In the convoluted streams of Christianese that this guy spews nonstop, we find his rationalizations for sex abuse, his defiance, his targets for blame, and finally, his petulant resignation.
Recently, Ministry Watch reported on a church that closed due to its pastor’s abuse scandal. Years ago, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastor named Christian Watts (no, not that Chris Watts) sexually groomed and abused an underage girl in his youth group. Though that particular church found out about his predation and forced him to resign, he stayed in ministry with the SBC for almost 20 years before finally getting outed publicly as a sex abuser this autumn. As many such abusers do, he tried very hard to avoid the consequences of his choices.
To save his job, Christian Watts clung hard to a time-tested, long-honored evangelical get-out-of-scandal-free card: calling upon Christianese to escape the writing on his wall.
The writing appeared on Christian Watts’ wall
In the Bible, the phrase “the writing on the wall” refers to a story from the Book of Daniel, chapter 5. In this story, King Belshazzar holds a great feast. He and his guests desecrate Jewish temple vessels by drinking from them. They also apparently angered Yahweh by praising other gods.
During the feast, a hand magically appears, harshing everyone’s buzz, to write a message on the wall. Though transliterations vary somewhat, a popular one runs like this: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. After tons of wise men can’t figure out what that means, Belshazzar orders his Jewish servant Daniel to decode it. And Daniel knows exactly what it means. It’s a play on words that compares Belshazzar’s reign to a market transaction:
MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed … and found wanting; UPHARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.Wikipedia summary
In thanks, Belshazzar rewards Daniel for his translation. But someone kills the king that very night. We aren’t told who did it or exactly how Belshazzar dies, only that “Darius the Mede” becomes the next king.
One must wonder if Christian Watts, then the pastor of a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church in Tennessee, saw similar writing appear on his own feast-hall wall this past summer. That’s when the SBC released their sweeping investigation into sex abuse in their pastoral ranks.
Three days after that report’s release, Christian Watts disaffiliated his church from the SBC.
As it turns out, this preemptive move didn’t help him much.
Christian Watts: A career that illustrates everything wrong with the SBC
In 2002, Valerie Swope—then 19 years old—revealed a big secret to the former pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, Todd Robertson. She told him that Bethany’s current youth pastor, Christian Watts, had sexually abused her since she’d turned 16. She’d been in Watts’ youth group before moving out of state for college.
In truth, Christian Watts had been grooming her since the age of 13, when she began babysitting his young daughter. But as many victims of abuse can attest, she felt too embarrassed to reveal that part.
What she revealed was enough. Robertson and some of Bethany’s current church leaders demanded answers from their youth pastor.
Watts admitted to having sex with Swope, but he managed to squeak out of formal criminal charges by insisting that his victim had been of-age at 16, when the sex began, so what was even the big deal here, anyway.
Since nobody but Swope knew at that point that he’d actually begun grooming her three years earlier, he left that part out.
Still, Bethany demanded that Watts resign. Its current pastor disclosed the situation to the seminary Watts attended at the time, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville (an SBC-branded seminary, as the name suggests). Bethany’s pastor also asked Watts to undergo counseling and submit to supervision.
Like so many people in his exact position, like Mark Driscoll, Watts did absolutely none of that.
Instead, he cut ties with Bethany Baptist and continued his career in SBC ministry. His past only occasionally surfaced to trouble him. When it did, he threatened to sue those attempting to hold him accountable.
In 2017, he started Life Change Church in Tennessee. He affiliated it with the SBC.
But the writing still appeared on Christian Watts’ wall
Swope doesn’t appear in the SBC’s private compilation of abusers. Nor does Watts. Likewise, neither appear in the SBC’s formal abuse report. Very likely, this simply means that the entire incident stayed out of the news.
I have to wonder if Watts was always looking over his shoulder for that magic floating hand, though, especially in 2019, when the SBC finally sorta-kinda began to semi-address its huge sex abuse crisis. As the crisis made nationwide news, Swope began to publicly broadcast what had happened to her 20 years earlier. She also finally got the police involved. (Alas, what she accused Watts of doing in 2002 hadn’t been a crime back then in Kentucky. Nowadays, what he did is now a felony.)
But the real heat probably began to grow under his backside when the SBC’s abuse report came out in May 2022. It detailed potential investigative requirements for any SBC-affiliated church whose leaders got accused of sex abuse. SBC leaders had also begun making noises about kicking out churches that allowed sex abusers to remain in ministry.
So a mere three days after the report’s publication, Christian Watts pulled Life Change Church out of the SBC.
