of others.

As I said, this is painful to write. Those I am thinking of have been heroes of mine. I do suspect that some of them may have, themselves, been ill-informed by others. But there are certainly those who knew more than they will concede.

So the New Year is an excellent time to revisit this. As we look back at a torrid 2020 and long for better in 2021, my hope is that those leaders who knew more than they will admit would now repent and fall upon the gospel.

I don’t think it is presumptuous to claim that this website is well-read by those who I am writing about here. I imagine that this first post of 2021 will signal a shift in the attitude of some of those readers. But I remain steadfast in my hope that a better response can be found. I was a young man when some of these men first knew me. Now it’s 20 years later and I’m the age that they were then. I am no longer young enough to be awed by them and am old enough to be genuinely saddened by what I have learned over the past 18 months. It’s a strange and sad coming of age when we have to call our elders to account.

And this is the call: Please don’t wait until the thirtyone:eight report brings it all out into the open, as though it was only when the report is published that action needs to happen. There is no need to hold off. A forced admission is still an admission, but the genuinely godly sorrow that leads to repentance does not wait until everything is publicly exposed. Our consciences know the darkness of our own hearts long before others see what is there. There would be no damage done by openly admitting fault before the report names names. It would, not least, show some respect to the many victims who have waited such a long time. It would show that the failings were taken seriously and proactively. It would show that the repentance was genuine.

Besides, is that not the hope of the gospel? Is it not least the good news that I can confess and know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? There are men who taught me the gospel with such passion and they ought to now again embrace that same gospel themselves.

Because it’s not over. The gospel means it’s never over. As evangelicals, as the group who name ourselves as “gospel people”, we ought to be the first to proclaim this and live it out with the same conviction we urge others to hold.

Sadly I am sure that it is true that the abuse is not over. It won’t be over till Jesus returns.

It is also true that the shame and embarrassment that these events and the poor way that they are handled is not over either. There will be more reports and more disclosures and the truth will come out. It always does, all the more so in the information-flooded world that we live in.

So thank God that the gospel means it’s not over and there is a way forward. Oh that 2021 would be the year when evangelicals would be known for taking a firm hold of that truth and leading the way in a gospel-shaped response.

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This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Jill England

    Sorry to hear that some of these events are so close to home for you. And yes, sincere repentance and public acknowledgement should be self-initiated and not just a response in the interest of reputational damage-control. I note that the Inspire Church’s self-proclaimed “quick and transparent” response only came two weeks after the event, and after you had contacted them. (I realise they needed to advise their congregation first.). I do wonder too though about the way that pastoral roles in some of these churches seem to be handed down from father to son. How does that happen?

  2. Rob Forsyth

    Thank you David for this wise and courageous post.

  3. chris russell

    Thank you for writing this, David. It is gratefully received. We have no ground on which to stand against the profanity in the unbelieving churches if we are not prepared to shine a brilliant light on the wickedness of our own leaders.

  4. Robert Bruce

    We are all sinners: forgiven sinners. Being evangelical is no more protection against the attacks of Satan than being any other form of Christian. We must strive continually against those attacks and to confess and repent when our sinful natures allow us to give in to them. The difference between committed evangelical Christians and some others is that when we fail to live in the Way we know we have a Saviour who loves us and will welcome us back into His arms if we turn to Him in repentance. Praise the Lord!

    1. chris russell

      That’s very true, Robert. I would like to see church leaders who have found forgiveness to continue to serve God and his people, but no longer in leadership roles. It is critical also that people should not assume the roles that have been vacated by their friends and family members. It is not wise ever to name ministries after the people who organised their establishment. We should see something like the wearing of sackcloth and ashes: certainly the closure of churches and ministries that have brought disgrace to the name of Christ.

    2. Greg the Explorer

      The difference between committed evangelical Christians and some others is that when we fail to live in the Way we know we have a Saviour who loves us and will welcome us back into His arms if we turn to Him in repentance.

      Robert – there is no such thing as a person of any shape or colour who will not b welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus when they turn to him in faith. Could it be that you have a level of outrage aimed at Newcastle based leaders that you don’t have for your own? There is no difference between any group of people when it comes to Jesus and repentance. Could it also be the you don’t love the gospel as much as you love the sound of your own outrage?

  5. Graham Cotter

    Thank you very much, David, a brave and wise article to write. All those who have concealed matters and colluded with John Smyth, and Jonathan Fletcher, or who have participated in the ‘forfeits’ need to step out into the light. AW Tozer said that ‘repentance needs to become as famous as behaviour has been notorious’. I am not sure that any leader who is implicated in the above is able to speak with any integrity or credibility into live issues of gender neutral marriage and gender identity. The Lord is able to raise up other prophetic spokesmen whose character and words align.

