Toby J. Sumpter’s Denial of the Body of Christ Puts Abuse Survivors at Risk
Image by author.
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
Update: Peter Leithart offered a sincere, compassionate statement today regarding his involvement in the Jamin Wight situation, which you can read here: goo.gl/wkrMas. I appreciate Leithart’s statement and hope it will encourage Sumpter, Wilson, and others to reconsider their current tactics and stances. I have accordingly changed several parts of this post that referred to Leithart.
Toby J. Sumpter is the Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. Trinity is the “sister church” to Doug Wilson’s Christ Church and is a member of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (which Wilson started and presides over). More relevantly, Trinity is the church that homeschool alumnus and convicted child molester Jamin C. Wight attended while he preyed on a 13-year-old homeschooled girl.
In the wake of the recent dialogues and diatribes about Jamin C. Wight and how Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart mishandled the revelations of abuse (Leithart was Trinity’s Pastor at the time of the abuse revelations), Sumpter wrote a sort of apologia of his and his cohorts’ actions. He begins,
One of the accusations leveled against our community has been our lack of care for the victims of abuse. And wound into that accusation is the assumption that instead of caring for children and victims, our refusal to cow to the accusatory catcalls is necessarily just an act of self defense, defending leaders and pastors instead of the vulnerable little ones.
Sumpter’s apologia thus aims to prove otherwise: to prove that he, Wilson, and Leithart are the true defenders of abuse survivors and that the people with actual academic and professional training and experience of abuse prosecution and survivor advocacy are the ones harming survivors. He argues that pastors are not just pastors; they are spiritual “physicians”:
I’d like to begin with the nature of pastoring and spiritual healing. Like Jesus, the Great Physician, pastors are physicians who care for the souls of their people.
He then launches into an analogy about emergency situations, using the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 as the analogy’s foundation. He talks about footage of the tragedy that he recently watched:
Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, and I caught a few minutes of footage and interviews from survivors last night on the news. The footage of the trade towers collapsing and the men and women running (one pushing a stroller) is pretty haunting to watch as the smoke and dust billows out and down the streets of New York City. Then there are the wounded walking with blood on their faces. I watched a reporter run up to one man and put a mic in his face and ask what happened. But as the rescue crews dig in looking for survivors and medical professionals come on the scene to give aid, one of the first things they do is start putting up the yellow tape. In order for the emergency crews to do their work they’ve got to create a safe and secure space for that care to take place.
“In order for the emergency crews to do their work they’ve got to create a safe and secure space for that care to take place.” I actually think that is an important and helpful principle. But Sumpter takes it in an odd direction:
Pastors and elders are the emergency crews that frequently arrive on the scene moments after explosions. And when reporters show up and start accusing the rescue workers of harming people, it’s not helpful in the slightest. Maybe they even point to the wounded coming out of the rubble, they catch snippets of conversations on the radios, and then they set to their blogs reporting half truths and raising suspicions that the rescue crews are actually protecting the terrorists. Why are you protecting terrorists? Don’t you care about the victims?!
Imagine you’re a fireman, a nurse, a police officer in that situation. Yes, of course it is important for there to be true accountability. Yes of course firemen and law enforcement and medical teams could use their positions to do harm. But you don’t actually provide any true accountability by stirring up an angry mob outside the yellow tape, and rarely do you even get a complete picture by shoving a microphone in the face of one bewildered survivor. And please don’t read into this metaphorical scene as though I’m assigning certain people certain parts. I’m not. I’m just painting a scene that generally corresponds to the kind of work pastors have to do.
Sumpter makes clear with his last few sentences that he doesn’t want us to “read into” this scene he is painting. He’s not “assigning certain people certain parts.” “I’m not,” he insists. Except he is. He began his scene by saying that, “Pastors and elders are the emergency crews that frequently arrive on the scene moments after explosions.” Who are those emergency crews? They are “a fireman, a nurse, a police officer.” In “emergency situations,” then, pastors fill multiple roles: putting out fires, healing physical wounds, and punishing criminals.
In contrast to these good, helpful people (the pastors), Sumpter describes the evil, unhelpful people: “reporters.” And he obviously has in mind all the people calling Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart out because, when describing “reporters,” he slips ups and says, “then they set to their blogs reporting half truths and raising suspicions.” Well, reporters report on news sites. Bloggers blog. So the evil, unhelpful people Sumpter has in mind must be the people writing online about Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart. They are accusing Wilson and Leithart of mishandling abuse cases by inappropriately protecting child molesters, or as Sumpter puts it, “raising suspicions that the rescue crews are actually protecting the terrorists.”
Sumpter is being entirely disingenuous, then, in pretending that he is “just painting a scene that generally corresponds to the kind of work pastors have to do.” He is clearly describing how he feels about the current controversies over Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart’s mishandling of Steven Sitler and Jamin C. Wight‘s crimes. In his mind, he and Wilson are just trying to care for the victims of a terrorist attack. As CREC pastors, they’re the only ones — in Sumpter’s scenario — who have the ability to put out fires, heal wounds, and punish criminals. Anyone else — including actual news reporters like Katie Botkin, actual survivors of those child molesters’ crimes like Natalie Rose Greenfield, the actual parents of those survivors like Gary Greenfield, people with actual child abuse prosecution experience like Boz Tchividjian, other pastors who provide actual training in child protection like Mike Sloan and Beth Hart, or survivor advocates like myself who create child abuse prevention curriculums for homeschooling families — are apparently just running around for no purpose other than to make false accusations. And we clearly have no idea what we’re doing because, no, only the CREC pastors know how to be firefighters, nurses, and police officers.
