Sex scandals among evangelical leaders have reached epidemic proportions. Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University. Carl Lentz at Hillsong Church. Ravi Zacharias at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church. Just the tip of the iceberg. Every incident follows a similar playbook: deny, rationalize, blame the victim, threaten, cover up, rinse and repeat.
Next week the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the country, will elect a new president at its annual convention in Nashville. It won’t be a fun convention. Two festering issues, sexual abuse and racism, threaten to fracture the denomination irreparably. For years, the SBC has resisted dealing with rampant sexual abuse in its ranks. In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle published “Abuse of Faith,” a six-part investigative report detailing a culture of abuse among SBC church leaders over a 20-year period. Of the nearly 400 credibly accused church leaders, 260 were convicted or struck plea deals, leaving at least 700 victims as collateral damage.
My anger burns red hot for the perpetrators of these crimes and for those in leadership who continue to look the other way, rationalize and defend. It’s well past time for a day of reckoning in the church. But my heart also breaks for all the sincere, open-hearted seekers who encounter these wolves in sheep’s clothing. Many stumble innocently into these toxic environments, only to leave years later, wounded and confused, in a crisis of faith. I’ve been there.
My own faith journey includes a semester at a Baptist university similar to Liberty. Thankfully, I am not an abuse victim, but I got an up close and personal look at a system that produces and protects sexual predators. As a result, I have a finely tuned radar. I want to offer six red flag warnings for anyone evaluating a faith community — a sort of wolf habitat detector, if you will. But first, I need to tell you my story. If you’ll indulge me, please step into my way-back machine and we’ll turn the dial to 1978.
TEETERING ON THE BRINK OF A CULT
I was nervous. At 17, it was my first time to fly, and here I was all by myself, deplaning at Chicago O’Hare airport. Hesitantly, I followed the flow of humanity. Somehow I reclaimed my wheel-less, circa 1955 Samsonite suitcases and made my way to passenger pick-up. I had no idea who was picking me up. The letter simply said the college would “provide transportation from the airport.” Well, here I was.
Then I spotted him. A handsome young man, holding a sign identifying himself as a representative of Hyles-Anderson College. He spotted me at about the same time and rushed forward with an eager smile.
“Are you Aileen?” he asked. Of course, he mispronounced it, because everyone does. But once corrected, he got it right.
“I’m Jack,” he said, as he took command of my bags. If he said his last name, I didn’t catch it.
Some time later, he maneuvered the white Hyles-Anderson van through traffic while I took in the gray urban landscape. This Wyoming girl might as well have landed on the moon.
Whether he sensed my discomfort or just rolled right over it, Jack did his best to engage me in conversation. We talked about Wyoming, about how I had decided to graduate high school a semester early, about it being a little weird to be an incoming Freshman in January. He enthused about the college and his great admiration for Pastor Jack Hyles.
Yes, of course, I knew how revered Pastor Hyles was in our fundamentalist Baptist circles. Yes, it was astounding that he pastored the largest church in the world, right there in Hammond, Indiana.
And then Jack let me in on a little secret. He was dating Cindy Hyles, Jack’s daughter. I hope I expressed proper admiration, but in truth, I had little context for appreciating the full import of that connection. But it would all become clear.
I met Cindy Hyles within days of my arrival, and I remember it vividly. She was wearing a peach polyester double-knit suit, a knee-length skirt with matching jacket. She had perfectly manicured nails, perfectly curled long hair, perfectly understated make-up. In a word, she was Baptist-Barbie-doll perfect from her head to her pumps. Most striking, however? She looked absolutely miserable. I remember the sadness in her eyes and a certain woodenness in her movements. I felt sorry for her. How weird, right? After all, she was Jack Hyles’ daughter, dating Handsome Jack. How bad could it be?
Anyway, I settled into my dorm room, met my three roommates, smiled and nodded at all the appropriate times, and concluded Day 1 by crying myself to sleep. Thus began the most confusing chapter of my introduction to adulthood.
College adjustment is tough under the best circumstances. Far from home for the first time, in a very different world, and separated from my first real boyfriend? Well, it was tough. Roger and I had grown close in the months before my decision to spend a semester at Hyles-Anderson. Could our relationship survive four months apart? I was hopeful; he was doubtful.
Nevertheless, he committed to calling me every night. In the days before cell phones, this meant I jockeyed for time on the lone pay phone in our dorm lobby, enduring glares from other girls waiting their turn. It meant significant expense for Roger, depending on the length of each call. Those calls quickly became my lifeline, a nightly de-programming that kept me teetering on the brink of the cult.
