How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

A week ago, the Christianity Today (CT) imprint, Leadership Journal (LJ), published a letter written by a man in jail for statutory rape of a teenage girl in his youth group.

It was published as a cautionary tale for pastors and other (male) church leaders lest they too “fall into sin” which, in this case, was positioned as an extra-marital affair between consenting adults. Only at the end of the letter does the reader learn with horror that the female participant was in middle school when the abuse began.

Within hours of the article being posted, a huge — and I mean huge — backlash walloped CT and the Journal, and after an appalling 5 days (the editors’ first instinct was simply to delete all negative comments), the letter was replaced with a genuinely awesome apology and retraction (it is included in the link above) demonstrating that finally, after countless emails, blog posts, comments and tweets, the publishers understood just how warped their point of view was that allowed them to publish a rape apologia couched in Christian vernacular and supported with Bible stories.

A number of bloggers have written about the ordeal — some of them sexual abuse survivors themselves, others who have grasped the consequence of gender discrimination in the church and the ways in which warped theology contributes to a climate wherein abuse thrives. One blogger in particular caught my attention and it is to her ideas that I wish to add.

She unmasks the nuance that had the predator/prey relationship been between an adult male and a teenage boy, CT and LJ would never have published the letter. It would have been so obviously despicable, unrepentant and narcissistic. The same holds true had the rapist been an adult female pastor, teacher or coach and her victim a teenage girl (or boy). We are crystal clear in these scenarios that these are not “extramarital affairs” or “consensual relationships.” We are crystal clear that one person is a target of sexual deviance and the other a predator who manipulates others for their own gratification.

So why — how — did the editors at CT/LJ miss this?  Why could they not see the same dynamic in this situation?

Surely a part of the answer is that in many Christian circles, a relationship between a dominant male and a submissive female is normative. It is proffered as the ideal model for marriage and the operating model for church governance.

When I was growing up, I picked up the message that the “ideal” Christian wife was younger than her husband, less educated, less professionally accomplished, embraced her calling to be submissive, and above all desired to be shaped by her husband’s wishes, ideas and leadership. The “ideal” Christian husband was the exact opposite: he was older than his wife, well-educated, had professional or pastoral aspirations and above all desired to be the spiritual authority and leader in his home. Authentic partnership and mutual submission were nowhere in the story line, although looking back I find it funny how few of us actually lived out this leader/follower narrative. Either we were terrible church-goers or God was particularly merciful. I’m thinking it was a combination of both.

Lest you think this mentality has gone the way of all flesh, look no further than the embarrassingly popular Duck Dynasty patriarch and his encouraging of child marriage to see this idea alive and well. The clear message from Phil is that a man should marry a girl — 14, 15, 16 tops — so that he can mold her into a well-trained, subservient wife. Her humanity and the giftedness and calling of God on her life are irrelevant at best, and more likely simply non-existent. She exists solely for him, the argument goes, because Genesis says so. He is entitled to her.

(As an aside, are you aware that the Duck Dynasty patriarchs are putting out a Bible? Yep. Thomas Nelson is publishing a new King James version with commentary from Phil and his son Alan. Words fail). DC FF Bible

As sex scandals continue to rock the conservative evangelical world, comparisons are being made to the Catholic abuse scandal of years past. I am convinced that part of the reason we all reacted so vehemently to the news of widespread sexual abuse of altar boys by priests was precisely because we could all understand deep in our bones just how powerless, how un-equal, how un-consenting these boys were. We didn’t have to be told that a teenage boy does not willingly, naturally become a sexual submissive to an adult male for the purpose of that man’s pleasure. But we have to be told this very thing when a man’s victim is a girl. Especially if she is a teenager.

So here’s where it hurts: we could see the horror of male clergy abuse of boys clearly because it violated our worldview, wherein boys are agents in their lives and have full and unfettered rights to their bodies. When they are made powerless (we even have a word for that: emasculated) we can see straight away that something is horribly, egregiously wrong.

