Toxic Grace

Many people - including a lot of Christians - think the Bible is too judgmental.

It’s considered a faux pas - or sometimes hate speech - to give too much attention to sin and the coming wrath of God.

And it’s not just the Bible that’s the problem. It’s Christians who are judgmental. We just use the Bible to amplify our hate.

So we prefer to focus on God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. No matter what the problem is, we cough up some religious words like gospel and mercy, and then we move on.

But this perspective needs revision.

Toxic Grace Is Harmful

There’s a trend in the church that I call “toxic grace.” It’s responding to abusers with grace while shunning their victims .

Toxic grace is what the world witnessed, to its horror, at New Life Christian Church. After the church’s pastor said he had committed adultery, his congregation responded with applause. Their celebration of his ‘courageous vulnerability’ is a scandal.

But then his victim took the microphone and told the truth. The pastor’s sin wasn’t a consensual affair. No. He had groomed her and repeatedly sexually assaulted her as a teenager. Then he’d spiritually abused her to coerce her into decades of silence. And then, when he told the congregation, he misrepresented the details. Their pastor was revealed to be a predator, a bully, and a liar.

So what happened? Did the church surround the victim with support and ask their pastor to leave the building? No. Instead, the church surrounded their pastor, laid hands on him (a sign of support), and prayed for him . In their statement the next day, they continued to refer to the sexual assault as an “affair” and “adultery.” They also emphasized their commitment to providing “support, encouragement, counsel and forgiveness” to their former pastor.

Toxic grace uses Christian language in a way that causes tremendous harm. It tells the world that Christians will embrace sex offenders while we downplay the damage done to their victims. It indicates that our Bible - and our theology - are tools of oppression rather than divine words of freedom.

God’s Wrath Comes To The Wicked

The truth is that God is holy. So his wrath will be poured out on the wicked.

Do you wish there was justice for Putin in his brutal war against Ukraine?

Do you long for Xi Jinping to be held accountable for the concentration camps he’s filled in Xinjiang?

Do you desire that rapists like Ravi Zacharias, a man who died peacefully at home, will be held accountable?

Do you hope that murderers who shoot up elementary school students will experience just consequences?

Then you might want to believe there’s a holy God who will judge the wicked.

That theology leads to the kind of righteous indignation that Russell Moore showed us when he spoke about how the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders handled claims of sexual abuse. He said, “[It’s] more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”

Serving as a pastor, a denominational executive, or a ministry leader won’t protect you. Far from it!

Jesus’ harshest words, by far, were for the “brood of vipers” who appointed themselves as the religious leaders of Israel. As Dr. Diane Langberg says, “If we love the abuser we will know that true repentance is slow and hard, and their words and promises cannot be trusted. Keep in mind that one of the most powerful weapons of deception is the use of spiritual language.”

We need to recognize that abusers have slipped into the church and preached toxic grace to protect themselves and prey on more victims. And sadly, they’ve influenced well-meaning but naive spiritual leaders to repeat their harmful message. So you and I need to recognize this error and vigorously oppose it.

So what do we need to do?

Don’t use toxic grace to minimize sin. Instead of using Christian terminology like ‘grace’ as a way to whitewash evil, reckon with the horror of evil. Putin is said to wear a crucifix around his neck and be a Orthodox church member. So is he off the hook? Or is his association with Christianity while committing war crimes a ground for further condemnation? We need to grow up and demonstrate mature discernment.

Thank God for his wrath against evil. If it weren’t for God’s wrath, I’d lose hope. There is so much suffering in this world. Evil seems to prevail time and time again. So is justice a pipe dream? Or is it just delayed beyond the horizon of what I can see?

Vigorously oppose evil in the pursuit of justice. If God hates what is evil, then we should too. When a police officer murdered George Floyd, it was appropriate for God’s people to be indignant. When someone targets and murders Asian women, killing eight people in one day, we should announce our unconditional condemnation. When a pastor misrepresents assault as an affair, we should call the authorities. As Dr. Karen Prior says, “Worse than wolves disguised as sheep are the ones disguised as shepherds.”

