Overview:

The sin script may have gotten seriously rolling in the late 1980s. Since then, it's been honed razor-sharp. It helps evangelical leaders who are mired in scandal to keep their jobs—and their followers' trust and love. But it sure doesn't help any of the people victimized by these leaders.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

When abusive evangelical pastor Christian Watts tried to downplay his grooming of a teenager decades earlier, he described his predation as ‘my past sin.’ That’s a time-honored tactic for people caught in his exact circumstances. Let’s take a closer look at this tactic to see why it works so well in evangelical culture.

Those who are without sin, cast the first stone

In the Bible, a famous passage describes Jesus’ defusing of a very sensitive situation. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem asked him to adjudicate the case of a woman caught committing adultery. By Jewish law, the community was now compelled to stone her to death. (That means throwing rocks at her until she died. God of love, everybody!) But the city leaders wanted to “test” Jesus by seeing how he’d handle the situation.

Instead of answering them, Jesus knelt and wrote in the ground with his finger. The story does not relate what he wrote. But when they pressed him, he finally told them something that’s so famous that even non-Christians usually know it:

“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”

John 8:7

Apparently, that suggestion so embarrassed the city leaders that they left the scene. Finally, only Jesus was left with the woman. And he told her he wasn’t going to condemn her. Instead, he released her, telling her to “go and sin no more.”

We never learn anything else about the woman. She simply drops out of the story.

Christians love to quote that one line from it, though, especially when defending one of their own who has been caught doing something illegal or distasteful.

Not too illegal or distasteful, of course. If one of the flock does something completely beyond the pale, that person becomes a fake Christian. The rest of the flock strips the label of “Christian” from them just like the Skeksis strip the Chamberlain’s clothes from him after he loses the duel in The Dark Crystal, and for the same reasons.

However, it takes a lot to move an evangelical pastor across that line.

What evangelicals mean by ‘sin’

In Christianese, the word sin does a lot of heavy lifting. First and foremost, it means the commission of any deed, word, or thought that offends Jesus.

Second, it means any deed, word, or thought that didn’t happen but needed to, thus offending Jesus. You’ll often hear this second meaning expressed as “missing the mark,” an allusion to 1 Timothy 1:6. In this verse, evangelicals learn that “mark” means a shooting target. And their god, of course, is the one who sets the target up for them to hit. When people talk about “sins of omission,” this is what they mean.

You might notice that sin has nothing to do with hurting other people, however. Sin only concerns evangelicals insofar as it offends their god. His opinion is the only one that matters to them.

As a result of this focus, sins are often completely victimless. Consensual sex between two adults who are not married is utterly sinful. Even if they marry, if they are of the same sex then it’s still sinful. Almost all evangelicals regard masturbation as sinful as well.

And because Jesus’ opinion is the only one that truly matters to them, evangelical abusers tend to be curiously callous toward their victims—just like their god.

Because victims get swept aside in the rush to seek Jesus’ forgiveness, evangelicals tend only to focus on that forgiveness above all. Thankfully for them, Jesus is quick to forgive literally anything. Once he forgives, he forgets. And so must everyone else, or they risk Jesus’ wrath for remembering what he has already forgotten.

Most importantly, evangelicals believe that all sins are equal in Jesus’ eyes.

I could not design a better system for shielding abusers and perpetuating abuse—not even if I had ten years, a million dollars, and a mission statement etched in gold above my throne.

How abusers use sin to minimize predatory behavior

On November 2nd, Christian Watts wrote a Facebook post to his followers. It read in part:

I know these past several weeks have been difficult and I am so sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced as a result of my past sin.

From a screengrab of Christian Watts’ November 2nd post

His “past sin,” of course, was grooming a 13-year-old in the youth group he led as a married Southern Baptist youth pastor, then initiating sex with her once she turned 16. This abuse lasted until she left town for college. To my knowledge, he’s never apologized to his victim. He insists that because it was technically legal at the time for him to have sex with a 16-year-old, he’s done nothing really wrong. But here he is apologizing to his congregation for having sinned.

They’d already forgiven him, though, if their own comments to his earlier statements are anything to go by. One even specifically referred to the stone-throwing story from the Gospels.

