Occasionally characters in a drama or comedy will say something like, “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” perhaps even those exact words. This is hyperbole. They obviously don’t mean they need to reexamine literally every belief they have. They mean they don’t know what to believe about their particular situation or what they’ve been told. That’s where I suddenly found myself about seven weeks ago.
To say I was stunned is a bit of an understatement. I was reeling. But I was looking right at them: screenshots of Twitter DMs sent by Jennifer Lyell to Tom Buck. He had sent them, at Lyell’s suggestion, to my friend Tom Ascol who in turn forwarded them to me on May 21, 2022. The first one started in the middle of the conversation, and it was surreal.
“Also for the record, Ascol got a pca [Presbyterian Church in America] friend in Florida to write a hit piece on me and Rachael…”
What?! was my reaction upon reading that far.
It went on:
“…(I have it on video where the writer and site owner acknowledge Tom fed them the story and that they couldn’t correct the lies without him signing off on it).”
I was dumbfounded.
The “hit piece” she was referring to is a blog article I wrote titled, “Does Abuse Absolve Adultery? A Response to Rachael Denhollander and Others.” So, the “Rachael” she was referring to is Rachael Denhollander. The “site owner” was Don Veinot (pronounced “Vee-know”), President of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. (MCOI). And the “video”? It was a 2½-hour recording of an online conversation she had with Don and me one week after my article was published.
There in the first two sentences of the text image I received were five untruths that seemed designed to damage my, Tom Ascol’s, and MCOI’s reputations by putting us in a highly negative light:
- Tom Ascol “got” me, his PCA friend in Florida, to write the article.
- The article I wrote was a “hit piece” that had “lies” in it.
- Don Veinot and I “acknowledge[d] Tom Ascol fed [us] the story.”
- We “couldn’t correct the lies without [Tom Ascol] signing off on it.”
- She could prove these statements based on a video.
Again, what video was she referring to? A video I had told her that Don and I would need to record for our mutual protection, a video she agreed Tom Ascol would be allowed to review, a video Jennifer Lyell, Don, and I agreed to keep confidential, and a video I knew contradicted everything she said in her text.
I also noted that she stated these things “for the record,” which I could only assume meant she didn’t intend them to be confidential statements. Tom Buck was free to share them with anyone.
She went on in her text to claim, that “[Tom Ascol] made me a pawn after last year[’]s convention w[ith] that piece. I had to then spend hours being questioned by the writer to get removed.” I could see how this statement served the narrative she presented, but I couldn’t see how it fit the facts I was aware of. This is still the case. Nor did she express any of this to me in our online meeting. Far from it.
My mind was spinning with questions. Why would she do this? Especially, why would she tell Tom Buck that she could prove all these things with our video if she knew that showing the video to him would expose her untruths? Even if those claims were not deliberately false, she had a copy of the video and could have reviewed it to correct her memory before she made them. Why didn’t she?
When you agree to have a confidential conversation recorded for everyone’s protection, it implies the recording’s primary purpose is to insure everyone in that conversation is protected against potential falsehoods that any party to the conversation may later claim about what’s in it. The heart of the agreement is that confidentiality takes a backseat to protection. Should any party to the conversation spread falsehoods about it, the trust that the recording was designed to secure is thereby violated, and the recording is no longer confidential but is now free to be used for its primary purpose. She knew this, and it made her texts all the more inexplicable.
On top of all this, as a result of the conversation recorded in that video, I had agreed to revise my original article to make it very clear that I believed Jennifer Lyell. Up to that point, I wasn’t sure. Up to that point, I had many questions I needed answers to before I could even understand how I could believe her. It wasn’t that I had written my article because I thought she was a liar. I didn’t assume that. I didn’t know what to think because I didn’t have enough facts, only significant questions. But now I believed her, and I made that redundantly clear in the revisions to my article.
Those revisions are still there for everyone to see. I believed her.
To repeat: I believed her.
From June 21, 2021 until May 21, 2022, I completely believed Jennifer Lyell’s accusations against David Sills. Prior to June 21, I never had any question as to whether Sills had sinned; I only questioned whether it was the specific sin Lyell charged him with. Well, after my video interview with her, I no longer questioned; I no longer wondered. I believed her. I believed her based on her word and her word alone.
Yes, she told me that all this had been confirmed by others, people in positions of responsibility and authority in the Southern Baptist Convention, including Al Mohler. That made me all the more willing to take her word for it. But the main reason I now believed her when she told me David Sills had violently sexually abused her was because she came across as sincere, honest, and credible. That was all I thought I needed at that time.
But now, here were these texts, and my confidence in the firm belief I’d held for the previous eleven months suddenly evaporated. If she was now saying patently untrue things about me-which she was-did that mean everything she’d said about David Sills was also untrue? I couldn’t say that for sure. Even in my shock, I knew it didn’t necessarily mean that. But what did it mean? I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
How did I get myself into this mess?