Though he had some hand-waving excuses for why he made this decision, it really looks like he did it to avoid sparking any denominational reviews.
Despite these self-protective measures, the UPHARSIN had finally come home to roost for Christian Watts.
A few months later, on September 11, 2022, a Tennessee news outlet published Swope’s story and accusations.
And Watts knew exactly what The Tennessean’s report meant for his future.
How Christian Watts fought to keep his church
Right after the September 11 story ran, in a Facebook post that is now long gone, Christian Watts tried to scrub away the writing on the wall of his feast hall. Thanks to a careful observer and archiver, Coffee Holler (thank you!), we have that post:
The post reads:
We are aware that a defaming publication has been released about our lead pastor regarding events that were dealt with publicly 20+ years ago. This article includes gross inaccuracies. This will be addressed at our 9AM and 11AM service. Due to the nature of today’s service, we will not be live-streaming. Please pray for our church, our staff, and our pastor as we endure this trial. This will not stop the work that God is doing in the body of Life Change Church. This is not a story of failure, but rather a story of grace and redemption.Facebook post from Life Change Church, 9/11/22; screenshot taken from Coffee Holler’s Facebook feed
September 11, 2022 fell on a Sunday. The original story from The Tennessean was published at 6am that morning, so this post had to have been published between then and 9am. That’s quick action!
And it includes some very on-the-nose Christianese here that is meant to both defuse the abuse accusations swirling around Christian Watts and to keep him employed at Life Change Church.
What’s going on here: Using Christianese as a shield and sword
In the 9/11/22 post, we see a lot of Christianese that might fly right over the heads of those not versed in this intricate, nuanced English dialect. Thankfully, I’ve spent the past 35-ish years achieving fluency in Christianese.
Here’s what the 9/11/22 post really means:
Those evil demon-possessed atheists in the lamestream media are LYING yet again—this time about our pastor. 16 is the legal age of consent in Kentucky, anyway! Why is everyone so mad? Oh yeah: DEMONS.
Besides, Christian Watts totally dealt with this situation over 20 years ago. It was so long ago, y’all! Only evil people care about holding someone accountable for that long. His critics are clearly looking hard to find something bad he did ages ago so they can interfere with his divinely-ordered mission.
And face it, everyone’s done something bad! Don’t judge him! In a way, haven’t we ALL been married youth pastors pushing 30 with cute 13-year-old babysitters and a wife working late way too often? Jesus forgives and restores everyone who asks, so why can’t people do the same here?
No, what’s happening to us—not just me, but all of us—is an attack from Satan himself. We will prevail against him. See, our god thinks we’re doing a really great job in this little Tennessee town. Jesus wants us to keep up the good work.
Anyway, the pastor will be reading a statement in church today. He never wants it to see the light of day, so we refuse to livestream it.
See how complex Christianese can be? All that in just one short paragraph! And his church responded exactly on cue.
Christian Watts’ church responded as expected
In the 9/11 Tennessean story, Christian Watts claimed that at least some people in his congregation, as well as Life Change’s board, were aware of his version of his abuse of Swope. As well, he claims that the leaders of “a Murfreesboro church” that helped start Life Change Church were also aware of it.
Even if they hadn’t been, evangelical churches have famously responded in the worst imaginable ways to accusations like this. They have always favored the men accused over the women accusing them. For that matter, Swope herself has accused the SBC of only caring about her accusations against Christian Watts because they came on the heels of the publication of their sex abuse report.
Really, it’s heartening that Todd Robertson and Bethany’s leaders took Swope’s accusations as seriously as they did. And even then, later on Robertson admitted that he hadn’t handled it very well.
Then again, at the time nobody in the SBC really knew how to handle someone like Christian Watts. That’s exactly why there are so many men like him in SBC ministry positions. Generally speaking, SBC leaders tend to act to protect their own positions first, the denomination’s reputation second, and the abuser’s future prospects third. All too often, victims can be found on the list of priorities somewhere around 100th place. They merit even that much only if they’ve somehow earned remarkable pity from their community.
So it’s not all that surprising that Christian Watts’ congregation completely supported him in his defiant resolution to retain his position. Many invoked Christianese in their own replies.
How Christianese helps abusers manipulate evangelicals
Here’s a sample from the comments his 9/11 post garnered, all captured in Coffee Holler’s archive video:
If we are all to be under the scope…nobody would qualify as pastor. . . This was 20+ years ago. When is enough..enough?
Obviously the publication doesn’t understand God’s redemptive and restorative power.
