Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My prayer for Christian fundamentalist leaders

A story involving sexual child abuse that came to light last year opened the door to the underbelly of Christian fundamentalism in which I spent a number of years in my teens and twenties. The topic hasn't been well addressed by fundamentalist leaders, and it's a ticking time bomb for them in my humble opinion. Many have argued (correctly) that all brands of religion and even life in general are sullied by child abuse, but my firm conviction is that it's the bomb in your own backyard that will most wound you and those around you and from which you have the best chance of rescuing people. So this post reflects my burden for friends that are still in Christian fundamentalism and are now in positions of leadership and influence.

I wasn't personally abused during my years in Christian fundamentalism. In fact, it provided much needed structure at a time when I lacked self worth, self confidence, or any kind of personal security. What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (I was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the fundamentalist authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who weren't the abusers seemed OK with the ones who were. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I don't really care to speak to abusers in this post. Instead, it is the SILENCE by others that I want to address.

To clarify, I'm not talking about general oppressiveness when I use the term abuse. I am talking about genuine physical and sexual abuse, especially of children. I didn't have just one friend so abused, but several, four that are particularly on my mind as I write this. From different states. Beaten bloody and/or bruised by their parents. Sexually abused by parents or siblings or church leaders. And most disturbing of all, telling the appropriate Christian leaders in their lives about said abuse and either being put off and ignored or told that they shared the blame.

In particular, while working at a respectable fundamentalist Christian camp, I had a camper share with me (in repentance, trying to repair her reputation with me), that she didn't mean to have sex with a guy. That she hadn't dressed provocatively. In fact, she had had holes in her undergarments when their sexual encounter took place. Obviously, sex with him wasn't on her mind when she got dressed that day. And she had even protested and said no. But at some point, because of her moral weakness, she gave in. At least, we both kind of accepted that view of it. And she was brought up for church discipline with the guy. She “repented” and was left with a reputation she worked hard to repair.

Now, with the maturity of an adult living in the real world, I think of that with a cold knot in my stomach. She was caught by surprise and embarrassed by the poor condition of her dress that day. She said NO. She was underage. This wasn't sexual immorality. It was rape. But her sexual abuse from her past and the acceptance of it all as her fault by the authorities in her life (her fundamentalist parents, her Christian school, her pastor, camp counselors, and so forth) led her to truly believe it was her fault, as did I. She was CHURCH DISCIPLINED for it.

I say all that simply to establish that there is a problem, and that I'm not speaking from gossip or hearsay on the issue. Children were physically and sexually abused, and when they came forward, they were told it was their fault. Then they were the ones held accountable while the authorities in their lives who either did the abuse or allowed others to do it were not held accountable.

As I've written in other posts, authorities are ALWAYS the one held to the higher standard, the greater accountability. They are called to restrain their authority and use their power as a force for the abused and oppressed. Many leaders in Christian fundamentalism have not held authorities to the higher standard. In fact, the exact opposite seems the norm (and I deliberately chose the word “seems” because I do not know what conversations among fundamentalist leaders are going on in the background, and I am hopeful that genuine change on this issue is taking root privately).

In light of all this, I have been praying a very specific prayer—that leaders WITHIN fundamentalism will start leading publicly on this issue. I'm praying for a few of you by name, though I won't name you here. I'm praying specifically that Christian fundamentalist leaders would do a few important things.

First, I pray that God will move leaders to clearly name sexual abuse as sin (and the disciplining of abuse victims as sin) and especially that they would clearly affirm that statutory rape is still rape. That should be obvious, and I'm disturbed that I even have to write it. Yet, apparently it's not obvious to some. It needs to be stated clearly and boldly.

