Skip to main content

Notebook Lifestyle

Once we’ve confessed

Andy Savage preaching at Highpoint Church in Memphis(Handout)

Lifestyle

Once we’ve confessed

How should churches handle sexual sins from 20 years ago? 

All agree what happened, but the aftermath roils a cauldron of disagreement.

Parked on a dark, empty road in 1998, college student and youth pastor Andy Savage asked 17-year-old Jules Woodson to perform oral sex on him. Woodson, a member of Savage’s youth group at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church (WPBC) in Texas, says she complied reluctantly, believing “this must mean that Andy loved me.” Both agree Savage experienced immediate conviction of sin, leaped from the vehicle, and collapsed before Woodson. She recalls, “He was on his knees with his hands up on his head, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. What have I done? Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone Jules, please.”

Fast-forward 20 years. Andy Savage is married, the father of five sons, and a pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis. Savage claims his sin against Woodson “was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago.” He disclosed his sin to the leaders of WPBC (now StoneBridge Church), to his wife before they married, and to the staff at Highpoint before joining the ministry. Woodson counters that WPBC hid from the congregation the specific sin Savage committed and then allowed him to resign without public confession.

Savage confessed his sin before the Highpoint congregation in January and apologized: He has now taken a leave of absence. Church members gave him a standing ovation, which was not appropriate: news of sin, even tempered by repentance, should prompt mourning rather than applause. Woodson recently said the Texas church 20 years ago told Savage “he couldn’t talk to me and they told me I couldn’t talk to him,” but Savage stated, “Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules.” To what extent they did or did not reconcile is unclear.

Christians differ over how churches should address sins ministry leaders commit. Matthew 18 describes church discipline as a private process that involves the congregation only if the offender refuses to repent. But James 3:1 states church leaders “will be judged with greater strictness.” Savage believes WPBC handled his sin Biblically: “I apologized and sought forgiveness from [Woodson], her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation.” Woodson disagrees and charges WPBC with a “big cover up.”

Christians must love truth and hold church leaders accountable. Unfortunately, the details of a 20-year-old disciplinary action now reside only in the memories of WPBC’s leaders. Without those details, Christians should shun uninformed judgment. Proverbs 13:16 cautions, “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” The congregation’s ignorance of Savage’s particular sin may testify to a shameful cover-up. It may also testify to the church’s fidelity to the privacy of the discipline process. The debate is now playing out publicly: An online petition calls for Savage’s resignation, and Christian publisher Bethany House has canceled the scheduled July publication of Savage’s book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage.

None deny Andy Savage disqualified himself from ministry. He and WPBC conceded as much when he resigned. But later the leadership of Highpoint Church declared him qualified. Some Christians acknowledge Jesus restored Savage as a man but claim him forever disqualified from office. After all, the Scriptures require an elder to possess character “above reproach.” But 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 address a prospective elder as he is now, not as he was 20 years ago. Is the man now above reproach? Peter’s restoration demonstrates that a man who committed gross sin can resume public office within the church. If Paul intended to disqualify any man who was ever reproachable, then he disqualified himself and many Christian leaders since.

Highpoint Church YouTube channel

Savage confessing the “sexual incident” to his congregation on Jan. 7 (Highpoint Church YouTube channel)

Savage was not self-righteous: He confessed. If he were reinstated to office three weeks after sinning, the story would be very different. But by all accounts Highpoint Church observed Savage carefully in a context of accountability over the course of years before making him a pastor. Despite this cautious process, backlash persists.

Cultural backlash against the church may indeed indicate an error or moral failure. It may also indicate no such thing. Jesus never sinned, yet the world hated Him. At best our culture requires the church to support Woodson by crucifying Savage. Christ commands us to love both. At worst the culture deplores Savage as an irredeemable monster and the church as complicit in sexual predation. The world cannot grasp the wonder of Hebrews 11. Men of great faith are also men of great sin. Abraham, Moses, and David delved deep into sin, but Christ delved deeper into mercy. To diminish the former diminishes the latter.