And why wouldn’t they fully support him? He’d invoked the S-word. They’ve been primed since birth to respond exactly like this. Evangelical leaders have taught them for decades how to react to their leaders’ confessions of sin.

The template for excusing dark deeds with sin

They’ve been at it since at least 1988, when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart famously confessed to sin after being photographed with a sex worker. At the time, he said:

“I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin or call it a mistake,” he told his tearful but apparently forgiving congregation. “I call it a sin.”

The Crimson, 1988

If confessions exactly like his weren’t already a template, they sure became so afterward.

After Ted Haggard got exposed for drug-fueled sexcapades with another man, he drew upon the sin template to write a 2013 blog post criticizing evangelicals’ focus on “image management and damage control”:

My sin never made me suicidal, but widespread church reaction to me did. [. . .]

Jesus has been faithful to all of us in the midst of our pain, our suffering, and our disappointments. Why don’t we tell that? Every one of us have had sin horribly intrude in our lives after being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit, and God is faithfully healing us or has healed us. Why don’t we tell that?

“Suicide, Evangelicalism, and Sorrow,” Ted Haggard’s blog, 2013

He’s ostensibly talking about two children of major evangelical figures who had recently died by suicide. But he can’t help but link the parents’ anguish and their children’s own shortcomings to his own sin, meaning the drug-fueled sexcapades. He’s got something to say on that score:

Everyone I’ve mentioned here has fallen because of obvious sin. But I did not mention the proud, envious, gluttonous, angry, greedy, blamers and scrutinizers in the body of Christ who have equally fallen but their sins are acceptable in our culture so they do not even realize their sin or need for repentance. Why? They are too busy with the sins of others.

“Suicide, Evangelicalism, and Sorrow,” Ted Haggard’s blog, 2013

And that, he insists, is what actually “stimulates sin,” especially in evangelicals.

Very quickly, evangelicals learned to accept this template

Haggard’s comments are filled with Christians who agree completely with him:

JohnR: We are all sinners, it makes no difference what the sin is, it’s still sin, and we will continue to sin until we all meet at Jesus’ feet.

Eric Cowley: Our Lord Jesus said, he that has not sinned cast the first stone. I have friends in the ministry who have committed adultery and I will not judge them as it is by the grace of God we go. I am thankful you bring up the point that what is the difference between sexual sin and other sins.

laurakthompson: Pastor Ted could easily have disappeared from public life after his tragedy. Goodness knows that there were enough people who wanted him to do just that. But his message of hope for the hurting, grace for the sinners (read: every single one of us), and restoration for the fallen is so powerful and true, I am thankful he chose to heed the voice of God instead of the voice of the Pharisees.

Yolie Parsons: We are ALL sinners saved by grace by a loving God. Why are we surprise when somebody sins? Why don’ we have each other’s back?

Scott Helsel: Three and a half years ago my wife and i left a church that we planted because of my sin. We had been married 17 years and I hid my unfaithfulness from early in our marriage. . . I know that it was my inability to face my fears of exposure and my intense need to be pleasing in the sight of man that kept me in hiding.

Various comments to Ted Haggard’s blog post

They’ve learned well.

Just call it sin, and watch the criticism fade!

In December 2016, Clayton Jennings decided to issue a confession of sin. The handsome, puppy-dog-eyed evangelist and author’s timing was impeccable. At the time, six different women were accusing him of manipulating them into “sexual behavior.” One even claimed he told her to take a morning-after pill after they’d had sex, because “his entire ministry would be ruined if [she] were to get pregnant.” Once he’d gotten what he wanted from these women, he ghosted them with claims that he was dying or had to tend to a sick relative.

These are devastating claims, but Jennings used the usual sin script to get out of them:

“I never claimed to be perfect and I never said I was sinless. Presenting you with a fake facade of greatness is never why I got in this,” he said in the video. “I want you to know this: I’ve sinned—a lot.”

“I could tell you stories of my past sin, but I wouldn’t know when to stop.”

“Promiscuous Preacher Caught in Sex Scandal Aims for New Year Comeback Despite Elders’ Counsel.” Reprinted at Bishop Accountability. Originally from Christian News Network, December 30, 2016.

