By Angela Denker 1-11-2018

Here's how you know Jesus has left your church:

When only the powerful are allowed to speak and preach the word of God.

When forgiveness is offered without repentance.

When there is no cross, only a theology of glory of the powerful.

When the oppressed are silenced.

When the sin of the oppressed is condemned, while the sin of the powerful is covered up and forgiven without repentance.

When the Bible is twisted to glorify white, wealthy male-dominated culture.

When piety becomes a show, and true acts of discipleship are called sinful, embarrassing, or un-Christian.

When Jesus has left your church building, you ignore his words:

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven ... whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." - Matthew 6:1,5


Here's how you know Jesus has left your church:

When your congregation applauds — and gives a 20-second standing ovation to — a pastor who admits to sexually abusing one of his youth group students. She was 17. He was 23. According to the woman, he drove her to a remote location, exposed himself, and forcibly initiated oral sex from her to him, in addition to fondling her.

The pastor's name is Andy Savage. The young woman's name is Jules Woodson. She has chosen to share her identity only recently, emboldened by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements exposing perpetrators of sexual abuse in secular society and in the church.

Terrorized and in shock, Woodson said the assault went on for several minutes. Savage then abruptly stopped, told Woodson she must not tell anyone what had happened, and drove her home.

She reported the incident to her associate pastor, Larry Cotton, of then-Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. At the end of her story, Cotton said, "So, you're telling me you participated?"

Woodson said she felt her heart sink to the floor. How could it not? Another pastor was already treating the situation as an embarrassing tryst. Cotton told Woodson not to speak to Savage anymore, and that he'd be sharing the information she'd told him with senior pastor Steve Bradley and Savage himself, and that "the church would handle it."

The cover-up had begun. Shortly after, Woodson said, she shared details of what had happened to her with her discipleship group. Rumors started circling that she and Savage had shared an "innocent kiss." Bradley and Cotton decided to act, but as Savage left the church they threw him a going-away party, while Savage merely said he'd "made a bad decision." Years later, the church pastors and deacons asked Woodson's parents for permission to bring back Andy Savage as a pastor. Woodson's parents said no, but Savage had no trouble finding other pastoral jobs. He disclosed his "sexual incident" to lead pastor Chris Conlee at Highpoint in Memphis, and was hired without question.

It's only when Woodson came forward publicly last week (her story was first shared Jan. 5) that Savage was forced to come to terms with his past sexual sin.

How would his church handle this?


Here's how you know Jesus has left your church:

When your church service becomes a cover-up to retain the power and prestige of your congregation and its pastors, one of whom is a confessed sexual abuser.

When the entire church service dehumanizes a victim of sexual assault.

When your lead pastor apologizes to visitors, to Jesus, and for the dishonor of the church at the beginning of his message, but neglects to call "the incident" what it was — an example of sexual assault by a youth pastor to one of his youth group members.

Jesus has left your church when victims of sexual assault are offered healing but not justice.

Jesus has left your church when a woman is assaulted, but only men are allowed to speak publicly about it.


I've attended several megachurches and attended conferences for megachurch leaders. I've been a part of planning contemporary worship as a pastor at large Lutheran churches. It's not easy to produce a quality worship service like Highpoint's on Sunday: It costs a lot of money and demands a great deal of time and talent. When focused on Jesus, this style of worship can do amazing things for the word of God.

When focused on sustaining corrupt systems of power, this style of worship can be devastating to the gospel.

One thing was evidently clear watching this video: Jesus had left the building.

One of the primary ways that the modern church has dehumanized victims of sexual assault in the church — and primarily, these victims are women — is by terming victims as "broken" and "in need of healing." Over and over again, in his message following Savage's confession, Conlee used the word "healing." He said he is seeking healing for Ms. Woodson. He said that everyone at Highpoint wanted to be a source of healing. He said, "The church exists to heal brokenness."

But is that all the church does? Did Jesus say he only came to heal the broken? Or did Jesus say this, in Luke 4:18-19?

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of Lord's favor."

What might it mean for Jules Woodson to be free? Might it mean that rather than seeking her healing, the church should be seeking justice?

Jules Woodson is not broken. She is a survivor, she is brave, and Jesus lives in her. And I would argue that the need for his healing is secondary to her need for justice. And Jesus did not seek healing for those who sinned. He told them to repent — and then follow him.

To those who say that Andy Savage has repented, I would ask: When?

Every choice about the service sought to diminish Woodson and lift up Savage. Conlee insisted on calling Woodson "Ms. Woodson," and I couldn't help but wonder whether this was done purposefully to draw attention to the fact that she is not married (a mark against her in conservative Christian culture). The song choices at the service lifted up mercy: "Love Never Fails," "Reckless Love." The prayer was for healing, and Conlee said the church was praying "in agreement" and "in unity," seeking to quell any discontent and any disagreement about Savage's misconduct.

The Bible is full of examples for what to do when you have wronged others and wronged God. They include confession, lament, and communal repentance.

And Jesus never hesitated to give voice to the oppressed or to call a sin by its true name.


Maybe we can't hold Conlee and Savage entirely responsible. After all, they are merely cogs in a system — a system that drowns out the true voice of Jesus and instead lifts up white male supremacy as God's alter ego here in church. Conlee and Savage exist in a system that could never rightly call male sexual abusers in the church to task, a system that could never truly seek justice rather than healing for victims.

This is why:


The leadership team at Highpoint Church, via

To all churches who do not allow women on their leadership teams or Boards of Elders:

To all churches who do not allow women to preach or teach men:

To all churches who do not allow women to serve in senior supervisory roles:

You are creating an environment ripe for sexual abuse. Do not be surprised when it comes to your church, and do not be surprised when your leaders cover it up.

This is not the last of these stories.

To Jules Woodson: In this story, you — not Andy Savage — were carrying the word of God. Thank you for your courage.

 A version of this post previously ran at Red Letter Christians.

The Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter-turned-Lutheran pastor, writer, speaker, and full-time mom of two little boys, based in Minneapolis, Minn. Denker is a contributor to various publications, including The Washington PostSports Illustrated, Red Letter Christians, and Living Lutheran. 

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