I was nothing if not earnest about my faith. My longing to be a fully committed follower of Christ led me to choose Hyles-Anderson College, whose motto even today is “purpose, passion, commitment.” That was me.
I quickly learned that my commitment to Christ would be measured, constantly, against three standards: 1) compliance with strict rules, 2) number of souls won for Jesus, and 3) blind loyalty to Jack Hyles and his proxies. As a dutiful, earnest student, a part of me genuinely wanted to please and measure up. As a strong-minded teenage girl, however, another part of me questioned everything.
I couldn’t even begin to recall all the rules in the student handbook, but I vividly recall three.
First, godly women did not wear pants. And I mean EVER. Furthermore, skirts must be knee-length. Skirt nazis, armed with rulers, ambushed female students routinely, ordering them to kneel for the official measurement. I was tall, and knee-length skirts were a challenge for me, but I’m proud to say I never failed a skirt check. Let the record show.
Second, no Physical Display of Affection, or PDA, was permitted. Again, EVER. Roger came to visit me once during the semester, and we somehow violated this rule in spite of our best efforts, resulting in a formal misconduct charge for me. I don’t recall feeling any remorse. I do recall, however, that in a crowded chapel service we were crammed into a pew, Roger sandwiched between me and a girl I didn’t know. She promptly seized a hymnbook and wedged it between her hip and his, with a cryptic “You can’t be too careful,” which sent us into a paroxysm of suppressed giggles.
Third, and for the life of me, I never understood this one, gum was not allowed. Again, EVER. This should have been an easy way to rack up points for me, but as it turns out, Roger had given me a going-away-to-college gift. A gumball machine. My dorm supervisor graciously agreed to let me keep it in my room, as long as I never indulged. Let’s just say gumballs came to symbolize my rebellion.
First Baptist Church of Hammond grew to its record-breaking size by developing an extensive bus ministry. Every Sunday, hundreds of buses canvassed the Chicago area, picking up children from the housing projects and bringing them to church. All Hyles-Anderson students worked in the bus ministry.
We spent every Saturday knocking on doors in the housing projects, inviting children to come to church with us and asking adults if they knew they would go to heaven if they died tonight. The intervening years have distilled all those Saturdays into only two memories: the cold and the smell.
As a Wyoming gal, I thought I had experienced cold. I remember waiting for the school bus in -35 degree temps, but no cold compares to the cold of a Chicago February, trudging through piles of dirty snow for 8 hours in a long denim skirt. I confess to taking long breaks sitting on the radiator of the local bakery. Without question, my Freshman 15 weight gain traces directly back to that bakery.
And how to even describe the smells? We came to expect the exact same olfactory greeting upon entering every high-rise apartment building — a near-tangible brew of marijuana, greasy skillets, strong spices, and general filth. I remember talking to one little girl outside because I literally could not breathe in her house. No worries. She happily bounced outdoors in her thin dress to show me her pet tarantula.
On Sunday, we boarded cold buses in the pre-dawn darkness, swung by the local bakery to pick up bags of day-old doughnuts, and made our rounds picking up rowdy little kids. The doughnut bag passed from seat to seat, as grubby hands rummaged to find one with sprinkles. We sang every Christian chorus we had ever learned. After church, we rounded up our charges and made the return route. By late afternoon, we returned to our dorms to crash, not even bothering with the jelly doughnut remnants in our hair, on our skirts, on our skin.
And then it was Monday, with its obligatory scorekeeping. At chapel, each student completed a written report. How many souls did you win? How many new children did you recruit? Reporting my pathetic numbers, I felt like a 7-year-old all over again. Here I was, squirming in the confessional booth, giving an account of my failings to the priest behind the screen.
By far the most confusing and disturbing element of my four months at Hyles-Anderson College was the deification of Jack Hyles. He was not just loved and admired; he was worshipped. As an impressionable 17-year-old, I felt like I had been dropped into a spinning vortex.
Indoctrination was particularly intense for female students. Marlene Evans, Dean of Women and wife of the college president, taught a “Christian Womanhood” class, required for all freshmen. Here we learned how to be properly submissive to our husbands, as well as to every male authority figure. As women, we pleased God best by submitting to the men he had placed in authority. And make no mistake, if a man held a position of authority, he was put there by God himself. A failure to submit to God’s man was direct rebellion against God.
If you’re picturing Marlene Evans as the Wicked Witch of the West, let me correct you. She was more like Glenda, the Good Witch. She was charismatic and funny, greatly loved and admired by the students. So when she admonished us that we needed to follow our leaders with blind loyalty, we listened in spite of our inner voices.
