Catch-22: How to Protect Abusers, Every Time
Anyone who calls out a Christian leader on abuse is by definition untrustworthy. We are happy to report that there are no trustworthy accounts of abuse against our favorite Christian leader.
Yesterday, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt broke a story on how Hohn Cho, a former elder at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, had tried and failed to hold the church accountable for a devastating decision they’d made two decades ago when they disciplined Eileen Gray for refusing to take back her husband, whom she suspected him of molesting their children. Her husband was then convicted of child molestation and abuse, but the church never retracted its decision or apologized for it.
Last year, Cho—as a lawyer and one of four officers on the elder board—was asked by GCC to study the case. Here’s what happened next:
He tried to convince the church’s leaders to reconsider and at least privately make it right. He said pastor John MacArthur told him to “forget it.” When Cho continued to call the elders to “do justice” on the woman’s behalf, he said he was asked to walk back his conclusions or resign.
It’s been 10 months since Cho left Grace Community Church, and he has not been able to forget the woman, Eileen Gray, whose experience was described in detail last March in Julie Roys’s news outlet, The Roys Report.
Though Cho stepped down quietly, he continued to hear from other women from his former church. They had also been doubted, dismissed, and implicitly or explicitly threatened with discipline while seeking refuge from their abusive marriages. Even at his new congregation, Cho began to meet visitors with connections to Gray’s case, which he saw as a sign of God’s providence.
No, he couldn’t “forget it.”
The more he learned, the more people he talked with, the more the injustice weighed on his conscience and the more concerned he grew about the church’s biblical counseling around abuse.
As Cho wrote in a 20-page memo to top leaders at Grace Community Church last March, “I genuinely believe it would be wrong to do nothing. At the end of the day, I know what I know. I cannot ‘un-know’ it, and I am in fact accountable before God for this knowledge, and if you have labored mightily to read this far, you are now accountable before God for it as well.”
Grace Community Church is led by MacArthur, one of America’s longest-standing and most influential pastors. The Sun Valley, California, megachurch is best known for MacArthur’s preaching and prides itself on its fidelity to the Bible over the whims of the world….
At the conference last March, Cho taught on “Conscience and Conviction.” He spent the rest of the year living out the lesson….
He wanted to see them correct the mistakes of their past and do better in the future. Instead, he discovered they appeared to be repeating them.
Months after raising his concerns about a 20-year-old case, Cho discovered “another grievous GCC counseling case” in the fall of 2022. A woman reported that church leaders had advised her to move back in with her husband and not get a restraining order despite his documented grooming behaviors, infidelity, and angry outbursts. Though the case settled in January, after the woman sought court-ordered protection last year, two pastors had filed declarations on her husband’s behalf.
Shellnutt reported on eight women who told similar stories, how GCC had counseled them and other women to avoid reporting abusive husbands and fathers and to submit to them:
The victims were regularly quoted Scriptures on forgiveness, trust, love, and submission—and were told to reconcile and return home even in cases where they feared for their safety and their children’s safety.
Cho recounted how, privately, fellow elders acknowledged that “mistakes were made,” but no one seemed willing to correct the record. After pressing the matter, Cho was told to “walk back” his findings if he wanted to remain an elder. He and his wife resigned their membership.
What did this look like for Cho?
Cho never imagined himself being in this position and advocating from outside Grace Community Church. Over almost 17 years of membership there, Cho met his wife, began teaching the Word, and rose to leadership on the church’s board of elders .
“I was a vocal loyalist,” said Cho, who now objects to what he sees as “blind trust” among many of the men he used to serve and lead beside.
Last year, when he questioned the decision to discipline Eileen Gray, he said fellow elders suggested they just trust the previous leaders who affirmed it. Cho countered that Scripture commands us to trust the Lord and examine everything (1 Thess. 5:21).
Cho held out hope, thinking of a line John MacArthur was known for saying: “Time and truth go hand in hand.” The truth eventually comes out.
But the article also contains a glimpse into what this meant for women.
Here’s one woman’s account:
“In the first meeting with Bill Shannon [pastor of counseling], it was made known that my safety was not the No. 1 priority; it was submission in my marriage,” said one woman, who asked not to be named in this story because she is attempting to move on from her time at Grace Community Church. “My job was not to rile [my husband] up.”
While the woman was hospitalized due to her husband’s physical abuse, Shannon called her and advised her to go home without calling police, she told CT. At times, the torment at home was bad enough that she worried she was going to die, but she said she was told that her situation may be “God’s will for your life.”
In the end, she said, the betrayal of her church—now her former church—hurt the most.
“I hit subzero spiritually. I was doubting if God is real. I thought, If God is real but we’re supposed to submit to church leaders when this is going on, I’d rather die,” the woman said to CT. “Even unbelievers wouldn’t stand for this.”
I shared Shellnutt’s story yesterday on Twitter, with a brief thread highlighting some of the key findings:
Some of the responses to this thread, and to the story itself, have been instructive. Most notably, William Wolfe’s quick dismissal of “whatever did or didn’t happen at GCC”:
Wolfe got significant pushback, but it’s worth paying attention to the sort of pushback he received from some fellow evangelicals. Was he suggesting that a respectable elder, a man who shared MacArthur’s conservative theology, might lie about this?
