Sexual assault thrives in the evangelical church, but why?
The sexual assault confession of Texas evangelical megachurch pastor Andy Savage is just the latest in a disturbing trend we’ve seen over the last decade.
It’s time to face the music. Evangelical pastors sexually abuse.
I realize this issue isn’t unique to evangelicalism, or religion (hello, Catholic Church circa 2002) or humans in general. There are abusive schoolteachers, parents, bosses, Hollywood directors, and strangers in parks. But there is a unique microclimate within evangelicalism that fosters the growth of abusers while silencing their victims. Whether they do this explicitly (as in Savage’s victim, who was told by the senior pastor to “not tell another soul”) or implicit in the theology and lifestyle in the congregation, the effect is the same. Victims of sexual abuse in evangelical churches often stay quiet. I grew up in the evangelical church, and while it never happened to me personally, it absolutely could have. This is why:
- Pastors are elevated
There is a verse in the Bible that says “touch not the Lord’s anointed,” which in my church was interpreted to mean “don’t disrespect the pastor.” This kind of respect is given by title, not necessarily earned. Pastors are often seen as an elevated spiritual human, and while they’ll refute this at the pulpit (“I’m a sinner just like you!”) some pastors secretly enjoy the elevated status they receive from their job. This is nauseatingly apparent in pastors to giant stadium churches, but it’s in smaller churches too. There’s a bit of a stigma about megachurches now, as if less people in the pews means the leadership is more pure. It’s not.
- Pastors sometimes go into ministry to “fix” themselves.
Because of some repressive interpretations of the Bible, many young people grow up ashamed of their perceived sins. They are taught they are born broken and need Jesus to fix them. The best road to redemption is the straight-and-narrow path toward vocational ministry, right?
- And other times, they are just abusers looking for victims
There are abusers in all kinds of positions of power around the world. More insidious than the person who goes into ministry to fix themselves, these people go into ministry to groom victims. They are charismatic and charming. They know how to make people feel good about themselves. They are calculated and evil. The evangelical church is not only not immune to these predators, but their love for charismatic personalities make them especially susceptible. Church attendance rises and falls with how well the pastor can attract crowds—they rely on charismatic personalities to stay in operation.
- The power gets to them, even the good guys
Sociopaths aside, constant elevation can get to a person’s head. Think about another job that requires you to tell a bunch of other people how to live their lives on a weekly basis. Hundreds (or thousands) of people are looking to you for The Answers. Do you think that giving people The Answers week after week won’t affect you? We’ve already discussed how church leaders aren’t to be questioned. Unbridled power + normal human ego = disaster.
- ALL sexual sin is wrong
Notice how in Savage’s statement he never uses the word assault. He calls it “sexual sin.” Well you know what else is a sexual sin according to evangelicalism? Unmarried adults in a consenting sexual relationship. In evangelicalism, all sin is equally disgusting before God’s eyes. The problem with this is it’s like playing a bunch of staticky radio stations, loud, at the same time. You can’t hear the one that actually matters because there is so much noise. When we adhere to the theology that any sexual act outside marriage is wrong, we become deaf to the acts that actually are wrong. I saw this all the time. My friend in evangelical college was raped by a classmate. We couldn’t see it for what it was (rape) because our obsession with thinking all sexual activity is wrong clouded our judgment.
- They don’t like outside influence
Evangelicals really, really don’t like airing their dirty laundry with the outside world. I mean, who does? But it’s a whole different level within evangelicalism. They live in fear of the world because according to them, the world fundamentally can’t understand them. They don’t like secular psychology, or the media, or even the law at times. There’s a verse in the New Testament that talks about the proper procedure for handling “conflict.” First, you confront your brother in Christ, and then if that doesn’t go well, you go to the church leaders. At least that’s how evangelicals interpret it, and many churches follow this strict procedure for handling what they call sexual sin.
- They forgive quickly
This one would actually be really cool except they conflate forgive with continue to give them a platform and leadership. After Savage’s statement the Sunday after the news about his past went public, his congregation gave him a standing ovation.That’s some quick forgiveness right there. I mean, even if everything the guy said was true, wouldn’t you need some TIME to think about the very serious and horrifying news you just heard? They also are quick to believe the perpetrator when he says it was an isolated incident, despite statistics showing that abuse is almost never an isolated incident. The other problem is they forgive the perpetrator quickly at the expense of the victim. Only after significant heat in the public eye did Savage get put on a temporary leave of absence. Meanwhile, I know of someone whose violent sexual abuser (she was 13, he was 30) is STILL a pastor. There’s forgiveness for him, apparently, but what does that mean for her?
I’m not blaming the church for this cultural epidemic but it’s thriving within its walls because of these above factors. I sincerely hope to see the church change in the next decade. As a Christian, I would be thrilled to see the church be the leader in making the world a safer place.
Until then, I probably won’t be sending my girls to youth group.
Photo via Unsplash.
About Carly Gelsinger Carly Gelsinger is a writer and editor living in California. Her first book, “Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith” is forthcoming October 2018. You can learn more about her at CarlyGelsinger.com.