After thirteen years of ministry alongside college-age and career-age single folks, I have witnessed, counseled, and comforted perhaps more than my share of dear people who have suffered from the tragedy of sexual and physical abuse. In a culture that seems to be degrading by the day, especially sexually, it should not surprise us that we are seeing more and more reports of it, even within the church, sadly. I laid out numerous examples in paragraph twelve of a previous blog post, and since that time we have seen more and more and more examples, including one from Matt Chandler’s Village Church.1 Interestingly, that last article appeared to validate certain concerns that many, including myself, have raised previously about the Ministry Safe organization, particularly the dangers associated with possible conflicts of interest and institutional bias.
On a brighter note, also earlier this week, the SBC sexual abuse advisory group released its Caring Well report. Although I do not agree with everything and continue to be concerned that terms such as “abuse” and “spiritual abuse” are too vague to be helpful, the report has many helpful points and appears to represent some positive movement. In particular, I appreciated large portions of pages 17–22, which included this sobering view from Rachael Denhollander: “Predators often target faith communities because our mishandling of sexual assault means that churches are one of the safest places for predators to flourish.” It goes on to cite some reasons why that could be, explained under subheadings such as:
- Failure to Recognize and Value God’s Image in Every Person
- Failure in Understanding the Doctrine of Sin
- Misapplication of Confession, Repentance, and Forgiveness of Sin
- Confusion Over Doctrine of the Church
- Misunderstanding that Sexual Abuse is Not Only Sin—But a Crime
- Misunderstanding of Church Autonomy
While, of course, not every church in the SBC or the United States is guilty of these theological failures, one needs only to consider the average state of biblical literacy and understanding across American evangelicalism as a whole to realize that the list is probably pretty spot-on. Indeed, having read many dozens, if not hundreds, of articles and stories on the topic, themes such as “I was pressured to keep this within the church” with little thought to the protection of the governing authorities in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, and “my pastor told me I had to forgive” with no regard for genuine repentance in 2 Corinthians 7, are so common as to be nigh-constant.
Meanwhile, all of this is happening against the backdrop of a parallel conversation in evangelicalism, specifically the issue of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism relating to women in leadership roles within the church. The secular Washington Post has summarized the recent discussion in a way that links the two issues, and speaking as a staunch complementarian, I agree with that linkage in one important way.
Complementarian Churches Ought to be the Safest Places for Women
Whenever we look at human authority structures in the Bible, we see a dynamic between the one in authority and the ones under authority. The ones under authority are to submit to the one in authority—but the one in authority should be trembling under the weight and responsibility that the Word of God places upon those in authority. Some patriarchal Christians might be quick to point out the three verses dealing with the wife’s submission to her own husband in Ephesians 5:22–24, but then downplay the next six verses in Ephesians 5:25–30 dealing with the husband’s sacrificial (even unto death itself) obligations to his own wife. Parents might be eager for their children to memorize Colossians 3:20, and yet conveniently forget that Colossians 3:21 commands parents not to provoke their children. Bosses might be thrilled that servants are to be subject even to unjust managers with all respect as it says in 1 Peter 2:18, but nevertheless, the masters are commanded to treat their servants justly and fairly in Colossians 4:1. Governing authorities might shout “obey” to its citizens per Romans 13:1–2, but woe to those authorities if they fail to approve the good and avenge God’s wrath upon the wrongdoers per Romans 13:3–4.
When it comes to the church, the language is arguably the strongest of all. Jesus, in Matthew 20:25–28, clearly told the disciples that followers of Christ must not lord it over others the way the rulers of the Gentiles did. Rather, they must be servants—the one desiring to be first among them must be a slave—following in the example of Jesus Himself, who came not to be served, but to serve. This archetypical example of servant leadership is a radical departure from both the authoritarian leadership styles of the Romans, as well as most concepts of leadership today, whether in the United States generally, or even in much of the evangelical church.
One needs only to consider the example of certain high-profile Christian leaders—and in many cases, their sad falls—to see this borne out time and time again. We see this everywhere. The heavy-handed leadership of Mark Driscoll, who charmingly referred to wives as homes for penises. Doug Phillips, who was disgraced and then sued for the sadly all-too-banal story of grooming and seducing his family’s nanny. Paige Patterson, who in a sermon approved of a sixteen-year-old girl being referred to as “built,” and in another incident told his head of security that he wanted to meet with a rape victim alone so that he could “break her down” (presumably an aggressive cross-examination of her testimony). James MacDonald, who set up photos of some of his fellow elders’ wives to use as target practice, with the ones most troublesome to him apparently designated for higher point values. Based on many reports, in all of these men’s organizations, they appeared to demonstrate all of the authority and none of the servanthood—and it showed in their attitudes toward women.