At the time, he attended his dad’s church. That church’s elders strongly urged Jennings to take a break from ministry for a while to focus on “repentance,” which is the process of getting forgiveness-and-forgetting from Jesus. Jennings chose to ignore this good advice. Instead, he scooted across to another church that had offered him a ministry position despite the scandal. In relaying that news, Jennings wrote in an email:

“I understand that being a public figure comes with attacks from people and the press. I also understand that I am guilty of certain sins in the past that I wish I could take back. Thankfully, God forgives and forgets, even when others try to hold it over your head and gossip/lie about it.”

“Promiscuous Preacher Caught in Sex Scandal Aims for New Year Comeback Despite Elders’ Counsel.” Reprinted at Bishop Accountability. Originally from Christian News Network, December 30, 2016.

Like jeez, why was everyone still talking about him preying on young women? That was, like, months ago!

But I’m not sure he’s been doing much since then. He has a very sparse Facebook presence and a YouTube channel containing some old “spoken word” evangelical poetry of his. If he holds any public-facing ministry positions, I haven’t found anything about it.

Maybe his 2019 arrest for assault against a woman might have something to do with his radio silence.

All across the Christ-o-sphere, sin abounds

In May this year (2022), an Indiana pastor named John Lowe II resigned his position at New Life Christian Church and World Outreach. Twenty years earlier, he told his congregation, he’d “committed adultery.” He left out exactly how, though. He took a 16-year-old girl’s virginity on his office floor after apparently grooming her for a while. Once it began in earnest, the sexual abuse continued for many years, according to her husband. It was witnessed at least once by her brother.

My personal guess is that Lowe realized the jig was up and he was about to be exposed. So he chose to proactively resign. To do it, he used Jimmy Swaggart’s sin script, telling his congregation:

“I committed adultery. It was nearly 20 years ago. It continued far too long. It involved one person, and there has been no other nor any other situations of unbecoming conduct for the last 20 years. I will not use the Bible to defend, deflect, protect my past sin. I have no defense. I committed adultery,” Lowe said without sharing any specifics.

Christian Post, May 2022

But he didn’t commit adultery, as that Christian Post article points out. He committed an actual crime against a child. In Indiana, the age of consent is 16, yes. But if an adult “in a position of supervision or trust” engages in any kind of sexual activity with someone that old, that’s a crime. Unfortunately, because of how long ago it happened, he probably won’t ever face justice for abusing that girl.

But this time, the sin script went pear-shaped

After Lowe finished his statement, the victim and her husband came to the microphone to set the record straight. To the church’s credit, they overwhelmingly supported the victim.

Once the victim and her husband had finished revealing exactly what Lowe had done to her, Lowe went back to the microphone to try to sweet-talk the congregation into not throwing stones at him:

Lowe took the microphone and confirmed that he began having sex with the victim when she was a teenager.

“You should have went to prison,” a voice shouted back at him.

“It was wrong. … I can’t make it right,” Lowe said. “All I can do is ask your forgiveness. … I’m doing what the biblical process is. I am stepping down, stepping aside. … I deeply hurt them, I deeply hurt you. I ask you to forgive me.”

Christian Post, May 2022

Incredible! But I don’t think they were having it. The church’s website is now completely dismantled. I think they took it offline a few days after the Christian Post story ran. And I can see why. At the end of May, a protest sprang up outside the church. On June 1st, we learned that the state police were looking into the situation. The rest of the church’s leaders decided to call off services for a few weeks, but I wonder if they’ll ever reconvene.

It’s refreshing to see an evangelical church take abuse seriously.

What’s happening when an evangelical leader uses the sin script

When an evangelical leader reaches for the tribe’s sin script, it’s not being done accidentally. These leaders know exactly how this script manipulates the flocks’ minds and hearts.

First, it zings them with the entire force of their indoctrination. They only know one punishment for sin, after all: Hell. Only Jesus’ forgiveness-and-forgetting prevents this penalty from landing on their own heads.

Further, all sins are considered equal to Jesus. When I was just a little Catholic girl, my aunt-the-nun taught me that even if I’d been the only human ever born, my sins would have been enough to make Jesus need to die for them.

At the time, I was mightily dubious. I mean, I was eight years old. I knew that I hadn’t ever done anything that bad. But my aunt insisted. Just being born meant inheriting the full weight of humans’ sins against Jesus.