I remember repeating the “blind loyalty” line to Roger one night on the phone, and I swear his head exploded. “What?” he practically yelled. “Blind loyalty? Aileen, you realize, don’t you, that this is exactly what cult leaders require?” He constantly encouraged me to think critically about all I was being taught. “You have a brain,” he said. “I think God expects you to use it.”
Brother Hyles also had a lot to say about Christian Womanhood. We bought his books and hung on his every word. He used to make surprise visits to the girls’ dorms, late in the evening. Girls would run screaming out of their dorm rooms, in their pajamas, for all the world like Beatles groupies. One time he gave every girl $20 for a new dress. Another time he walked down the dorm hallway handing out ice cream. Given the strict female dress code, these pajama meetings with Brother Hyles felt odd, even at the time.
The pinnacle for Hyles groupies was to get a private one-on-one session with him. He held court in his office every week after the Wednesday night service. Students signed up weeks in advance, hoping to get the golden ticket for 5 minutes of his time. Finally, I was just lucky enough to get one! I don’t remember what deep, burning question I asked him, but I remember his response as dismissive, bordering on rude. Ushered out before my 5 minutes was even up, I remember standing in the hall thinking, “That’s it? Really??” I had seen the Great Oz behind the curtain and the jig was up.
As it turns out, my relationship with Roger did survive the four-month separation. As he dialed my number the night of February 2nd, he was rehearsing his break-up speech. In a twist of fate, he asked me to marry him instead and I quickly said “yes” before he could change his mind!
It took less than a nanosecond for me to forget Hyles-Anderson College after returning home in May. I had a wedding and a life to plan. Joining my life with Roger’s also meant leaving the Baptist church behind me. I’ve never looked back.
Some 35 years later, a random conversation with my sister caused me to wonder whatever became of Jack Hyles and his kingdom. I had heard rumors through the years. Now I was curious enough to launch a Google search. Hours later I closed my laptop and stumbled up to bed in the wee hours of the morning, physically ill and spiritually exhausted. Words fail me even now.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers.” In Matthew 23, he unloads righteous indignation on these dangerous, deceitful hypocrites who covered evil hearts in robes and scriptural scholarship. Having exalted themselves as God’s proxies, they plundered innocent and trusting people for their own evil ends. In a series of “woe to you” proclamations, Jesus made very clear what future awaits these false prophets.
That passage played through my mind on continuous loop as I pulled the Google thread on Jack Hyles’ legacy. Here’s a brief summary:
- Rumors that had circulated for years bubbled into full view in 1989 when a fundamentalist magazine, The Biblical Evangelist, wrote a series of articles accusing Hyles of a years-long sexual relationship with his secretary, as well as financial improprieties. Hyles vehemently denied the allegations for years.
- A year later, Voyle Glover, church member and attorney, wrote Fundamental Seduction: The Jack Hyles Case detailing Hyles’ affair and a “Watergate-like cover up” of other affairs and sexual abuse within the church.
- In a December 2012 Chicago Mag article, Bryan Smith details a sordid list of allegations of against various leaders at First Baptist Church of Hammond, including Hyles’ son, David. It turns out several of those little kids we so faithfully rounded up from the housing projects on our bus ministry would later testify to being molested in back rooms by church leaders. The article links to court cases of eight pastors across the country who were convicted of assault or sexual abuse of minors. They all had ties to First Baptist Church of Hammond or were educated at Hyles-Anderson College. https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/January-2013/Let-Us-Prey-Big-Trouble-at-First-Baptist-Church/
- Remember Handsome Jack, who picked me up at the airport? Well, he married Cindy Hyles and became heir to the Hyles dynasty. When Jack Hyles died in 2001, Jack Schaap took his place in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Hammand and as Chancellor of Hyles-Anderson College. In 2012, Jack Schaap was convicted of transporting a minor across state lines for sex and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The court’s sentencing memorandum spells out the disgusting details of how Pastor Schaap used counseling sessions with this troubled teenager to lure her into an ongoing sexual encounter. He tried to excuse his behavior, of course, but his own photos, recovered from his computer by police, told a different story. (https://www.scribd.com/document/441713586/Jack-Schaap-Sentencing-Memorandum#from_embed)
- When I arrived at Hyles-Anderson in 1978, Joseph Combs was one of the college’s most esteemed Bible professors. That year, Brother Combs and his wife Evangeline took a 4-month old girl from a Baptist Children’s Home to raise as their own, although they never legally adopted her. In 2000, Rev. Joseph and Evangeline Combs were convicted of torture, abuse and rape of this young woman over a 20-year period. He was sentenced to 114 years and she was sentenced to 65 years. http://www.sullivan-county.com/nf0/combs/
- In 2012, Linda Murphrey, Jack Hyles’ daughter, gave a TedX talk where she spoke publicly for the first time about her experiences growing up in the Hyles home. She eventually broke all ties with her father’s church, which she calls a cult. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJsOlLqBEyo
There’s more. Much more. But you get the point.
