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Grace Community Church Rejected Elder’s Calls to ‘Do Justice’ in Abuse Case

While a former leader hopes for change, women who sought refuge in biblical counseling at John MacArthur’s church say they feared discipline for seeking safety from their abusive marriages.
Grace Community Church Rejected Elder’s Calls to ‘Do Justice’ in Abuse Case
Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Image: WikiMedia Commons

Last year, Hohn Cho concluded Grace Community Church had made a mistake.

The elders had publicly disciplined a woman for refusing to take back her husband. As it turned out, the woman’s fears proved true, and her husband went to prison for child molestation and abuse. The church never retracted its discipline or apologized in the 20 years since.

As a lawyer and one of four officers on the elder board at Grace Community Church (GCC), Cho was asked to study the case. He tried to convince the church’s leaders to reconsider and at least privately make it right. He said pastor John MacArthur told him to “forget it.” When Cho continued to call the elders to “do justice” on the woman’s behalf, he said he was asked to walk back his conclusions or resign.

It’s been 10 months since Cho left Grace Community Church, and he has not been able to forget the woman, Eileen Gray, whose experience was described in detail last March in Julie Roys’s news outlet, The Roys Report.

Though Cho stepped down quietly, he continued to hear from other women from his former church. They had also been doubted, dismissed, and implicitly or explicitly threatened with discipline while seeking refuge from their abusive marriages. Even at his new congregation, Cho began to meet visitors with connections to Gray’s case, which he saw as a sign of God’s providence.

No, he couldn’t “forget it.”

The more he learned, the more people he talked with, the more the injustice weighed on his conscience and the more concerned he grew about the church’s biblical counseling around abuse.

As Cho wrote in a 20-page memo to top leaders at Grace Community Church last March, “I genuinely believe it would be wrong to do nothing. At the end of the day, I know what I know. I cannot ‘un-know’ it, and I am in fact accountable before God for this knowledge, and if you have labored mightily to read this far, you are now accountable before God for it as well.”

Grace Community Church is led by MacArthur, one of America’s longest-standing and most influential pastors. The Sun Valley, California, megachurch is best known for MacArthur’s preaching and prides itself on its fidelity to the Bible over the whims of the world.

GCC’s reach extends far beyond the crowds that fill its 3,500-seat auditorium for multiple services each Sunday, through MacArthur’s popular books and commentaries; affiliated schools The Master’s Seminary and The Master’s University; Grace to You teaching ministry; and the church’s annual Shepherds Conference.

At the conference last March, Cho taught on “Conscience and Conviction.” He spent the rest of the year living out the lesson. Over the summer and fall, Cho held out a “faint hope” that the 37-member elder board would reconsider Gray’s case, praying that God would soften leaders’ hearts and change their minds.

He wanted to see them correct the mistakes of their past and do better in the future. Instead, he discovered they appeared to be repeating them.

Months after raising his concerns about a 20-year-old case, Cho discovered “another grievous GCC counseling case” in the fall of 2022. A woman reported that church leaders had advised her to move back in with her husband and not get a restraining order despite his documented grooming behaviors, infidelity, and angry outbursts. Though the case settled in January, after the woman sought court-ordered protection last year, two pastors had filed declarations on her husband’s behalf.

“In God’s providence, he kept placing reminders in front of me, completely unbidden. When my wife and I were asked by a friend to pray for a woman my wife happened to know, she reached out in concern, and we were horrified to discover the same awful patterns of counseling were still happening at GCC,” Cho told CT.

“This is when I sadly came to believe beyond any personal doubt that GCC congregants who we still love could effectively be playing Russian roulette if they ever needed counseling at GCC, especially anything involving the care of women or children. I knew I could not pass by silently on the other side of the road, that I needed to help this woman and to call out a warning, or else the blood of the people would be on my head.”

For this story, CT spoke with eight women who recounted how they and others at Grace Community Church had been counseled to avoid reporting their husbands and fathers to authorities, to accept their apologies, and to continue to submit to them.

