How Pedophiles Are Forgiven, From the Teachings of Jay Adams

This is Part 2 in my “Competent to Examine Jay Adams and His Teachings” series. Part 1, about counseling a pedophile, can be found here.

*****

Many years ago when I was a very young and very naïve teacher at a Christian high school, I caught a student blatantly cheating on a test. I talked to her about it and told her I would have to give her a zero. Wendy’s eyes filled with tears, her face contorted, and she said, “Miss Henry, I need to get saved!”

Here’s where the naïve part comes in. I was delighted, and led her in a sinner’s prayer. She smiled through her tears and told me how sorry she was and that she’d never do it again. I smiled back, grateful to God.

To her surprise, I still gave her a zero. She expressed confusion and wanted to know why. I said, “Well, you cheated on the test.”

When Wendy became huffy and flounced out of the room, it was my turn to be confused. I’m embarrassed to admit that it may have been days or weeks before I understood that her “salvation” was an attempt to manipulate me. Her inability to do so surely wasn’t because of any alertness on my part to manipulative high schoolers!

Rather it was simply because I believed that the punishment should fit the crime, even when one is sorry.

So this brings us to Jay Adams, the Father of Nouthetic Counseling.

I’ll be drawing heavily from the work of Valerie Jacobsen for this blog article, whose work on Adams has been documented in many of her Facebook posts.

Adams taught that all that’s necessary for repentance is words

Last month in Part 1 of my series on Jay Adams, I quoted this from page 133 of How to Help People Change, (originally published in 1986, with the copy I was working from published in 2010). It was in regard to Adams recommendations about how to counsel with a child molester.

[L]et me make it clear that conviction [of the sin of child molestation] must not become a morbid, drawn-out exercise in introspection. The idea is not to make the counselee sweat it out. . . . The discussion should continue until the conviction has been carried out, no longer. When a counselee acknowledges that he has sinned, makes no excuses for his sin, is sorry and seeks God’s forgiveness, counseling must move on.

According to Adams, these are the four things necessary for repentance. All of them are done within a few minutes, with words. And for one who has been caught in his or her sin, like Wendy, these words can suddenly appear very attractive.

Now I’ll give Adams the benefit of the doubt that he really did want offenders to truly repent from the heart. But according to his words above (and in many others of his writings), a display of repentance was good enough.

The changed lifestyle

Adams says that when counseling “moves on,” to correction and instruction in righteousness, he’s expecting to see fruit of repentance in a changed lifestyle (HTHPC, p 133). I wholeheartedly agree that repentance means a changed lifestyle. (But for a pedophile, the “changed lifestyle” could in fact mean being more careful to hide the grooming, threatening, and abuse of children.)

Here is how Adams describes the period of time to test the changed lifestyle:

If a counselee is going to revert to old ways, he is likely to have done so by six weeks. Similarly, if he is going to maintain his new ways and grow in them, he will show signs of this after the same period of time. In the Scriptures, forty days and forty nights seem to be a transition period, during which one’s ways become fully established. ~Critical Stages of Biblical Counseling, 2020, p 216.

From Valerie Jacobsen:

If we think about a deceptive, manipulative abuser or criminal, this confidence in six weeks of good behavior is somewhere between ignorant and obtuse. Before they’ve offended in the first place, abusers have often spend far longer than six weeks producing the excellent behavior also known as “grooming.”

I’m reminded of a story told by a friend, a story that made it into Unholy Charade (Justice Keepers, 2015), p 56. This one isn’t about child molesting, but is about domestic abuse.

Things had gotten extremely bad—so bad, in fact, that the pastor reluctantly advised us to consider a temporary separation until we could work things out. But when I tried, he turned into a raging monster and went on a rampage, threatening every evil thing he could think of. 

The next day after church he was strangely subdued. He told me that the sermon had spoken to him and he intended to do better. This changed things—the pastor had only said to separate till things got worked out. So I stayed.

