As we reflect back on 2021, one theme will be how three of the major conservative evangelical denominations have become compromised by sexual abuse and sexual abuse coverups.
The Presbyterian Church in America became embroiled in a scandal over the past couple years when a pastor was accused of sexually abusing at least a dozen women. But the Central Indiana Presbytery of the PCA organized a committee of men who were acquaintances with the accused pastor and who had tweeted that allegations could be politically motivated. After adding two women to the committee, the men voted unanimously to dismiss the allegations without allowing the women on the committee to vote.
The Anglican Church in North America had a catechist accused of 12 allegations including rape, assault, child sexual abuse and exposing teenagers to pornography. The church covered up the abuse without telling their congregation for a year and a half. The bishop resisted hiring a qualified investigator and then hired an unqualified firm that would allow the bishop to have the authority to decide the scope and transparency of the investigation. After public pressure, however, the bishop announced that the final report would be made public.
The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee initially defied the will of the SBC annual meeting messengers to set up a transparent task force to investigate sexual abuse allegations and became embroiled in a contractual debate about who holds the power in such matters.
Instead of repenting, all three of these denominations decided to spend 2021 releasing statements about sexuality — statements that took their literalist interpretation of Adam and Eve as humanity’s founding parents to condemn LGBTQ relationships.
All three denominations made sexual abuse victims feel foolish, weak, low and despised, while promoting men at the top of their hierarchies as wise and strong. Women were to be silent, simply present as pawns in their game of glory.
When reality TV becomes evangelical reality
As evangelicalism was at the height of its power during the Bush administration, plans began coming together to feature one of its poster independent Baptist families on a reality TV show called “19 Kids and Counting.” Premiering in 2008, the show featured Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 19 kids and lasted for 15 seasons until it was canceled after their son Josh was revealed to have been investigated for molesting five girls going back to 2002.
Instead of reporting the accusations against Josh, the family patriarch, Jim Bob, decided to ignore the allegations in 2002 until additional allegations in 2003 led him to send Josh to a Christian counseling program. Jim Bob also asked a state trooper to give Josh a “stern talk.”
By the time the Oprah Winfrey show found out about the allegations and reported them to the police in 2006, the police could not pursue charges against Josh because the statute of limitations — being three years at the time — had expired.
After Josh married Anna in 2008, they immediately began having children together. And by 2015, they were a family of six. But when the Ashley Madison adultery website was compromised in 2015, it was revealed that Josh had been a user since 2012.
When Josh’s username was discovered, he said, “While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet, and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife.”
Then in April 2021, Josh was arrested and charged with receiving and possessing child pornography.
Insider reported at the time that Judge Christy Comstock was “deeply concerned about the allegations against Duggar, adding that a federal agent had testified that one of Duggar’s downloads was ‘some of the worst sexual abuse child pornography that he has seen in over 1,000 cases.’”
When complementarianism keeps women silent
As the prosecution and defense met on Monday, Nov. 29, to discuss whether including the allegations of child molestation against Josh Duggar should be admissible during trial, the first witness the prosecution called was Bobye Holt, who has been a long-time friend of the Duggar family.
Holt testified that the Duggars called her husband and her over to their house in March 2003, and that Josh admitted to molesting young girls through their dresses — girls who were sitting on his lap during home Bible studies as well as at other times while they slept.
Holt also testified that in 2005 Josh confessed to her husband and her to molesting girls who were sitting in his lap during an in-home Bible study again. While Josh was confessing these details to them and was receiving advice in return, Holt said she never considered herself as being in an official religious role because women are not given that place of authority in their complementarian church.
When she was asked how she felt when hearing of the abuse, she answered, “You don’t forget something like that.” Then later upon cross examination, she said, “I know what he told me.”
Holt added, “I went to go tell Jim Bob and Michelle, but they said they didn’t want to hear it.”
When complementarianism evolves to protect the power of the patriarchs
But when Jim Bob, the patriarch, took the stand, his complementarian theology was suddenly nowhere to be found. He testified that elders’ wives are considered to be spiritual leaders, that the Holts were a team of counselors for Josh, that elders wives were part of the leadership and could occasionally vote on some issues. One might have thought according to Jim Bob’s testimony that Bobye Holt was a modern-day Junia, prominent among the apostles.
Josh’s defense team argued that Jim Bob clearly proved that women hold enough power in their complementarian church to be considered clergy — an argument made in order to protect Josh’s confession from being admitted due to the clergy confidentiality clause.
“Josh’s defense team argued that Jim Bob clearly proved that women hold enough power in their complementarian church to be considered clergy.”
In other words, Bobye Holt, who is normally supposed to be silent and submissive in her complementarian marriage and church, suddenly was elevated by the complementarian men to the position of an official church leader in order to silence her testimony about the sexual abuse of one of the men in their church against the young girls of their church.
But the judge wasn’t buying the complementarians’ sudden stamp of approval on women leaders in the church and decided to allow Holt’s testimony. And as People reports, Jim Bob the patriarch began getting flustered on the stand and said, “I’m not a male chauvinist.”
When God chooses the foolish, the weak, the low and despised
One thing we have learned in the PCA, the Anglican Church, the SBC, and now through the Duggar trial is that Christian patriarchy ultimately is about power. In each of their hierarchies, men are at the top, wielding their power to silence women and sexual abuse victims. In each of their hierarchies, they use women as political pawns by giving them positions on committees or statuses of authority in courtrooms only when it further serves the preservation of their own power. And in each of their hierarchies, they ultimately make women and sexual abuse victims feel foolish, weak, low and despised.
In the world of conservative complementarian evangelicalism across all their denominations, men are at the top and are considered the wise and the strong. And no matter what happens to Josh Duggar, his father, Jim Bob, the patriarch is on a quest for even greater power as he attempts to spread his values through a run for the Arkansas state senate.
But as 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 say, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”
Perhaps in the case of Bobye Holt’s testimony, one woman who has lived her life in a world of being made to feel foolish, weak, low, despised and nothing is becoming free enough to reduce to nothing the patriarchs at the top of her hierarchy.
Rick Pidcock is a freelance writer based in South Carolina. He is a former Clemons Fellow with BNG and recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com