By not addressing women’s most pressing concerns, we are not only complicit, but we prove our critics right that the church is a sexist, patriarchal, androcentric, misogynistic institution
Although Guidepost Solutions’ 288-page report for the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was a major one-day story via CNN, the New York Times, CBS, NBC, and NPR, among others, you may have missed it.
The SBC, which is the largest protestant denomination, commissioned Guidepost to investigate its ministry. Highlights of the resulting report included the fact that the denomination willingly protected 700 predator ministers in the denomination; for almost two decades, men who ran the SBC’s executive committee lied and engaged in coverups to protect those who were credibly accused of abuse. They also vilified the victims of abuse.
This report comes at a time when a new generation of Christian men and women are “deconstructing” their faith, even questioning what is means to be “pro-life” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.
I recently attended a dinner where Joyce Shelter Holt, the founder and executive director of Hagar Sisters, an organization that focuses on domestic violence in Christian families, said her goal was “to make the church safe for women.”
“The church should be the safest place in the world for women,” I said. To which Holt replied, “Well, it’s not.”
She would know, since Hagar Sisters have served numerous Christian women from different denominations over the years.
“How isn’t it safe?” I asked. In response, numerous hands went up from women all too willing to share their experiences. These were mostly professional, white, middle- and upper-class evangelical women from suburban churches. If they don’t feel safe in the church, then what woman can? This is the situation the church faces, whether we admit it or not.
The report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention should be a wakeup call for all Bible-believing Christians, because the problems it describes go beyond the SBC. A few years ago, we heard a similar report coming out of the Willow Creek Community Church.
If you listen to Rachael Denhollander speak on the subject, you may begin to understand the depth and breadth of the problem. The revelations of the SBC report combined with the #ChurchToo movement and the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaign make it clear that the church is not a safe place for women. This is a justice issue for half the women in our churches.
It’s beyond a simple crisis, given the majority of church members are women. The church’s poor handling of matters of abuse has damaged or destroyed many women’s faith in a loving God, resulting in a loss of membership. When survivors share their experiences and how poorly their pastors responded, that’s a horrible witness of a loving God and the church.
Meanwhile, those who can’t believe this is happening, or could never happen “in our church”, need to rethink their theology about sin and depravity. Too often, when we talk about “women’s issues” in the church, we focus on women’s ordination, the role of women in church leadership, and the role of women in marriage. We might discuss headship, submission, complementarianism versus egalitarianism, or traditional versus inclusive language in scripture and liturgy. But while these are all important matters, we cannot let them overshadow the critical issues of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and assault. Nor should we blame women for their husbands’ porn addictions or extramarital affairs.
Here are some other alarm bells:
According to Lifeway Research, one in eight Protestant senior pastors says a church staff member has sexually harassed a member of the congregation at some point in the church’s history. One in six pastors says a staff member has been harassed in a church setting.
Two-thirds of pastors say domestic or sexual violence occurs in the lives of people in their congregations.
As Rachael Denhollander noted recently on the Russell Moore Show, 25% of the women in an average congregation have experienced sexual abuse, while 30% have experienced domestic violence.
Not talking about these issues doesn’t prevent radical feminism, but helps foster it. Labeling the women who raise these issues as liberals, Marxists, or radical feminists as a way to quash discussion only further alienates them from the church.
Furthermore, by not addressing women’s most pressing concerns in the church, we are not only complicit, but we prove our critics right that the church is a sexist, patriarchal, androcentric, misogynistic institution. We also provide a safe environment for predators. While the claim that you can believe in submission and still respect women seems hollow given the level of abuse. In light of the SBC report, teaching sexual purity e.g. no sex or cohabitation before marriage, which are biblical, seem hypocritical in terms of Christian witness.
The first step in solving the problem is admitting there is one. Together, the SBC report and #ChurchToo movement clearly demonstrate the crisis. The most basic responsibility for a pastor is to protect the flock. We are failing at that task.
Women experiencing abuse who seek help from their pastors often find themselves victimized anew, with their complaints disbelieved or dismissed with a quote from scripture about submission, forgiveness, or prayer. Worse, the pastor may blame the victim. Many pastors, when confronted with an account of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, or assault, simply don’t believe the woman. This may be because the pastor knows the man and believes him to be godly, and the congregation agrees. A man so highly regarded couldn’t possibly be as bad as the woman says.
What can we do? In a study conducted by Lifeway Research, half the pastors surveyed said they lacked training in how to address sexual and domestic violence. Pastors must be educated on how to deal with the very real dangers that women in their congregations face. Recognizing the signs of domestic abuse should be part of premarital counseling, and while teaching young men and women about sexual purity, we need to also teach them about other types of inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment and assault, and how to manage them, especially if they occur in connection with the church.
We can also look to corporations, which have protocols for handling issues such as sexual harassment. By following those models, churches can increase the likelihood of dealing with situations fairly and reduce the temptation to show favoritism to church leaders.
Some of us should also reexamine our hermeneutics on marriage and sexuality, admitting they contain a male bias—and a secular one at that. The view of women primarily as seductresses, temptresses, and a means of providing pleasure and children is severely problematic. As Denhollander said on the Russell Moore Show, evangelical churches promulgate “a viewpoint of women that views women primarily by their sexuality. Either they are dangerous to godly men … or they’re means to sexual fulfillment.” If that’s the implicit teaching of church leaders, it’s no wonder churches have the problems they do.
As Christians, there are many things in the world we can’t control. That’s the nature of living in a fallen world. But we can control the conditions inside the church such that women are safer inside than outside.
With situations as described in the SBC report, I imagine pastors standing before Jesus and Jesus saying, You have some explaining to do. One day, we will all have to give an account of what we did to make the church safe for women.