Second, I pray for leaders within the movement that would clearly teach the origin of sexual abuse as the heart of the abuser. There is an emphasis on women's dress in Christian fundamentalism that teaches that men lust because women dress provocatively. The only problem is that some men are still lusting over girls in denim jumpers and turtlenecks. Lust is a heart issue. Period. This is not to say that a wise woman will have no restraints on how she dresses. Modesty is a very real concept in Scripture, though I have rarely heard it taught correctly in conservative circles. True modesty flows from a woman's heart that is confident in her standing in Christ, the well loved daughter of the most trustworthy Father of all. She has nothing to prove with her dress, but I'll write more on that another day. My point here is that to directly correlate hemlines and necklines with lust and sexual immorality is naive and unbiblical. Which is why 50 men can walk by the same attractive woman and have a variety of reactions in response. They likely all notice her (For Women Only has a good discussion on this topic) and even admire her. But for some it stops there. For others it becomes sin in their minds. And a smaller group won't just think it but actually act out on it. What causes the difference in their responses? You could argue the difference was simply opportunity or accountability. But the Bible says the difference is our HEART. That's why underdeveloped girls in denim jumpers get raped in the back seat of a car. It's not how they were dressed but the heart of the perpetrator.   Fundamentalist leaders need to boldly take the emphasis off of women's dress on the issue of sexual immorality.

Third, I pray that leaders would understand and teach how to minister real grace to the victim. I won't go into details because, honestly, it takes a lot more training than I've had to get a good grip of how that looks. I will say that it begins with an honest affirmation of the truth of what the victim experienced and feels as a result. If you don't know what else to say, at least teach your congregations to say a genuine “I'm so very sorry” to the victim followed by a sincere embracing of them.

Fourth, I pray that leaders would build a culture that gives potential abusers an avenue to get counsel and help BEFORE they act out on things. We attach so much shame to even having these thoughts, that we set up abusers for failure sometimes. Again, I'm getting past my education and experience, so I won't say more on this except that it's a need.

Fifth and maybe the most important of all, I pray for leaders who will teach the value of authentic REPENTANCE. There are many well known situations floating around that leaders seem more interested in deflecting, excusing, and generally talking their way out of than facing head on and eating it. Just REPENT. Just say, “Yes, under my watch, this specific thing did happen. It was wrong. And I did not protect the widow and orphan. I participated in injustice. And I am very sorry.” Then CHANGE. Do things differently. Repair what you can. You know what?! That very gospel we talked about so much in fundamentalism (at least in the schools, churches, and camps that I knew) empowers us to face our sin head on, to admit it, to lay it at the foot of the cross, and to walk away changed. It equips you and I to get up and go in a new direction without shame. Christ's death frees us from the chains of our own sins. And His life applied to our account lets us walk forward in the truest righteousness of all--HIS!

In summary, simply REPENT, CHANGE, and REPAIR.

Oh, fundamentalist Christian leader, if you happen to be reading this, take up the call in Isaiah 1 that is echoed in James. Right wrongs. Correct injustice. Protect widows and orphans. Defuse the bomb in your own backyard before it blows up in your face. The true gospel really does equip us to do this!

19 comments:

  1. This is a powder keg issue. The repercussions are felt throughout the lives the Christian world, and you are ABSOLUTELY correct it has to be addressed. Victims need to be vindicated, and the responsibility needs to be placed where it belongs - on the abuser.

    It is an issue snowballing out of control and until we can address issues of sexuality without shame we will never be able to deal with the abuse. As a woman in ministry, I am appalled by the level of embarrassment and shame associated with our bodies. And it makes me want to scream when my male colleagues seem to think that I am there for nothing more than a distraction, or a temptation to withstand.

    Thank you for sharing your insight.

    Emily
    http://exploringthepagus.blogspot.com/2010/10/dress-codes-and-fish-net-this-ones-for.html

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  2. Great pastoral advice for not only sexual encounters but applicable to emotional abuse victims as well. The real victims of these sins are the congregations who watch lame sheep limp under the silent watch of shepherds who are more scared of kicking wool than getting kicked out by their Chief.

    Ezekiel 34

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  3. I remember when fundamentalism used to mean that you believed that Scripture was without error, etc. and you held to the basic tenants of the Christian faith. Who hijacked the word to mean this? Sad.

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  4. I wrote a similar article (http://www.thegracepost.com/2010/05/30/respondingresponsibly/) last year and got a wide range of response. Some response was from women who had been abused and that was difficult to read. However, the backlash from fundamentalists was shocking and honestly, sickening. Quick to defend one of their own, I heard all kinds of justification for sinful actions.

    I agree with your article completely. Maybe since there has been time and space between my words and yours some attitudes will have changed.

    I pray that it is so.

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  5. This is a very interesting topic and I appreciate you raising this issue. It needs to be talked about!

