Outstanding investigative reporting by the Houston Chronicle has brought to light the scandal of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy and volunteers, most of whom suffered no consequences for their crimes. While I am grateful for the Chronicle’s work, this is not a surprising story. In the 1990s I was invited to staff five-day workshops for sexual abuse survivors, something I ended up doing for more than a decade. I was asked in part because I was a safe minister for the many participants who had been victimized by clergy.
Over the last decade I have watched churches try to make changes. Consultants are brought in, and programs are developed to make sure churches are safe places for children and adolescents. These churches do good things, like background checks and safety policies (such as ensuring that no adult is left alone with a child). Most of the time, however, these steps don’t go far enough.
I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse for more than 20 years. I wrote my thesis on working with survivors. I’m a sexual abuse survivor myself. In my view, churches must address three foundational issues if they are truly going to become safe spaces. (I have chosen here to focus on the experience of girls and women. That’s my experience and my background. While there is some overlap, churches need to develop another list of foundational issues to address for the sake of boys and men whose abuse is still terribly underreported.)
These three issues are as follows:
1. Hierarchical structures that relegate women to second-class status compared to men. I know the complementarians will want to jump in here and say that a woman’s role isn’t less than, just different. Segregationists tried that whole separate-but-equal argument and it didn’t work then either.
In arguing for religious liberty, Thomas Helwys made the case for absolute liberty and not toleration. If we have toleration, he said, that means someone else always has the power to decide. What is tolerated today may be banned tomorrow.
“Segregationists tried that whole separate-but-equal argument and it didn’t work then either.”
Complementarians paint a rosy picture of the godly man leading his family with compassion and faith. A woman is free to express her thoughts. The couple may even debate an issue. In the end, however, he always gets the final vote. He gets to decide whether or not her voice is “tolerated.” He gets to make the call, even if that call is abusive. More than one woman has been told by a “Christian counselor” to go home and submit to an abusive husband.
Such a theology creates a learned powerlessness in women. From a young age, girls learn that they are to submit. The man is the final arbitrator of what God wants. This is even truer if that man is a minister.
This is the most obvious example, but it is an issue even in moderate Baptist churches that preach equality of roles and relationship. I would ask: How often do women have a voice in worship in your church (besides singing a solo or doing the “children’s time”)? How many women are in positions of leadership? How often does a woman preach? Is it more than just once a year to mark some special occasion? Are women ordained to ministry and called to serve in ministry positions? Does your pastor search committee seriously consider women candidates? When the church models acceptance and celebration of all of our voices, girls grow up understanding that it is okay for them to use their voices as well.
2. Weaponized shame. Shame is one of the most powerful weapons in the abuser’s arsenal. The threat is both implicit and explicit. “I am doing this because you are bad. If you tell, people will know how bad you are.”
For some girls, that’s not far from where they live every day. I was in seminary when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution saying that women should not be ministers because Eve was first in the Fall. It was because of Eve’s sin that paradise was lost and, ultimately, Christ had to die to redeem the whole shebang.
That’s one big load of shame.
On some level, children who are abused know that what’s happening is wrong, but out of shame they internalize that they are the ones who are wrong. They are the ones who are bad. Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too many cases where that message was reinforced when they told about the abuse, only to be accused of lying or that they were the one at fault.
“Even in churches that find the SBC’s all-Eve’s-fault resolution abhorrent, shame still creeps in.”
The message is that we are fundamentally wrong. (Guilt focuses on what we have done wrong. Shame tells us that we are wrong.) In some churches, children and teens are shamed into good behavior. Sometimes the message is as explicit as “God won’t love you if you don’t behave or act ‘like a girl’” (as defined by the person in authority).
Even in churches that find the SBC’s all-Eve’s-fault resolution abhorrent, shame still creeps in. It’s on the ballfield or in the gym when a boy or man is shamed for “playing like a girl.” It happens when a woman’s voice is ignored or belittled (women have had books they have written “explained” to them by men.) In my case, I’ll never forget being in a committee meeting where the point I was trying to make was minimized and discarded by the men present. When we presented our work to the larger group, a man voiced my same point. It was well received by all, treated as if it were gospel and the wisdom of the ages.
This, I should add, was not a fundamentalist church gathering.
Fortunately, by that time in my life I had learned enough to be angry. But there was a time when that kind of dismissive treatment would have reinforced the feeling that there was something wrong with me. It would have reinforced that my voice wasn’t powerful or worthy of being heard.
3. Ignoring the body. I’ve been in worship in a Baptist church most Sundays since I was a child, and that’s been a while ago. While I (thankfully) can make no claim for remembering every sermon I’ve ever heard, it’s striking to me how few sermons I can remember hearing across the decades that celebrate the gifts of our bodies.
I can only remember a couple. One was part of sermon series on the seven deadly sins. The pastor preached on gluttony, but only after he had lost a considerable amount of weight. Another was offered as the church prepared to launch a capital campaign to build a wellness and community center that included a gym. While the sermon was appropriate and well done, it reminded that without special events driving the conversation, celebrating the body is rarely a theme in Baptist worship.
Our bodies are sacred gifts. They are astounding in their complexity. They allow us not only to do things but to feel things. Unfortunately, Paul used the analogy of spirit (good) versus body (bad), and such associations seep into our subconscious. From the dominant culture, girls learn at an early age all of the things that are wrong with their bodies, all of the ways in which they don’t measure up. Sadly, sometimes the church reinforces that negativity.
“Reclaiming a healthy celebration of and appreciation for the gift of our bodies helps us teach children that they have a right to set boundaries with their bodies.”
Reclaiming a healthy celebration of and appreciation for the gift of our bodies helps us teach children that they have a right to set boundaries with their bodies. (I once had a colleague who planned to promote “Share a Hug” Sunday in his church. I could not convince him of what a terrible idea that was, and that some members may experience it as abusive.)
Perhaps we’ve been reluctant to talk too much about our bodies because, well you know… that would lead to talking about sex. Nadia Bolz-Weber in her latest book, Shame Less, argues that we need a new conversation about sex in the church. Part of that argument comes from the stories of how churches’ past conversations have been harmful to God’s children.
These are difficult conversations to have. If you don’t subscribe to “purity culture” and its cut-and-dried pronouncements, you may feel uncomfortable about talking about sex in church. After all, the discussion about how the church relates to gays, lesbians and transgender folk has divided churches and denominations. And yet, what we say and what we do not say about sex sends a message. If it’s not okay to talk about it, then it becomes a secret, and often a shameful one. Abusers depend on their victims keeping secrets.
In some ways I was one of the lucky ones. My sexual abuse wasn’t connected to the church. In fact, my church community is part of what saved me, so much so that my memoir of that journey is both the story of confronting and healing from my abuse and the story of my faith journey (anchored in the local church) that led me to following God’s call to ministry. I grieve for those children and teenagers who were robbed, not only of a childhood and adolescence, but also robbed of a safe spiritual home.
Getting pedophiles out of the shadows and out of our churches is crucial. Setting up boundaries and structures for accountability and transparency is necessary. But until we turn our attention to these foundational issues, our children will remain at risk.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of conversations across Baptist life generated by the Houston Chronicle’s investigative series, we will be publishing additional opinion articles on this important topic over the next week.