The Scriptures on the nature of leadership in the church do not end there, of course. Elders are to rule well over the local church, as it says in 1 Timothy 5:17, and their very name is essentially interchangeable with the word overseer. From Hebrews 13:17, we see that congregants are indeed to obey and submit to their elders. The nature of the rule and oversight that congregants are to follow is the very servant leadership described by Jesus in Matthew 20:25–28 and Mark 10:42–45, and the weight of that is further established by the very same Hebrews 13:17 that talks about submission to the elders—because those elders are going to give an account before God Himself for how they kept watch over the souls God placed under the elders’ care.
Reinforcing this point, 1 Peter 5:1–4 commands elders to shepherd the flock of God, willingly and not under compulsion or for shameful gain, and explicitly not domineering, but as an example, once again bringing to mind Jesus and the servant leader. Indeed, as we search through Scripture for what elders are to do, it sounds like a whole lot of service and precisely the opposite of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Elders are to preach, teach, and even rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine, a necessary task, but one that is often arduous and hardly enjoyable, except perhaps for the pugnacious and quarrelsome (who ought to be disqualified from eldership in any event). Elders are to pray, tend to the sick, care for the church of God, and shepherd the flock for whom they are accountable before the Lord.
Speaking from my own experience as a lay elder, it is a blessed and joyful task, and a deeply fulfilling one—but it is also an enormous amount of work, and I am truly grateful for the treasure laid up in Heaven, because it certainly is not a source of material profit. On some levels, I believe complementarian leadership in the church would be quite a bit less controversial if the focus were more on the endurance and perseverance needed for the often inconspicuous and sometimes thankless tasks of shepherding and caring for the flock and the least of these, and not at all on the (mostly) American phenomenon of the glamorous and successful “celebrity” Christian preacher.
Opening Your Mouth for the Mute
As we do shepherd and care for the flock and the least of these, complementarians should remember that yes, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says what it says, and yes, 1 Timothy 2:12 means what it means, and although these might be controversial topics today, the Scriptural words and concepts are not hard to understand—even if they are hard for some to bear. As we consider the weighty Scriptural call for men to lead the church, we must also remember what that means with respect to the women. I have previously questioned the helpfulness of frequent attempts to apply Proverbs 31:8–9 to the larger “social justice” debate in the US, especially in light of the fact that in our age of social media, just about anyone can have a voice, and in our society of casual wealth that would be unimaginable in the Ancient Near East, just about no one is truly destitute. One obvious example of where Proverbs 31:8–9 would indeed apply are the untold millions of murdered unborn, who truly lack a voice (although they have a heartbeat) and are truly destitute (not only of material wealth, but also of basic human rights).
Another example would be right here, where women as a matter of biblical structure are necessarily absent from the plurality of elders, and indeed, they are explicitly called to be silent. In these cases, should we not be vigilant to apply Proverbs 31:8–9, and speak up for their rights and defend their interests? This could of course take many different forms, but in a (largely) peaceful and wealthy society where neither murder nor death are lurking around every corner, should we not be especially watchful and protective, then, in the area of physical and sexual abuse, which sadly runs rampant throughout our society?
In a previous article, I mentioned how in 2016, actually reported cases of rapes and sexual assaults numbered nearly 300,000, while domestic violence incidents were over 1,000,000. Underlying those horrifying statistics is the sad reality that only a fraction of each type of crime is reported, and that when one considers the terrible human cost of this suffering as it ripples outward, sometimes compounded down through the third and fourth generation, the direct and indirect impacts of these grievous and sinful crimes are far, far worse than the sterile numbers indicate. So often, Christian men say they would defend Christian women from any physical threat, even with their own lives. I honestly trust this is usually a genuine sentiment, and not mere lip service. So here is an area that presents a perfect opportunity to live this out.
Are you, complementarian man, approachable if someone that you care about has a secret to disclose that she deems to be sensitive, shameful, or even sinful? What will your response be if she recounts an event of physical or sexual abuse? Remember, complementarian pastor, in our dealings with women, 1 Timothy 5:2 would have us treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters. So, if your own biological mother or sister came to you with such a recounting, what would your first reaction be? I know mine would likely be to strive to mortify my immediate outrage and thirst for vengeance, before offering as much comfort and tangible assistance as I could, including reporting the matter to the governing authorities (which might even be a legal requirement, depending on your jurisdiction) and helping her to seek justice, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator was.
