How evangelical abusers operate

This Hillsong scandal reveals an important element of authoritarian systems: the importance of enablers to the group's leader.

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A few days ago, the world learned that Brian Houston–beleaguered founder of Hillsong Church, a global megachurch–violated his church’s code of conduct with “inappropriate behavior” directed at two women. He’s trying his best to spin-doctor what he did, but he’s just making his situation worse. In the process, he’s revealing just how extensive his enabler network is–and how far they’re willing to go to protect Hillsong itself.

A quick overview of Hillsong and its scandals

In 1983, Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie founded Hillsong Church in Australia. It took off fairly quickly. Nowadays, it boasts many dozens of churches in 19 different countries. Most non-evangelicals likely know Hillsong as a music label–they famously advertised their worship-music CDs on late-night television years ago. When I was Pentecostal, I even had one, though I found most of their music to be unsatisfying, corporate-sounding pablum.

(I wasn’t evolved or anything. Back then, my favorite musicians included Keith Green, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Michael W. Smith. I apologize in advance about reminding any older folks that “Awesome God” exists.)

However, with Hillsong’s explosion in popularity came public scrutiny. And that scrutiny exposed a lot.

In 2000, Australian authorities learned that Brian Houston’s dad Frank–a pastor like his son–had been sexually preying upon children at his church. When Brian found out about it, he chose not to report his father to the law. Eventually, Frank lost his pastor job, while his church rolled into Hillsong’s portfolio. Then, in January this year, Brian also resigned from Hillsong. As his reason, he cited the ongoing investigation into his mishandling of this scandal.

All through the early 2000s, Hillsong faced criticism for its financial dealings. Like most megapastors, Brian and Bobbie enjoyed the high life. And like most evangelicals, the Houstons and their church leaders tended to be bigots. Also like most evangelicals, illness fakers preyed upon their group. Also also like most evangelicals, Hillsong tended toward the extremely authoritarian side of church culture.

However, it’s the sex scandals that most get people’s attention. And Hillsong sure had more than a few of those. From Carl Lentz’s extramarital affairs to egregiously-mishandled sex assaults, Hillsong seemed to have it all.

Hillsong’s continuing Brian Houston problem

As I mentioned earlier, Brian Houston stepped down from his position a couple of months ago. The investigation into his mishandling of his father’s scandal has apparently been heating up. However, even at the time I wondered what we’d find out about Houston himself.

Authoritarians learn some truly dreadful lessons about power. Preying upon others is only one way they express the power they hold. The bigger the tasks they can demand of followers, and the more those followers don’t want to do what’s being demanded, the more authoritarian leaders enjoy the results.

As they rise to the top, as well, these leaders learn about which people are safest to victimize.

I’ve been hearing about Hillsong’s authoritarian streak for years now, so I’ve wondered for a while now about what skeletons lurked in Brian Houston’s closet.

It looks like he was more of an opportunistic predator of the grown women in his direct sphere of influence, and he also sure did like his mind-altering substances.

The new Hillsong scandal

A few days ago, we learned that Brian Houston had two serious complaints lodged against him. Both violated the Hillsong code of conduct, which you can see here.

In 2013, Houston texted a female staffer to express his deep desire to “kiss and cuddle” her. In response, she complained to the general manager of the megachurch, George Aghajanian. And then, she quit.

At the time, interestingly enough, Houston claimed he’d taken some “sleeping tablets.” Moreover, he claimed an addiction to them.

A few months later, that staffer told the church she had not been able to find employment after quitting, so Houston himself paid her several months’ lost wages. One wonders if he saw it as a shakedown attempt. If so, he got off very lightly. His board said they also “worked with him” to get him over the addiction. And if so, he again got off lightly–because Christian therapy simply does not work.

In 2019, Houston attended a Hillsong conference in Australia. (Their evangelical Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, gave its opening address!) While there, Houston abused his anti-anxiety medication. He took too much of it and mixed it with alcohol. While thus inebriated, he knocked on the hotel room door of a woman attending the conference. They spent 40 minutes together, he says, though neither party can clearly recall what they did. Whatever happened, it was obviously unacceptable for him to have been there.

Afterward, he personally refunded the woman’s conference fee and donations. Also, he super pinky promised he’d abstain from ministry and alcohol for three months. However, he later admitted to drinking alcohol anyway–and people saw him doing ministry stuff a few times too.

Somehow, neither scandal made it into Hillsong’s January announcement about Houston stepping down.

Why Hillsong protected their former leader: the official story

When critics noted that somehow Hillsong had failed to mention these two scandals in their January announcement, their new leader, Phil Dooley, had a ready response:

Pastor Dooley told the meeting that some church elders raised concerns the board had “covered up” the two women’s complaints by failing to mention them in the statement about Mr Houston stepping aside. 

He denied any allegations of a cover-up. 

“I would say that I believe that the board acted appropriately under the circumstances of the information given to them and with a desire to see Brian healthy,” he said. 

Pastor Dooley said the decision was made to offer “grace”. 

“I think we have always been a church that sees the grace of God expressed in Jesus and that our desire is not to expose anyone”. 

ABC Australia

Oh really, now.

How grace works in evangelical scandals

So the church’s leadership covered up those two scandals out of deep consideration for their god’s grace toward Brian Houston. Had they publicly discussed those two previous scandals, gosh, that would have invalidated divine grace!

In Christianese, grace means divine forgiveness and charity toward one who doesn’t deserve it. Their god is just full of grace toward anybody who licks his feet fervently and frequently enough.