The problem with Sumpter’s metaphor — and more importantly, the problem with Sumpter’s theological claim that pastors are not just pastors but prophets, priests, and kings in emergency scenarios — is that it denies the Christian doctrine of the body of Christ. We find this doctrine articulated in 1 Corinthians 12:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ… The body is not made up of one part but of many.
The Christian doctrine of the body of Christ teaches that God gave different gifts to different people. God did not make everyone a teacher — and that’s probably good. As the Apostle James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (Incidentally, this is a lesson that Sumpter and Wilson would do well to revisit. Instead of acting like they are being unfairly persecuted because their actions entered public light, they should remember that they chose to become teachers and thus “will be judged more strictly” — and that is how it should be.)
God gave different gifts to different people. Not everyone is a foot in the body of Christ. Not everyone is a hand. It would lead to great confusion and pain in a body if a foot told a hand it had no purpose being a hand and that it, the foot, would take over hand duties. And then also took over ear duties. And eye duties. And mouth duties.
In the same way, pastors have the role of teaching and mentoring individuals and families within their faith communities. Unless otherwise trained, pastors are not to usurp the duties and roles of other parts in the body of Christ. Pastors are not to usurp the duties and roles of a child abuse prosecutor. They are not to pretend they know how to be a counselor to an abuse survivor with PTSD. They are not to act as if they need not listen to the advice of a survivor advocate. Each of these individuals has a duty and role within the body of Christ and those duties and roles are distinct from the pastor’s role.
Or as Victor Vieth, Executive Director Emeritus of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, puts it: “Stay within your field of expertise.”
In Sumpter’s analogy above, pastors should not play emergency crew. Pastors should play pastors. And they should step aside and let the emergency crew members do their jobs. And when they are later pastoring their churches, if questions about how to be a better pastor to those impacted by the emergency arise, they should give the floor and pass the microphone to those who actually know: the firefighter, the nurse, and the police; the child abuse prosecutor, the child abuse prevention teacher, and the professional survivor advocate.
Stay within your field of expertise.
Of course, Sumpter will have none of that. He refuses to acknowledge that as a pastor, he might be ignorant about things that are not under his jurisdiction and sphere of knowledge. He proclaims that,
Faithful shepherds imitate the Good Shepherd who lays His life down for the sheep. And they often lay their lives down by standing up to the paparazzi, to the reporters, and to the internet mobs that want to rip open the wounds that have healed, that are willing to risk further complications and secondary infections to satisfy their lust for knowledge and power, that want to diagnose your problems and offer you their home brew solutions from three thousand miles away.
And by “home brew solutions” Sumpter means the professional and informed advice of child abuse prosecutors like Boz Tchividjian and the professional and informed advice of pastors actually trained in child abuse prevention like Mike Hart and Beth Sloan. In all honesty, it is Sumpter (and Wilson and company) that prefer the “home brews.” They prefer to stay within their echo chamber and not let the other parts in the body of Christ do what God inspired them to do. They refuse to let the hand say to the foot, “You are doing a really bad job at hand-ing. Please let me help you.”
Stay within your field of expertise.
I’d like to conclude with one final observation. In his final thoughts, Sumpter says the following:
One astute observer replied to my last post pointing out that according to Tolkien, orcs were originally abused and tortured elves. And I have no doubt that some of our loudest, shrillest opponents truly are victims of great hurt and pain. And so I say to you, my friends, if you can hear me through the fray: Jesus our Savior bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.
I know who Sumpter is referring to because it’s me. This is the context:
This is the context: Sumpter was calling those who disagreed with him “orcs.” Or to be more specific, Sumpter’s actual words were, “orcs, hags, and trolls,” “a mob of angry orcs,” and “orcs…screaming for blood.” In other words, Sumpter chose to focus on the handful of bottom-of-the-barrel internet commenters that every blog has instead of the sincere, thoughtful critics like Tchividjian, Sloan, Hart, and Julie Anne Smith — even Michael Reagan and Jefferson Bethke. (You can even go look at my previous posts on the subject; I have not used a single personal insult and I have not name-called once.) And then he chose to smear the sincere, thoughtful critics by pretending there was little difference between the groups. And to this I responded with the aforementioned comment:
Considering this context, I’d like to point out the audacity of Sumpter to pretend this tweet somehow made his case. Sumpter said,
I have no doubt that some of our loudest, shrillest opponents truly are victims of great hurt and pain. And so I say to you, my friends, if you can hear me through the fray: Jesus our Savior bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Hear him through what fray? Well, probably the fray of Sumpter calling them hags and orcs and trolls. So yes, I hope you can hear the true message of Jesus through Sumpter’s personal insults. I hope you can know the message of Jesus is actually one of love instead of the message of derision and ridicule that Sumpter models. And I hope that Sumpter one day realizes that if he really thinks his critics are “victims of great hurt and pain,” he should stop gleefully rubbing salt into their wounds.
As a child, I absolutely loved Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. One the moments that has always stuck with me throughout my life was the “Naming” passage of the second novel, A Wind in the Door. In that passage, Echthroi — evil personifications of nihilism — try to “X,” or erase,” the protagonist Meg Murray. The Echthroi are overcome by the process of “Naming,” which L’Engle describes as re-integrating a character with its true, best self.
I would suggest that this is a better (and more Christlike) tactic for engaging people whom Sumpter finds “orcish.” If indeed they act out of great hurt and pain, then it would be more loving to speak to them as if they are not monsters, but human beings. Hurting human beings, yes, but human beings. People who are desperately trying to keep other people from being hurt like they were.
If Jesus encountered such people, I believe he would Name them, not X them.
I sincerely hope Sumpter, Wilson, and their communities can learn to do the same. And I think Peter Leithart today modeled how this can be done.