Christian backlash presents a different challenge. Good Christians are calling for Savage to resign. Were the church to force his ouster it would send a powerful message to the culture: We police our own and will not tolerate abuse. The culture would applaud. But maybe the culture needs a different message: Jesus restores not only the abused but also the abuser. The culture is not rooting for the restoration of Harvey Weinstein. It does not want a wicked predator to know the mercy of Jesus, but the church should want just that. Each Christian must acknowledge, “I am the abused and the abuser.” Blessedly Jesus restores both.

In all this the church must not forget Jules Woodson’s wounds. Those who have suffered at the hands of a wolflike shepherd deserve the church’s utmost care. Jesus is tender with the wounded: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” His church must offer the same tenderness, binding up Woodson’s wounds with the love of Christ.

Twenty years ago on a dark road Andy Savage abused Jules Woodson. The only cure for Savage, Woodson, the church, and the world is: Jesus.

—Russell St. John is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 01/17/2018 11:03 pm

    We attend Calvary Chapel Philadelphia.  Pastor Joe Focht talks pretty openly about his involvement with drugs and related activity in his youth, though not in explicit terms.

    I guess the issue here is that Pastor Savage violated Ms. Woodson when he was her youth pastor.  That is a little different than sins committed before entering the ministry.  But still, there is something missing here.  In my opinion, Pastor Savage should resign at least until he is able to reconcile with Ms. Woodson.  But Ms. Woodson needs to make clear what Pastor Savage and WPBC missed.  And there needs to come a point at which both people can be allowed to move on with their lives.

    But at all times I must remember that I, too, am a sinner saved by grace.

  • Jack A Klein
    Posted: Sat, 01/20/2018 01:01 am

    This is a thoughtful and sensible treatment of a complex and very troubling topic. A follow on piece with a review of a similar issue surrounding Christ Church in Moscow, ID and 2 sexual predators with whom that church had to deal, and the subsequent fallout, might be worth exploring as the Church, by God's grace, seeks to deal biblically with this type of sin which is ever so spotlighted these days. May God's grace and wisdom be profoundly evident among His earthly decision-makers and those who are hurt amid such travesties.

  • Julie Horner
    Posted: Thu, 01/25/2018 07:39 am

    Even after several years of observation and accountability (which should be done for any sinning church member) I wouldn't call it "crucifying Savage" to keep him out of ministry. It might have given his family much less grief in the long run. And if each Christian were to acknowledge, as St. John suggests, "I am the abused and the abuser" it could keep those who are truly abused from seeking the soul care that they need in Christ and send the world the message that we are all sexually abusive. We're not. There's a difference between having the capability to sin, desiring to sin, and acting on that desire. Jesus' blood covers all who repent, but there are still Biblical differences, not only for dealing with ministry leaders who sin but also concerning the seriousness of sexual sin.

     

  • Marie S
    Posted: Fri, 01/26/2018 12:42 pm

    Well said, Julie. 

  • Vista48
    Posted: Thu, 01/25/2018 05:19 am

    After reading this story from several different sources, I still come away with one thought: this was handled very badly by WPBC. Mr. Savage was offered a relatively painless exit (including a going away party), while his victim, who was apparently traumatized, was told to keep quiet. The lesson, I believe, is that we must deal with the sins of our church leaders appropriately - no matter how upsetting it may be. The failure of WPBC to do this has caused a rupture in the church two decades after the fact. 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 01/25/2018 01:49 pm

    I agree, Kenneth.

    The sin was confessed, and forgiveness attained.  But the fallout of the sin in the life of the victim was not dealt with.  

    The sinner is cleansed.  But the victim is not necessarily cleansed in the same timeframe, and especially not when the victim is young.  