But girls, in this worldview, are powerless by design, by divine edict. Their bodies belong to their male protectors, the men who are entitled to them. It is their God-given role to be powerless, to require male leadership in order to thrive, and so when girls are victimized, we don’t recognize it as such. At first blush it looks normal, maybe slightly off but only slightly. The man was a little too old for her. She was maybe a little too young. Things will even out eventually. 

(Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for what happens to a girl or woman when she is robbed of agency or power — linguistic relativity would argue that this is both a reflection and a cause of female powerlessness).

I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.

For me, this week-long decent into a necessary yet excruciating discussion of sexual abuse in the Church that I love so much has reminded me again why I am a proponent of women’s full equality in marriage and church. The Bible I read says God made men and women to complement each other (no, I am not a “complementarian”). We are not the same. We see differently, experience differently. We are shaped by different forces in our culture, by our biology and the ways we were nurtured. Equality does not imply sameness. To the contrary, it is our difference that is our strength. We need each other — in marriage, in friendship, in church governance, in ministry.

In our equality, in our diversity, as peers, in partnership, we bear God’s image and accomplish God’s first, formative call on our shared humanity:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

On Millennials and trigger warnings

My friend Roxzana, an outstanding English literature teacher, sent me this piece from the National Review and I started thinking about it. I know: take cover, right?

The gist of the article is that the Millennial generation is comprised of a bunch of wusses because they want to attach “trigger warnings” to all forms of public narrative to ensure that those who have been on the receiving end of sexual, emotional, physical or spiritual abuse can avoid any and all public art (including literature) that might remind them of their injury and, presumably, set back their efforts at healing.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time reading commentary, comments, blog posts, etc written by men and women in the Millennial generation, I think the writer of this NR piece is on to something. But, in my opinion, while his instinct is correct, his understanding of the substance of the matter is inadequate; or, perhaps he knows fully well the issues at hand but just wanted to write a sarcastic rant and push as many rhetorical buttons as possible. Either is OK with me, but it is the underlying issues of this piece that interests me.

The central issue is whether the “trigger” warnings that now accompany much of the post-modern discourse among Millennials are necessary or, possibly even, essential. If you don’t know much about trigger warnings, you can start here (the link is in the NR piece as well). Suffice it to say the concept originated out of the post-modern feminist discourse and the intent is to encourage society broadly to create safe, shared space for individuals who have experienced life-altering trauma. As with feminism broadly, the goal is to honor and dignify a plurality of voices, not merely the powerful and privileged ones. This, in my opinion, is a good thing, although I am 100% clear that many people view this agenda as the reason for the downfall of civilization. I was recently told in an indirect way that if the women and gays would just go away, back to their proper places (one at the hearth, the other in the closet), the entire culture would be better off. So, that’s out there.

At face value, it would seem that almost every Millennial woman or gay person has been egregiously abused at some point in their life and hence these trigger warnings proliferate. I suspect some of it is just people wanting to belong, and so being a victim is part of the ethos of the Millennial generation. But more to the point, the post-modern way of viewing the world is complicit: in the absence of anything grounded, absolute, or even remotely approaching a shared narrative for social experience, individuals are left to fend for themselves and create their own story — in fact, to fail to do so is to fail to participate in the cultural moment.

When there is no such thing as an organizing narrative — epic or otherwise (think WWII, eg), the individual story reigns supreme. In my opinion, this is why the “trigger” warnings have become so popular and are seen as so necessary — all narratives are legitimate, even conflicting ones, and one effective strategy to have one’s personal narrative elevated above the noise of competing narratives is to lay claim to victim status — you are, at that point, uncontested in your right to have a voice.

(As an aside: this is one of the reasons why religion is so powerful and why, at least in the Evangelical community, there is such a battle raging for competing interpretations of the Bible. What is at stake is the organizing narrative of the people involved, the shared story against which all individual members are measured and to which all members must submit; to lose the battle is to lose control of the discourse and thus become disenfranchised. I wonder if folks realize the person they are attempting to control here is God … but I digress).

The issue, then, that the NR writer is talking about is central, because what happens when culturally we take aim at the art and literature that forms what is left of the basis of shared experience? If all our works of art are labeled with “trigger warnings” we end up dismantling a critical element of our shared discourse.

