A Lesson on Abuse in Reformed Evangelicalism

A note from the administrator: The Lay Artiste recently became aware of the following article, which was originally published at the author’s website. Given the importance of exploring issues of abuse within the church context, The Lay Artiste requested and received permission to cross-publish this article. While the below article addresses figures and issues in the context of Reformed (Calvinist) Evangelicalism, the lessons found herein are equally important for those of us outside of the Reformed tradition. The Lay Artiste is grateful to the author for allowing us to share this important piece.

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Station IV of the Stations of the Cross by Virginia Maksymowicz, scuplted for St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA

A Lesson on Abuse in Reformed Evangelicalism

Written by Sainted Sinner

The Independent Learning Review concerning the leadership of The Crowded House, an Acts 29 church located in Sheffield, England, was released in November 2020, and it is far from pleasant reading. As grim as the content is, it is a necessary document and should be as widely spread and read as possible. The report has been embedded at the end of this article.

thirtyone:eight, an independent Christian charity which helps individuals and organizations protect vulnerable people from abuse, was commissioned by The Crowded House to undertake an Independent Learning Review regarding The Crowded House leadership. As explained on thirtyone:eight’s website, “An article in Christianity Today in February 2020 reported allegations from several individuals against Steve Timmis, together with concerns about the wider church culture. The Crowded House wants to enable any who have been harmed by the leadership of the church to express this and for their experiences to be heard and considered. The Review is to examine the actions, decisions, leadership culture, and ministry activities of the church, in order to help The Crowded House leaders to understand what has happened, to seek forgiveness where appropriate, and to ensure a healthy church culture for the future.”

To anyone in the know or who has had an eye on Steve Timmis and The Crowded House (TCH) none of what is contained in it will be surprising and that, in and of itself, should be one of the greatest tragedies of this whole affair.

Screen capture from The Gospel Coalition website (May 8, 2021)

What can we learn?

What can we learn from this? Or what should be the response from any body of Christians to learn from this? It’s hard to know where to start but for me I want to mention some things that stood out to me from looking over the report. These are things that all Churches who use the name ‘Reformed’ to describe themselves or their traditions should listen to. As someone who has been in a number of similar situations and as someone who met Steve and saw his books hailed as the next big thing, I took a special interest in the story so far.

What lead to this?

Read through the report and soon common themes arise, all of which resulted in people being manipulated, bullied, humiliated and ashamed. Many left with their reputation slandered, shunned, alone and frightened. All of these people at one time called themselves Christians and many had specifically chosen to leave other places to come to TCH. It was seen at one time as the place to be and was lauded globally by big names such as Matt Chandler and the now disgraced Mark Driscoll. What was so surprising about the events and why were so many caught off guard? It was a combination of many things, a strong personality and a group of elders that failed to protect the people under their care. However another thing it shows to me are some glaring and difficult truths that the Calvinist/ Evangelical and wider Reformed Churches need to recognize and need to attend to. The report shows a combination of issues that are interrelated and the domino effect that lead one into another.

The Gospel was no longer good news

One thing that is crucial to understand is the soil in which characters like Timmis could grow. The Acts29 network in which Timmis had become CEO was a powerhouse in what became known as the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. While seen by many as energetic and exciting it fell down in one crucial aspect, it’s key movers had no concept of the Law and the Gospel. 

The Law and Gospel was the heart of the Reformation, the division that the Law’s chief function was to be a mirror to show us our sinfulness and our need of a Saviour, while the Gospel was the good news about the forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Not of works or anything that we could do but all through Jesus. Luther explains the distinction:

The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behaviour and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.” The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, has let him be put to death for your sake.” So, then, there are two kinds of doctrine and two kinds of works, those of God and those of men. Just as we and God are separated from one another, so also these two doctrines are widely separated from one another. For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not—as in the case of the law—what we are to do and give to God. (LW 35:162.)

This distinction was not unique to Luther but common across the voices of the Reformers. This was the thing that set them up against the Roman Catholic doctrine that saw God’s favour as a combination of a person’s efforts. This was the thing that brought freedom to thousands burdened by the constant feeling of never being enough, never doing enough.

The Distinction the Reformed forgot

This distinction that defined what it meant to be reformed has been notably absent from many ministries that claim to have reformed heritage. Almost to the point that it has been forgotten.  While many big names of the YRR crowd could be used, David Platt probably is the best example. 

Platt composed a small book called ‘Radical’ that sought to rescue the Gospel from the American dream. The trouble was that it completely mangled the Law Gospel distinction. A review that shows how ugly this got can be found below.

