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Remembering What Repentance Looks Like
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Remembering What Repentance Looks Like

True sorrow looks more like resignation than restoration.

John Profumo, Britain's former minister of war, pictured in 1963. (Photo via Getty Images.)

This May, the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of a comprehensive, independent investigation into claims that its Executive Committee had mishandled decades of sexual abuse allegations. The report was shocking. Russell Moore, the former head of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (and a friend of mine), called it a “Southern Baptist apocalypse.” Writing in The Atlantic, I described it as a “horror.”

The report not only provided new information about old allegations, it also uncovered new claims of misconduct. Most notably, a pastor and his wife came forward and told investigators that “SBC President Johnny Hunt (2008–2010) had sexually assaulted the wife on July 25, 2010.” Investigators included the allegation in the report because the allegation was corroborated by multiple witnesses, and because investigators “did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.”

Hunt put out a statement on Twitter denying the abuse allegation. Five days later, Hunt put out a second statement, admitting to a “brief, but improper, encounter” with the pastor’s wife that he says he stopped “in response to an overwhelming feeling of conviction.” He did not confess his actions to his church at the time of the admitted “improper encounter,” relying primarily on Psalm 51:4, which states, “against You and You only have I sinned and done this evil in Your sight.”

Remember, these revelations emerged only in May. Yet in November a group of four pastors released a video declaring that Hunt was ready to return to ministry and that “the greatest days of ministry for Johnny Hunt are the days ahead.” The pastors were not part of any ecclesiastical authority, but according to them, Hunt sought their counsel and agreed to be and remain “accountable” to the group going forward.

Incredibly, one of the pastors cited one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan, to justify his response to Hunt. “When I heard about this situation with Johnny Hunt, what rolled in my mind is, I want to be a good Samaritan,” he said. “I sure don’t want to run away from him. I want to run to him. I want to help him.”

Yet Hunt wasn’t the alleged victim in the SBC report. He was the alleged predator. Moreover, as Religion New Service’s Bob Smietana reports, “The video made no mention of the victim of Hunt’s assault or any efforts he had made to make amends for his actions.” 

There was a particularly interesting moment in the video. The pastors said that they followed a process of counseling and consultation similar to the one “Pastor Johnny used in restoring over 400 men to ministry.” Questions flooded my mind. Should those men have been restored? Should Hunt be restored? And why should we trust these four pastors to judge Hunt’s character?

Hovering in the background of all those questions was a terrible truth. The history of church abuse is littered with men who “repented” or went through a public or private “process” and simply continued their abuse. 

Sometimes abusers seem to truly fool the pastors, leaders, and colleagues who vouch for them. Ravi Zacharias, for example, issued a tepid apology (saying he failed to “exercise wise caution” and to protect himself from “even the appearance of impropriety”) after grooming and sexting allegations were made against him. In the meantime, he was abusing massage therapists “in the United States and abroad” and continued committing acts of misconduct until a few months before his death.

Other times the pastors and leaders have all the information they need to take decisive action to sever a person from ministry, yet still they try to maintain his position. Kanakuk Kamp received reports of terrible misconduct by a camp director named Pete Newman, took him through a laughably inadequate internal disciplinary process and enabled a decade of terrifying abuse, with a list of victims that could ultimately number in the hundreds. 

In 2021 the Southern Baptist Convention attempted to deal with this challenge by passing a resolution that declared “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.” The current president of the SBC, Bart Barber, issued a statement saying that he would “permanently ‘defrock’ Johnny Hunt” if he had the power to do so. (He does not. The SBC is a highly decentralized denomination, and the president of the SBC possesses no such authority.)

But even if Barber could bar Hunt from ministry in his own denomination, neither Barber nor the SBC can do anything to block him from entering ministry in any number of innumerable other Evangelical churches, ministries, or denominations. Indeed, as Hunt’s alleged “restoration” of “over 400 men” demonstrates, churches are constantly faced with a difficult question—is this what repentance looks like?

I’ve framed this so far as a church issue, but we face different versions of the same dilemma in politics. As I type this newsletter, Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker is asking Republican Evangelicals to trust him. After a sordid past, which includes fathering multiple children out of wedlock, past domestic abuse, and evidence that he paid for a past abortion, he’s asking voters to trust him. He’s a changed man.

But again, how do we know? The request for trust and forgiveness pulls at Evangelical heartstrings. After all, have we not all sinned? Do we not all need forgiveness? Are we not obliged to forgive? But at the same time, there’s a difference between forgiveness and trust. We can forgive, but we can’t see inside a man’s soul. We don’t know who is truly worthy of our trust.

I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, one that doesn’t ask churches or pastors to peer into the hearts of men who’ve gone astray. Here’s the idea: Repentance doesn’t look like “restoration,” it looks like resignation. The best thing that a minister or a leader with a “changed heart” can do is to go away.

To understand what I mean, I want to turn to a different story at a different time. John Profumo, born in 1915, was an English aristocrat, a soldier and a politician. He served in World War II with distinction. He landed on the beaches at Normandy and was mentioned in dispatches. He was awarded a military OBE in 1944.