Speaking as a lawyer, this does not mean we throw out the idea of due process, of course, nor does it necessarily even mean #BelieveAllWomen in the ideological or political sense of that hashtag. What I am talking about is more along the lines of bearing your fellow Christian’s burden, mourning with those who mourn, and remembering that pastors and elders are neither the governing authorities with respect to crimes, nor the investigating detective, nor the cross-examining lawyer on the case. Proverbs 18:13—17 would indeed tell us that the accused has his own story to tell, and he should absolutely have the opportunity to tell it. It may be, however, that you, complementarian leader, will not be the one to hear or adjudicate that story.
As men, we are sometimes inclined to put ourselves in the shoes of the accused and sympathize with him, even as specific false accusations from the past spring to our mind in a type of confirmation bias. But the reality is that the most credible studies have shown a range of only 2–10% of rape accusations being demonstrated later to be false. If you think without any supporting evidence that those statistics are fake news, well, go ahead and triple that range, sheerly for the sake of argument, and the reality would still be that the great majority of rape accusations are at least somewhat plausible.
It grieves me, then, when I hear of cases where the churchman immediately springs to protect the accused rather than the accuser, or pushes cheap grace upon the tangibly wronged, or even worse, tries to cover the crime up via pressure for silence—especially when the accused is a man of influence within the church. But simply because a man is successful or respected in the community, that does not mean he is incapable of horrific sins or crimes. Deep down, I think many of us really do know that, because whenever fathers have daughters, we are typically going to warn them against the ulterior or even dark motives of guys in general, since back when we were single, quite a few of us were those guys.
Distinguishing Ourselves from the World
I hope all of this has been relatively straightforward, because, at the risk of sounding naïve, I really do not think it should be especially controversial to us as Bible-believing Christians. I also believe that a proper complementarianism that cherishes and treasures and looks out for the rights and interests of women can be an amazing way to distinguish ourselves from the secular world. Part of this will be in the area of attitude. It would be perverse, after all, for a man’s heart attitude toward the biblical structure of complementarianism to be, “Yeah, we get to keep those wimminfolk down!” And may I humbly submit that in light of our fallen, sinful nature and the inevitable stumbling blocks relating to pride for those in leadership, perhaps we could even use a bit less, “Now let’s go forth boldly as MEN and go do a bunch of manlike leader-man things,” and a bit more time in earnest on-our-knees prayer for the weight of this responsibility and what it might truly mean for those under our spiritual care.
By the way, I am indeed aware that we live in a gender-confused society—and yes, I still stand by what I just said. It should not require a macho caricature of biblical masculinity to show a contrast with the world, and no matter what the world might look like, biblically we are all still called to humility and servanthood and sacrifice all through Scripture (Philippians 2:3–4 being one of the most obvious and clear, and one of my absolute favorites). In the face of a Roman Empire full of sexual immorality and confusion, Christian men led, and the Gospel spread, by standing for the truth via a willingness to suffer and even die under persecution, and not by becoming political culture warriors. On that note, I would much rather see one tangible and sacrificial act of biblical manhood, than a hundred tweets full of empty words or even worse, chest-pounding bravado about it.
In the secular world, we see an increasingly pornified culture where women are objectified, commodified, degraded, and pressured to indulge in every form of perversion, existing right alongside fourth-wave feminism and the #MeToo movement and all of their supposed attempts to empower women and eliminate gender differences. The contradictions and confusion inherent in these worldviews that lack an ultimate purpose like pursuing Jesus Christ and an objective anchor like the Word of God are patently obvious, especially when we see so much subjectivity that half of the feminists seem to glorify porn while the other half seem to reject it.
Meanwhile, as I have said in prior comments, everywhere we look, women seem to lose out whenever they are stacked against any other identity or interest group, such as ethnicity, national origin and immigration, Islam, or more recently transgenderism. Even in an area that would seem like a slam-dunk such as female genital mutilation, a barbaric and cruel practice with zero medical and health benefits, this society simply is not standing up for women like it could and should.
It must not be this way in Christianity. What an opportunity we have to demonstrate a church culture that cherishes, values, and protects women because the Bible commands us to cherish, value, and protect women. That is my prayer for the church universal, and that is how I would strive to serve any church where I might have the immense and weighty privilege to help as a servant leader, including my own beloved local church. And that is my prayer for your church as well, dear reader.
Editor’s note: This was first published in 2019 and appears here by permission of the author.
1. In 2015, Chandler and his elders at the Village Church also received criticism for their treatment of another woman, Karen Hinkley, a former missionary whose then-husband had admitted to possession of child pornography as part of a long-standing indulgence in pedophilic desires. The Village Church’s church discipline of Hinkley and subsequent apology to her have been widely reported, including here (with paywall) and here (without paywall, although from a secular publisher that has been hostile previously to biblical Christianity, so read with discernment).
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