Christians have a tradition of “laying hands” on each other to impart the Holy Spirit, to heal, and to bless. My church “trains” people to pray, which basically means we teach people to ask questions like, “Can I put my hand on your shoulder as I pray for you.”
Touching and consent go “hand in hand.”
Touch has a foundationally sacred and important place in the Christian tradition.
Touching each other inappropriately undermines the healing and life that God desires to impart in our lives. Our hands can be used to destroy, imprison, and wound or they can be used to impart freedom, spiritual gifts, and blessings.
Our message collapses if we approve inappropriate touching in one moment and then reach out to heal in another. (Trigger warning below for sexual abuse and rape.)
And yet, some evangelical churches and groups have attempted to do just this. If these groups are not directly responsible for sexual abuse or covering up the abuse, they at least are responsible for failing to condemn leaders who abuse women and children. Some of these leaders are even given a free pass because they’re deemed “too important” for the cause of the Gospel.
I have friends who have attended churches and denominations where they’re told to be quiet because the pastor is doing great things for God—even if he can’t keep his hands to himself. There are women I know in these denominations or who left these denominations, and they keep hearing stories of leaders who preyed on women while many turned a blind eye.
We need to have a frank discussion about just how twisted the evangelical subculture has become in its approach to sexual misconduct among evangelical leaders.
If a prominent pastor or spiritual leader sexually forced himself on a woman or groped a woman, some evangelical churches would have a heated debate about just how “serious” it is and whether the victims should even be trusted.
In some cases, pastors and church leaders have done far more horrible and despicable things to children, young elementary school children, and the church leaders were given the benefit of a doubt by their communities rather than rushing to defend the children. Those who defend these leaders and help them hide are lauded for standing by their friends in the midst of a mountain of evidence.
This isn’t isolated to one group. This is all over the evangelical subculture. Besides the horrendous Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal that was only dismissed on the grounds of statute of limitations but continues to be appealed, I recently learned that Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder had a long and well-documented history of groping women. Over 50 victims have approached one of his former victims who has spoken out about it, so who knows how many more have gone unreported.
The man recognized by many as an authority on nonviolence has a particularly violent history of forcing himself on women. While Yoder was confronted and rehabilitated to a certain degree (even though it was covered up at times), there are some huge question marks about whether he actually reconciled with the women he violated or whether the church reached out to them in order to facilitate a healing process. Even worse, his troubling past is not studied in conjunction with his theological work.
Why don’t we hear more people calling his “nonviolent” theology in question? Why do so many authors uncritically quote from his works? Does this not at least call for a footnote in all caps?
Oh, he just grabbed some breasts and said he felt bad about it… no biggie, right? His books are more important than the dignity of a few women…
How far must we degrade the value of women to arrive at such a place? We all have our issues and inconsistencies, but you can’t legitimately write about peace and redemption while practicing acts of personal violence over and over and over again without any kind of reconciliation.
If I could hazard a guess, many evangelicals hesitate to confront or condemn such actions because we aren’t aware of just how badly we need our leaders who write the books that we rely on and who lead the churches that give us greater purpose and meaning.
If I want to build a non-violent theology, that is much easier to do with a squeaky clean John Howard Yoder.
If I want to feel good about the church I attend, it’s much easier to tell myself that a leader’s sexual misconduct must be in the past. And besides, aren’t we all sinners?
However, permitting sexual abuse without confronting the power dynamics at play and seeking healing for all involved undermines the message of the Gospel. If we fail to confront the sexual abuse problems in the evangelical movement, we’re prioritizing our own comfort and security over the victims.
We’ve left the victims of abuse exposed while we rush to cover up church leaders.
Women and children need to feel safe and protected in our churches, and part of that movement begins with calling out those who prey on them.
There is nothing to debate here.
Yoder and the SGM leaders (to a far greater degree than Yoder) violated people who deserve safety, respect, and dignity, just like all of us do. The offenders must be called out and held accountable, even if that means their sexual misconduct overshadows the “great things” they’ve done for God.
There’s always hope for redemption and reconciliation. But we need to call out this misconduct and our own hypocrisy so that real reconciliation can take place. Dismissing sexual misconduct just sweeps it under the carpet and creates an atmosphere where it’s likely to happen again… and again.
If we don’t respond strongly to the conduct of men like Yoder and the SGM leaders, we are poisoning our churches with our indifference toward each person’s sacred sexuality.
We live in a culture of outrage and anger where we sometimes just wait around to get angry about something, anything really. We cry wolf about lesser matters.
If there was ever an issue that called for evangelicals to get legitimately angry, this is it.
We need to get angry that Christians aren’t consistently holding leaders accountable after they violate others sexually.
This is about power and control, and you’d damn well better believe that men sexually forcing themselves on women have some disturbing notions of power that need to be exiled from the church immediately.
I know we’re better than this. We have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the insights of scripture, and the strength of our communities to bind us together.
We’re not on the brink of losing to an overwhelming trend of sexual misconduct.
This is an issue where the majority can share a tremendous amount of common ground if we’re willing to step onto it. This is about changing our culture so that sexual abuse among leaders is immediately confronted as a serious issue rather than dismissing it.
This is about reclaiming the spiritual practice of “laying hands” on one another with consent and with the goal of blessing and healing.
This is about giving power away rather than abusing it.
This is about the Gospel, about healing, and about redeeming the use of our hands.
(My thanks to my wife and Suzannah Paul for their feedback as I worked on this post. Please take a moment to read Suzannah’s post about teaching consent to children).
Edit at 1 pm on 10/22/13: I changed “We cry wolf a lot” to “We cry wolf about lesser matters” to clarify that I was not accusing anyone of fabricating sex abuse allegations. We cry wolf about less important issues.