33-year-old Rachael Denhollander has been nothing short of instrumental in spearheading the sexual abuse case against Larry Nassar. As both the first and last person to speak out about the former Olympic doctor’s sexual misconduct, Denhollander has been praised by the public, her peers, and the presiding judge alike for her boldness and bravery.
Over the course of seven days, 156 people gave victim impact statements—but none could quite compare to her unshakeable testimony chock-full of biblical wisdom.
With a call to repentance, a demand for justice, and a lesson in forgiveness, the former gymnast delivered a 36-minute speech that was appropriately met with standing ovation.
“You made this happen,” said Judge Aquilina upon the conclusion of her testimony. “You are the bravest person I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
But although Denhollander has been hailed a courtroom hero in Nassar’s case that landed the former physician with 40 to 175 years in prison, her mission to speak out against the heinous crime of sexual abuse is far from over.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Denhollander expressed her concern over the church mishandling sexual abuse cases and the Christian media misrepresenting God’s justice by focusing wholly on “forgiveness.”
“One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound,” she said. “We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”
Denhollander says she spent the last 18 years poring over Scripture in search of God’s perspective on sexual abuse, which had been a big pain point for her.
After a lot of tears and a lot of studying the Word, she explains how she partly found her answer in John 6 where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you want to leave too?” and Peter replies, “Where else would I go, Lord? You have the words of life.”
“There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love,” said Denhollander. “Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.”
“Beyond that, it was learning more about God’s justice, that contrast between darkness and light, and how to properly interpret God’s sovereignty and Bible verses that command us to give thanks or reveal God’s promises of bringing goodness out of evil,” she continued. “When those verses are interpreted properly they are glorious and beautiful truths. More often than not, particularly in the case of sexual assault, they’re really used to mitigate and to minimize—almost as if the victim handles it ‘properly,’ if the victim just forgives, all of the feelings are going to go away. That’s not true and that’s not what Scripture teaches.”
But wrestling to come to terms with God’s view on sexual abuse wasn’t the only obstacle that Denhollander had to face in the nearly two decades that she grappled with the effects of Nassar’s abuse.
She explains that the one place that should have been her safe haven to seek help and support actually became the place that would shun her for speaking out: the church.
“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim,” Denhollander lamented. “There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”
In her impact statement, the 33-year-old had mentioned that her advocacy for victims of sexual assault “cost me my church,” which she elaborated on with Christianity Today:
“The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly.”
The situation she was referring to was the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) scandal. Though not a direct participant of an SGM church, Denhollander had “mountains of evidence” that could have been useful in the case per her church’s heavy involvement in restoring former SGM president C. J. Mahaney.
“When I did come forward as an abuse victim, this part of my past was wielded like a weapon by some of the elders to further discredit my concern, essentially saying that I was imposing my own perspective or that my judgment was too clouded,” she said. “One of them accused me of sitting around reading angry blog posts all day, which is not the way I do research. That’s never been the way I do research. But my status as a victim was used against my advocacy.”
She further asserts that we’ve “failed abhorrently as Christians” when it comes to the test of taking a stand against a trusted person in the church or community, but says “we are very happy to use sexual assault as a convenient whipping block when it’s outside our community.”
Denhollander charges that we must be willing to shine the light on the evil in our own communities, as well as others. The church seems to be just fine with pointing the finger when the sexual assault claims are targeted at the likes of USA Gymnastics, for instance, but the double-standard sets in when the abuse is happening within their four walls:
“You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ. But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.
“It’s devastating enough when money and medals are put against sexual assault victims. But when the gospel of Christ is wielded like a weapon against sexual assault victims, that’s wicked. There’s no other way to say it.”
Speaking of her choice to tell Nassar she forgave him, Denhollander also addressed the problem of the church misinterpreting what forgiveness really means:
“Forgiveness can really be misapplied,” she explained. “Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.”