#Churchtoo Only a First Step

In the past year, women have taken a stand on social media through the hashtag #metoo. speaking out about sexual assault and harassment. So, as a former evangelical Christian and Christian patriarchy scholar, it wasn’t a surprise to me that in December 2017 a hashtag for the church harassment #churchtoo popped up on Twitter.

As I have blogged about for years, a literal interpretation of the Bible has created a twisted web of Christian pop psychology on gender roles, spanning denominations and available on countless media platforms. Denominational doctrine is now secondary to whatever the latest self-help book in Christian culture recommends for gender roles and relationships. Too often these self-help books are written from a perspective of “Biblical” male leadership and female submission.

Bible passages such as Genesis 3:16 are taken to mean men have “dominion” over the world after the fall, or Ephesians 5:22 tells wives to submit to their husbands. When taken out of context it leads Christians to teach women they have no other choice but to remain silent and submit to male authority.

Unfortunately, too often the lack of agency given to women in evangelical culture leads to issues of abuse. The abuse that is happening in Hollywood and boardrooms has been happening in churches for decades as well. The church is not immune. However, unlike Hollywood, the church is not responding.  There is only silence.

Most recently, Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek, stepped down to pursue “leadership development.” As he blessed the elders at Willow Creek on his last Sunday, what most of the congregation didn’t know was Hybels switching ministry focus because of decades of sexual misconduct allegations that continued to plague him. The church elders cleared Hybels of any wrongdoing, but The Chicago Tribune published an extensive report on the allegations showing there was more than Willow Creek was sharing.

What has emerged in story after story of women who experienced inappropriate (fondling, kissing, sexual propositions) from Hybels while he was the lead pastor. Yet, most would not speak on the record to the Chicago law firm the church elders hired to investigate evidence “of sex-related sin, whether conducted or condoned by Bill Hybels,” limiting the span of the investigation to his years as a minister.

Hybels’ founded his ministry on the support of women in leadership. His actions illustrate even pastors who espouse egalitarian rhetoric are not immune to abuses in power.

What is most distributing is some of women who worked with Hybels’ for years in ministry are willing to speak to The Chicago Tribune, but had no faith in the church to hold him to account.

Other women were only willing to speak to other women about their experiences of harassment by Hybels and would not speak on record.

While the #churchtoo movement is drawing attention to recurring issues of sexual misconduct, nothing is going to change until women in evangelical culture realize they have value and a right to speak out about their experiences.

The purity culture or “True Love Waits” mentality in evangelical Christianity teaches women their value before and after marriage is in their behavior, their dress, and their sexual submission.

It is no wonder when asked to confront a powerful abuser in the church the response is too often “I’ll just give him a warning,” or “I must have done something to make him respond in that way.”

If #churchtoo is going to be successful more than just news stories and social media posts need to happen. Denominations and Christian organizations need to take a cue from secular society and begin instituting harsh punishments and institutional reform.

I’m happy my denomination, The United Methodist Church, issued a statement in January with a toll-free, confidential number to call and report abuse. As the Council of Bishops noted, “We acknowledge that the Church is also a place where sexual misconduct happens when persons in power positions choose to abuse their power. The stories are all too similar. Alleged victims are often reluctant to come forward, fearing they will not be believed or they will experience retaliation and the decision to report will be held against them. Sexual misconduct is a symptom of a systemic problem within our Church and society where patriarchy flourishes.”

What has your denomination done in response to #churchtoo? Push for statements and accountability. Nothing will change until women are willing to speak out and demand it.

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