Standing behind Christian and [his wife]. Our church is going in God’s direction so of course the Devil is trying everything to stop us. You who are without sin cast the first stone. No stone throwing here! [numerous praying and heart emojis]
What ever happen’d in the past God got Christian through it !!! Give God.and Christian Praise forr getting him through it and making him a better leader of his sheep !!!
Nothing but an attack from the enemy!
God is not surprised by any of this and he’s got it! Stand strong in Him!! [praying emojis]
Man you know this is the devil’s work I mean why bring up something 20 years ago are we starting to do 20 year reunions of mistakes we’ve made in the past in fact this is childish bring up some past mistake it sounds like the work of the Pharisees I mean to be honest the devil’s working hard literally yesterday on the 10th my car broke down the devil’s trying to discourage us children of God. . .
(Goodness, that last fellow definitely has a theory, doesn’t he? There’s even more of it, too.)
I saw only one comment in that whole video that was not completely supportive of Christian Watts. That comment simply asked him to livestream the service after all. She felt that Life Change owed transparency to any prospective new church members. Since the livestream hasn’t surfaced, I’m guessing they refused to grant her request.
Most of the congregation picked up on his attempts to shift blame and evade any responsibility and accountability for his choices. They also caught his cues about redemption.
Christian Watts’ bravado didn’t last, however. Even his congregation’s full-throated support couldn’t save his job.
And now, how Christian Watts offered up his resignation from Life Change
Christian Watts resigned three days after the initial story ran—on September 14, 2022. Here is the Facebook post he wrote and shared with his congregation (which Coffee Holler also archived) before quitting:
It reads, in part:
Resignation from Life Change Church Tullahoma
These past few days have been difficult for our church and for my family. I am deeply sorry for any pain and sorrow this has brought upon you.
Two of the key attributes that are essential of a church leader is to have impact within its community are trust and integrity. These two attributes are being called into question when it comes to my leadership. Because of this, and in an effort to not allow the negativity that is being directed towards me to have any greater effect on you, I feel it is best for Life Change Church Tullahoma and for my family that I resign my position as pastor of Life Change Church Tullahoma.Facebook post from Christian Watts, 9/14/2022
And right there, between this post and that earlier 9/11/22 post, I realized what Christian Watts’ damage-control and recovery plan is.
As he did in the 9/11 post, he’s using deeply manipulative Christianese here to excuse himself and rationalize his behavior. And he is likely already planning his next church or ministry endeavor. What’s more, if this Tennessee congregation is anything to go by, he will find plenty of marks who’ll be more than willing to bankroll him for the foreseeable future.
Translating the Christianese from Christian Watts’ resignation post
Similarly, we find some key ideas communicated in Christianese in Christian Watts’ 9/14 resignation notice. Here is my rough translation:
Feel sorry for me and my family.
I did nothing wrong. I’m the victim here. Everything happening to me is happening because someone has it out for me. I guess some people just want everyone in Tullahoma to go to Hell. So I’m resigning. Not because I did anything wrong. I absolutely didn’t. No, I’m just deeply, deeply concerned about YOU. All that negativity must be hurting you! So I’ll take the fall in the hopes that the people persecuting me won’t drag you down too. Blame everyone persecuting me for one itsy bitsy teeny tiny little bitty mistake from a whole-ass 20 years ago.
Thanks to all this unfair persecution, my reputation is now shot to pieces. People are even giving me looks down at the Piggly Wiggly in Monteagle! I guess I’m no longer the Crown Prince of Tullahoma. If I can’t rule as royalty, then I have to run away to find somewhere where the people don’t know me so well.
I worked hard for you, and just look at what I get for it! My family, who’ll be suffering now that I’ve lost my job due to purely made-up ancient charges that are completely unfair, will still pray to Jesus for you. See how amazingly gracious they are?
You’ll miss us so much when we’re gone.
Truly, Christianese is fascinating.
Life Change Church is now gone for good, but Christian Watts still needs attention
In October, Life Change Church itself closed for good. Another church congregation now occupies its former building; they had their first official Sunday service on November 6th.
And true to form, Christian Watts just had to poke his nose into what has become the Tullahoma branch of Experience Community Church (ECCT). I had to laugh at the idea of a sex abuser who was finally held accountable for his past abuse thinking that anyone needed him to vouch for its new pastor, Joe Thompson. Here’s what he wrote on November 2nd on his personal Facebook account:
I just can’t, with this guy. Who on earth would ever take him seriously when he assesses another pastor’s “godliness”? And of course a narcissistic guy like Christian Watts would try to position ECCT as a simple continuation of his own church. Really, ECCT had better not be anything like Watts’ old church. It produced dozens if not hundreds of people who are happy to brush sex abuse right under the rug.
