That’s a pretty simple answer to a pretty simple question, but for some reason Christians of many stripes and commentators on religion seem to be struggling with the idea that a denomination’s doctrines cannot be blamed for the prevalence of sexual assault in our society or our churches. In the span of less than twenty-four hours, I have encountered three different occasions where this correlation between doctrine and sexual assault has been bandied about, and it is time to lay it to rest.
The first example comes from an old interview between NPR and Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler answered questions on the then-upcoming annual convention over which several high profile incidents of sexual misconduct had cast a pall. The interviewer brought up an earlier blog post wherein Mohler admitted his surprise that this sort of behavior could take root among the Baptists:
We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority. When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.
I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.
It’s to Mohler’s credit that he can see now that he was wrong, but he never should have fallen into the trap of blaming sexual abuse on doctrine to begin with. This is a particularly egregious myth among Protestants, one that has roots particularly in the nineteenth century, when clerical celibacy was blamed for a host of comically hyperbolic Catholic shortcomings: orgiastic lesbian nuns, masturbation-induced madness, and predatory pedophile priests. An institutional culture of silence surely contributes to the problem of abuse among Catholic priests, but doctrine cannot be blamed. It’s time to shed that Victorian paranoia.
Even so, that paranoia finds a progressive voice to parrot it in the NPR interviewer who turns a form of Mohler’s own doctrine-produces-assault logic against him:
But the question is, why do you think that is? I mean, certain people looking at this…[p]roblem say that it is a consequence of your theology, which they believe elevates men to the detriment of women. I mean, it’s considered to be complementarianism, which is a belief that the Bible reveals that men and women are equally made but that – in God’s image but that men and women have different roles. And there are those who say no, this is a consequence of a belief that whatever you call it, it really means that men are put in an elevated position of authority and that women are demeaned.
Celibacy isn’t the problem, but maybe complementarianism is? This is an argument that would likely resonate with critics of evangelicals more broadly. It certainly appears in the organizing logic of complaints about the recent summit at Wheaton on how evangelicals can respond to the #metoo movement. By most accounts, this was a productive meeting with the right attitude of reflection and repentance. Beth Moore, significantly, was a featured speaker; her voice has been critical in convincing evangelicals to reckon with this crisis.
Not everyone, though, thinks repentance and reflection are enough. ReligionNews reports:
Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day on social media, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.
The parallel is pretty precise. Baptists believe that if only Catholics had the right view of sex (no clerical celibacy), sexual misconduct would disappear. Post-evangelicals believe that if only evangelicals had the right view of sex (no heteronormative sex-shaming), sexual misconduct would disappear. Both ideas are equally ludicrous, and someone should probably sit Christians down and explain to them what most secular commentators understand: sexual assault is not about sex. And if it isn’t about sex, then correcting our doctrine of human sexuality is not going to fix it.
The third instance of this flawed logic is more muted. I found it embedded revelations about the independent fundamental Baptist churches, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (there are several parts). Shocked independent fundamental Baptists shared some of the old anti-Catholic prejudices of their Southern Baptist counterparts:
“It’s a little bit trippy, looking at the independent Baptist world I grew up in and thinking, ‘We’ve always heard bashing on the Catholics for their system of religion, for the way they shuffle around perverts,’” said Pat Cook, who unknowingly started a church in 2013 with a suspected abuser, on the recommendation of his pastor.
“Unfortunately, we’ve definitely seen it in the independent Baptist world.”
The article doesn’t stop there though, suggesting that a more intimate knowledge of the denomination was the key to understanding how sexual misconduct could occur there:
To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.
Evidence of this cult-like (and unscriptural) belief in male authority can be seen in testimonials like these:
To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.
“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”
“My late mother, not long after we had started going to church, my stepfather had asked her to spend no more than $50 at the grocery store. Unfortunately, the bill totaled $52. Rather than put something back to get the bill under $50, she gave the cashier a weak smile and explained apologetically, ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to call my husband about this. You see, we’re a Christian family, and I believe in submitting to my husband.’ So off she went to the other end of the store to use the phone and call my stepfather at work while my brother and I waited at the counter. I could feel my face turning red, and my brother didn’t really understand what was going on, either. Our mother came back with a satisfied smile and informed the cashier, ‘I’m so sorry for holding up the line, but my husband said it was fine. I just had to ask him first because we’re a Christian family.’”
I cannot stress enough that there is clearly something in these churches that is on a different order–structurally and doctrinally–than the other groups surveyed here, and my point is not to excuse or endorse those beliefs. It is only to suggest that the implicit link between bad belief and bad practice is bad logic. Sexual assault is happening even outside the cult-like hyper-masculine space of the independent fundamental Baptists churches, outside the hierarchical and celibate ranks of the Catholic church, outside the complementarian ranks of the Southern Baptists, outside the heteronormative ranks of evangelicals. It’s even happening in the halls of higher education where, if conservatives Christians are to be believed, every sacred orthodoxy that religion holds dear has been publicly pilloried and executed. What is the root of all this evil?
The problem is not doctrine. The problem is sin. It’s not a new problem–sin generally or this problem of sexual assault. It’s arrogant to assume that if we can simply concoct the right doctrinal formula about sex, about men and women, about clerical behavior or authority, then we can purge sin from the world. The way to alleviate the problem of sin is to acknowledge it, repent of it, and to rely openly and actively on Christ and his church to ward it off in the future. In that respect, the Southern Baptists, Wheaton College, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram all seem to be doing important work. Let’s keep it up.