In my view, the better approach is to attempt, culturally, to advance the idea that victimhood is not a viable or desirable self-identifier. Survivor — for those who in fact have survived trauma — is an excellent self-identifier. A survivor is an agent in their own lives; a victim is not. A survivor has at their core a strength that is resilient and capable of handling onslaught; a victim does not, and so on. I am not saying there are not real victims out there — they are legion, I’m sure. But the goal ought to be to support victims into a place of wellness and health, through first allowing them to tell their story and be validated, but eventually to emerge as strong and capable, not defined by their trauma, able to contribute to society rather than need society to perpetually prop them up.

This is why the NR piece is ultimately not helpful. In calling out Millennials as “worthless and weak” the author reinforces the penchant for victims to self-identify as such. Shame is a horrible and ineffective way of motivating people to change. In fact, the NYT ran this week an excellent article (pertaining to education in this case) that makes a profound argument for using the precise opposite strategy: if you want people to change, make them believe they are strong, they are achievers, they are capable, that their environment and handicaps and setbacks do not define them.

Believe in a person, and before you know it, they have become more than they ever thought they could.

God’s Got Your Back?


I love the “Keep Calm” meme but this particular instance has Got To Go.

I keep seeing and hearing this. It shows up in Facebook posts and on Christian radio, in Internet memes and bromides of every sort.

This little saying, “God’s Got Your Back” is meant to encourage us by reminding us that God is concerned with the circumstances of our lives, and while life looks to be spinning out of control, God is there in the background, sovereign and everything, and is going to make everything work out OK (we usually spiritualize this by quoting Romans 8:28). You can rest, dear Christian, because your happy ending is just around the corner and if you have faith to see that, you will also have peace and can relax knowing that Everything Is Going To Be OK.

Because Jesus.

It really would be nice if shutting our eyes to the realities of life somehow caused our faith to thrive. It really would be nice. But it doesn’t.

I might be the voice of one crying in the wilderness here but in my right-now-more-angry-than-humble-point-of-view, this is horrible theology.

God does not have your back. God doesn’t have mine either.

Try telling Job “God’s got your back” as he sits there in the ashes, scraping at boils with a potshard and staring at the shrouded bodies of his ten dead children. Were they lined up in a neat row from youngest to oldest or do their bodies lie crumpled at the scene of the crime?

Try telling David “God’s got your back” as he takes the humiliating descent from Jerusalem into a wilderness of his own making, the messianic throne hanging in the balance, while his favorite son, Absalom, rapes ten women on a rooftop as a way of proving to David he has been dethroned.

While you are at it, how about saying it to the women on the rooftop, the nameless ones, the ones we would today call sex trafficking victims. Did God have their backs? Did anyone?

Want a more immediate example? How about the 230 Nigerian school girls stolen from school by the worst sort of cowards, men petrified by the idea of an educated, empowered female? Look these schoolgirls in the eyes as they endure rape and torture, as their rapes are negated by the “virtue” of marriage (that is so profane I can barely type it), as they watch powerlessly while their friends and sisters are emotionally, sexually and physically abused — look them in the eye and tell them God’s got their back.

I hate this saying because it smacks of faith in faith, not faith in God, a God who does not answer us with explanation or even necessarily with provision but with theophany, with Presence.

I hate this saying because it only really works with our first world problems. As those brave Nigerian girls remind me, their lives cannot be reduced to a bromide and if not theirs, then not mine either. This is a desecration of all that is holy, a denial of the tension of life in God, a shutting our eyes to what is real in the world and to what is God’s part in it all.

I hate this saying because we don’t have a beat on what God is up to. We are merely projecting our wishful thinking and calling it Christian faith. Nope. We simply don’t know looking forward at people’s experiences whether they are going to come through unscathed or whether they will be wounded for life. We cannot know if the illness will lead to life or to death, if the child will thrive or be crushed beneath the weight of disability. We pray. We hope. We come alongside the ones who weep and we weep too. But for the love of God, we don’t tell them God’s got their back.