He began his political career as a member of Parliament, and by 1960 he rose to become secretary of state for war in the British cabinet. Shortly thereafter he began an affair with a young woman named Christine Keeler. The affair was bad enough, but it was rendered incalculably worse when it was discovered that Keeler had also been sleeping with the Soviet naval attaché Evegeny Ivanov.

At first Profumo lied about the affair to Parliament. A 2006 profile of Profumo by Theodore Dalrymple notes that lying to Parliament was then “regarded as the most heinous sin a gentleman could commit, rather than as merely par for the course.” But then he confessed, “resigned in shame and resolved never to obtrude upon the public again.”

What did he do? He dedicated his life to quiet service for the poor. As Dalrymple notes, “He went to work for the poor of the East End of London, starting by washing dishes in a hostel.” After washing dishes, he raised money for Toynbee Hall, a charitable organization located in London.

None of this service was performative. None of it was designed to pave the way for his return to public life. Once he lost the public trust, he never attempted to gain it back. 

The irony is that he did in fact recover that trust. In 1975 he was awarded a CBE for his charitable work, and In 1995, he sat at Queen Elizabeth’s right at a dinner honoring Margaret Thatcher’s 70th birthday. And when he died in 2006, he was eulogized as a deeply honorable man. But he never asked for the public to trust him again. He never tried to make a political return. 

I agree with Dalrymple’s conclusion:

In fact, the dignity, discretion, restraint, and repentance with which Profumo lived his life after his fall were the last gasp of an old system of values. His honorable conduct—continued for years, away from the blaze of publicity—would now be almost inconceivable among the political elite. 

Dalrymple was obviously talking about politics, but his words apply to the religious elite as well. How many disgraced pastors and ministry leaders do we confront every single year who are looking not merely for grace (all who seek grace can find it) but also for a return? 

Late last month Auburn University hired Hugh Freeze to be its next football coach. Who is Hugh Freeze? You might remember him from the book or the movie “The Blind Side.” He was the football coach at a Christian high school in Memphis who coached Michael Oher, the gentle giant who was the star of the book and the film. 

Or you might remember him as the former football coach at Ole Miss, where his rising star fell (briefly) to earth after he was caught in multiple recruiting violations and caught calling a phone number tied to an escort service

He resigned—but then reappeared a few months later in January 2018 to speak at Liberty University’s convocation service, where he asked for forgiveness and then scolded other Christians for being unforgiving. Liberty hired him to be its football coach that December. 

In a 2020 Sports Illustrated interview, Freeze expressed frustration that he still had to deal with the repercussions of his past sin three years on from the scandal. “To my knowledge, I’ve tried, with anybody I could, I made sure they knew that if I hurt them I was sorry, but it’s time to move on,” he said. “How many times can we write about it? How many times can we talk about it? I said I was wrong. I’ve paid a price. My family paid a heck of a price. When can we move on?”

In his Liberty convocation message, Freeze referred to Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. Most readers know the story. A young man asked his father for his inheritance, left home, and squandered his wealth so thoroughly that he found himself destitute, reduced to eating pig feed. In his desperation, the young man repents:

I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired workers.”’ (Emphasis added.)

Note that the prodigal son does not ask for his former position. This is not a man seeking his former prestige. He’s broken, seeking only to be a hired hand. In an act of remarkable grace, however, his father restores his son:

But the father told his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” So they began to celebrate.

Which story is more like the prodigal son? Is it the powerful football coach who wonders when people will “move on” from his recent scandal? Is it the person who seeks to become a senator, asking Georgians to simply trust that he’s a changed man? Is it the famous pastor who apparently believes that six months in the wilderness is long enough? 

Or is it a man like John Profumo? Who never asked for more, who only sought to serve? Like the prodigal son, he received grace. He was honored by a grateful queen. But even then he still refused to ask the public for its trust. 

Any person can live a life of great meaning and honor far removed from the spotlight. And not one of us is capable of peering into a man’s heart to know when he’s changed. But let me suggest a clear warning sign that repentance isn’t real—when a powerful person doesn’t just ask for forgiveness but also seeks restoration to the life they lived before. 

No one is entitled to be a pastor or a politician, and there are times when the continued quest for those positions is itself a sign that a person simply doesn’t understand the price they should pay when they’ve committed a serious wrong. Powerful people should not seek a second chance at the prestige they once possessed.

One more thing …

This week’s Good Faith podcast opens with a question—if you have a choice between going to a dinner party where everyone else is progressive or everyone else is conservative, which party do you choose? It’s a launching pad to a discussion of progressive theology, progressive politics, and the difference between the two. We also solicit questions for a future podcast. What topics do you want Curtis and me to address?

One last thing …

I’m sorry, but until Christmas Day, this last space is reserved for Christmas hymns. Last week I closed with my favorite, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Today, let’s finish with my second-favorite, “O Holy Night.” I love this arrangement, and I hope you do as well: 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.