While preaching to his new Florida congregation last Sunday, Pastor Tullian Tchividjian spoke at length about how God offers unconventional, unconditional and sometimes, downright “infuriating” grace to everyone ― even those society considers outcasts.
Tchividjian referred to a biblical story about Jesus interacting with a group of men with leprosy, people who were outcast from their communities as a result of the illness.
“You could no longer work at the job that you had, you could no longer be around the people that love you, you were basically living with this death sentence,” Tchividjian told his Palm Beach Gardens church, describing the experiences of people with leprosy during Jesus’ time.
But then, the Bible says Jesus healed the men ― restoring them to their old lives.
“The one thing that seems to annoy people the most about God is his willingness to love, forgive and restore those whom we have decided deserve the exact opposite,” Tchividjian preached.
He could very well have been thinking about his own story.
Tchividjian, a grandson of the famous late American evangelist Billy Graham, was booted from positions at two Florida churches for sexual misconduct in 2015 and 2016 ― including a relationship that the woman he was involved with describes as sexual abuse.
But despite his past, Tchividjian insists that because of God’s grace, he’s now rehabilitated enough to return to the pulpit and lead a congregation.
Tchividjian has started The Sanctuary, a new, nondenominational church that seeks to be a “judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be.” The pastor is insisting that his murky past is precisely what makes him qualified to minister to “broken” people.
In a recent podcast with the theologian R.C. Sproul Jr., Tchividjian compared his aptitude for the job to how Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are run by former alcoholics.
“The best person to reach someone who is crashing and burning is someone who has crashed and burned themselves,” he said.
But some Christian sexual abuse survivors and advocates aren’t so sure that Tchividjian is fit to lead a congregation. He hasn’t demonstrated that he understands the nature of sexual abuse, they say, and is misusing Christian teachings about grace to give himself a pass.
Pastors accused of abuse can sometimes exploit Christian teachings about forgiveness and grace to claim positions of power within a church, according to Wade Mullen, a scholar at Lancaster Bible College who studies how evangelical organizations seek to escape abuse scandals.
Mullen told HuffPost he believes that there’s a difference between receiving God’s grace and receiving God’s endorsement for occupying a position of spiritual authority ― a distinction he thinks Tchividjian is conflating.
“Pastors seeking to retain or regain their power might use God as their primary endorser,” Mullen said. “This can be a powerful tactic of manipulation because who wants to stand in God’s way?”
Both Tchividjian and The Sanctuary have not responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Tchividjian was fired from an administrative job at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs in 2016 because of an “inappropriate relationship.” One year earlier, he’d lost his job as senior pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale for having an affair with a female congregant while he was married.
The congregant has said that she thought of Tchividjian as a pastoral counselor and that the relationship amounted to sexual abuse.
Tchividjian has admitted that he had two affairs. (He has since divorced his first wife and remarried). However, he claims he didn’t play the role of counselor in the congregant’s life. He still insists the relationship was consensual and did not amount to abuse.
“I don’t care what role a person has, a consensual relationship between two adults is not abuse. And some of these people will try to make the case that, ‘Well, because you’re in a position of authority, it is abuse,’” Tchividjian told the Palm Beach Post in August. “And I’ll go, ‘OK I can see how that has been and can be used by people in those positions.’ ... (But) that just was not true for me. I was not abusing my authoritative role to try and find women.”
Yet experts in clerical sexual abuse agree that sexual relationships between pastors and parishioners who come to them for counseling can’t be consensual.
Dee Parsons, editor of a blog that exposes abuse in Protestant churches, told HuffPost she believes that just as licensed therapists are prohibited from having sexual relationships with their clients, a pastor who has sex with a congregant shouldn’t be allowed to lead congregations.
“A person who is going to their pastor for advice is in the same situation as those who go to a licensed counselor. They are vulnerable and in pain,” Parsons said. “Any pastor who uses that vulnerability to have a sexual relationship with his congregant should never step foot in a pulpit again.”
The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which trains faith communities on how to create safe environments for victims, suggests that churches create a code of ethics that strictly prohibits any sexual contact between pastors and those they are counseling.
GRACE’s founder also happens to be Tchividjian’s older brother, Boz Tchividjian. The elder Tchividjian tweeted recently that adult clergy abuse occurs when ministers use their position to “identify, groom, and engage in ‘consensual’ sexual contact” with someone under their influence.
After his departure from Willow Creek Presbyterian Church, Tchividjian spent over a year living in rural Texas with his second wife, participating in “spiritual, mental and emotional detox and rehab,” he told the Palm Beach Post. He later moved back to Florida, started attending a church and posting his writing online. The response he received from readers helped fuel his desire to start a new church, he says.
To bolster support for his return, Tchividjian has posted endorsements on his website from other religious leaders who claim he is fit to preach. In one letter, his pastor, Patrick Thurmer, says that Tchividjian has gone through a “difficult, but fruitful, season of ‘rehab’ under the supervision of a few seasoned saints.”
“I can’t speak with authority about the man Tullian used to be,” Thurmer writes. “But I can speak with confidence about the man Tullian is now. And this I know beyond a shadow of a doubt: the work of God in his life is real.”
Parsons says she believes abusive pastors who are repentant can become contributing members of society again. But she said they don’t need to return to the pulpit to do so.
Tchividjian’s spiritual mentors have done him a “grave disservice,” she said.
“They are preaching a cheap grace and forgiveness and [Tchividjian] is taking them up on their offer,” Parsons said.
Rehabilitation for pastors like Tchividjian would mean, among other things, admitting to the abuse, publicly apologizing to the victim, paying for the victim’s therapy, and submitting to intensive therapy themselves, according to Rev. Ashley Easter, an advocate for abuse survivors.
She added that all of this should be done without expecting to regain a position of spiritual authority again.
“Though God may forgive them this does not mean that their abuse is now without consequences,” Easter said. “God’s forgiveness does not mean restoration to the same position Tchividjian abused.”
Liria Forsythe, an abuse survivor and ministry leader from Pennsylvania, expressed concern about whether Tchividjian would adhere to any accountability structures put in place by the church he is leading. Tchividjian is part of The Sanctuary’s board of directors ― the only governing body within the independent church.
HuffPost has asked The Sanctuary what accountability structures it has in place to ensure the church is a safe space for abuse survivors, but did not receive a reply.
Forsythe said she “absolutely” believes in God’s grace and forgiveness. However, she thinks that should include “acknowledgment of our failings and acceptance of the consequences of our actions.”
“Tchividjian is full of Christian language that [breezes] past his lack of acknowledgment and acceptance,” Forsythe wrote in an email. “To claim he is ‘uniquely qualified’ to lead another church body shows he has no understanding of the consequences of his actions.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.