I don’t know when I first heard Rachael Denhollander’s presentation at the 2019 Caring Well Conference mentioned in my 2021 “Does Abuse Absolve Adultery?” article. I became aware of her controversial view that eventually led to me write that article when, on the day that conference began, she tweeted, “David raped. It’s important we get that right.” Only later did I come across a video of her presentation at the conference in which she explained the reasoning behind that tweet.
Somwhere along the way, in the months between 2019 and early 2021, I came to perceive a connection between her “David raped Bathsheba” thesis and the case of David Sills and Jennifer Lyell. It appeared to me that this case was a practical application of her thesis. I found that thesis deeply unbiblical and dangerous (and still do), and I had serious questions about the case which seemed to be the fruit of it. I came to believe it was important to address both these issues publicly because, based on the data I had, I saw them as naturally connected.
This was my purpose in writing. And it was my only purpose.
The Origin of My Article
My concern over this grew during the winter and spring of 2021. So, in one of the occasional conversations I have with my friend Tom Ascol concerning issues in the broader church (including some in the SBC and others in the PCA), I shared this concern with him. I told him I was thinking of writing an article and he encouraged me to do so. He gave me no other input than simple encouragement.
I was not able to begin working on it until early June 2021 as the Southern Baptist Convention prepared to gather for its annual meeting in Nashville. I touched base with Tom Ascol twice as I was writing, once to ask him a question to help me understand something Denhollander had tweeted and the second time on the Sunday before the annual meeting to ask him if he’d be able to review a draft of the article and give me feedback before it was published. He told me he was too busy to look at it.
That was it. That was the full extent of Tom Ascol’s involvement in my article. I published it on June 14, 2021, and I don’t recall whether he was able to look at it that week or after he came back from Nashville.
So, regarding the first two untruths Jennifer Lyell messaged to Tom Buck:
- At no point in time did Tom Ascol “feed” me any “story.” All my information about the Sills-Lyell case came from my research on the Web.
- My article was in no way designed to be a “hit piece,” i.e., “an article…that deliberately tries to make somebody/something look bad by presenting information about them that appears to be true and accurate but actually is not.” It was only designed to ask sincere questions about the Sills-Lyell case based on information available online because in my view it served as a practical application of Denhollander’s “David raped Bathsheba” thesis, which it was my goal to challenge and refute.
What Happened Next
Three days after I posted my article, Jennifer Lyell sent me an email. A few minutes later she followed it up with a comment on my blog article advising us about the email. (She requested that we not approve the comment for posting and we complied.) She wanted to talk to me.
In her June 17, 2021 email she requested an online video meeting with me and another party of my choice to clear up the “inaccuracies” in my blog post. She did not seem to be blaming me for them but rather attributing them to “the drastic factual inaccuracies of what was reported.” She offered to “show documentation I have on the screen so that you will hopefully conclude that it is clear that the comments about my case should be removed.”
She also wrote,
I’d be super grateful if you’d at least give me an opportunity to explain that my circumstances were unequivocally not what is in the post and do not actually bear comparison to the David/Bathsheba debate (which is predicated on roles and implicit authority as opposed to use of force, etc.).
I was intrigued. Of course, I wanted to correct any inaccuracies in what I wrote, and if the Sills-Lyell case is not actually a practical application of the “David raped Bathsheba” thesis, then I needed to know that.
After consulting with Don Veinot, I replied the following evening, June 18, agreeing to an online meeting with Don as the third party, offering her confidentiality, requesting that we record the meeting “as protection for everyone involved,” and offering to supply a copy of the video to her.
She replied a couple hours later agreeing to have the meeting recorded. She indicated that her primary reason for desiring confidentiality was her “deference for the professor’s adult children and grandchildren and in accordance with commitments I’ve made to them given how the details create specific burden for the young grandchildren.” And she wrote:
My thinking was I could just verbally work through your article and clarify/add the information you didn’t have or was inaccurate as well as answer the broader questions you asked when the information you had didn’t reconcile for you. I’m also fine to answer any questions you or the other gentleman has to ensure you have clarity and believe me. I have never been unwilling to be questioned when making allegations that aren’t only moral, but are also criminal…
She also asked for something that sounded difficult for me to do even if she was able to answer the questions I raised in my article, especially since it had already been read by so many people. She expressed the “hope/request that you’ll revise the post to just remove all references to my case.”
So, at this point:
- Jennifer Lyell did not seem at all angry with me.
- She offered to correct inaccuracies and supply information rather than confront “lies.”
- She said she wanted confidentiality primarily to protect Sills’ grandchildren.
- She understood the gravity of the issue: we were dealing with criminal allegations on her part.
- She wanted me to delete all references to her from my article.
The Online Meeting
As I noted earlier, the video call went long-unexpectedly long. The 2½-hour conversation was friendly, but I heard things that appalled me. I heard things that angered me. I heard obviously way too much to share here, not only because of its length but because I don’t want to repeat it.
