Rachael Denhollander is a name probably not many people knew until a year and a half ago. That is when she became the first person to come forward and publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Even then her name was not nearly as well-known as it is now. After her victim impact statement on January 24, it is probably fair to say that not many people have not heard of her.
In 2000, Denhollander was a club level gymnast when she met Nassar at the age of fifteen due to a back injury. Nassar was, in the words of the Boston Globe, “the despicable doctor who systematically, for decades, used his position as a renowned, sought-after, and respected physician in the gymnastics world to sexually abuse countless young athletes under the guise of medical treatment.” Only at that time, no one knew—or, I should say, no one acknowledged—that Nassar was a predator. Others had complained about Nassar before 2000, but nothing had been done. By the time he was arrested his victims numbered in the hundreds. One hundred fifty-six of them spoke at his sentencing hearing, which resulted in a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison.
Denhollander’s courage in coming forward and opening the door that gave voice to so many other victims has received plenty of attention in the media and I am not going to focus on that here. I would simply echo what Tara Sullivan wrote, that Denhollander is “Larry Nassar’s most important victim, his loudest and bravest opponent in the fight to expose his depravity as a serial pedophile disguised as a respected physician.”
What brought perhaps the most attention to Denhollander was her impact statement, nearly forty minutes long, in which she clearly spoke of what Nassar had done, the physical but, more importantly, emotional, damage it inflicted on Denhollander and others, and then shared the gospel with Nassar. Writing on The Gospel Coalition site, Justin Taylor said, “What she said directly to the man—who gratified himself off of her innocence and abused countless other girls in a malicious and manipulative way—is an incredible testimony to the grace and justice of Jesus Christ.” I agree. When I first heard it later that same day I described it as “an extraordinary presentation of the gospel to someone Rachael Denhollander has every human reason to hate and wish eternal condemnation in hell upon!”
Her bold stand against Nassar and her equally bold statement of the gospel to Nassar—and a watching world—has drawn tremendous attention, and rightfully so. In his edition of The Briefing the day after Denhollander spoke, Albert Mohler said,
…what so many in the world missed is that the moral clarity that was so evident in that courtroom yesterday cannot really emerge from a secular worldview. It can only emerge from a biblical worldview. And yesterday it wasn’t just the witness to good and evil that appeared. In the voice of Rachael Denhollander, there was a powerful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel that speaks so honestly about sin, and the Gospel that so honestly promises in Christ salvation from sin.
Denhollander has, indeed, set a beautiful example of what it means to be like Christ. To hate the sin but not the sinner. To extend mercy and forgiveness when it is not even remotely deserved—and never could be. Evangelical Christians are sharing her statement and celebrating her testimony and all of that is good. It is as it should be.
Sadly, there is something else about Denhollander’s experience that Christians seem to be overlooking, and we must not do so.
In her statement, Denhollander said,
Even my status as a sexual assault victim has impacted or did impact my ability to advocate for sexual assault victims because once it became known that I too had experienced sexual assault, people close to me used it as an excuse to brush off my concerns when I advocated for others who had been abused, saying I was just obsessed because of what I had gone through, that I was imposing my own experience upon other institutions who had massive failures and much worse.
My advocacy for sexual assault victims, something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse, it was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a weapon against me.
In her op-ed for the New York Times, Denhollander wrote, “I lost my church. I lost my closest friends as a result of advocating for survivors who had been victimized by similar institutional failures in my own community.”
As incredible and beautiful as Denhollander’s courage to come forward and willingness to share the gospel with Nassar may be, that she “lost her church” through coming forward is just as incredible and hideous. I do not know exactly what transpired between Denhollander and her church, but the details here are not important. For her to say, twice, that she lost her church as a result of taking a stand against Nassar says all that we need to know. There is no justification anywhere in Scripture for abandoning a victim. Quite the contrary, in fact. Romans 12:15 says, “When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow” (Living Bible).
In Matthew 25:40 Jesus said that whatever is done “to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to Me.” Commenting on that verse Matthew Poole wrote, that charity, or love, “must be chiefly shown to those of the household of faith.” Denhollander is clearly of the household of faith, yet her church abandoned her. Take note, fellow Christian: that means her church turned its back on Christ.
I do not focus on this to condemn Denhollander’s former church alone. I do not even know the name of the church she attended. I emphasize this to bring attention to such behavior that has gone on for far too long, and has been far too tolerated, in the Church in general. How can we claim to follow Christ if we abandon our brothers and sisters who are hurting? John Tillman wrote the following in a devotion on The Park Forum:
As the #MeToo movement sweeps around the world, Jesus stands with the victims, claiming their pain as his own, identifying with their feelings of powerlessness, of isolation, and of being silenced for so long. …
No environment, from Hollywood offices to the sanctuaries of our churches is untouched by the culture of degrading sexual manipulation and abuse. Christians have an opportunity to drop partisan loyalty, abandon “what-aboutism,” and step into this cultural problem with the perspective of the Gospel.
Christians can uniquely offer condemnation for abusive actions and the systems which allowed them, while offering compassion and protection for victims, and even forgiveness and redemption (though not necessarily reinstatement) for perpetrators.
Compassion for the victims is precisely what Christians should be offering. Compassion and support and encouragement. There is no room for abandonment or rejection or judgment of victims. In an April 2016 blog post entitled “4 Common Ways Churches Fail Abuse Victims (And What to Do Instead)” Ashley Easter states that the Church must take accusations of abuse seriously, whether made against someone inside or outside of the church, and “recognize how difficult it is for a victim to come forward.” Furthermore, the Church, and those within it, need to “believe and reassure the victim that there is nothing they could ever do to cause someone else to hurt them.” In July 2015 Boz Tchividjian wrote of his own abuse as a child and the way churches so often respond inappropriately to abuse victims. “A primary reason why victims are afraid of the church is because of the level of immaturity and ignorance they have experienced in how they are treated or handled by the community and leadership of a church,” Tchividjian wrote. He continued, “There is now an entire generation that has left the church and might not ever return because of the negative impact that the church has had in the lack of understanding and compassion for the broken and the wounded.” Abuse is horrific and cannot be tolerated. But just as wrong and intolerable is this kind of response within the body of Christ.
I pray that Rachael Denhollander will be embraced and encouraged and prayed for by the Church even though she was not treated that way be her local church. I pray that she will remain a passionate and articulate voice for abuse victims and for the gospel. I also pray that she will prove to have taught us a significant lesson about abuse and how not to respond to it.