    At the Evangelical Theological Society this year, there was a paper presented by Mimi Haddad entitled "Does Male Preeminence Lead to abuse? A historical assessment." I have not read the paper so I don't know her final conclusion, but from what I hear the overall thrust of the paper found that in cultures where male dominance is emphasized there are consistently higher rates of abuse of women.

    It is difficult to know how to respond to research like that in the face of Scripture's language, but it certainly causes me to pause and consider whether our theology is missing something. Although sin is certainly a contributing factor to the perversion of Scriptural teachings, the perversion is serious enough that it certainly warrants our theological consideration and action.

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  6. Thank you so much for writing this.

    Blessings,
    michelle

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  7. Wendy,

    Lust is a heart issue. Thanks for the post.

    thinking of heart issues,
    Todd

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  8. thank you... thank you, thank you

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  9. For the Love of God, thank you. This is HEAVY. I have been silent on one thing I can think of. I am sickened.

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  10. Recalling a couple of neighbor kids who were caught "playing doctor" I had been amazed at the blame and shame put onto the kids. The parents were angry more at the young children than themselves for lack of supervising. Why is it that adults abusing teens and children is shoved under the rug, ignored by elders and no one thinks of calling the police? The youngster is more to blame than the adult in the situation? Sexual abuse in the church is never just a church discipline problem.
    There is also a huge problem with men in particular not believing a girl who ventures to tell of the rape or abuse. So often the men in authority do not believe her. This is why I've thought before that rape and abuse will end on a large scale when men really care.

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  11. It happened just as you said in our church and to our daughter, and to others. Everything is hidden or hushed up, covered up, etc. Many of us found out YEARS later that we had a teen-age molester playing with our young children; he had been molesting his younger sister and rumors were out there he had molested another, plus ______? None of us moms had been warned! You described what happened to our daughter when she was 16; a "friend" got her in a locked classroom and forced himself on her, even though she was curious in the beginning. She dressed like a tomboy, was ashamed of her body, etc...yet the pastor BLAMED HER. She told the boy NO, but could not fight him and was afraid of being hurt or killed. Anyway, the end of it was not good; she was shunned by those who believed the boy's lies. Leadership never spoke of it openly, trying to protect the "mother"...a widow. Actually, it was trying to protect the "ministry". The offended girl became bitter, promiscuous, has 2 children by 2 men, and is a mess. Our family has been devastated. BUT GOD had a plan in all of this: we saw what we were unwilling to admit before about the controlling "cultish" nature of the "ministry" we were with for over 25 years, and LEFT! Praise God. We are healing and seeing that God is truly working in other ministries. It will take us time. Our daughter continues to struggle, and we pray for her spiritual health. God has given grace. Much more could be said. I am so surprised that this is not uncommon to "fundamentalist" ministries. Shocking. And criminal, if you ask me.

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  12. I was directed to this blog through another blog and I didn't believe that I should be silent. As an independent Baptist Pastor myself, I believe the broad stroke of labeling all IFB churches and their Pastors as "cultish" is very unfair. I am not exactly sure what happened to you, Wendy, that has turned you away from fundamentalism, but I can assure you that as a fundamentalist I am against any form of "covering" things up. So, I would appreciate the fact that not all fundamentalists are cut out of the same mold. Just because there are a few instances that have to light, does not mean that all churches and its Pastors do the same thing. I do appreciate the fact that like you said, fundamental leaders do need to address the sin of "covering up." Fundamentalism isn't the problem, sin is, and sin is found in all branches of Christianity. I believe the 20/20 show has done far more harm to Christ and His church than it has done good in allowing these victims to get this off their chest. May God help us to deal with things biblicaly (1 Cor. 6:1-8). By the way, I do believe that the criminal aspect needs to be brought to justice, I certainly have a few more thoughts about how a rapist should be dealt with, but I won't share that on here.

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  13. Brian, you are deluded if you don't think that teachings particular to the independent fundamentalist baptist movement don't contribute to this kind of thing.

    Sure sin is sin, and it happens everywhere. But the other truth is that we all act out in particularly sinful ways based on our belief system. These particular sin issues evidenced through the 20/20 episode are symptomatic of unbiblical but strongly held beliefs within fundamentalism on children, discipline, and unquestioned pastoral authority.