The victims were regularly quoted Scriptures on forgiveness, trust, love, and submission—and were told to reconcile and return home even in cases where they feared for their safety and their children’s safety.

No one from GCC responded to requests by CT to discuss the church’s counseling philosophy or response to abuse, or to questions about specific cases. Six pastors and elders were contacted for comment by phone and email repeatedly over a three-week period prior to this article’s publication, as well as one former pastor and elder. (Update: Following publication, Grace Community Church released a statement saying that the elders do not comment on counseling and discipline disputes, but that the church “deals with accusations personally and privately.” They defended their counsel as biblical, saying, “Our church’s history and congregation are the testimony.”)

‘You need to make it right’

Cho first read about Eileen Gray’s case last March, after the Roys Report coverage, when he said he had been asked to look over the church’s handling of her case for the elder board. His review, drawing from his legal background and training, became part of an initial internal investigation.

The church discipline happened in 2002, a few years before Cho came to faith at Grace Community Church. Gray had refused to follow leaders’ counsel to lift a restraining order against her abusive husband, David Gray. During a monthly Communion service, MacArthur characterized her decision as unrepentant sin, saying the mother of three chose “to leave … and forsake” her husband.

David Gray, once a teacher on staff at the church, went on to be sentenced for his crimes in 2005: aggravated child molestation, corporal injury to a child, and child abuse. Witnesses and victims backed his wife’s account of the abusive behavior, while church leaders continued to defend him, according to court documents referenced and posted with the March 2022 Roys Report article. David Gray remains in prison.

Cho said many leaders at Grace Community Church refused to read the Roys Report article. Some did and dismissed its findings anyway. Top leaders at the church became defensive, he said, and wanted to protect MacArthur.

To Cho, as well as to seven Christian lawyers who reviewed the material, it was obvious that David Gray was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and Eileen Gray’s refusal to lift the restraining order to protect her children was objectively reasonable and fully vindicated.

“Now that the facts are indeed known, it is not too late to ‘do justice’ even at this late stage, almost 20 years later,” he wrote to the elder board. “One’s own integrity, and upholding justice and righteousness, and being faithful even in the small things, even for something 20 years ago, all matter immensely.”

Cho expected the church to hold itself to a higher standard than even the secular courts. In Eileen Gray’s case, overseen by then-associate executive pastor Carey Hardy and involving GCC’s longtime pastor of counseling Bill Shannon, he found evidence of mistreatment, bias, and errors in how they handled the case. Eileen Gray was repeatedly disbelieved and accused of being “bizarre,” which wasn’t relevant to the reason for her discipline, and leaders cast doubt on her account despite David Gray’s history of deceit.

“They sided with a child abuser, who turned out to be a child molester, over a mother desperately trying to protect her three innocent young children. And that was and is flatly wrong, and needs to be made right,” Cho said to CT. “Numerous elders have admitted in various private conversations that ‘mistakes were made’ and that they would make a different decision today knowing what they know now. But those admissions mean you need to make it right with the person you wronged; that is utterly basic Christianity.”

While still on the board last March, Cho emphasized the urgency of correcting the record. The elders had called out sin where there was none, he insisted. If they had learned that they’d disciplined a man wrongly accused of adultery, wouldn’t they want to make that right, even if they found out 20 years later?

According to Cho, who served as the board secretary and was responsible for taking notes, MacArthur replied during the March meeting that the comparison didn’t apply to Eileen Gray. The pastor brought up again claims of her “bizarre behavior” and wasn’t inclined to reconsider her discipline.

After that, Cho said, he was told by elder board chair Chris Hamilton that he would need to “walk back” his findings about the church’s mistakes if he wanted to remain an elder. (Hamilton did not respond to requests for comment.) Cho and his wife resigned their membership the next day.

Submit ‘as unto the Lord’

This fall, Cho found himself once again reviewing court filings from a member at Grace Community Church who sought a restraining order against her husband in hopes of protecting herself and her young children from abuse—this time at the woman’s request. Certain parallels to Eileen Gray were immediately clear to him.