 I honestly didn’t know if it was real. He’d done it so many times—he would drip with sweetness for a while and then go back to being mean. But this time . . . something felt different. Genuine. He was gentle. Caring. Kind and patient and full of grace. For the first time in a long time, it felt safe to breathe. And after two months—longer than it had ever lasted before—I began to let myself believe it might be real. 

 It was only a few weeks later that the whole charade ripped open. He drove in one night and immediately flew into a raging fury over some little bit of nothing. The children and I were wicked and rebellious and out of control—and had been for months, he said. He’d been foolish to let himself be swayed by people who tried to convince him to let up on us. 

Abusers can hold in their abusive behavior for 40 days and 40 nights. Jay Adams’ conclusion that sounded so “Biblical” really has no basis in Scripture whatsoever.

After the words, now it’s time for forgiveness

Because the offender has now “repented,” the one offended against is now called in to forgive the offender. For any sin. Yes, even in cases of child sexual abuse. Many who were counseled according to nouthetic counseling can give testimony to this fact.

According to Adams,

Forgiveness is a formal declaration to lift the burden of [the offender’s] guilt and a promise to remember another’s wrong against him no more. It is a promise . . . that involves three elements: I won’t bring this up to you, to others, or to myself. [In the footnote he lets us know that “bringing it up to myself” is to be labelled “self pity.”] The one to whom such a promise is made may hold him [or her] to it. . . . ~Theology of Christian Counseling, p 228

Perfect. No one is allowed to talk about the child abuse that happened. No one is allowed to make any suggestions about keeping children safe in the future. If you do, the abuser will hold it over your head and report you to the pastor.

Forgiveness is a lifting of the charge of guilt from another, a formal declaration of that fact and a promise (made and kept) never to remember the wrong against him in the future. ~Theology of Christian Counseling, p 229

And another quotation about forgiveness, with emphasis mine:

“Forgiveness is not a shock treatment that instantly wipes out memory of the recent past. On occasions there may continue to be some fear that the same transgression may be repeated again. This may be true particularly where a sexual offense, such as adultery, homosexuality, or incest has occurred. It is understandable and proper that the offended party should be somewhat wary for a time. Nevertheless, under proper conditions forgetting (even of such unsettling offenses) will take place more rapidly than may at first be expected.

“If forgetting in time does not follow forgiving, the counselor ought to look for the reason. He may find, for instance, that the offended party has been brooding over the offense in self-pity. Such brooding is decidedly unscriptural and does not fit into the biblical concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness means no longer continuing to dwell on the sin that was forgiven. Forgiveness is the promise not to raise the issue again to the offender, to others, or to himself [i.e., the victim himself, in his own mind]. Brooding is a violation of the promise made in forgiveness.”— The Christian Counselor’s Manual, pp 64-65

Not only is this terrible counsel, but it is not to be found in the Bible anywhere. It is only his own conclusions, made to sound “Biblical” because he applied that label.

According to sexual abuse survivors I’ve known who were counseled by nouthetic counseling, “sinful brooding” and “self-pity” can and will be applied to flashbacks and nightmares, unexplained depression, and other symptoms of PTSD.

From Valerie:

Understand. Adams actually requires the victims, their mothers, and their churches both to RECONCILE WITH OFFENDERS and to LET THEIR GUARD DOWN. Adams will allow the offended parties (the mother and the children) to “be somewhat wary for a time,” and he seems to consider this generous, but he is clear on the bottom line. If they do his so-called “forgiveness” right, they must forget that crimes were ever committed.

Adams tells victims not to tell anyone, and he never mentions calling the police in his detailed prescriptions. Knowing what Jay Adams really says about this, and says repeatedly, I always hope that his defenders are either people who have only heard a few good things *about* Adams or who have read only a little bit from his work.

Valerie Jacobsen has also said that in Jay Adams’ teachings, each new offense is to be seen as a first offense (because the previous one was forgotten, I suppose), but I was unable to find quotations from his writings to support this statement. Maybe someone else can help us out here.

The harm in the church of Jesus Christ

Either out of ignorance—which after a period of time and the cries of many must be called “willful ignorance”—or out of a desire to enable wickedness, the writings of Jay Adams never address the extremely serious problem of wolves’ in sheep’s clothing in our churches.