    Fundamentalism has a particular sin problem, and leaders there are going to be destroyed if they don't face it head on.

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  14. Wendy, what kind of unbiblical beliefs are held within this fundamentalist Pastor? What kind of "sinful ways based on my belief system" am I acting out? Last time I checked, fundamentalism has to do with core doctrinal beliefs and values. As far as my beliefs concerning the home, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that state the head of the home is the husband/father. Certainly the Bible teaches that wives and children are to follow the loving leadership of the husband/father.

    I will certainly agree with you that there are men within fundamentalism that have taken Biblical admonitions to a sinful extreme. However, that is not because they are fundamentalists! That would be like me saying that all evangelicals or new evangelicals enjoy pornography because the belief system within such labels rejects any form of separation. However, I know many evangelicals and n.e. that would clearly reject pornography.

    All I'm trying to say that the problem is not with fundamentalism, it is with individual human hearts. It is not right for you or any other person to lay the blame on fundamentalism (by the way, you seemed to turn out ok even though you came through the ranks of fundamentalism). Thanks for reading and responding!
    Brian

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  15. Brian, if you identify yourself as an independent fundamentalist pastor, then you must accept the projections onto yourself that come with that term. I'll repeat the paragraph I wrote above.

    "What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (I was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the fundamentalist authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who weren't the abusers seemed OK with the ones who were. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I don't really care to speak to abusers in this post. Instead, it is the SILENCE by others that I want to address."

    If you want to paint me wrong, then start writing publicly confronting these guys who are clinging deeply to their unrighteous "we handled this right" defensiveness. That's how you separate yourself from the bad ones in the movement.

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  16. Now, after the trial, the silence in Fundy world is deafening!

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  17. When pastors are more worried about the word 'cult' is used in regards to how some handle things within the 'independent' churches - compared to a rape victim? That is sad news.

    Life in certain churches is full of 'broad strokes', and its sad that people refuse to acknowledge that - and then feel victimized when the shoe is on the other foot.

    If people can't acknowledge these things? Nothing will ever change, grow, and be better.

    A truly Christlike person would place their defensiveness on the back burner, and be more concerned about the 'children' hurt in stories like these.

    Until people are brave enough to acknowledge that some do in fact act 'cultish'? When they stop 'generalizing' by saying we all know this happens at times - and truly do nothing except move than move their lips, or fingers on the keyboard repeating the generalizations?

    Don't be ticked off when people point out actions speak louder than words.

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  18. As I was teaching my autonomous Bible Study last night, I was teaching on the subject of “Abusing One’s Power in the Gospel” and relating it to the IFB Churches and the doctrines they teach. During the discussion, we were talking about how IFB churches are up at arms about being associated together. Instead of being up in arms about the issues uncovered, they are shoveling them under the rug and making “church associations” the hot topic. Thus, the issues are never touched on.

    As I was discussing this issue, a realization hit me that I thought was interesting. I started to recount the story about Achan in the Old Testament. God was angry with ALL of Israel because one man had coveted. And I thought out loud to my student, “I wonder how God feels about the corruption uncovered in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement?” God knows the truth, that they are associated with one another. (This is apparent in the doctrines and belief systems of every IFB church, whether they want to admit to it or not --- God knows.) So, if God punished all Israel, and some even lost their lives because of one man’s sins; why shouldn’t the whole movement suffer because of the sins and atrocities of the few within the movement. That would be following God’s example.

    HOWEVER, and this is a big However, in Achan’s case, ALL Israel feared and ridded itself of the perpetrator and the “unclean thing” he coveted. We do not see this happening in the IFB. Not one single church has come forward to expose any abuse or perpetrators of any kind. This said, let’s look at this from God’s perspective as relating to the story of Achan. Wouldn’t you think that His hand of judgment will be upon this movement from this day forth for evil and not good until they rid themselves of ALL the corruption?

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  19. I was raped. My fundamentalist church told me the man who raped me at knifepoint taking away my virginity was innocent because I 'asked for it' because I was in a bar. They also told me it was not 'really rape' because he only forced me to perform oral sex and oral sex implies consent. This attitude caused me to leave the church for years. I am now healed of my rape, but I will never forget the comments my fundamentalist pastor told me.

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