Part fifteen in a series by Joy Pedrow Skarka
In January 2018, Andy Savage received applause from his church after confessing and apologizing to his church for sexually assaulting a teen twenty years earlier while serving as a youth pastor. At the time, Savage had asked his victim, Jules Woodson, who publicly told her story, to perform oral sex, and she had complied. In an interview that followed, Woodson said, “Compliance is not consent.” (Check out Part 4: Rape Culture and Consent.) As a young girl, Woodson had trusted her youth pastor, and he used his position and power to take advantage of her. After much controversy, Savage stepped down from his position, having realized that he needed to make things right with his victim herself. And that, indeed, compliance (especially when there is such a power differential) is not consent.
The month after the #MeToo hashtag went viral, the #ChurchToo hashtag went viral, highlighting sexual abuse that happens in the church. Incidents of powerful men abusing that power (whether by abusing or helping to cover it) were exposed, such as that of Bill Gothard, Bill Hybels, Paige Patterson, Les Hughey, the leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries, and pastor Andy Savage. If these examples are indicative of Christian subculture, and we have every reason to believe they are, the church—instead of comforting the victims—is often found applauding the abusers.
In Savage’s example and many others, we’re siding with the powerful instead of healing victims. Justice is completely missing from the equation. Often churches fail to report crimes because leaders worry that public knowledge will harm the reputation of Jesus and hinder the gospel. I would argue that the actions of excusing rapists and silencing victims actually shame the gospel. Jesus never would have done so, especially when he often called out the Pharisees and lifted up the marginalized, abused, and hurting.
When victims share their stories, many churches to refrain from going to the police and report crimes, keeping the issues in-house. With one journalist, more than 200 people from Fundamental Baptist Churches, whether current or former church members, shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation, and fear. In the churches in which they were either former or current members, members of male leadership could not be questioned. Whenever stories of abuse did surface, ministers were either protected or sent away to work at other churches. One former member of the denomination explained what would happen when an abuse situation was brought to light: “Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church. The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police, because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.” Churches have historically failed in their response to abuse—protecting the pastors and ignoring the victims.
Sometimes the church even isolates the victims. Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to come forward about Larry Nassar—the Olympic team physician found guilty of abusing more than 150 girls— stated that her church isolated her. In an interview, Denhollander stated that speaking out for herself and other sexual assault victims “cost me my church and our closest friends. Three weeks before my police report, I was left alone and isolated.” Denhollander lost her church not simply because she spoke up about her own story. She was advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical church relating to crimes that had been enabled by prominent leaders in that community. Leaders claimed that because she was also an abuse victim, her perspective was clouded and biased.
Usually, the church focuses on forgiveness more than justice. Denhollander mentioned that “every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness.” Not only does Denhollander discuss forgiveness, but she also talks about an intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both forgiveness and justice are biblical concepts that need to be sought in abuse situations. God is both a forgiving God and a just God.
Yet, when men in power sin through sexual abuse, one of the questions asked to victims is, “Since he is a sinner, just like you and me, shouldn’t you forgive him?” Such an emphasis on the victim’s need to forgive rather than the need for human justice perpetuates rape culture and excuses abuse. The church silences and hides violence, letting the perpetrators off the hook and blaming the woman, and even hiring their abusers to work at other churches. Beth Moore has publicly spoken out on this issue. She wrote a blog post titled, “A Letter to My Brothers,” in which she accused misogynistic male leaders of being driven by sin and ungodliness. Moore later claimed that women have been experiencing abuse because of manipulation of “biblical submission.”
Perhaps such a blame-the-woman mentality comes in part from false portrayals of women in the Bible as sexual vixens. At a recent Bible study, my teacher said, “Esther lacked faith because she failed to say no to sleeping with the king before marriage.” I’m sitting there, jaw dropped, holding back the urge to literally stand up for Esther. She was taken. She was a young girl, an orphan, doing what her uncle said to do. She had no option to say no. She was taken and raped (see Esther 2). This criticism-of-Esther interchange happened in a room filled with young women, most of them single. I wanted to not only stand up for Esther, but to protect the others from hearing this from sexual- shame narrative.
Statistically, it could be estimated that 20 percent of the women present that day had been raped, and the teaching they heard would not have freed them from shame. It could have left them thinking they lacked faith in God. If I had heard such a message years earlier, I would have believed every word. I would have thought I lacked faith. And if I lacked faith, I might as well leave church.
Such teaching perpetuates rape culture. We must not tell our congregants that it’s “good to be a Daniel, not an Esther” (something I have heard from the pulpit). Such an attitude toward women has encouraged rape culture and prevented victims from coming forward and reporting abuse.
An an author of an article in FATHOM Magazine explained that one of the largest complementarian megachurches in Dallas (where there are many megachurches) has the highest number of women coming to a local domestic violence center because of their view on protecting the institution of marriage. Often, women have been encouraged to endure for a time and submit to their husbands. Why is it that conservative, patriarchal churches are affected by #ChurchToo? Why are the men in leadership desiring more to protect the reputation of the church than to care for the people in it?
Every church needs a plan for when a person comes forward and shares an abuse story. Who does the person talk to? What are the first steps to help the victim? If it is a woman and she has to talk to an all-male elder board, who will be her advocate? To whom will this crime be reported? All of this plan/information needs to be available to the church members.
Here are some practices that have made the church vulnerable to supporting rape culture:
- Silencing women. Women in many church contexts have been silenced, not allowed to exert influence or make many decisions. In such churches, women are powerless and have no ways to use their voice.
- Minimizing women’s role models in the Bible. Many good women in the Bible have at times been treated as vixens. (Read books such as Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible).
- Having wrong priorities about marital status. The church has had a tendency, especially since the Reformation, to prioritize the institution of marriage over the individuals in the marriage.
- Poor teaching about gender roles. Gender stereotypes are taught as biblical ideals.
- Poor teaching of biblical sexuality.
- Unnecessary segregation. Men and woman have not been allowed to partner together in ministry.
- Lack of planning. Churches fail to have a plan in place when abuse surfaces.
Churches are supposed to be safe places where men and women can come for hope, help, and healing. But for most victims, the church does not feel like such a safe place. Creating safety and opportunity for women is as essential to Christian ethics as standing with the powerless and feeding the pour. Churches need to create cultures of men and women in friendship, community, and collaboration.
Women held prominent positions in the early church including serving as prophets, deacons, teachers, and disciplers. Church leaders need to look for ways to create opportunities for women to lead in partnership with men. Men in power need to ask, Where in the church are women’s voices lacking? Where can men better partner with women? In what ways can we better model healthy familial relationships?