A summary of one key takeaway from Platt was that leading a ‘normal’ Christian life wasn’t enough, the Gospel instead of proclaiming what Jesus had done was now demanding certain things of you and a Gospel that gives a list of commands, not only distorts how you view yourself but also how you view God.

This message was very popular and was widespread. ‘Radical’ Christianity was what the Gospel demanded of you and only outward signs could be evidence that you were living a ‘Gospel’ orientated lifestyle. It wasn’t enough to have faith in Christ and live trusting Him. God was now demanded more. He demanded longer prayers, tears, emotions and sacrifice.  A fantastic summary of the pain and misery this can bring is highlighted below.

Leave the Cross behind

One aspect that is critical in the above text is how the Cross is seen as something that is no  longer applicable to the Christian. What however has happened is the orientation of their life is not Cross focused but lifestyle focused. This seemingly subtle difference has had an unbelievably damaging effect. Which I know from experience and I know has led to the abuse and exploitation of others.

The chief reason is because it takes the Christian’s standing before God away from what Christ has done on the Cross and makes it dependent on their radical lifestyle. This then opens people to all manner of exploitation and abuse and I would be hard pressed to see a clearer example that TCH.

Lambs to the Slaughter

A large number of the people at THC were from a Reformed background and would have been well accustomed to the message that Platt had been preaching. THC was a place where young interns, mission workers and couples were flocking to. This was because it was seen as a place where they could be ‘radical’ where they could live a lifestyle that showed they were taking their faith seriously.

However looking through the report clearly shows that these people were vulnerable and easy targets for manipulation and abuse. Those who were compliant and devoted their time to the strenuous demands of Timmis’s vision were patted on the back, while others who were genuinely unable to meet Timmis’s strenuous demands were viewed in less glowing favour.  

These are just certain sections that speak volumes about how a culture that used the terms ‘Radical Christianity’ and wanted people to ‘Share the vision’ ended up by being a ‘Gospel plus’ message that had people ‘endlessly striving to meet additional criteria’.

A ‘Gospel Plus’ makes for a vulnerable saint

While this report clearly shows that there were far more factors in play than the loss of the distinction between Law and Gospel (Timmis’s character, Acts29 influence and weak eldership) it is my belief that a strong and clear distinction between the two do create a more resilient and a more aware believer.

If one can easily understand that the heavy shepherding techniques and demands are merely the impositions of the will of men and not of God then one can easily see the warning signs and get out. 

However if one thing can be labelled against the teachings of Acts29 and co was that the distinction was never stressed and often mixed and distorted to the extent that Jesus was far from what they were dwelling on.

Which in turn distorts their view of God and for some destroys it. 

What now?

What I would like to see now is a bit of accountability and the taking on of responsibility of these circumstances by the wider Acts29 network and by many preachers and organizations that claim a Reformed heritage. 

For someone who was right in the heart of the Young Restless and Reformed movement  when it was at its height, I can safely say the continual message I got was that my relationship with God was all centered on me.

Sure Christ and the cross was mentioned but all I was told to do was lament my sinfulness and endlessly examine my heart. How much was I praying, reading, serving and how deep my emotions were. It was all about me and nothing about Jesus. I had multiple definitions of the Gospel hammered into my head but none actually matched what the Bible said.

It had caused the cross to be something that I never looked at, never was able to see applicable to myself as I was always again and again pointed to my deeds, my heart and my service. It is no wonder to me now that I have so many Christian friends who have either been burnt out, attempted suicide or apostatized. The cross was for the convert, Christ was no longer the Savior, He was a judge ready to smite me if I didn’t live ‘radically’.

Not just ‘Big Eva’ 

However, I would be lying if I was to say that this was solely the fault of the YRR movement. The Law Gospel distinction totally passed me by after years in a confessionally reformed denomination. Though many claim that the distinction is part of the Reformed Churches heritage, I have to ask the question, how was it until I stumbled upon Martin Luther that I found out about it? How was it until I started reading Lutheran writings that I was able to feel as if I had been born again, again?

I don’t know the answer. However as someone who was almost driven to suicide for many of the aforementioned reasons, including endless striving and introspection that lead me everywhere but Christ. I will say this we Reformed need to learn from the Lutherans. The confessional Lutherans have ensured the distinction remains in place, can we say the same?

As long as there is hesitancy in answering that question we leave an open door for many like Timmis to burden consciences, drive people to despair and abuse those who come to them seeking shelter and care. 

How about rather than attend conferences, support book tours and start salivating over the next heavy shepherding version of ‘Total Church’ we take our eyes back to the Gospel and neither add, nor subtract but simply gaze at the love of our God. Or maybe become a little bit more Lutheran.

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