I hate this saying because it trivializes suffering, and friends, God does not trivialize human suffering. To the contrary, God so honors suffering that He shows up in the midst of it to bear witness, to absorb our grief and pain and confusion into His very own self and hold it there, to hold time eternally still so we can take all the time in the world and in our lives to process our grief. We wish God would just intervene, end the suffering, punish the evildoers. Someday God will. I believe that. I do.

Lastly, I hate this saying because it relieves us of duty. I mean, really, if God’s got your back, I don’t really have to, now do I? But we are the body of Christ on Earth. It is our job to have each others’ backs. To stand against evil even if it costs us our lives. To take our place alongside our brothers, our sisters, and defend them from all manner of arrows, those slung by outrageous fortune as much as those that originate in the pit of hell.

There is so much more to be said on this topic, so many nuances and angles to this idea of God having our backs. We didn’t even touch on the way this idea centers our theology on us (personal salvation and sanctification) rather than on God’s Kingdom agenda, that shalom pervade earth as it does in heaven, and our role in that epic story.

Maybe that’s a post for another day.






When Repentance Isn’t

High profile Christian leaders are dropping like flies these days. Psalm-51-10-web

First went Bill Gothard, founder and leader of the hugely influential Institute in Basic Life Principles. He was accused by more than 30 women of sexual misconduct. You can read the backstory here if you are interested and you can read Gothard’s quasi-apology here, presented (as difficult as this is for me) without comment.

Next up (or down as the case may be) was Doug Phillips, founder and bombastic leader of Vision Forum, a Christian organization that promoted Christian patriarchy, homeschooling, and Quiverfull beliefs. He confessed to a lengthy and cliché-drenched extramarital affair with the oh-so-young nanny and has since been legally charged by her with grooming a minor for sexual abuse, among many other violations of appropriate pastoral and professional conduct. You can read the story here and his (yep) quasi-apology here.

As these stories were unfolding, Mark Driscoll, founder and boorish leader of Mars Hill Church, a mega-church based in Seattle and incorporating 15 additional churches in 5 states, was publicly charged with plagiarism. His accuser was summarily silenced by the evangelical money machine, her job threatened unless she publicly apologize to Driscoll, which she did. Only it turned out he actually had plagiarized, several times over and apparently with impunity, though not one person that I am aware of ever publicly apologized to her for, um, doing her job as a journalist. But I digress, because soon thereafter it was discovered that Driscoll had paid a marketing firm to purchase (possibly with church funds), a large number of copies of his book, Real Marriage, to make sure it got onto the NYT “Best Sellers” list. You can read the plagiarism story here and the Real Marriage marketing story here. Once exposed, Driscoll and clan again made a quasi-apology and tried to move on. Except that shortly thereafter, a number of ex-pastors from the Mars Hill franchise came forward apologizing for serious spiritual abuse of congregants and then pointing to Driscoll as an abuser himself. Again, you can read here about the details and you can also read a copy of Mark Driscoll’s (wait for it) private quasi-apology (leaked to Reddit).

As I have watched these dramas play out over the past few months, I’ve wondered if there is a thread that connects them. Certainly these fellows share a particular view of women — they hold complementarian beliefs wherein women are subordinate to men by virtue of biblical mandate — and it is tempting to wrangle out a causal connection.

But I suspect there is something more fundamental going on here: in a nutshell, power corrupts, no less so in the Church. The problem of course is that in the Christian gospel and in the Church it birthed, there is no such thing as the exercise of power one over another. The gospel is a great equalizer, the “rising tide that levels all boats” as the old saying goes. This is illustrated perhaps nowhere more blatantly and counter-culturally than in the Epistles where Paul takes aim at the Roman household codes (where men ruled authoritatively in their homes, girls were married off by fathers and uncles to secure economic and social bonds with other kin groups and children and slaves were economic assets). In scandalous contradistinction, in the New Covenant brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus, men serve their wives in love and together husband and wife steward their children with compassion, tenderly and for the child’s well-being. Slaves are honored as equal participants in the life of the extended family and community, and the religious privilege of Jew over Gentile yields to extravagant spiritual gifting, given without distinction by the Holy Spirit to everyone, regardless of gender, ethnic heritage, age or social status.