But in abuse cases, grace gets used as a weapon against victims. It keeps abusers under a veil of secrecy. See, once their god totally forgives someone, nobody else can mention the offense ever again or else it’s like bringing up a crime that’s already been atoned for.

If Christian abusers haven’t done the hard work to really resolve the deep flaws that gave them internal permission to abuse others, then that silence simply allows them to find new victims very easily.

This is exactly what happened with Jennifer Lyell. Her abuser took advantage of her request for silence about his abuse. When she found out that he’d gotten a new ministry job similar to the one he’d had when abusing her, she felt morally compelled to publicly reveal what he’d done. And predictably, the tribe tried its best to stomp on her for doing so.

As a concept, then, grace works far more to the benefit of abusers than abused. It also reveals something else that’s important to know about authoritarian systems: the sheer importance of an authoritarian leader’s court of sycophants.

The court enabling Brian Houston

At the moment, Hillsong’s top leaders are clearly focused on one thing above all things, and it sure isn’t evangelizing the whole world for their imaginary friend Jesus. Rather, they’re utterly focused on customer retention. Brian Houston has seriously jeopardized sales and retention of their one and only product: active membership in Hillsong churches.

For years, Houston functioned as a good figurehead for their business. And so for those years, his carefully-selected courtiers protected him from any accountability. This protection was absolutely necessary, which is why he selected leaders who owed their careers, their wealth, and their power to him personally.

Carl Lentz, for example, became a very good personal friend of one of his sons while attending Hillsong’s college. He even married the daughter of another highly-placed courtier. So he owed everything to the Houstons.

In 2013 and 2019, Houston’s hold on his courtiers was still good. They still needed him, and he very much needed them.

As a result, not a whiff of these scandals emerged.

So why did divine grace stop mattering now?

But in 2022, things had changed very much. Legal heat had intensified considerably, and it doubtlessly threatened to expose the other scandals.

Regarding his message about stepping down, Houston said in January that his legal counsel had recommended he do it. Then, Dooley said that some people on the church board raised concerns about why these situations hadn’t been brought up during Houston’s announcement. That’s why they held a big huge meeting about it in the first place.

Why was the church board concerned now, and not years ago?

Clearly, divine grace stopped being quite the impediment to abuse exposure that it’d been 9 and 3 years ago. Very convenient, that shift in divine priorities!

I think the situation ran more like one of very-earthly power shifts. All of a sudden, Houston’s presence at Hillsong approached liability status. Protecting him just isn’t on the agenda like it was once. We’ve seen former evangelical leaders thrown out of the tribe’s protective embrace before. (Also: this guy, and this odd thing about Christian book endorsements.) This doesn’t happen until it’s safe to oppose them.

Who it’ll never be safe for: the victims of abusive Hillsong leaders

Phil Dooley ended his featuring on ABC Australia by expressing his deep sorrow for the women Houston preyed upon–and by encouraging any other victims to step forward in confidence. As he said:

He told the meeting it was important anyone who came to the church felt safe and did not feel like they would be subjected to “any form of abuse or harassment”. 

“We’re deeply sorry for those victims and for what they’ve had to go through and what they’ve had to endure,” he said. 

“We acknowledge Pastor Brian has made significant mistakes … we also do want to pray for Pastor Brian and for Bobbie [his wife] and the family because there is a lot of pain associated with this. 

“Sin is messy and it brings all kinds of pain”. 

ABC Australia

But this statement just reveals that he is just as much of a problem within his church system as Brian Houston was–and still is.

How we know that nothing will change at Hillsong

By calling predation “mistakes,” Dooley ensures that abuse won’t ever get taken as seriously as it should. As the old joke goes, dropping a plate is a mistake. Preying upon two women and using the same self-exonerating excuse each time for doing it is a pattern.

And so is accepting those excuses twice and covering up the abuse.

I would not be surprised in the least to discover more points emerging on that trend line. Really, I’d be far more surprised to learn that an authoritarian leader only preyed upon women twice in all the years he reigned over his group. After all, it’s beyond obvious that Hillsong’s courtiers are perfectly okay with protecting their leader from consequences.

By expressing nothing but sympathy for Houston and his wife and the pain his family must feel at knowing their loved one is a predator, Hillsong’s new leader is showing us his inmost heart. Ultimately, he wants to protect Houston’s family from the knowledge of Brian Houston’s behavior. He’s at serious risk of covering up future scandals.

Abuse is not “sin”

The potentially worst part, though, is this:

By blaming abuse on “sin,” Dooley ensures it can’t ever be addressed in real-world ways. Sin is simply an endemic condition of humanity, according to evangelicals. Therefore, they can’t ever hope to eradicate it from their groups. And therefore, abuse itself becomes endemic.

Similarly, nor can abuse be prevented at the source. Authoritarian systems entirely lack any way to detect potential predators. Once predators get into power, these systems then can’t effectively or reliably remove them or hold them accountable. All they can do is try to keep the flocks from realizing it’s happening, since abuse scandals do cause retention issues.

Dooley can be just as sorry as he wants, but without significant overhaul, Hillsong will never be safe for women.

It breaks my heart to know most of the women at Hillsong won’t listen to this guy telling us exactly who he is.

That said, they’re likely already aware that it isn’t safe to bring up their abuse to anyone in charge at Hillsong. Even to them, I’m sure this megachurch’s loyalties are crystal-clear.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...