The woman told CT she recognized the parallels too. She said when she read about Eileen Gray last year, she thought, This sounds a lot like what I’ve been told. (CT’s policy allows victims of abuse to go unnamed for the sake of privacy and safety; her identity and the details of her account have been verified in reporting this story.)

“Whenever I made moves in the direction of the restraining order, it was, ‘Be careful of the heart of retaliation,’” the woman said. “They were telling me to back off, essentially. … They were saying it was un-Christian of me to seek that legal protection because believers don’t take other believers to court.”

She said she had reported to church leaders evidence of her husband’s infidelity, searches for incest porn, and inappropriate behavior with their daughter starting when she was just a couple years old.

A month after moving back in with her husband at the request of their pastors, she called 911 out of fear during an argument on the road. In court filings obtained by CT, she stated pastor and elder Rodney Andersen told her that she should submit to her husband “as unto the Lord” rather than provoke him. The domestic violence officers dispatched to the scene, she said, told her not to return to home.

Two GCC elders went on to submit sworn statements on behalf of her husband. Andersen’s declaration recounts the husband saying during counseling that he and his daughter had touched tongues while they kissed to imitate a scene in a cartoon.

A declaration from the other pastor and elder, Brad Klassen, said that the woman came to him concerned about pictures taken by her husband but that she didn’t have “evidence” of the abuse. According to her own filing, the photos include pictures of her toddler touching her husband’s pants zipper and her face being sprayed with water as well as selfies with the child while she was naked. Klassen’s declaration said the photos did not contain nudity.

Two other leaders at Grace said they would testify on the wife’s behalf, but the couple reached an agreement in January prior to their court date, so none of the pastors ended up needing to testify. In the settlement, the wife did not retract the abuse claims made against her husband.

In the end, she said, the betrayal of her church—now her former church—hurt the most.

“I hit subzero spiritually. I was doubting if God is real. I thought, If God is real but we’re supposed to submit to church leaders when this is going on, I’d rather die,” the woman said to CT. “Even unbelievers wouldn’t stand for this.”

The woman said she saw the Lord “work sovereignly” to lead her through the process, eventually coming to see that “the failure of the church doesn’t nullify the existence of God or the justice of God.”

“I need to fear God instead of man. Just because someone quotes a verse to you and they’re in a position of authority doesn’t mean they’re doing it well,” she said.

When she challenged the pastors’ advice to return to and trust her husband, she said she was reminded of passages like love “believes all things” and that Jesus said to forgive “seventy times seven” times.

According to her account, the trauma and warning signs weren’t enough—the pastors wanted evidence of physical abuse, “skin to skin” adultery, or a conviction of child molestation before agreeing she had biblical grounds for divorce. She couldn’t wait for that.

‘My safety was not the No. 1 priority’

The cases at Grace Community Church land in a larger debate around what qualifies as abuse and whether Christians should prioritize reconciliation in abuse cases, with the church and its seminary holding a prominent place among conservative biblical counselors and the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).

“There’s a fundamentally different understanding of what abuse is,” said Jonathan Holmes, a graduate of The Master’s University and a pastor and counselor in Ohio, noting that the label—and the most serious responses—often get reserved for physical and sexual violations.

Like fellow complementarians, MacArthur has preached multiple times against women staying with abusive husbands for the sake of marital submission. He taught that women and children should “get to a place of safety” and that perpetrators of domestic violence are no longer behaving as believers and have therefore forfeited their right to marriage.

Yet, as Cho brought up in his letters to key elders last year, a string of women over the past decade said they received different counsel at his church when they feared for their safety or their children’s safety.

Multiple women named Bill Shannon, a pastor of counseling and ACBC fellow, as discouraging them from reporting abuse to police and directing them to stay in homes where they had been threatened with violence. One couple said they observed a counseling session where Shannon failed to advise a member of their family to report a man who had confessed to an incident of child molestation; Shannon told her to “not settle” but did not direct her to leave him, since he hadn’t been convicted.