These men — Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll — they all seemingly forgot this and set themselves up in a hierarchy, with rich white men at the top of the heap and (conveniently) themselves at the tippy top. They created organizations where the seconds-in-command were mini-versions of the head honcho, where disagreement was verboten, where the privileged doled out gifts to a favored few, where women were valued only to the degree that they were complicit in their own oppression.

What also strikes me was that in each case, there is no “Eve” for these “Adams.”  Gothard was single and intentionally surrounded himself with young and impressionable (and only the most attractive) girls — they weren’t old enough to be called women. Phillips’ entire marriage was based on the idea that he was the boss and that his wife was not his equal, therefore insulating him from any attempt on her part to play her God-given role as ezer (the Hebrew word in Genesis to describe Woman at her creation; it is smartly translated “a strength corresponding to” and from which the Bible translators managed to conveniently infer “helper” or “helpmeet.” But whatever to that). Driscoll is certifiably sexist and his wife, Grace, while she seems like a delightful person, is a study in subjugation. She barely answers a direct question without first gaining visible approval from her overbearing husband.

I wonder how things might have been different if any one of them had relationships with women (wives, other pastors, friends) that were actually based on equality.  We hear all the time how (male) pastors and leaders in the church need to insulate themselves from female parishioners so as to avoid sexual sin, but I’m going out on a limb here to posit just the opposite.  I wonder, would we see a massive decline in this sort of pastoral sin, if instead of women being subordinate in the church, they were elevated to equal standing? Would we see men discovering all those stereotypes of the femme fatale are really just that — stereotypes — and we all have far more to gain by engaging with each other as partners, as family, than we do by keeping men and women separate and situated on a hierarchical ladder that leaves some in the risky position of having too much power and others in the equally risky position of being excessively vulnerable?

And I keep coming back to those quasi-apologies. Some argue they are carefully crafted for legal protection, but I think there is a more subtle and insidious reason they are so flaccid. When you exist in a hierarchy and you are at the top, it takes an extraordinary shock to the system to see your own privileged position and then see even further the ways in which you use your privilege to subordinate others. I’m thinking the reason we have such weak repentance from Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll is because at some level they still do not really see what they did as wrong. Their intent was beneficent imperialism, you see, and OK, so they might have missed the mark by a wee bit. But abusive? No way. They were just fulfilling their God-given role as Boss … and so the argument goes.

I’m suggesting that leaders who are insulated at the top ranks of a hierarchical system operate with an impunity that only “leaders” have, and this impunity blinds them to their need for repentance.

In the case of Gothard, Phillips and Driscoll, I hope I am wrong, and time will tell.

You know how we will know if these men are really repentant?

You will see Psalm 51 play out in the public square, as modern day Davids stand in their pulpits saying, “Let me tell you the story of how I stole a woman for my own satisfaction, murdered her husband to cover up the deed, and only repented because God, who loves me with an impossible and unrelenting love, sent me a prophet to drive me to my knees.

Fred Phelps and Forgivenes

The day after Fred Phelps, controversial leader of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, passed away last week, a dear and wise friend of mine posted this on his Facebook timeline:

“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

I respectfully disagree.

In my opinion, this smacks more of Nietzsche’s “will to power” than the Gospel of Jesus.

I am not a Bible scholar, and I could be wrong, but the year I spent immersed in the Psalms taught me just the opposite:

Willpower doesn’t mean much in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus isn’t looking for our best effort.

We are not meant to rend emotion from intellect — we are meant to embody both.

Forgiveness is a journey that starts with honest lament and eventually yields an eschatological faith that God is a God of justice and mercy both.

God will set right all that is wrong.

In the meantime, we live with the tension of an already-and-not-yet Kingdom and we are tasked with using our gifts in community to bring the sweet scent of heaven to earth, to be Jesus here.

