The Church’s Abuse Mythology

As the Evangelical blogosphere processes the fallout from scandals at Sovereign Grace Ministries, various mission boards and Christian colleges and universities, fresh details about Baptist minister Jack Schaap’s sexual relationship with a teenage girl at a megachurch in Indiana reinforce the urgency of this conversation about abuse. It also reveals, starkly, the inadequacy of the church’s response to abuse, and the degree to which that response has been influenced by patriarchal doctrine. That doctrine, combined with a common lack of external accountability, render it difficult, if not practically impossible, for survivors to seek justice.

Next week, Rachel Held Evans will begin a week-long series on sexual abuse in the church. That series coincides with a related synchroblog event focused on spiritual abuse, which may or may not include sexual abuse.

The only value contained in Tim Challies’ infamous blog post on the Sovereign Grace scandal is its usefulness as an example of how not to respond to abuse.Based on that post, and on discussions I’ve had with clergy and fellow survivors of abuse, I believe that the following myths are the most pervasive and significant obstacles to the ability to carry out a constructive and honest discussion of abuse in the church:

1.) It’s slanderous to make an accusation of abuse or discuss failures in ministry leadership. 

Cover ups happen. Whether due to malice or gross incompetence, the leaders of Christian ministries and schools have consistently demonstrated a common inability to adequately anticipate and respond to abuse. It is not a violation of Biblical standards to hold fellow Christians accountable to secular legal standards. Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s. If your priority is victim protection, you have an ethical responsibility to encourage abusers to turn themselves in. If they don’t, go to the police. An incidence of abuse isn’t a reflection on your ministry; it’s a reflection of the human condition. When you frame abuse accusations as gossip, you silence victims and create an unsustainable culture of silence in your ministry.

2.) The victim bears some responsibility for abuse, or owes her attacker forgiveness. 

Jack Schaap did not get ‘seduced’ by a 16 year old girl. Contrary to the beliefs of ABWE’s leadership, a  fourteen year old victim of pedophila is not guilty of adultery. And despite the tactics taken at Sovereign Grace, no abuse victim owes her abuser forgiveness, nor is she at fault if she does not wish to attend church or school with him. The responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. The victim’s clothes are irrelevant. Her sex life is irrelevant. His spiritual life is irrelevant. The victim is not to be put on trial.

3.) Abuse doesn’t happen in churches, on the mission field, or at Christian colleges.

Christians commit abuse. They commit abuse every day. It happens in Christian homes. It happens at church. It happens at school and at college. It can be difficult to believe that a beloved local minister or professor could be guilty of sexual abuse, but statistics consistently demonstrate that false accusations are rare. The stigma associated with sexual abuse makes it extraordinarily difficult for victims to come forward about the crime. If someone has defied this stigma in order to publicly identify a trusted figure as an abuser, chances are good that the claim is legitimate. Your default reaction should be to believe the victim. Victims need emotional support from their communities. The process of reporting abuse is traumatic because it demands that victims relive the experience repeatedly for the benefit of the police, and possibly for a court. Respect the courage it took to report the abuse.

The underlying theme is empathy. In a patriarchal system, women and men abused by other men are the Other. They are consistently excluded from leadership. In a conversation with me this week, my former pastor identified this specific trend as a major contributing factor to the mishandling of sexual abuse in churches and ministries. That leads me to the final myth.

4.) Patriarchy can prevent abuse. 

Patriarchy preserves male power. Advocates argue that it protects women, but reality contradicts this argument. Patriarchy protects male abusers. Its emphasis on female submission facilitates the silencing of female victims, and its homophobia completely denies even the possibility of same-sex abuse. Even the soft patriarchy advocated by men like Tim Challies (in comparison to the version practiced by Douglas Wilson, or the adherents of Vision Forum) relies on the passivity of women. It is a total rejection of this passivity to report abuse; it therefore threatens the structural integrity of patriarchy. The answer to abuse is gender equality. Women’s voices must be heard and their perspectives respected. The sexism inherent in homophobia must be openly acknowledged and challenged. And we must commence an open discussion of the church’s failures on gender and sexuality.

These conversations are a necessary step toward creating a safer, healthier American church. This abuse mythology isn’t restricted to the church, but it becomes even more difficult for victims to resist when it is validated by the patriarchal misappropriation of Christian doctrine.The goal of any discussion about abuse should the protection of victims and the prevention of further incidents. The end of abuse mythology means the end of Christian patriarchy.

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