Shannon is among the leaders who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Current and former elders had also raised concerns about Shannon’s “incompetent” counsel. Cho said MacArthur had been warned about the concerns but has defended Shannon and kept him in the same position. According to the GCC website, Shannon continues to provide “formal and informal” counseling to members, teach the church’s premarital and marriage seminar, and preach sermons for an adult small group.

“In the first meeting with Bill Shannon, it was made known that my safety was not the No. 1 priority; it was submission in my marriage,” said one woman, who asked not to be named in this story because she is attempting to move on from her time at Grace Community Church. “My job was not to rile [my husband] up.”

While the woman was hospitalized due to her husband’s physical abuse, Shannon called her and advised her to go home without calling police, she told CT. At times, the torment at home was bad enough that she worried she was going to die, but she said she was told that her situation may be “God’s will for your life.”

In marital counseling, pastors asked wives whether their attitudes contributed to the patterns of violence, anger, and manipulation in their relationships. In some situations, they implied women were looking for fault in their husbands.

“It’s hard for a pastor to conceive of a dynamic where a woman is receiving mistreatment, where at some point along the road, she is not expressly responsible for it,” Holmes said.

This “mutualization” of sin can take place in church settings where both parties are asked to confess and seek forgiveness from each other.

“Our philosophy is that if there’s been abuse, you don’t put them into a room and expect them both to go through the process of getting the log out of their eyes,” said Ken Sande, a Christian mediator who spoke of patterns he’s seen over decades of conciliation ministry, not about GCC in particular.

‘No other choice’

Each of the women CT spoke with said at some point they considered themselves partly responsible for their husband’s behavior or had a church leader indicate they were.

The women were reminded of the biblical directive for wives to submit to their husbands. For years, they had hoped their submission, their faithfulness in marriage, and their desperate prayers would eventually lead to change in their husbands. But when issues persisted and escalated, they sought help and counsel on what else could be done.

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage, humility, and vulnerability to even seek help from the church when there has been abuse in the home,” said Wendy Guay, who spoke to The Roys Report last year about abuse by her father Paul Guay while he was on staff at Grace Community Church in the late 1970s. “Women have hidden, persevered, and tried to handle things on their own until there was no other choice,” she added.

When wives felt like they needed to move out for their safety, they said pastors told them to stay. After they had separated or secured legal protection, they said pastors urged them to reconcile. Women told CT that pastors saw their husbands’ continued involvement in counseling, caring treatment of their kids in supervised settings, and verbal promises that the abuse would stop as indications that they no longer posed a threat.

In some cases, like those of Eileen Gray and the woman who agreed to a settlement last month, leaders at Grace Community Church went on to support the men they had accused of abuse in legal cases. Although churches may avoid legal involvement in marital disputes for liability reasons, it’s not unheard-of to have pastors siding with the accused.

Pete Singer, the executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), said seeing faith leaders defend a perpetrator in court was part of what prompted prosecutor Boz Tchividjian to start the organization in the first place.

“It’s not unique. It’s unfortunately prevalent in child abuse and intimate partner violence as well. It’s a reflection of how the pastor has been groomed,” Singer said. “If there’s a noticeable power differential, why am I lining up on the side of the person who may be the oppressor and not the person who may be oppressed?”

Discipline as a distinctive

While evangelicals are growing more sensitive to the dynamics of abuse, some conservative communities retain an underlying skepticism around victims-advocacy movements and trauma-informed psychologists, defending the place of the local church in addressing marital conflict.

Former members who reported abuse said they feared church discipline for lack of submission or abandoning their marriage.

While most evangelical churches have formalized disciplinary processes in written policies and bylaws, it’s becoming less common for American churches to follow them in practice and even rarer for a church to publicly announce discipline cases multiple times a year, according to Sande, the Christian mediator.

MacArthur considers church discipline a “distinctive” at Grace Community Church, where elders follow guidelines taken from Matthew 18—first confronting the accused privately, and then with another witness, before publicly announcing cases of discipline that have made it to the third stage of the process, when unrepentance would preclude a member from participating in the Lord’s Supper.