    1. Darren Burton

      I agree that those who participated in the “forfeits” should own up or be publically named and called out as heretics… especially where they have become ministers. Essentially those who took part are straight up heretics. There is no other word for it. These people believed there to be some secret gnositc or Colossian route to overcoming sin by harsh treatment of the body. Any man who took part in this whilst preaching the gospel is a false teacher and a fraud. If men who participated in this are still holding positions of leadership, they need to publically confess, repent and renounce their heresy – or be forced to stand down. And if it turns out that here we have had any of these men over to speak, we need to cut our ties with these British heretics.

      1. Concerned Friend

        Take care, Darren. Are you saying that a victim of manipulation and abuse should repent of the sin of being abused? These are not straightforward issues: there are a range of behaviours. For example – not the Fletcher situation – we would not say of a rape victim that they were responsible and culpable for ‘participating’. Yet we would want someone to say ‘no’ and flea from a situation where ‘forfeits’ were being given.
        But even in the ‘forfeit’ example with Fletcher, we need to acknowledge a significant power dynamic (enabling abuse): age, position, character and culture, etc all contribute to explain why Fletcher was able to do these things unchallenged. Are you saying all victims should go public on the abuse they experienced and repent of allowing it to happen?

  6. quaesitor

    Thank you very much for your clarity and honesty, David

  7. Alan

    I remember clearly during my time at SMBC a prominent Sydney Presbyterian Minister being invited to speak at weekly Principal’s hour. He had tears in his eyes as he explained that the proportion of us sitting there who wouldn’t have left ministry within ten years. He himself was out of ministry within six months following the revelation of his affair with a congregant. I was out of ministry within two years once I realised the emptiness of everything that was going on within the Evangelical church.
    None of this is new. It’s just getting much harder to hide.

  8. chris russell

    No, Alan, I don’t buy this attitude. This is not an opportunity for ‘backsliders’ to sink the boot in. With respect, it is always a good thing when people, for whatever reason, see dross, in the ranks of clergy, being thinned.

    1. Alan

      Hi Chris, no malicious intent or boot-sinking intended. Just accepting the reality of a bunch of humans running an organisation attempting to find answers to humanity’s big questions. I was neither shocked nor gladdened by the news of what any of these men had done. It’s just too commonplace now.
      By the way, calling me a ‘backslider’ is a bit pejorative. My process of leaving the church was joyous growth! I’m so glad for the things I learnt on my way out and the person I’m continuing to become. I hope you’re on the same journey of forward growth whether inside or outside of the church 🙂

  9. chris russell

    Hi Alan, when you say: “a bunch of humans running an organisation attempting to find answers to humanity’s big questions”, are you referring to the Body of Christ?

  10. Henry Trewren

    Thankyou David.
    I agree with what you have written.
    ‘As evangelicals, as the group who name ourselves as “gospel people”, we ought to be the first to proclaim this and live it out with the same conviction we urge others to hold.’

  11. Marmee March

    Thanks for a great and personal essay. “It’s a strange and sad coming of age when we have to call our elders to account.” Here in the Chicago area in the USA, we’ve had the topsy-turvy experience of a local radio shock jock calling out a local Protestant evangelical mega-church pastor. That was in 2019.

    We always need to be unashamed to need Jesus.

  12. Mike Wells

    A question for your Synod reps, in Sydney Anglican church, when the PSU finds a Rector has abused someone, is the congregation told, or are they quietly moved on to another ministry? If the congregation isn’t told, why not?

    1. David Ould

      hi Mike. They certainly can’t be “quietly moved on”. A Rector is appointed through a process of nomination by parish-elected nominees.
      I would expect that the formal outcome of a PSU matter would be communicated to those involved, but you’d have to ask elsewhere for the exact process.
      In our Synod a few years ago we debated a process of “moving on” Rectors who, while they had not formally breached any of the requirements, had reached the end of their time relationally at a parish.
      I know this isn’t exactly what you asked about but it does indicate some openness to the whole thing.

      1. Ben

        What was the result of that conversation David? I think that the topic of being able to ‘move on’ rectors who may be pass their use by date is a conversation that is well over due.

        1. David Ould

          hi Ben. No legislation passed. The principle of incumbency is a very important one and the Synod isn’t yet of a mind that that could be compromised by anything, albeit well-intentioned.

          1. Mike Wells

            Hi David, why don’t you ask it at Synod? How many Rectors were found to have bullied and abused and the congregations weren’t told? How many were then granted a licence elsewhere in the diocese? Unfortunately, they certainly can and ‘I would expect’ aint reality

          2. Ben

            That is a little sad, I see many local churches withering away because the need to “protect incumbency” prevails. I do wonder why the lay people in these communities are willing to accept it?

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