I won’t even try to summarize all that was said. I will simply provide the following relevant conclusions:
- The conversation was never adversarial either on Lyell’s part or ours.
- At no point did I or Don indicate that I wrote my article at Tom Ascol’s request or with information he provided and at no point did Lyell suggest that we did.
- At no point did Lyell indicate she thought my article was a “hit piece.”
- At no point did we indicate to her that we couldn’t correct any inaccurate statements “without [Tom Ascol] signing off on it.”
- When I informed her that Don and I are friends of Tom Ascol, Lyell only had positive things to say about him, she said didn’t have any issue with him, that she trusted him, and that we could confidentially share the video recording of the meeting with him.
- Lyell said she did not disagree with my response to Rachael Denhollander’s “David raped Bathsheba” thesis and thought that part of my article was good.
- Lyell said she preferred I delete all references to her from my article.
- When I proposed the alternative of revising my article with annotations stating that Don and I believed her account of her relationship with David Sills, she found that acceptable, even though she preferred I delete references to her.
After the Meeting
When it was over, I got to work revising my article according to the alternative method I suggested of adding annotations affirming that we believed Lyell. My work progressed slowly, however, because much of my time was consumed with preparing for my son’s wedding in July in addition to my regular responsibilities.
Over the next several weeks, Lyell, Don, and I exchanged well over a dozen emails related to our meeting and my revision. In those emails, Lyell strongly expressed her preference-more strongly than she had in the online meeting, it seemed to me-that I delete all references to her. But ultimately Don informed her that, as members of the Evangelical Press Association, we did not think deletion was in accord with the EPA’s Code of Ethics on the point of corrections and clarifications, which states, “When substantive mistakes are made, whatever their origin, EPA members will publish a correction or clarification at the earliest opportunity,” (Principle 7.1). We didn’t find simple deletion with no stated reason to be consistent with this language and believed it could expose us to the charge of a cover-up. We also didn’t think it was fair to our readers.
My revision was published on August 3, 2021. And everything remained quiet between Lyell and us for the next several months, until she texted Tom Buck on May 21, 2022. That changed everything.
What I Now Believe
I said earlier, when people say, “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” they’re not saying they don’t know what to believe about anything and everything. So, I think I should be careful to state the things I still believe now that all these things have happened:
- I believe Jennifer Lyell is my sister in Christ and deserves love and respect from all her fellow Christians. Anyone who has ever personally attacked her should repent and apologize to her.
- Since she is my sister, I believe that God in His providence has brought all the things I described to pass not for her condemnation, but for her good, because He is the God who causes “all things [to] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom. 8:28 ESV).
- God has not only brought these things to pass for her good, but for ours as well, that we should learn from them under the light of His word, which He provides “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV).
- I believe I cannot say that just because I’ve concluded that Jennifer Lyell has misrepresented me, Don Veinot, and Tom Ascol, it necessarily means she misrepresented what took place between her and David Sills.
- Nevertheless, I believe that the events I described have exposed my own need for reproof and correction from God’s word, as well as public confession and repentance.
Allow me to explain what I mean by that fifth point.
Where Were the Two or Three Witnesses?
This question haunts me. It’s not as though I didn’t know the verses which spoke of this principle as I was on the video conference with Jennifer Lyell and Don Veinot. I’ve known them for decades:
15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut. 19:15 ESV; cf. Deut. 17:6)
1 This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (2 Cor. 13:1 ESV)
19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 ESV; cf. Matt. 18:16)
I had one witness to the charges against David Sills. You might say I was very impressed by that witness. You might say I thought David Sills was “credibly accused,” which is a phrase I’ve seen used a lot lately concerning the type of allegations that were lodged against him. You might say I believed he was so credibly accused that I sinfully set aside the biblical principle of two or three witnesses when I agreed to publish my opinion that those allegations were true.
And you would be correct.
When I saw Jennifer Lyell’s texts to Tom Buck, the Lord rebuked me. I don’t know whether she made the same statements to anyone else, but if she did, and if those people believed her, they were believing her charges against me on the evidence of one witness alone. Contemplating that possibility does not leave me with a pleasant feeling.
I don’t know whether David Sills is guilty of sexual abuse. That’s all I should have written in my revision to my article last year. I should have said, “Jennifer Lyell provided me with her account of what happened between her and David Sills. She seemed reasonable and credible and provided sensible and helpful answers to difficult questions I asked about her allegations. I thanked her for this, but I also told her that I cannot corroborate her account because Scripture requires two or three witnesses in all cases in which someone is charged with any kind of offense or crime.”
That’s what I should have written. But I didn’t. And I am deeply sorry for that.
In the spirit of Psalm 51:4 and 12-13, I think I should say that unless they had a way to fulfill the biblical requirement of two or three witnesses, the individuals and entities of the SBC who “corroborated” Lyell’s story should have said basically the same thing.
But I cannot repent for them. I can only repent for myself.Ω
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