In the case of Fred Phelps then, pronouncing “we forgive you” misses the point. Instead, we Christians ought to be the first to sit with anyone who was wounded by the likes of Fred Phelps and bear witness to their lament, holding the space so they can take whatever time they need to journey authentically toward healing.

In Which I Talk About Spiritual Abuse


Two years ago I went looking for a way to make sense of my experience growing up in an evangelical church that had some great teaching and absolutely wonderful people, but that also had some weird aspects of fundamentalism woven through it.

I realized, in the process, that I had experienced spiritual abuse — a mild form for sure but nonetheless seismic for how my relationship with God subsequently unfolded. The counterweight was my family of origin — I have two of the best parents ever in the history of parents, and they together with my older brother have kept me grounded in ways that even now leave me breathless. They are the manifest grace of God to me.

My efforts to understand my formative church years led me to a number of online communities where spiritual abuse survivors, among others, process their experiences in a safe, supportive place. I won’t list them all, but my favorite sites where I spent the most searching hours were:

I implore you, if you head to these and other sites out of personal need or the desire to educate yourself, unplug your keyboard. Go first to listen. The discussions can be very difficult and jarring. Sometimes the language is rough and angry, vulgar and insulting. Sometimes it is so wry and clever you’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry. Sometimes there is so much pain and vulnerability that it becomes holy ground and you simply must remove your shoes.

Prepare to be offended. I guarantee you will be at some point along the way. You’ll be OK. We can all survive being offended, and unless you are a spiritual abuse survivor somewhere in the journey of healing, you are a guest in their house and ought to behave as one — respectfully, carefully learning your way around, using your manners.

Not everyone there agrees with each other, not everyone there has experienced spiritual abuse, not everyone there had a bad (or good) church experience, but that is partly the point.

These communities are full of people who were taught that what made them unique was wrong, that God wanted conformity of thought and action and belief, that asking doubt-laden questions and answering them for oneself was sinful.

Part of recovering from this sort of experience — a form of abuse for certain — is owning your own voice, and accepting that having and knowing your own mind and heart is not something that arrives whole or on demand, just because you want it to. The self has to be fought for and protected. Mistakes have to be made and feelings sometimes have to be hurt so you can learn that neither preclude a person from deserving love, acceptance, and respect. For some spiritual abuse survivors such as myself, just using the word “deserve” is fraught with tension and dissonance.

Healing from spiritual abuse is hard, scary work. It requires extensive boundary work. It feels like you are falling off a cliff into total blackness. At times you can feel so alone that even God can’t touch your sense of isolation, because God is actually part of your problem. You feel at times like you are going crazy.

Some of us are healing from spiritual abuse by leaving the church altogether. Others are healing by criticizing the church from within, by insisting the rest of us bear witness to their experiences and refusing to let anyone define their stories for them. Some of us are healing by listening, watching others on their journeys, plodding ahead tentatively. Every journey is different.

As I immersed myself in these communities, at times I lost myself. At times I got too involved with other peoples stories and you know what? I’m glad I did. My brain grew, as did my soul. My capacity to empathize grew. The tension I experience in my relationship with God grew, and God is meeting that challenge head on for me. I wept many tears in those years, not only because of my own story and not only because someone else’s story was sad, but because others’ stories became my story too. Just because all these abuses didn’t happen directly to me doesn’t matter — they happened. They happened to people who bear God’s image. They happened in God’s name, with Bibles and Sacraments and Jesus as their justification. This is an unspeakable horror that must, nevertheless, be spoken.

The people I encountered along the way told their stories and in so doing, changed me for the better. Their voices have shaped my own and I am profoundly grateful. I wish them health and wholeness as I wish for myself, and for those who are able to accept an offer of prayer, know that in my own small way I am praying for you as I pray also for me.

I have to admit that not once did I comment in any of these sites. I didn’t comment because I was afraid. I was still coming to terms with my own story and maybe I still am. But equally important, I didn’t comment because I come out of a tradition where the Bible was sometimes used as a weapon and I didn’t trust myself. I needed to listen, to learn the languid cadence of open discussion rather than relentless drumbeat of apologetics.

I’m not great at it yet, but I’m hopeful.