    More than "what should we do with a pastor who sinned," the question should be, "how do we help the girl who was harmed live a life of freedom and forgiveness?"  --toward the other person and  inside herself, because I can assure you that she has carried some guilt from not saying no. 

    The Church should look into the harm that something like this brings to the victim, and learn ways to walk with the victim through the process of healing and forgiveness, as soon as the sin comes to light.  Saying the words "I forgive you" do not bring the same ability to "move on" to the victim as they do to the abuser.

     

  • LISA YOST
    Posted: Thu, 01/25/2018 12:15 pm

    Being restored to Christ is not equal to being restored to a post in the church. Yes, Paul committed atrocities against early Christians - but he himself was not in Christ at the time. He may have sinned, but was not an abuser while preaching the gospel and helping to lead the church. Aren't we better off comparing ourselves against Christ than comparing ourselves against another human? 

    No one can truly know this man's heart, but God. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says he is repentant. However, if he were truly repentant, would his focus be more on the vistim than himself? Would he protest standing ovations and turn down endless interviews? I would think better of his claim if he came to the conclusion that some actions do preclude the right to hold certain leadership roles, instead of encouraging this controvercy that does nothing to benefit the church or his victim. His actions speak louder than his words.

     

  • Marie S
    Posted: Mon, 01/29/2018 10:36 am

    Thank you, Lisa.  Amen.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 01/26/2018 11:28 am

    Sometimes the world understands James 3:1 intuitively where the church dismisses (or minimizes) it. There are several issues at play here making this difficult. One, although this was 20 years ago, the revelation (or at least the second revelation of it) came very recently. To that extent, Andy Savage is not at the moment a blameless man in the eyes of the watching culture. It is also the case that the confession offered before Highpoint Church wasn't totally forthcoming. There's a sense in which you only get one chance to make that confession; if it's revealed later that the confession glossed over some important stuff, then the culture has some basis to be skeptical of the restoration process. None of this is helping either the healing or the restoration process. 

    And, yes, the applause for the carefully worded confession (calling it a "sexual incident") is a serious problem in how the church presents itself before the world. Perhaps the applause would have been replaced with something more appropriate if the confession had been more completely forthcoming? Perhaps the backlash, both from inside and outside the church, would be more restrained if the confession had been more forthcoming?

    We can't mend all these issues quickly, but we can draw lessons and do better going forward. 

    I believe Savage can be restored, but slowly. Among other things, the world has to see that this is taken seriously. And, while Woodson will likely never be wholly satisfied with a process that was damaged from the beginning, some clear and unflinching affirmation of her concerns must be extended, and probably from both churches. It is probably also the case that if Savage is to be restored to a ministerial kind of position, there can't be any more fumbles along the way.

  • Daniel40
    Posted: Sat, 01/27/2018 11:15 am

    “Church members gave him a standing ovation, which was not appropriate: news of sin, even tempered by repentance, should prompt mourning rather than applause.”

    we might give the benefit of the doubt tempered by common sense... and assume that the applause was not “prompted” by “news of sin,” but rather prompted by a desire to show love, support, kindness, and mercy to a repentant sinner, no?

    or, dare I suggest it, perhaps they were simply trying to show solidarity with the angels in heaven... who were similarly rejoicing over this one sinner who repented?

  • Matt & Andy Green
    Posted: Wed, 01/31/2018 02:11 pm

    I recently subscribed to World magazine. This article makes me wonder whether I made a mistake. I hope there is some type of followup piece that acknowledges the weaknesses of this article and addresses the topic with more seriousness. The author seems to be unaware of how this situation fits into the broader epidemic of sexual assault in the evangelical church and parachurch ministries. I'm so tired of the misapplied and overused comparisons of famous but morally compromised, megachurch leaders to biblical characters like Paul and David. Even more offensive, the author uses the word "crucified" to describe the outrage rightfully heaped on someone who abused a minor for his personal sexual benefit and then became a successful Christian leader who makes a living pontificating on sexual immorality and cultural decline. Gross. Just gross.