I take no pleasure in seeing a pastor fall into public disgrace. However great the ideological differences, these men are not enemies and there is no delight in writing about their failures. But the reality is, there is an epidemic of corruption in the Church. Whether it be a volunteer raping a toddler, a missionary addicted to child pornography, or a Christian celebrity couple’s teenage son sexually assaulting his younger sisters, if it happens within the confines of Evangelical Christian culture it is virtually guaranteed that where there is abuse there will be those working actively to cover it up.
The latest in the long line of cover-ups brought to light revolves around Tullian Tchividjian, now deposed former pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale Florida. Tchividjian’s misdeeds seem to have taken place within a culture of silence and cover-up which allowed him to continue to abuse his pastoral privileges for some time after his first indiscretion came to light.
My purpose here is not to rehash all the sordid details that have been released about the affairs.  Instead, I want to take a more focused approach. Specifically, I want to take a moment to look at two recent statements made – one by Tchividjian and one by Steve Brown – and consider what they reveal about how these incidents are handled in the Church.
On Monday, March 21, 2016, Tullian Tchividjian issued the following statement via his PR firm, Frederick and Associates:
I want to focus on some specific words Tchividjian uses to describe his “repentance.” He states, “The process of repentance is progressive and painful. It involves ongoing confession, not just what’s going on in my life now, but what happened in my life in the past.” I see three issues with his claim:
- Tchividjian fails to note that he has only publicly confessed after the woman with whom he had an affair in 2014 went public with information regarding his misconduct on a Liberate comment thread. Allegations which were immediately removed by the Liberate network.
- Tchividjian also fails to mention that he previously confessed this affair to three men in 2014, two elders from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Founder of Key Life Ministries, Steve Brown. Neither of these elders revealed this information to church leadership or the rest of the elder board.
- In addition, Tchividjian makes no mention of the fact that he continued as the senior pastor of Coral Ridge and the head of Liberate despite the fact that he never made a public confession. In fact, he did not step down until after he was confronted about a second affair by the elder board of Coral Ridge.
With these things in mind, it is important to ask: How is this repentance? While it is certainly possible for a person to repent after a confrontation, it is important to note that Tchividjian did not confess this first affair to the leadership of Willow Creek PCA when they hired him as their Director of Ministry Development a mere two weeks after he had filed for divorce. Nor did he confess to the board of Liberate (which has now dissolved) when the organization decided to relaunch itself and its conference in 2016. He most certainly did not provide this information to his presbytery when they stripped him of his ministry credentials.
Equally troubling, Tchividjian went to great lengths in his public statement in the Washington Post in 2015 to blame his affair on his now ex-wife Kim. This is a key detail. Consider this excerpt from the statement:
As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly, and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign.
In this statement, Tchividjian stated specifically that his second affair – the one for which he actually resigned – was an emotional response to his own wife’s indiscretions. In typical Adam in the Garden fashion, Tchividjian (the male pastor) threw his wife (the woman) under the bus by scapegoating her for his own sins.
Note that in his 2016 statement, he does not address that it was he, not she, who had the first affair.
This smear campaign against his ex-wife quickly became the “official story.” It was the one he sold to many of his close friends. It was the one he told to the public. It was the one he provided the board of Liberate. And it is the story he gave to Willow Creek PCA.
The reality is, despite Tchividjian’s claim, he is not now confessing his lies because he had a moment of clarity, or because he realized the hurt his lies would cause those who had believed him – friends who are now faced with the reality that everything they were told is nothing more than the manipulative machinations of a habitual, narcissistic liar. He is confessing primarily because he was caught.
Even as he now claims to take full responsibility for his actions, his words on repentance seem to be working to subtly twist the narrative in his favor. I admit I want desperately to believe in his repentance. I want to be able to trust that he has turned the corner and is now trying to do the right thing, but his own track record seems to bear witness against him.
Steve Brown’s Statement
One of Tchividjian’s confidants after his 2014 affair, Founder and Director of Key Life Ministries Steve Brown also issued a statement regarding this incident on March 21, 2016. As Steve’s statement is rather long, I will not reproduce it for this post. I do however encourage the reader to read it here and form their own opinion of what was said. For my purposes, a focus on several key points from within Brown’s statement will – I believe – prove enlightening.
For instance Brown says, “I gave Tullian a lot of advice that he didn’t take…I should have pushed Tullian harder than I did.” Yet, while Brown apparently knew in 2014 that Tchividjian had been involved in this affair, in February 2015 he took the stage at Liberate 2015 – a conference run by Tchividjian’s ministry (also named Liberate) and where Tchividjian himself spoke. It forces me to wonder, how was Brown pushing Tchividjian to do the right thing if he agreed to share a stage with him in ministry?