Later, in evangelicalism, I heard exactly the same teachings. All sin made Jesus sad and unhappy with us. And everybody sinned.

It’s not hard to find evangelicals trying to amend this shoddy teaching. Even Billy Graham’s site tries, bless its cotton socks. But for the sin script to work, that’s how it must be. The person using it needs their audience to put their offenses on the same scale as the sins they themselves commit/omit.

And a quick yank of the leash before anyone thinks twice

The idea of Jesus’ forgiveness always looms large in these scripts, too. It must. Once Jesus has forgiven a sin, he forgets it. It’s washed away by his blood, as the macabre evangelical saying goes. So refusing to forgive a sinner, or refusing to forget about the sin, becomes sinful in and of itself. It’s like slapping Jesus in the face.

That’s why Clayton Jennings specifically referred to how Jesus “forgives and forgets.” He contrasted that sublime state to how sinful evangelicals refused to do that. Instead, they were “holding it over [his] head.” They were “gossiping/lying” about what he’d done.

You’ll look in vain for any explanation of exactly what such critics are gossiping or lying about. Same for Christian Watts, who claimed that a news site’s article about him contained “gross inaccuracies.” He’s never specified what wasn’t accurate. Somehow, that info never seems to make it into an abuser’s defiant statements. But he, too, praised Christians who “see [him] through the eyes of Jesus.”

It’s also why John Lowe specifically invoked “the biblical process” for confessing his sins to his congregation. He wasn’t really following it at all, but that’s not the point. By yanking his congregation’s attention to the Bible (probably Matthew 18, which contains a set of instructions beloved of evangelical abusers), Lowe hoped to jump-start their obedience to their indoctrination. Thankfully, it did not work.

When one’s myths revere the forgiven, forgiveness becomes mandatory

For centuries, Christians have thrilled to stories of sweeping personality changes induced by Jesus’ forgiveness. They love hearing about the guy who made the song “Amazing Grace,” even if their mythology differs from reality in some key respects. The point, they think, is that Jesus totally changes people who put their faith in him. Even if that offer contains a lot of asterisked terms and conditions, and even though it fails to happen more often than not, they still take it as a canonical belief.

That’s why so many of Christian Watts’ congregation referred to this myth in their replies to his social media posts. One replied, “Obviously the publication doesn’t understand God’s redemptive and restorative power.” Another thought that Watts’ past had better prepared him to be a better leader for their church. Their meaning is clear: Jesus had clearly forgiven-and-forgotten what their pastor did. They felt that he’d learned from his sinful past. And they refused to throw stones at him.

But it wasn’t their stones that Watts should have feared.

It was those of his victim.

Why sin is such an evil concept

Christian Watts’ congregation had nothing to forgive him for doing.

Neither did Jesus.

The person he’d really offended was his victim.

Only her forgiveness has ever mattered here.

And even if she ever forgives him, evangelicals still have a moral duty to keep abusers out of ministry positions. No matter what this guy claims to have learned through his abuse of her, no matter what divine grace he claims to feel after appealing to Jesus for forgiveness, he has permanently disqualified himself from ministry forever. He needs to find something to do that will keep him well away from future victims for the rest of his life. He needs to begin a new career in, I dunno, drain cleaning.

[Note: That’s what Watts has actually been doing lately for money.]

By cutting his victim out of his entire sin narrative, Christian Watts—like his fellow predatory evangelical peers—was able to forgive-and-forget the harm he’d done to her. As long as he kept that abuse secret, it might as well not have happened at all.

Even after the news reached the public, he tried to use the evangelical sin script to avoid repercussions for his decision to abuse a child. He tried to minimize what he did. To manipulate his flock into embracing him and keeping him firmly ensconced in his pulpit.

I’ve never heard a single word from him or his congregation about the person he abused. I’ve looked. Nobody has expressed a single word of concern for her or her well-being. She might as well be a character from a morality play starring Christian Watts as Everyman. When all that happened to her is Sin, then the solution is just more Jesus-ing for her and her abuser both.

We need to pay attention when evangelicals ascribe their criminal, predatory, hypocritical, and most execrable behavior as sin. They always do it for a reason.

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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,...