Published May 13, 2018
The Me Too movement, which began by exposing predatory male behavior and hypocrisy in liberal enclaves like Hollywood and the mainstream media, is spreading throughout the rest of society. The evangelical Protestant world is the latest to be shaken by revelations of sexual abuse and sexism. It’s facing an ugly, painful — but necessary — set of disclosures, out of which will come a church marked by greater integrity and grace. I hope.
It won’t be an easy journey.
Newly resurfaced tapes of the Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, have convulsed the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
In 2000, Mr. Patterson, a major figure in the Southern Baptist world, recounted the story of a woman who had been abused by her husband and had come to him for counsel. He told her to pray quietly beside the bed at night, counting on God to intervene. Mr. Patterson warned her to “get ready” because “he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” When the woman came to him with two black eyes, according to Mr. Patterson, she said, “I hope you’re happy.” Mr. Patterson’s response: “Yes, ma’am, I am. I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy,” because the husband had shown up in church that morning and asked for forgiveness. These comments, shockingly callous and ill-advised, are not isolated.
In an illustration he used in a sermon a few years ago, Mr. Patterson took delight in describing an episode in which a girl no more than 16 years old — “let me just say, she was nice,” according to Mr. Patterson — walked by a teenage boy who leered at her, saying, “Man, is she built.” The mother scolded her son, only to have Mr. Patterson intervene. “Ma’am,” he said, “leave him alone. He is just being biblical. That’s exactly what the Bible says,” evoking laughter and applause from the audience. And in 1997, Mr. Patterson made what he considered to be an oh-so-clever comment about women: “I think everybody should own at least one.” (After nearly two weeks of insisting he had nothing to apologize for, and with pressure intensifying on him from within the Southern Baptist world, Mr. Patterson finally issued a blanket apology on Thursday.)
Mr. Patterson’s comments are hardly the worst of it. Bill Hybels, the founder and senior pastor of one of the most influential churches in America, Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, recently resigned after charges of improper conduct and abuse of power that he denies. The pastor Andy Savage recently resigned from his megachurch in Memphis after it was revealed that he had sexually assaulted a high school student years earlier. Les Hughey, the founder and pastor of another megachurch in Scottsdale, Ariz., resigned after several women accused him of sexual misconduct when he was a youth pastor in California decades earlier (conduct that Mr. Hughey claims was consensual). And the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a story in March by its editor in chief urging an independent investigation into Sovereign Grace Churches over allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups that the network denies.
Complicating matters has been the rock-solid support of white evangelicals for President Trump, a man who has been accused by nearly 20 women of sexual misconduct and has a long history of misogynistic attacks; and for the losing Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, who was accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct by nine women, including one who was 14 years old when the alleged incident occurred. Watching all this unfold has been painful for many of us who have identified with the Republican Party and the evangelical movement for much of our lives.
However we feel about these developments, it is clear that large segments of evangelical Christianity have a serious problem related to women. It’s disturbing, in part because this is contrary to the early history of Christianity, which did so much to elevate and dignify the role of women in the ancient world.
Jesus refused to treat women as inferiors despite living in a culture that treated them deplorably. He traveled with women, taught them and used them in parables. He performed miracles on their behalf. They were present at his crucifixion and were the first witnesses of his resurrection despite living in a society where their accounts of events weren’t trusted. Women ministered to Jesus, and in many cases they are portrayed more positively than even some of Jesus’ closest male followers, expressing more faith in him than those who betrayed him.
In “The Jesus I Never Knew,” Philip Yancey reminds us that the biblical scholar Walter Wink has said the Jesus violated the mores of his time in every single encounter with women recorded in the four Gospels. According to Garry Wills, in “What Jesus Meant,” “The equality of men and women was a thing so shocking in the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time that his own male followers could not understand it.”
The same Apostle Paul who wrote that women should be silent in churches also wrote in the book of Galatians what at the time was a stunningly egalitarian statement: “There is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Women had prominent positions in the early church as prophets, deacons, teachers and “co-workers” of Paul’s. “Women in these communities enjoyed a greater measure of freedom and dignity than they could have experienced in Greco-Roman society outside the Christian fellowship,” according to Richard B. Hays, a former dean of Duke Divinity School.
Yet again and again, elements within the faith have veered away from Christianity’s egalitarian roots, with biblical teachings distorted in ways that belittle women. The prominent conservative evangelical author and teacher Beth Moore, in an open letter that she published earlier this month, recounted the sexism she has experienced during her years of ministry. She describes being talked down to by male seminary students, being made to feel invisible, and meeting a theologian she had long respected whose first comment to her had to do with her appearance. Her examples “may seem fairly benign in light of recent scandals of sexual abuse and assault coming to light,” she wrote, “but the attitudes are growing from the same dangerously malignant root.”
This attitude of disesteem toward women has given rise to a culture that among other things has discouraged abuse victims from coming forward. So here’s a proposal for evangelical Christians: Let’s confront misogyny and patronizing behavior in our ranks. Stand with the victims of sexual abuse rather than with the perpetrators. Embrace the animating spirit of the Me Too movement. Be public (and private) voices for victims and for justice. Think for a moment how it would look if a watching world saw evangelical leaders give a fraction of the public support to women who have been assaulted compared with the “mulligans” evangelical leaders hand out to Mr. Trump for his sexual transgressions.
Focusing on this issue would be consistent with a biblical ethic of standing with the powerless against the powerful. It would act as a corrective to churches that have sought to silence or discredit those who have suffered from abuse. And it would allow evangelicals to align with a just cause when it most matters, in real time.
It needs to be said that countless evangelical churches and pastors treat women well and with respect, and many are helping women who have been sexually abused and assaulted. That is certainly true of my home church, McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.
When sexual abuse happens, it’s devastating. How individuals and institutions react once the abuse is known goes a long way toward determining whether what follows is support and healing or isolation and despair.
Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, heads an organization, Grace, that supports victims of sexual violence and is attempting to end the culture of silence within Protestant and evangelical institutions. According to Mr. Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor, “When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’ ” He adds, “When somebody says that, it’s a lie. Keeping things in the dark and allowing souls to be destroyed by abuse, that shames the Gospel. Jesus is all about transparency.”
We Christians are kidding ourselves if we think there aren’t problems with the church’s attitude toward women, including those who have been sexually abused. If we don’t acknowledge that something has gone amiss, we’re burying our heads in unholy sand. Churches should be “places where the wounded feel the most safe to come forward,” Mr. Tchividjian told me. But he said many women who have been abused feel the opposite. To speak out might mean they have opened themselves up to criticism and even vilification from those in positions of power. “We need to be a lot more intentional about creating safe spaces for them,” Mr. Tchividjian said.
Jesus would. So much of his ministry was aimed at caring for the marginalized, the brokenhearted, the abused. He often sided with them against the religious authorities of his day, men who were powerful, controlling, legalistic and devoid of mercy. He offered tenderness, grace and healing to a fallen world.
So should his followers.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.