And this is part of the problem.
This particular episode happened 20 years ago. Gray spoke of it. Her husband was sent to prison. Other GCC women spoke of their abuse, and of the church’s response. But very few people listened. Those who did and who sought to draw attention to these devastating stories and others like them were themselves attacked.
I’m one of those. But I’m not the only one. Julie Roys, Rachael Denhollander, Jennifer Lyell, Karen Swallow Prior, Russell Moore, David French, Nancy French, Mike Cosper, Christa Brown, Jules Woodson, and the list goes on and on.
This is how abuse thrives in churches like John MacArthur’s. Christian leaders circle the wagons. Elder boards, fellow pastors, people with platforms defend their “brothers in Christ” by maligning those who tell the truth. They do everything possible to discredit victims themselves, and to discredit anyone who vouches for them.
This isn’t about embracing an uncritical “believe all women” mantra here. It’s about carefully weighing the evidence. It’s about not dismissing out of hand the voices of women who bring allegations against powerful Christian men. It’s about acknowledging that law enforcement and courts and people outside of these churches can help us see the truth. And acknowledging that people inside these churches might have vested interest in keeping the truth from being known.
Let’s go back to Wolfe’s list of untrustworthy sources: Christianity Today, David French, and myself. What do we all have in common? Not all that much, except we have all spoken out against abuse in evangelical spaces. And we all opposed Trump, for related reasons. (Wolfe is a former member of Trump’s administration and Al Mohler’s intern at SBTS.)
It was by exposing these patterns of abuse that we were deemed untrustworthy. Wolfe accused me of making things up to fit my preconceived “liberal” notions of gender and power. But isn’t it possible that we came to our critique of abuse, and in fact to our ideas of gender and power, in part by seeing the rot at the heart of his preferred notions of gender and power?
I didn’t first hear about Eileen Gray’s case from Kate Shellnutt, or from Julie Roys. I’ve been following stories from women at GCC for years. And I’ve been tracking these patterns for more than a decade. When I started researching Jesus and John Wayne almost two decades ago now, I didn’t start with the narrative you find in the book. I spent years researching and observing these spaces. I never intended to include a chapter on abuse when I first began the project. Only over time did I realize that abuse was a key part of the story. Not just the abuse, but persistent patterns of coverup.
I trace some of that here, and here’s a key passage from J&JW where I sum this up:
"Those lamenting evangelicals' apparent betrayal of 'family values' fail to recognize that evangelical family values have always entailed assumptions about sex & power...Within this framework, men assign themselves the role of protector, but the protection of women & girls is contingent on their presumed purity & proper submission to masculine authority. This puts female victims in impossible situations. Caught up in authoritarian settings where a premium is placed on obeying men, women & children find themselves in situations ripe for abuse of power. Yet victims are often held culpable for acts perpetrated against them...While men (and women) invested in defending patriarchal authority frequently come to the defense of perpetrators, victims are often pressured to forgive abusers and avoid involving law enforcement. Immersed in these teachings about sex and power, evangelicals are often unable or unwilling to name abuse, to believe women, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to protect & empower survivors" (J&JW 277-78).
As I’ve said before, all of this was crystal clear, even to an outsider. But again and again, I watch as women and men who speak out against abuse in evangelical spaces are slandered, mocked, and denounced.
I am grateful for Hohn Cho’s persistence and integrity. The pressures he faced must have been enormous, and he may only just be beginning to realize the costs. (If historical patterns hold, it won’t be long before he, too, is dismissed as “untrustworthy.”)
However, it should not be necessary for a conservative Christian man in a position of authority to validate already thoroughly vetted allegations before others are willing to believe them.
And take another look at those who have been slandered and denounced by evangelical leaders. Is it because they are untrustworthy? Or is it because they were telling the truth all along?
If there were more evangelical leaders like Hohn Cho, Jesus and John Wayne would be an entirely different book. It wasn’t the story I set out to write, and it wasn’t the story I wanted to write. It was the story that needed to be written.
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Thanks KKDM for stating this again, so well. At the moment, a church I know well, having "successfully" dealt with abuse, at great cost, is showing vestiges of changing the narrative, along the lines of the Karpman triangle: the victim of domestic violence calls the police for protection against their persecutor, but then starts to realign with the persecutor against the rescuers. Crazy. I read about this in Daniel Puls' Let Us Prey, as this church was dealing with the situation, that this is rather common, that some church members will begin to take the side of the abusive pastor/leader, dismantling the hard work and uphill climb of those who paid a high price to get the wolf out of the sheep fold. I'm grateful for anyone who sees what's going on and helps the rest of us see it.
Thank you for this excellent article. Heartbreaking that this same scenario is playing out in churches and Christian counseling offices across the country. The patriarchal hierarchy in Christendom needs to change. There is no hierarchy in the Body of Christ- just every part performing it’s function according to the lead of the Head. May we flee the man-made structures that undermine the beautiful design of God for the Body of Christ.