I'll Say it: Certain Theologies Enable Sexual Abuse
A couple of weeks ago saw revelations about the mishandling of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which included leaders protecting known abusers, denying allegations of sexual abuse, intimidating victims, and hindering attempts at reform for over two decades.
I think we see a great summary of the ideology that hid abuse in order to protect the SBC in this tweet quoting Joe Knott:
Look, I cannot look down with moralizing superiority against leaders in the SBC because, to be brutally honest, my own denomination, the Anglican Church of Australia, has had its own shocking revelation in the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. I recognize the same stories from Australia, leaders as inept, too trusting of the wrong people, not trusting of the victims, not listening to the warning signs, and doing too little too late.
It should not be! Sexual abuse, harassment, impropriety, and predation have no place in Christ’s church. As the apostle Paul wrote:
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (1 Thess 4:3-6).
Note the words in bold, churches are to be places where a brother or sister cannot be exploited, abused, or taken advantage of, and yet, that has happened and is happening to our shame.
In an interview with Russell Moore about the abuse revelations, victims advocate Rachael Denhollander said something truly poignant about the religious culture of the SBC and how it can enable abuse:
"What we do see, especially in more conservative circles is a viewpoint of women that views women primarily by their sexuality. They are either dangerous to a godly man because of their sexuality or they are means to a sexual fulfillment.”
I can tell you that abuse happens in Catholic and Protestant churches of all types. Sadly, where you find men, you will find abusers, abuse, and victims.
That said, there is something particularly hypocritical and sinister when some church leaders champion complementarianism as good for women, and yet reduce women to either a source of sexual temptation or see them as an instrument for male sexual fulfillment. Yes, that is not everyone in the SBC, it finds expression elsewhere too, but there is a weird type of complementarianism that oscillates between chivalry and chauvinism, between seeing women to be feared for their powers of seduction yet also aggressively controlled in want of sexual gratification, where women are dangerous Jezebels yet also a live-in concubine to be sexually enjoyed.
To be honest, I struggled seeing SBC twitter more outraged over Rick Warren appointing a woman to be a teaching pastor than with their failure to protect women and children from abuse.
And yes, I know, this attitude goes far beyond the SBC, you find it elsewhere too! Precisely why we need to think about how to prevent sexual abuse and respond to disclosures of sexual abuse in religious institutions.
One can cry, mourn, scream, and punch the ground, but at the end of the day, church leaders need to own up to their responsibility to protect the vulnerable from abuse and recognize the need to develop a culture for effectively confronting violence and abuse that focuses on the support of victims, not protecting the accused. What is more, the best, simplest, and easiest way to do that is to include women - whether ordained or not - at all levels of decision-making in churches and institutions. You need women present wherever matters affecting women are discussed or debated. Not that hard.