Evangelicalism’s Gender Trouble

Note: This is Part 2 of a series on sex abuse in American Protestant denominations.

Abuse scandals, as they are articulated by survivors, reflect certain commonalities that bear further examination. These cover ups rely on silence, enforced on subjects by religious leadership. The agency of survivors is not acknowledged or encouraged. In fact, they aren’t really considered ‘survivors’ or even victims by ministry leaders. When sexual activity is elevated to the level of a sacred act, sexual abuse is located on a spectrum of spiritual offenses: it is a sin as well as a violation of secular law. This is not necessarily unique. Theft, assault and battery, murder–no Protestant would deny that these simultaneously function as sins and crimes. So why, then, do ministries like Sovereign Grace and ABWE cover up sexual abuse?

First, it’s important to understand that in the United States, Protestant denominations are not ruled by anything that resembles Catholicism’s canon law or Islamic sharia. For that reason, church discipline in Protestant churches as I’ve witnessed it is a more organic affair, and is typically decided by how an individual congregation’s leadership team interprets Scripture on a specific issue. There are therefore distinctions in the ways church discipline is decided and applied, even within the same denominations. Nevertheless, in most churches, church discipline does not function as an alternative to secular law.

These abuse cover ups are really notable, then, for the gender politics they reveal. The leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries is entirely male. At ABWE, the president and twenty of its twenty-two board members are male. My alma mater, Cedarville University, boasts forty trustees and trustees emeriti total; of that number, five are female. The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), which boasts strong ties to both ABWE and (despite its 2006 decision to officially sever ties) to the leadership of Cedarville University, is governed by the all-male Council of Eighteen. Less information is available about the leadership of New Tribes Mission, but according to victim accounts, sexual abuse was perpetrated by men on minor girls, and the leadership of the mission board also appears predominately male.

This means that in each of the cover ups I covered in my previous post, the campaign of silence has been initiated and enforced by a demographic disproportionately less likely to personally experience sexual abuse. This, again, is not surprising; it should shock no one that a socially privileged group participates in the active marginalization of another, less privileged group. But in these conservative ministries, the belief that women are doctrinally obligated to submit to male authorities validates this marginalization. If women are obligated to submit, then their voices, their agency, is intrinsically inferior to male agency. And men who are victimized by other men are not exempt from this. The homophobia rampant in conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism is influenced by the belief that same-sex relationships are ‘unnatural.’ Men abused by other men, whether gay or straight, have been forcibly located in the submissive role assigned to women.

Women must submit, but the basis for this submission extends beyond a literalist interpretation of the Bible: they are also considered dangerous. The purity culture so beloved by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists sexualizes women by identifying them as the gatekeepers of sexual behavior. Simultaneously, it characterizes men as sexual aggressors, engaged in a constant battle for their sexual purity. Immodest women are ‘stumbling blocks’ or human obstacles to a man’s ability to practice holy behavior. The responsibility for sexual purity is therefore placed almost entirely on women. If a woman rejects this role, whether by engaging in consensual sex or by speaking openly about sexual abuse, she upsets a binary that sustains the male leadership of the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist communities.

The result? Cover ups. Silence. A preference for internal solutions–church discipline–over external legal action. Until these conservative ministries challenge their toxic gender politics, there will be no true justice for abuse survivors. They are victimized twice, first by their abusers and again by a culture that expects their silence.

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