Don’t be a judgmental bully. The critique I mentioned at the start is fair. Instead of waving it away, we can repent. Let’s be gentle, kind, and respectful. Let’s show our neighbors that we love them. But gentleness is not an excuse to be passive observers of evil.

Cherish grace in your own life. I write with fear and trembling. I need God’s grace. I am not claiming to be without sin. I am keenly aware of my shortcomings and recognize I still have blind spots. I’m not the person I want to be. I treasure the kindness of God towards me. Yes, I believe grace is available to anyone who wholeheartedly repents and trusts in Christ. The thing is, we’re not looking for a tearful speech, but a transformed life.

Keep moving forward. As we imperfectly do our best, we keep clinging to God’s grace. I’ve found that God’s love and forgiveness are what animates my joy and passion to turn away from sin. And as we cleanse ourselves from what is wrong and lean upon God, we will gain the purity of heart and the endurance that we need to represent him in the world.

To sum it up, meditate on what the Lord announced through Isaiah, “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.”

Toxic grace protects the abusers and dismisses the victims. It’s wrong. It’s foolish. It’s harmful.

But true grace is transformative. It cleanses our hearts as we pursue justice. May this one day be the message and the witness of God’s people.


I’ve been reflecting more on the phrase you used, ‘toxic grace’. Like Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap grace’, it’s indicates a distortion of grace. By not acknowledging (publicly, at least) the depths of the wrongness of the revealed situation, New Life Christian Church will continue to miss the depths of grace that are available and the depths of healing that could come by pursuing the justice the situation merits. This isn’t adultery – a consensual relationship between adults who are not married to each other – this is abuse on a number of levels, even if she was, legally, at the age of consent (in Indiana) at the time. Until the church faces that, there can be no true reconciliation or healing.

I cannot and will not condemn the leaders/congregation of NLCC for what they did or did not do in the disorientation of the moment last Sunday. But I do fervently pray for those leaders that, upon further reflection and investigation, they would recognize this for what it is and pursue a just course of action.

Maybe we should start by ask ourselves (as the church) what this ‘toxic grace’ is protecting?


Hi Carson, thank you for bringing up this topic. I’ve actually seen the video on youtube as well. I didn’t know that the congregations laid hands on him, I however saw that many people asked the woman if she was ok and wanted the pastor out of the church. I’m not sure if they didn’t show the full thing or perhaps different groups of people did different things, however, comments were saying that this wasn’t adultery but abuse. (Which I truly agreed with)

It is sad that even at that point the pastor was trying to make light of the past situation and gather compassion from his congregation. In reality, it is difficult for current day christians to differentiate between true grace and toxic grace, perhaps due to the influence of today’s teachings and societal standards. On top of that, people tend to cater to those in authority and power rather than the victim. Therefore, it is important to continue to educate people on boundaries and what the implications of grace are as well — fair judgement and punishment.

Nonetheless, as we continue to pray for them and do what we can, one can trust in God to deal with and carry out his appropriate punishment, even if we do not see/ understand it right now.


@kathleen, I really appreciate your question.

In light of it, I’d put it this way:

Toxic grace = using grace to protect an abuser and dismiss a victim.

But what grace should do is lead the abuser to repentance / transformation and give the victim care and restoration.

And grievously, as you put it, toxic grace does the opposite:

Kiko, I really appreciate your comment about how we are already conditioned to show deference to those in power and give less consideration to victims. Your words reminded me of James 2:1-4,

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

God’s grace upends these conventions as we learn to love our neighbor as ourselves (James 2:8).


Thank you both for weighing in more!

I totally agree. The problem comes, though, when the people who are protecting an abuser do not recognize that they are doing so. For whatever reason, they tend to see themselves as protecting a victim. So, what I was really trying to get at/reflecting on was what is the larger thing they are protecting?

