Jerry Falwell And Rachael Denhollander: A Tale of Two Gospels

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is quite popular. For years I’ve heard progressives proclaim that virtually any form of sexual activity is okay because, well, Jesus did say somewhere in the Bible about judge not lest ye be judged. But it’s not just folks on the left who use Jesus’ words for their own personal gain. People on the right do it too. Some of them even lead Christian colleges.

Earlier this week, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, was interviewed on CNN about his continued support of Donald Trump. As we have grown accustomed to, Falwell defended the president’s character by pointing out that the sexual immorality was years ago and that President Trump said that he was sorry for some of it. Falwell then gave us this gem of theological malpractice.

“Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery.”

Except for Jesus never said that. Here’s what he did say.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28 (ESV)

We mishandle these verses when we view them, as Falwell does on behalf of President Trump, as a get out of hell free passage. “Well,” some say, “all sin is bad so who are we to judge?” But this is not at all what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words. Rather, he was dismantling the idea that it was good enough to look religious on the outside and remain sinful on the inside. He was addressing the root of human sin – the heart.

Falwell went on to throw in America’s favorite Bible verse, Matthew 7:1. The Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged Verse. And, like those on the opposite side of the culture war who mishandle this verse, Falwell failed to use it in its proper context. In the verses that follow, Jesus tells his audience that they should judge others but only after they take a good look at themselves.

In the interview, Falwell reminded us that he’s no pastor. He was a lawyer and a real estate man before becoming the president of Liberty University. As if we shouldn’t really expect non-pastors to know how to handle the word of God.

Except that we should.

I give you Exhibit A – Rachael Denhollander.

She too gave a speech earlier this week on TV but hers was much different. Hers came from a place of indescribable pain. Hers required great courage. And hers was rooted in the gospel – the true gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of American politics where the ends justify the means.

Rachael was sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar over several years. She was the first woman to publicly accuse the doctor but she wasn’t the only victim. There were over a hundred other girls who were preyed on by Nassar.

In the courtroom, just feet away from her abuser, Rachael bravely shared her story. She told how Nassar tricked her and concealed the abuse from her mother. She went into detail about how powerful American institutions did nothing to stop the abuse once they became aware of it. She shared how she was the victim of verbal abuse for speaking up. And she shared the gospel. Maybe shared isn’t the best word. She did more than just share the gospel. She demonstrated it.

 

“In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.”

 

And then Rachael Denhollander forgave Larry Nassar.

Sin, regardless of what Jerry Falwell Jr. would have us to believe, is not absolved over time. People are always saying, “Well, that was ten years ago,” as if time heals all transgressions. It doesn’t. If it did, Jesus wouldn’t have to had to come to die. Let’s not forget, some of Larry Nassar’s gross sins were several years ago. Should we give him a free pass? Certainly not!

My concern is not with who you voted for in this last presidential election. But I am gravely concerned at what many Evangelical leaders are willing to do in order to excuse the sins of a Republican president. We are supposed to speak truth to power, like Rachael did and like the prophets Jeremiah and Amos did long before her, not prostitute ourselves out for it, like so many Evangelical leaders are doing.

I grew up in a context where man people looked up to Jerry Falwell Sr. It was as if he was God’s man, sent with his Moral Majority, to protect the church from those on the outside wishing to do us harm. . Now that I’ve grown older and am a pastor myself, I can see that the greatest threat that the church faces is not from the wolves on the outside but rather the wolves in sheep clothing on the inside.

Jerry Falwell Jr., was right about one thing in his interview when he spoke of Jesus’ opposition to “establishment elites.”

“Those were the ones he said were a generation of vipers, hypocrites and they were the ones he came down hardest on. The religious elite of his day.” 

And our day too.

 

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