From Valerie:

For 50 years, these theories have been oppressing victims of sexual abuse, psychological torture, and physical assault. And the whole set-up practically invites really malicious and even criminal evildoers to show counselors submission, do their assignments, say the right words of repentance, ask the question, and then watch as their victims are pressured to make the 3 promises of forgiveness or *they* will become the new problem.

For 50 years the victims and survivors of this sort of church abuse have been reaching out to church leaders trying to get help. In countless cases, not only have they not gotten help and been spurned, but with no self-reflection or introspection the counseling style has remained firmly in place.

None of Adams’ writings have ever been edited in any way, even though these nouthetic counseling teachers (and the “Biblical counseling” teachers who inherited his legacy) know what damage his teachings have wrought—and I can only assume that Adams himself also knew, unless he was incredibly insulated from the damaging results of his teachings.

From Valerie Jacobsen:

I regularly hear from Christian women whose children are victims or who are themselves victims of either a father’s or a husband’s sexual perversion. Before the Church can begin to properly care for these victims, we must acknowledge that Jay E. Adams has taught generations of pastors, elders, counselors a dangerous and unbiblical approach to these tragedies. . . .

I recommend reading these quotes closely and understanding that not only does he mean exactly what what he says, but that he has put it into practice for decades, and he has taught many others to cover up crime and expose children to danger in just these ways. We must repent of our fault in receiving these ideas, and we must make restitution to those who have been harmed.

I see a parallel between this and the Ravi Zacharias scandal. Those who are telling the stories of abuse at the hands of Ravi Zacharias are coming forward, even though he has passed away. Now the responsibility falls to the multi-million-dollar powerhouse Ravi Zacharias International Ministries to make things right.

Some are telling me that I shouldn’t be posting about the teachings of Jay Adams because he has passed away and “is not here to defend himself.” I’m not doing this out of cowardice, certainly—I’ve written about the teachings of several people by name who are alive and can communicate with me (or “defend themselves”) if they want to.

But my point here—as always—is to expose the teachings. It is the teachings that are harmful. So many who have been harmed have spoken to me and others I know. These teachings, and the ungodly actions that have resulted from them, have devastated precious and gentle souls in the church of Jesus Christ. Many are walking away from the true God Himself because of how these grossly unBiblical teachings have been applied.

You who remain behind, who count Jay Adams as your spiritual forebear, will you not hear the harm that has been done in his name, and in the name of the Bible? Will you not weep and seek to make things right?

*****

Part 3, How Jay Adams’ teachings recommend that pedophiles should be restored in the church, is scheduled to be published within the next couple of weeks.

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Nadia
Nadia
8 months ago

This is so beautifully and accurately written, but also so sad. I grieve over my own lifetime trapped in abuse because of these teachings and the lives of so many others who were similarly harmed. I grieve over how even some of the “improved” versions of these ideas continue to pervert God’s image to the image of one who stands alongside abusers, strengthening and enabling them.
I grieve over the struggle I and others still have, wondering if we will ever be able to hear words from the Bible without the triggering panic and feelings of again being trapped into abuse.
I wonder if God will forgive me for my fear of him, for the instant terror I feel when I hear someone quoting his words.

Lea
Lea
8 months ago

Oh glory! I finally found a brave speaker of truth that resonates deeply. Why didn’t I know you when I lived in Greenville? My abuser is seriously delusional. My faith in Jesus is my only link to sanity. My nightmare escalated when I exposed him 2 years ago. My small neighborhood church thinks he walks on water. I no longer attend. I’m without support alone in the middle of dense woods and original creation trying to survive his skewed views of scripture. I am insignificant standing up to his mind bending rhetoric. I am at the end of my rope waiting for God to intervene. What else is there for me to do? I’m 67 and want to be around for the 4 kids and 10 grandkids I have left. He won’t exit my life.

Trudy
Trudy
8 months ago
Reply to  Lea

Oh Lea,
I hear your pain, I too am your age and because of my children and grandchildren…I stay…and I am truly sorry for your pain…may God give us an extra measures of strength to understand it all.