As for referring to his years-long sex abuse of Valerie Swope as “sin,” I could write a whole post just about that. And I just might. That’s another attempt to minimize what he did by reducing it to the level of the “sins” his followers likely commit.
Watts ends with another sideswipe of Christianese:
Kelleye Hogan Watts and I love you and miss you. We are thankful for those of you who continue to see us through the eyes of Jesus. Thank you for your love and prayers. One thing that has been challenged in my life has been my faith in God. And I believe God is asking, “Do you still see me as the good, loving, faithful God that you saw me as before all this took place??” Honestly, it’s been a struggle… But I believe God is at work. . .
Listen, life can change in an instant! That’s why God has to be first. When He is first, and the bottom falls out, He will catch you! So keep pressing on, keep trusting, keep moving forward, and keep looking up! You are the Church! Be the Church!! PCWChristian Watts’ Facebook account, 11/2/22. Quote taken on 11/19/22.
It just means that he still sees himself as an innocent victim of meaniepies who don’t understand Jesus Power. But don’t worry! He’s struggling due to all this cruel persecution, but he still has tons of faith!
And that question he thinks his forlorn, lonely little god is asking him is very likely a projection of what he himself wants to ask of others.
Incidentally, the “PCW” at the end seems to stand for “Pastor Christian Watts.” He lost his pastor job in October, but he was still apparently using the title weeks later. In fact, he wrote an essay about “going through the storm” on November 6th that ends with “PCW” as well.
The comments are universally supportive, as always.
And where oh where is Christian Watts nowadays?
Thankfully, it looks like Christian Watts is out of ministry—for now, at least. His Facebook posts indicate that he’s started a gutter-cleaning business with a family member. Hopefully those who hire him will keep a weather eye on their teenage daughters any time he’s around.
But one post on his account stands out.
Watts’ latest post on his Facebook account is titled “Powerful Testimony” and is dated November 14, 2022. It’s a repost from someone else. It offers the testimony of, apparently, Daniel Jameson.
I couldn’t confirm Jameson’s identity. Like a lot of these sorts of testimonies, this one has entered evangelicals’ collective subconscious. It is now part of their natural ecosystem.
In this post, we see two pictures. First, a young, heavily-made-up death-metal headbanger-type guy sits against a tree. Then, sitting against what appears to be the same tree years later, a clean-shaven older normie guy wears a Jesus-themed hoodie, blue jeans, and a baseball cap. The caption offers his carefully-honed conversion testimony. It claims that Jesus dramatically changes Christians for the better. Yes, he’s so much happier as a Christian!
Yeah. I can see why “Pastor Christian Watts” would have liked that post.
Christian Watts is still weaponizing Christianese
After all, Watts has been pushing hard on that redemption and change nonsense and has been for years.
But he’s not changed at all.
Rather, he’s cynically taken advantage of his tribe’s false beliefs to keep himself employed in ministry for over 20 years. In 2002, his initial defense against Valerie Swope’s accusations was to insist that in the late 1990s, there was nothing technically illegal about a much-older married youth pastor having sex with a 16-year-old girl in his youth group. (True at the time, yes. But note Corollary Defense 1A: Ignore any questions about grooming her between the ages of 13-15.)
When that defense failed, his next defense was to insist that Jesus had totally changed him and fixed all that was wrong with him, which implies that it’s totally unfair that anyone still cares about what he did oh so long ago. That defense failed too, but he’s still stuck there like a cheap remote-controlled toy truck in a rut, vrooming and vrooming his little heart out—but unable to crest its muddy sides.
What real change and accountability would have looked like
If Jesus really changed people, then Watts wouldn’t have preyed upon his 13-year-old babysitter decades ago. Instead, Jesus was happy to stand idly by and let him wreck a young girl’s future for years.
For that matter, in all the years that followed, a truly changed Watts wouldn’t have run so fast and so far from the magic hand of accountability every time it threatened to write on his wall. He’d have realized that he’d closed the door to ministry through his decisions, and would have sought non-ministry work forever after abusing Valerie Swope.
Personally, I hope that gutter cleaning pays well enough to keep Christian Watts’ mind from latching onto ministry ever again.
I hope even more that he only had one victim. That part of me that knows the SBC all too well suspects that Watts threw in the towel so quickly because he needed to avoid something else coming to light that would really have ended his ministry with a quickness—even possibly landing him in prison.
For now, though, this is where Christian Watts’ story rests.