Three Ways for the Church to Stop the Cycle of Abuse and Assault

The evangelical church in the US is facing a reckoning. For the last few years, story after story has surfaced that one high-profile pastor, theologian, or teacher after another has been caught engaging in behavior ranging from unethical financial practices to spiritual abuse, infidelity, and sexual assault. Prominent apologist Ravi Zacharias was the latest to join the ranks. What on earth is happening amongst a group of people who claim an unwavering commitment to Jesus and his Word?

The truth is, there is no shortage of evidence that evangelicals lack a moral high ground when it comes to women. The Southern Baptist Convention and Sovereign Grace Church are still reeling from the revelation that predators have been able to navigate their leadership hierarchy with ease. And I do not for a moment think that we are done learning about these abhorrent behaviors amongst our own.

This is a systemic problem in the church, and we are not addressing it adequately. I want to highlight three areas where evangelicals consistently fail in trying to make sense of leaders’ calculated and catastrophic sin: 1) downplaying assault due to faulty beliefs and teaching on power dynamics and consent; 2) consistently bypassing victims and focusing on the perpetrators, and 3) focusing on individual formation and personal piety over systemic problems. These are areas of analysis that I believe we must correct if we’re going to stop the cycle of abuse in our midst.

Examine Faulty Beliefs

While scrolling through social media after the Ravi Zacharias news broke, I happened upon a tweet that glaringly showcases the first error. Responding to the news, reformed theologian Owen Strachan wrote “That could EASILY be me” (emphasis his). If anyone is concerned that he (or she) might perpetrate a sexual assault, that person needs to step down from his position immediately and seek intense psychiatric treatment. Would Strachan have responded the same way after news of, say, Harvey Weinstein’s assault allegations broke? Unlikely, because in this case, Strachan seems to be committing the all-too-common mistake of conflating sexual assault and consensual extramarital affairs.

Strachan and others voicing similar opinions downplay Zacharias’s actions because they lack basic understanding of power dynamics and consent. This ignorance is a deadly, metastatic cancer in church, spread through purity culture (which teaches that women are responsible for male temptation and lust, and by extension, complicit in men’s sexual sin), shoddy psychology (which posits that men have such high sex drives and that they cannot reasonably be expected to resist certain temptations)1, and defaulting to patriarchal interpretations of Scripture (how is the story of Bathsheba and King David told from your church’s pulpit?).

Rape does not only happen through physical force, but also through grooming, abuse of positional power, manipulation, financial coercion, and spiritual abuse. We must be crystal clear on this point: serial assault is no mere “moral failure” any more than serial murder is. We must be crystal clear on this point: serial assault is no mere “moral failure” any more than serial murder is. Click To Tweet

Weinstein is a serial rapist, a sexual predator. We had no trouble correctly naming his behavior when that story was trending. But somehow, when the same pattern of behavior shows up in our own house, we talk about it as infidelity instead of rape—as though Zacharias’s primary transgression was against his wife and their marriage covenant, rather than against the bodies, agency, and dignity of women who bear God’s image. Rape and assault are not interchangeable with infidelity. The primary victim of a rape is not the rapist’s spouse (although they are victims, too), nor is it the rapist’s ministry, reputation, or legacy. The primary victim is the person who was assaulted.

Center the Survivors

This brings me to my second point. When we downplay the severity of the crime, we center the perpetrator and forget the victim. And I’d argue that this is the crux of the issue. Most of the analysis I’ve seen has neglected to reference Lori Anne Thompson’s victim impact statement, or even the full report detailing the appalling nature of Zacharias’s behavior as told by his other victims. Rather, most commentary from high-profile evangelical figures focuses on the devastating loss to the Christian community, impact on RZIM’s ministry and Zacharias’s legacy, and how leaders can learn from this and avoid such a fate themselves.

As Jo Saxton pointed out, we need to hold space for and mourn what these women have lost: “Women were maligned. [There are women] who aren’t entirely believed even now, who are rebuilding their lives in the shadows, some who still can’t tell their stories.” These women are created in God’s image, precious to him, with unique giftings and callings of their own. What if these women were created and called to a field that they will now be denied access to, whether through the effects of trauma or a tarnished reputation? Is this not a loss to the church, to the world? When we don’t listen to their stories, we erase them from our narratives.

Change Systems as Well as Individuals

This leads me to my final point. When victims are bypassed and erased from the narrative, we miss the most crucial and instructive conversations for real, systemic change. Rather than ask how to make workplaces and faith communities safer for women, or how we can amplify the voices of victims, or empower them before they’re preyed upon, we’re mostly asking how we can make men behave themselves. And while these may be related questions, they lead to very different answers. The first set of questions will lead to systemic change; the second produces male-centric solutions like the Billy Graham Rule,2 or generic calls for greater accountability, self-awareness, and humility from leaders. These calls are often followed by a return to the status quo. When victims are bypassed and erased from the narrative, we miss the most crucial and instructive conversations for real, systemic change. Click To Tweet

We will never be able to find solutions to systemic problems by asking questions about individual formation and personal piety. Which isn’t to say that we don’t need to ask why prominent, powerful men seem particularly bent toward predation and infidelity—but even that should be a systemic question.

What if we did the courageous thing and asked the systemic questions? What if we looked at these stories as patterns, rather than isolated instances of individual failure, and asked why these patterns prevail? Why do vulnerable people have so little say in our communities and how we structure them? What about our theology and praxis disempowers potential victims, particularly women, and protects perpetrators? What if we made a concerted effort to listen to victims, take their criticisms and suggestions to heart, re-examine our theology, and change our practices?

This is what it will take for the church to survive this reckoning. Yet I fear that most people asking the individual questions will never ask the systemic ones until this happens to their sister or child or wife. It will forever be a problem that happens in other churches, in other leadership teams, in other ministries…until it becomes intimately, excruciatingly personal.

Ravi Zacharias is dead now. He and his cohort of abusive and predatory leaders have little to teach us. But what do the women have to say?

[1] Sheila Wray Gregoire has written about this extensively in her book The Great Sex Rescue and more recently for Religion News Service.

[2] Ravi Zacharias claimed to practice the Billy Graham Rule. Harvey Weinstein employed a similar tactic to lure victims into his office and hotel rooms.

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