Even more confusing are some of the differences between this statement and a statement Brown issued in July of 2015, following Tchividjian’s resignation from Coral Ridge after his second affair was revealed. For instance, in the 2015 statement Brown intimates that he was not any more in the know than anyone else by stating:
We are never allowed to know anybody’s story but our own, and I don’t know. Someone has said that when Christians sin there are three things that we don’t know about them and what they faced. First, we don’t know the powers that were arrayed against them. Second, we don’t know how hard or how long that person fought against those powers. And third, we don’t know the horror of the shame they felt when they lost the battle.
This is a truly odd statement for someone who, on March 21, 2016, referred to himself as Tchividjian’s “father figure” and confessor during the time of his first affair. The statements simply do not add up.
Unfortunately, Brown’s statements continue to fall apart. Given Brown’s reference to Matthew 18 within his 2016 statement, it is nothing short of astounding that he remained quiet. Matthew 18 explicitly states that when someone is caught in sin, they are to be confronted initially by the person who discovered the sin. If the offender refuses to repent, then they must be confronted by a group of persons. If the offender still refuses to repent, then the matter is to be brought before the church. If the sin still persists after this stage, then the church is authorized to take action, which includes removing the person from the congregation. It is odd then that Brown took no such action.
The reason he gives for remaining silent is even more odd. Brown claims that his status as confessor, combined with the fact that he was not an elder at Coral Ridge or Willow Creek PCA, means he had no obligation to report what had occurred. This statement strikes me as odd because in his 2015 statement, Brown called himself a staff member/teaching pastor at Coral Ridge. Now it is well true he was not an elder, but as a person who identified as on staff at Coral Ridge, why did he not step up and say anything? Was he comfortable being on staff at a church for at least some months (if not a year) during which he knew the senior pastor of the church had cheated on his wife without so much as confessing his indiscretion to the church? By the standards of Matthew 18, which he seems to hold in high regard, did he not have a responsibility to inform the church and/or presbytery of Tchividjian’s actions?
Finally, in the final paragraph of the 2016 statement, Brown says he remained silent because he had made “assumptions” about who knew what regarding Tchividjian’s affairs. But this also is a deeply problematic claim. Given that Brown knew about Tchividjian’s 2014 affair, it is nearly inconceivable that he would not have noticed that Tchividjian included blatant falsehoods in his Washington Post “confession.” And it is even harder to swallow that he “assumed” Tchividjian had been honest with Willow Creek leadership when he was hired.
The reality is, so much here doesn’t jive. Brown’s words regarding his knowledge and actions relating to this controversy seem to be entirely contradictory. There may be more to the story, Brown may have chosen his words poorly, but as they stand they are not particularly convincing. I am left wondering what other pastoral skeletons may be in the confessor’s closet.
What are we to make of all of this? I cannot say for sure. I am not omniscient, I do not have every fact, and I – like most of my readers – only have the information that has been made publicly available. However, the reality is what has been publicly stated paints these incidents as a cover-up. I do not know motives, but it appears that two former Coral Ridge Elders and Steve Brown conspired to keep Tchividjian’s indiscretions a secret. The evidence also seems to suggest that Brown continues to care more about protecting his friendship with Tchividjian than he does the victims Tchividjian preyed upon.
Whatever other conclusions one may draw about the nature of this apparent cover-up, one thing must be made abundantly clear: Tchividjian is guilty of spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse. When a pastor has an affair with a congregant it is, by the very nature of the power imbalance in a pastor-congregant relationship, an act of sexual and spiritual abuse. Further, when said pastor repeatedly lies about the timeline of events in order to cover up abuses that had not yet been made public, this is emotional abuse of his family, who are quite often silenced by the “official story.” And when this pastor works to maintain his place of privilege by convincing others to defend his cause, this is further emotional and spiritual abuse. At every turn, this man, Tullian Tchividjian, has demonstrated that his friends and family are nothing more to him than victims to be preyed upon for his personal gain.
It is often said that we don’t need “negativity” in the Church. Instead, we strive to emphasize unity through a “Positive and Encouraging” message. In the end, so much of our polite “Christian” sensibility amounts to little more than a Kool-Aide cocktail spiked with apathy. We have become comfortable treating victims as acceptable casualties in the fight to maintain our own seat of privilege. Yet, as we again try to silence their voices, I am reminded that when the oppressed are silenced, the very bricks and mortar of our comfortable suburban churches will cry out as witness against our injustices (cf. Luke 19:40).
And so we must not be silent. We must not cover our ears and divert our gaze. If Christ is truly found amongst “the least of these” – our brothers and sisters who suffer injustice all around us – then we must step beyond our comfort, stare into the abyss, and stand in solidarity with the abused in our midst. On this weekend, as Easter approaches and we consider the implications of the crucified Christ, we must look upon the suffering servant of God, who bears the burden of those abused and oppressed (Isa 52:13-53:12). And in his death as one unjustly punished to protect the systems of oppression in this world, we must recognize the call to imitate him (Phil 2:1-11), repent our silence, forsake our own comfort, and examine the theological and ecclesial systems of corruption and greed that leave so many dead and broken in our wake.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me…[and]… whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.