Julie Zepnick
Julie Zepnick
8 months ago

Thank you, Rebecca, for this article! I hope it causes some to rethink their views on these matters and stop causing harm.

wondering
wondering
8 months ago

Powerful clarity! Thank you! I remember the heavy uncertainty that stayed deep in my soul during years of counseling. There was never peace and safety to move forward as a loved child of God, only a heavy burden to “forgive” the one that I KNEW was still walking in darkness.

Joel Horst
8 months ago

Rebecca, thanks as always for sharing. I’m horrified that anyone would give this guy’s teachings the time of day.

Given Adams’s focus on rooting out sin in the life of the counsellee, his emphasis of forgiving AND FORGETTING is very strange. One would think that he would be super harsh on those who repeatedly offend, despite words of contrition and repentance. He seems to show much more leniency toward offenders than towards those who are dealing with emotional repercussions of being offended against.

What is especially disturbing is that he SPECIFICALLY mentions incest as a sin that should be forgiven and forgotten. This largely erases the explanation that he was only talking about small offenses. I have seen another quote where he said, if I remember correctly, that a counselor should immediately take words of repentance at face value and not wait for fruits of repentance before accepting it as genuine. If I remember correctly, he said this applied to the “grossest” of sins. He left little to no wiggle room.

Why? I ask. Why would someone be seemingly so hard on sin and yet so lenient towards repeat predators?

Fan
Fan
8 months ago

Some other scattered thoughts:

I also wonder if Jay Adams truly appreciated the number of victims any given pedophile (better termed pedocriminal, as there is no love involved, only violation of children) produces over the course of his life. They don’t stop!

His philosophy just smacks of excessive permissiveness towards offenders.

Domestic abusers groom for years to get the woman to marry and become fully entrenched and entrapped. The average length of a wife-beater’s sham marriage is 5 to 7 years. Lots of abusers pretend to be good men until the woman is pregnant with their child and she is trapped and tied to him for life via the child. 40 days isn’t too long for a master manipulator abuser.

I worry, too, that my views aren’t in keeping with God’s, as there are Bible verses about the parable of the servant not forgiving a small debt when his master forgave him of a larger debt. Something to that effect. And I’ve sinned against God, thus I wrestle with feeling worthy enough to expect accountability from an offender. Am I too vengeful? Who knows? Am I jeopardizing my soul by not freely forgiving and forgetting? It’s a worry. Thus, the “forgive and forget” teaching does have a pull and almost sounds like something that should be done by victims. But rationally, I think it is unsound teaching. It’s a struggle, though. So, I really appreciate your blog posts about it.

Fan
Fan
8 months ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Thank you for linking those posts. So informative and clarifying!

It’s a shame one learns bad teachings first and then has to struggle again and again to unlearn them and replace it with correct teaching.

So thankful for your blog and how wise and discerning you are, not to mention generous with sharing such.

Barbara Roberts
8 months ago
Reply to  Fan

Hi Fan, you might find it helpful to read my post “Vengeance and vindication: what is the difference?”

To find it, go to cryingoutforjusticeDOTblog and put in the search bar: Vengeance and vindication: what is the difference?

Barbara Roberts
8 months ago

Jay Adams taught that all that is required for repentance is a verbal confession with (perhaps) 40 days of demonstrated good conduct after the confession. How naive! How foolish!

In Genesis, Joseph did not give much credit to his brothers’ verbal confession. After hearing them confess he tested them under pressure in order to see how much their characters had changed.

See my latest blog post: “Joseph tested his brothers by falsely accusing them”.

Missy
Missy
7 months ago
Is there a place where Jay Adam's family is speaking about these ideas?  
I was a member of a church in Macon GA, at which Jay Adams was a staff member in the 70s, as I was growing up.  
His home was a sad and cold environmenment.  
 I wonder if his family has any comment on the remarks that are made about their father today. 
His children most certainly suffered.  I observed it.  
Have the spoken anywhere?