When I stumbled to bed that night after swimming this Google sewer, a truth became clear to me for the first time. It was not some freak coincidence that so many cases of sexual assault, pedophilia and abuse came out of First Baptist Church of Hammond. No, in tech terms, it’s a feature, not a bug. By twisting scripture to endow men with unquestionable god-like authority, these men perpetuated a system designed to cultivate and camouflage abuse. They intentionally promoted a perverted theology because it gave them cover for their sin. Woe to them.
SIX RED FLAGS
I am forever grateful to Roger and Jesus for snatching me from the brink of this cult, and although I escaped relatively unscathed, the threshing of my faith definitely included dealing with chaff I call “Baptist trauma.”
My experience happened to be in a Baptist church, but this is not a Baptist problem. It’s a human problem. I believe it’s more common among fundamentalist churches, but it can happen in any faith community. The label on the church door is largely irrelevant. I also need to make clear that good and faithful people serve in these churches, too. I was blessed to call men like James Harvey and Dan Jackson my pastors. They ministered in independent Baptist churches in Casper, Wyoming and Rawlins, Wyoming, respectively, and they modeled the heart of Christ in my early years. Many pure-hearted believers worship and serve faithfully in these churches. These are my brothers and sisters, and I have nothing but love and respect for them.
Now, to the red flags. When evaluating a faith community, ask yourself the questions in these six categories. (I set these questions in a church context, but they apply more broadly to most any faith community.) A “no” response to any of these questions merits deeper investigation.
CELEBRITY. Does the church point people to Jesus or to the pastor? It is our nature to elevate other humans and look for leaders to emulate. When God said “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” he wasn’t just talking about wooden idols. We should never, ever elevate any person to god-like status in our esteem. Celebrity has no place in the body of Christ.
ACCOUNTABILITY. Is the pastor truly subject to the authority of a body of elders, deacons, or trustees, or does he have absolute authority? This may be difficult to see without insight into the inner workings of the organization, but over time, it becomes apparent. As the scandals at Liberty University and RZIM came to light, so did an appalling lack of oversight by their governing boards. Sadly, both organizations seem to have moved on without addressing their structural problems.
HUMILITY. Does church leadership model humility? Of course, you should see abundant evidence of all the fruits of the Spirit, but an absence of humility is a flashing neon tell. Charismatic leaders are often masters of gaslighting. Keep your antenna tuned for arrogance.
RESPECT. How are women treated and valued? Misogyny masquerades as biblical orthodoxy in these churches. Big topic…the subject of a future blog post.
OPENNESS. Does church leadership approach the Bible in a spirit of shared inquiry, or with dogmatic pronouncements? Are believers encouraged to study the scripture for themselves or to accept church teaching without question? Are divergent views allowed on any interpretive matters? We all have equal access to truth as revealed in scripture, and we dare not outsource our critical thinking and personal study to anyone else. Anything that smacks of “blind loyalty” or “because the paster said so” should send alarm bells ringing in your head. These churches claim to be defending the inerrancy of scripture when they declare, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” But they are highly selective in the passages they emphasize, and any suggestion of an alternative interpretation quickly gets branded as liberal drift or outright heresy. In the words of the Apostle John, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1) In the words of Roger, “God gave you a brain. Pretty sure he intended you to use it.”
LOVE. Does the church teach and model sincere Christian love? Does it have a reputation for serving its broader community, especially the marginalized? One of the red flags I missed was an absence of love in the teaching of this church and school. On the surface, they appeared to be zealous for reaching the lost, but the teaching was heavy on guilt and sin and fear and condemnation. Why? Because those proved to be effective levers of control. Read the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — until your heart is saturated with the character of Jesus. Then ask yourself, “Do my church leaders look like Jesus?” If not, walk out and don’t look back.
I’m not a Southern Baptist, but I will be praying for the Southern Baptist Convention next week. Praying for SBC leaders to exhibit a spirit of repentance and lament, for members to steadfastly insist on accountability, and for the wolves to have to run for cover because their habitat has been destroyed. Lord, let it be.