I learned of the airing of this show from a news item posted over at Sharper Iron, where there has been quite the discussion of this. I’ve shared some thoughts there and thought I should bring this to the attention of my blog audience. I also read Bob Bixby’s helpful thoughts prior to the airing of the show. I think he was spot on, all around.
Now as for the show, several questions I had from the back and forth that I was reading beforehand were answered. The specific details, as terrible as they are, seem much clearer. I know what the accusations are, but do I think they’re true?
Well, I should let you see Pastor Chuck Phelp’s side of things here. This site including disclosures and a statement by the victim’s mother was put up right as 20/20 aired. It wasn’t available previously.
To back up a bit, Tina Anderson was a girl attending an IFB church and private school in New Hampshire. She was molested by her father when she was young, which is a documented fact. Then a 38 year old man in her church raped her twice, while she was only 15. After confiding in her pastor, she was counseled that she should have “called out” like the victim in the Pentateuch was supposed to. If she was living in OT times she would have been stoned, the pastor told her. She did say no, and resisted but in some way the pastor thought she had sinned. She was encouraged to write a letter confessing her sin and her pregnancy to her church; and as someone under the spiritual control of her pastor and in a system where her whole life was wrapped up in the church going to the school and church for every function, she complied. Then at a business meeting, a matter of discipline was brought to the church. First, the perpetrator stood and confessed to adultery. Then on a separate matter, at least that’s how three witnesses who appeared on camera said it was described, the pastor then read the letter written by Tina, the victim, as she stood in front of the church sobbing. There wasn’t any admission that the adulterer’s companion was actually this minor.
Later she’s whisked away to Colorado to another IFB church and home where she brings her pregnancy to term and puts the baby up for adoption. When she returns to the church, she is not allowed back in to the school as she’d be a bad influence. She thought she was in some way responsible for the crime done to her and still went along with everything in her desire to be right with God. After all, IFB churches were all she really knew. Meanwhile, the man who did the crime continued on as a member in good standing at the church.
The pastor has evidence that he called the cops, but they never pursued the matter. And the pastor, Chuck Phelps, now has moved to another church. It was 13 years ago or so, when these events happened, with Tina only recently having the courage to press charges. Pastor Phelps now admits he made mistakes in handling the matter, but he claims this was a consensual dating relationship that turned sexual. Yes, he believes that even though the other party was 38 and Tina was only 15 (with a history of abuse done to her)! I hardly understand how he could seriously think this way.
Anyway, you’ll have to watch the 20/20 episode and read Pastor Phelps’ statements yourself. I can’t claim to know that Tina is not lying, but her story does have a ring of truth to me. Having been in some strict IFB churches, and seeing a high level of control over every aspect of your life, I can imagine many of the points shared to be true (and also how the church would spin it positively). Pastor Bob Bixby feels the same way and discusses the groupthink mentality quite well in his initial reflections on the 20/20 episode.
The report additionally provides audio excerpts of IFB pastors offering chilling advice on spanking and discipline. Jack Schaap of First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN and Hyles-Anderson College is the only pastor who really gets face time. Three separate times they show him saying demeaning things about women and what have you, but they do not name him. They don’t name anyone but they do imply that the IFB movement is akin to a separate Church, like the Mormon Church or the Catholic Church, etc. But I can’t really blame them for not knowing all the ins and outs of how IFB churches associate and don’t associate with each other.
The current pastor at the church in New Hampshire did a great job in dealing with the 20/20 interview. He put us at ease that the environment that allowed this to happen to Tina has changed for the better, and shows a considerate and compassionate side of the IFB movement.
Jocelyn Zichterman and her IFB Cult Survivor Facebook group also get a lot of air time. While for some, Jocelyn’s ministry can be helpful, I think she often groups all IFB churches together as culpable for the crimes of a few. I have long opposed IFB abuse, but I take pains not to broadbrush the entire movement. I don’t advise that leaving an IFB church is the single answer for everyone struggling with the shortcomings of fundamentalism.
The word “cult” has various connotations, it applies to controlling groups that exert pressure to conform to their rules and practices, but it’s also used specifically of groups that teach unorthodox doctrine. While some IFB churches (and even groups of churches) might deserve the definition “cult” in the first (and even second) sense, there isn’t enough of a structure and similarity between the thousands of widely different IFB churches for all of them to be operating in unison.
While all IFB churches aren’t abusing and covering up abuse, they do nevertheless share a propensity for it. The preacher as “man of God” teaching, the emphasis on authority and control, the lack of openness by church leaders, often no accountability for senior pastors, no denominational checks and balances, a persecution mindset and remnant mentality, a tendency toward externals and legalism, emphasis on corporeal punishment — all this can combine to make IFB churches in general susceptible to such abuse. IFB churches need to admit this and work to safeguard their churches from the horrific evils of physical and sexual abuse. I know many of them do, but more can be done to take a stand against this widespread problem. Sadly, the case in New Hampshire is but the tip of the iceberg.
Let me be clear. Many good IFB churches exist where abuse of any kind is unthinkable. Many don’t have any of the problems I listed above (although they share a history and culture where these tendencies do exist). Several are among the best churches one can find and I recommend them. But it’s high time the wackos and crazies that call themselves fundamentalists get ejected from the IFB movement. Separation from excess and abuse on the right is as important as separation from compromise and error on the left.
Alright then, let’s go ahead and discuss this issue in the comment section here. More can and probably should be said about this. We can only speculate about the outcome of this particular case, until the judge has his say, however. But often it is events like this that raise questions and start people thinking again, which is always a good thing.