Cho, the former elder, said that at this stage, elders must unanimously approve cases that go before the church body a few times a year, during monthly Communion services.

The women who spoke to CT about their counseling experiences had been members of Grace for years, some over a decade, and had sat in the services when MacArthur announced church discipline. They believed that if leaders didn’t see their situation as grounds for divorce, their names could be read.

‘Time and truth go hand in hand’

Until now, Cho had not publicly spoken about the circumstances that led to him leaving GCC and his advocacy efforts since. He hoped Grace Community Church would look back at Eileen Gray’s case and reconsider the evidence that vindicated her. He repeated pleas to take seriously the concerns about Shannon and the church’s counseling.

After leaving, he kept contacting top leaders at Grace, asking questions and offering to discuss his concerns privately. He emailed MacArthur and Grace to You executive director Phil Johnson, an influential leader and elder at the church. He went back and forth in messages with Carey Hardy, the pastor who oversaw the Gray discipline case and now serves at a church in North Carolina.

His appeals drew from Scripture, sometimes quoting more than 20 verses on reconciliation, wrongdoing, and justice—like James 4:17: “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (NASB 1995).

Whenever he met with or saw elders in person, the case came up in discussion. He texted and called individual members of the elder board to share concerns.

Cho never imagined himself being in this position and advocating from outside Grace Community Church. Over almost 17 years of membership there, Cho met his wife, began teaching the Word, and rose to leadership on the church’s board of elders .

“I was a vocal loyalist,” said Cho, who now objects to what he sees as “blind trust” among many of the men he used to serve and lead beside.

Last year, when he questioned the decision to discipline Eileen Gray, he said fellow elders suggested they just trust the previous leaders who affirmed it. Cho countered that Scripture commands us to trust the Lord and examine everything (1 Thess. 5:21).

Cho held out hope, thinking of a line John MacArthur was known for saying: “Time and truth go hand in hand.” The truth eventually comes out.

‘Let God take care of the results’

Eileen Gray said hearing about other women who had been “blamed, accused, and often retraumatized” by leaders at Grace motivated her to share her account publicly years later, once her children were adults. Immediately after last year’s coverage in The Roys Report, she said, she learned of even more testimonies of mishandled abuse.

“Would my sharing sooner have brought about change at Grace Community Church or other churches who follow their leadership model? I don’t know, but I feel horrible about the enabling effect my silence has had through the years,” she told CT in an email.

“To this day I have direct testimonies from a multitude of witnesses that Grace Community Church is still following a similar unbiblical and unloving way of treating abused women and children who cry out to church leaders for help while suffering under their abusive husbands and fathers. This is an egregious sin.”

One former member of Grace, once excited to move to California to be able to sit under MacArthur’s teachings, said the faith that had meant everything to her was destroyed by the way the church treated her when she sought help during and after an abusive, unloving marriage.

“The worst thing of all, it wasn’t the divorce—it was my relationship with God. I know God is God and man is man, but I really trusted those people at the church,” she said. “They took that closeness that I had with God away. They made me look differently at men. When I go to church, I feel like the pastors are lying. They left me brokenhearted. … I really feel like I was spiritually raped.”

Grace Community Church has not apologized to Eileen Gray, rescinded its discipline, or made a public statement on the case, nor did it offer a response for this article.

Just days after Christmas last year, Cho sent what he called a “final appeal” to each of the GCC elders. Cho still held out that faint hope—“The Lord has so often done far more than I ever could have thought possible”—even knowing that the board was unlikely to move and that his public stance would upset many he used to serve and worship alongside.

“At the end of the day I need to do what’s right, as the Spirit and my conscience and prayer and counsel and the Word all lead me, and let God take care of the results,” he told CT. “And the man who taught me that was John MacArthur.”

Editor’s note: Over the years, some readers have wondered why we publish evidence of wrongdoing by ministry leaders otherwise doing good in the world. Here’s why we do it.

[ This article is also available in español Português Français 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

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