As the abuse crisis roils American evangelicalism, church leaders are finally paying attention, if only because the accretion of cases is now impossible to ignore.
Commentators on the Left have eyes on it too. Among the various cries, some progressives are calling out Christian conservatives for policing the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) while simultaneously dismissing abused women in their own midst.
“Youth leaders were fondling us and raping us and shaming us into silence,” said Julie Rodgers at the beginning of the #ChurchToo movement. “Meanwhile, we heard the gays were the greatest threat to the church and society.”
“If the SBC hated abusers as much as they do gay people … we literally wouldn’t be having this conversation today,” tweeted Matthew Manchester in response to the recent Southern Baptist Convention report revealing widespread abuse and coverup. Others have voiced similar concerns about “a perverse double standard.”
Although the Left’s view of sex is misguided, their critique still carries weight. Christians should not complain about the sexualization of culture while simultaneously ignoring the sexualization of women inside the church.
We’re looking at “the largest crisis of institutional religion in the United States,” according to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, and that crisis has been caused in part by Christians losing sight of the fundamentals.
While biblical sexual ethics most definitely apply to SOGI—as well as marriage and singleness—they start with the simple act of protecting women and men from exploitation. Everything else follows from that.
Put another way: Abuse prevention is the most basic form of faithfulness to God’s edicts about the body.
Inversely, taking advantage of others for sexual gain is an egregious violation of divine law because it dehumanizes those made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Paul issues repeat warnings about the misuse of our own and others’ bodies (Gal. 5:19; 1 Cor. 6:12–20; Rom. 6:12) and the danger of giving in to “even a hint of sexual immorality” or “any kind of impurity” (Eph. 5:3).
These specific injunctions against various forms of abuse are accompanied by broad moral principles as well. One of the most profound comes from Proverbs 9:10. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—and also the beginning of ethics.
Fearing God means respecting his precepts and dreading his judgment when we don’t follow those precepts. As a church, then, our breach of sexual ethics goes right to the heart of our disposition toward him.
The abusers, enablers, and fixers lurking in our pulpits and pews have no healthy fear. As a result, they take their sins to the closet instead of the altar and lose the ability to discern good from evil. A simple request to help abuse survivors ends up looking like “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism,” according to a lawyer for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.
On the flip side, when Christian leaders fear God, they pursue holiness, not self-preservation. They put their confidence in the gospel rather than in their own ministries or denominations. They’re humble enough to name personal sins and systemic evils. And their ethics on sex are consistent across the board: The act of safeguarding women from abuse draws from the same moral well as promoting traditional marriage, encouraging fidelity for couples, and supporting chastity for singles.
Those responses are unified. But again, everything follows from that first safeguarding action. It’s absolutely foundational. Fearing and respecting God requires fearing and respecting those who bear his image—and seeing violations of their bodies as violations of him and his created order. There’s no way to get around that direct corollary.
“I needed someone who could have told me this is what abuse was and this was not the heart of God,” said Naghmeh Panahi in a recent CT profile about her domestic violence case.
As stories like hers proliferate, we should listen to the calls for integrity coming from both inside and outside the church and feel sobered by our failed witness to the world. More importantly, we need to submit to God’s righteous judgment, which calls wicked leaders to account and calls us to account for what we’ve done to sanction or dismiss their behavior.
The good news is that we’re not going it alone. After issuing the Ten Commandments from a mountaintop, Moses tells the Israelites: “The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning” (Ex. 20:20).
That promise applies to the American church today—if only we’d listen.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is online managing editor at CT.
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