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Abusive churches have abusive theology
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and of the plate, so that the outside also may become clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of uncleanness. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.—Matthew 23:13-15, 23-28
In the above passage, Jesus laments the hypocrisy and evil of his close friends, the Pharisees. They are hypocritical in their obedience of the law, and their proximity to Jesus makes it painful. I admit that my emotional response to the report about the decades-long abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with both my Evangelical upbringing and my current proximity to Evangelicals. I think Jesus laments the SBC’s leaders the same way he did the Pharisees and we should do the same.
Again, I was saddened by the report released by a third-party investigator about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. Secrets, lies, and cover-ups litter the 300-page report. Leaders resisted calls for reform and investigation. They responded to survivors of abuse “time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.” Not only were survivors gaslit, but abusers were also protected by leadership. The patterns of behavior show us systemic patterns of abuse. Theology, polity, and ecclesiology were all weaponized to silence survivors and protect abusers. This is the first major investigation of a Protestant denomination, but it mirrors abuse across Christianity.
The report is a victory for the Southern Baptists insofar as it addresses two decades of abuse in the denomination. It comes with very good polity recommendations for how to proceed, as well. But I fear it does not address the forces that create abusive environments. It’s essential to address the root causes of sexual assault and abuse and not assume an organizational restructuring alone can help us. That is not to say that new norms, ethics, and structures aren’t necessary to overcome abuse – they absolutely are. But there are theological, doctrinal, and political issues that ripen the environment for abuse. And in my reading of the recommendations to the SBC, I do not see those addressed. The heart of the issue that the SBC suffers from is an inability to empower women. They have codified that prejudice as doctrine, in fact. The SBC has many churches that will not ordain women and that codification of sexist patriarchy lends itself to abuse.
In fact, some people even think the solution to abuse is to further subjugate women and increase the power of men!
But to overcome sexual abuse we need to center and listen to stories of survivors of abuse, which are disproportionately women. If we don’t empower them as equals, or overcome their oppression, more than equals, I think we will fall into the same patterns. At the very least, we need to change the doctrine that oppresses women specifically. If women are not seen as beloved sisters alongside men, then abuse has already started. Complementarian theology, the one that relegates women under the authority of a man in domestic, religious, and civic life, is fundamentally dehumanizing. There can be no true reforms among the Southern Baptists until this changes. If women continue to be subject to the authority of men, the environment for abuse is still present. No amount of reforms or ethics boards or new polity can change, if women are seen as equals who bear the image of God in the same way as men.
More than just offering doctrine or theology that makes women equal to men, we actually need to center their voices and experiences. We need to decenter male leadership and be led by survivors and listen to their stories. When women leave our denominations and organizations, like Beth Moore did the SBC or Danielle Strickland did Meeting House (a church where a lead pastor has been credibly accused of five abuse allegations), we need to pay attention. We need to wonder why they felt so voiceless that they left. We need to center their experiences and be led by them if we want to change. The men in charge need to step aside and step down. When the ones who oversaw the abuse leave, and the ones who are impacted most by it lead us, we may have found a new way.
Furthermore, when it comes to sexual abuse we must also consider the toxicity of the heteropatriarchal purity culture that has infected Evangelical Christianity. Our understanding of marriage, sex, and relationships in general needs to fundamentally change. If the only thing we know about sex is not to have it or to wait until marriage, we create a lot of vacancies for terrible ideas to fill the void. Marriages are often incubators for abuse, and purity culture often keeps abuse under the wraps because people are ashamed to share their stories. Abuse and purity culture are connected. How male-centered purity culture is, how it dehumanizes women, leads to abusive environments as well. Furthermore, when purity culture leads to bigotry against LGBTQIA people, abuse increases all the more. We need new ways to think about sex, relationships, and marriage that extend behind the fundamentalist, heteropatriarchal purity culture.
I think it’s essential to point out that having the right doctrine, theology, or philosophy will not prevent abuse. But, we must question our theology and our doctrine if abuse occurs. It is worth throwing out Bruxy Cavey and John Howard Yoder’s books because of their behavior. But throwing out their books isn’t enough, we must unlearn what they taught us. Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention needs to discern what parts of its theology to let go of, in addition to the sensible reforms that the report offered. The recommendations the investigators offered to the denomination should be adopted, but the denomination needs to also change how it sees women and sex if it wants to move into new territory. If that kills the denomination, then so be it. Sometimes it’s impossible to extract a disease and preserve a life. The report offered to the SBC shows us that the rot in the denomination is deep and wide; the denomination has a chance to change, but it won’t without bold leadership that potentially threatens the entire group. Ensuring the safety of women is more important than maintaining a denomination though.