The Harvey Weinstein case has launched the #MeToo campaign that has given much-needed space for victims of abuse and harassment to be heard. That there is a #ChurchToo tag that is gaining impetus should highlight the degree to which a low view of women and the impulse to protect men is also found in leading Christian institutions. For example, serious allegations have recently been made against:
- The Master’s University: At a seminary associated with John MacArthur, a past student claims that she had been drugged and sexually abused by a friend of male students. As part of the ‘handling’ of the assault, the university is alleged to have put her in the same room as her attacker and insisted on mutual repentance and forgiveness. She struggled with the idea of repenting for being raped, and allegedly she was eventually forced out of the school.
- Sovereign Grace Ministries: At the group of churches overseen by the Mahaneys, several cases of abuse, including child rape and molestation, have allegedly been covered up over the course of decades.
- Andy Savage: Prominent pastor Andy Savage recently apologised publicly for a sexual sin committed when he was a younger youth pastor, which involved driving a 17-year-old youth member to a secluded place, instead of to her home as he had said, exposing himself and requesting oral sex. This was covered up by his minister at the time.
I don’t know to what degree the details as reported are correct, and in the case of MacArthur and Mahaney, they have denied knowledge of the specifics, but there appears to be sexual impropriety that is either criminal or, in Andy Savage’s case, spared from being so only by inhabiting the blurry areas of laws of consent. In each case, ministry leaders seem to have responded to complaints against perpetrators with cover-up and even victim blaming.
Perhaps more details will emerge to partially or fully exonerate some of these leaders, but either way, there is clearly something seriously wrong with the way in which our culture views women, and in the way in which usually male leadership deals with the victims. Even in #ChurchToo.
Why protect attackers?
Sometimes the ‘wisdom’ that church leaders apply to extreme cases reveals more about their personal value system than biblical justice. Motivations for suppressing sexual abuse scandals include that the Bible says we shouldn’t drag one another to court, or that it would embarrass the church, or that prosecuting the man would “destroy his life”.
Yes, the Bible encourages us to deal with disputes internally and without dragging one another to court. However, the issues in question tend to be matters of honour and shame or private debt rather than criminal behaviour.
On the contrary, Romans 13 insists that earthly authorities have been given the sword by God to execute justice and that it is the wrongdoer who rightly ought to be afraid of God’s secular servants of justice. Matters of criminality belong to the state. Church members, more so than other citizens not less, are accountable to the good laws of the society in which they live.
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul criticises the church for protecting someone whose offence would have been seen as taboo throughout the ancient world. For the sake of the body, the reputation of the church, and indeed for the one found in sin, Paul commands that the person be expelled (even though the consequences might be severe [v.5]):
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1Co 5:1-2)
Paul criticises the Corinthians for being less wise and less morally upright than their non-Christian neighbours and he implies that the protection of such people does not insulate the church from shame, it is a source of shame.
The protection of sexual predators and other criminals in the church is evidently foolish and evil to the watching world, and these crimes clearly fall under the God-given authority of state justice (not merely internal church dispute). More than this, it seems to me to be a violation of what James 1 calls “undefiled religion”: we ought to be protecting the vulnerable, the weak, the disenfranchised, not those who exploit them. As Amos says, with crimes such as sexual abuse of the vulnerable very much in mind: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Who do we value?
Finally, it seems to me that the treatment of aggressor and victim in cases such as the ones listed above might be an outworking of a skewed valuation of men and women in our churches. In spite of the fact that rape and sexual assault often damages or destroys the lives of victims, the concern is often for the “destroyed life” of the attacker should he be prosecuted. The idea that mutual repentance and forgiveness is appropriate in the case of a sex crime (and even the forced reconciliation of victim and attacker) is a shocking example of victim blaming that assumes women are complicit in their own assaults. It should worry us deeply that we feel the loss of a male leader more keenly than the damage done to his victim.
Furthermore, although the damage done by rape and assault can be immeasurable for the individual, a skewed valuation of women and the everyday sexism in which it is expressed is a steady, erosive drip that does widespread, ongoing damage. We should be appalled at the shocking stories of criminal abuses of women in church, but if we mourn the extreme injustices, should we not be working harder to expose the smaller, more covert prejudice against women in our church culture?
Our leaders are fallible and life is messy, and so it should not be too surprising that they have often invoked “biblical wisdom” in their judgments while making a mess of their ethics.
The point I’m hoping to make is that this is an extreme presentation of a problem that might be deeper and more subtle in our churches. For all our claims of love for others and equal value assigned to all, evidence keeps emerging that conservatives have inherited a culture that assigns different value to the sexes—and has made a virtue of discrimination. It is a culture that seems to me at least in part to be based more on mid-century values than the Scriptures it invokes.
For the next little while, I want to devote some posts to an investigation of this issue. I can’t hope to do all of its facets the remotest justice, but I hope to provoke some honest examination of ourselves and the Bible so that we can be clear where our church culture is driven by Scripture and where everyday sexism takes over.
EDIT: I just came across this article about a Modesto woman abused several years ago (over a period of years) by a now-prominent pastor (http://www.modbee.com/news/article202019094.html). It underlines several things, including that motivations for covering up abuse include that it will cause embarrassment for the church.