Both Ravi and this pastor (and many others who have been found out recently) were occupiers of an authoritative role. And oftentimes, that role plays a huge part in a larger narrative that we tell ourselves about life, death, judgement and what lies beyond. And sometimes – maybe even oftentimes – it is forgotten (for whatever reason) that these role occupiers (dare I say, our models or heroes) are also humans. So when the human and the role are blurred together in the story, what happens to the larger narrative when the human in the role proves himself/herself, well, human…namely abusive, manipulative humans…the literal anti-Christ to use Christian terms? For some, the whole ‘world’ could fall apart…so, naturally, they protect. They – either consciously or unconsciously – remain blind because the truth would be too unbearable.

So, @Carson, as you’ve pointed out, the difference between toxic grace and true grace is the object to which it is presented. And one can’t differentiate between the two graces (as @kiko mentioned) because one can’t first differentiate between the objects – victim-abuser, hero-nemesis.

I also totally agree, and I wonder if problematic applications Romans 13 also have something to do with it?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Or the parable of the fruit in Luke 6…

43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.


@Carson, I wonder if this toxic Grace is more a condition that develops over time than a specific thing that is used. When I first read your initial post I was angry and hurt by the pastor’s cavalier attitude towards his predatory and abusive actions. Then after talking it over with my wife and reflecting on it with the Lord I started to wonder if toxic grace is more like a condition/disease that can develop in any church or ministry. Just like the appendix is just there in our body & ignored, it doesn’t become toxic until it becomes inflamed and ruptures. In this case the counterfeit grace that excuses sin instead of calling for repentance of sin festered and ruptured in this church. The woman has to live with the effects of that toxicity for much of her life.

Which leads me to @kathleen’s question

As @kiko pointed out

With the tendency to cater to those in positions of authority in our culture, coupled with a counterfeit grace in a church the conditions are ripe for toxic grace to take hold. Counterfeit grace is there to protect our comfort level and not avoid anything that would bring shame. In an everyday believer’s life counterfeit grace might keep them from God, in a church leader’s life it grows and festers into a toxic condition that impacts a body.

Is the tendency to protect those in leadership overtly wrong? I’m inclined to think that it’s not, but only if those leaders are seen in the proper light. They are still humans in need of repentance. In Luke 17:10 Jesus shows us how we can guard our own hearts against pride that can turn toxic. I think He is recognizing that when we reflect God’s glory in the world it’s easy to become puffed up. The human condition cannot long endure glory that truly belongs to The Lord. Daniel seemed to express this understanding in Daniel 2:30, and Paul and Barnabas understood the danger when the people of Lystra wanted to worship them in Acts 14:14-18. Considering what happened to Herod in Acts 12:22-23 it’s clear that receiving glory due God is not something to take lightly. To say that we’re simply an unworthy servant discharging a duty is like a pressure relief valve for all the attention that those in ministry receive and it’s a grace that Jesus even highlighted it.

In the context of the situation at New Life Christian Church and RZIM it is right to talk about toxic grace as it applies to ministry leaders, but counterfeit grace can turn toxic within families and smaller group settings as well. A friend close to me witnessed their mother have an affair when she was 14 with one man and with another at 16, after her parents divorced and her mother married the other man my friend began to experience what can easily be described as emotional abuse and gaslighting that has harmed her in ways she is still unpacking. The counterfeit grace has turned toxic for her because the continued mistreatment is excused by others and while she is told to let it go and just forgive despite her constantly saying she has forgiven. Her mother hasn’t owned the harm she caused and refuses to take any responsibility for her current actions, presumably because she is the parent and doesn’t owe an apology to her child.

Recognizing that counterfeit grace can turn toxic in any context is humbling. A sentiment that @Carson already highlighted

Whether we’re in positions of honor or not we are all vulnerable to counterfeit grace and it can easily turn toxic in our relationships. The cure is to give glory to God for any honor we receive and seek His grace in our life in repentance and humility.