The Poisonous Fruit of Bad Theology: A Response to Abuse in the SBC | CBE International

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The Poisonous Fruit of Bad Theology: A Response to Abuse in the SBC

On February 13, 2019

Last Sunday, The Houston Chronicle broke news of credible claims by over 700 victims against more than 250 abusers within the Southern Baptist Convention. Horrifying as it is, this story must not be met with shock. We don’t have time for shock. In these last few years, wave after unrelenting wave of church abuse cases crashed into us, first by the dozens and then the hundreds. They now number in the thousands, and the count grows every day.

At first, it was seen as a “Catholic problem”—until cases began piling up in evangelical churches as well. After two plus years of #ChurchToo stories, the church can no longer say, “this is not a problem.” And yet, the next iteration is already echoing: “This is not our problem.”

For years, anti-abuse advocates have made clear that this is an SBC problem. In 2007, SBC abuse victims demanded an SBC sex offender registry. Again in 2018, advocates pressed for a registry in addition to education and training on sexual abuse and violence for SBC leaders. The SBC responded with only a statement condemning abuse but offered no plans for specific reforms. On a practical level, nothing has truly changed.

I fear this will be the response of other churches as well. Some may go further: They’ll issue resolutions—and create men’s programs, women’s groups, marriage groups, anger management curriculums, provide resource lists for both the abused and abusers, send volunteers to women’s shelters, invite counselors to speak, offer trauma-informed programming, and perhaps even hire experts on their staffs. It still won’t be enough.

These well-intentioned efforts will ultimately continue to fall short. Why? Even as they devote time and energy to “shoring up marriages,” addressing men’s individual sins, offering support to families, and examining the sins of “society,” they neglect to dismantle the dangerous theologies on which they’ve built their churches.

To have any chance at stemming the tide of violence against women and children, the church needs to acknowledge and lament how flawed and unbiblical theology has not only supported but induced that violence. In many ways, we have been the problem. We need to uproot these failed theologies before we can rebuild. For the body to flourish, each member must thrive.

For decades, researchers have known that “men raised in patriarchal family structures in which traditional gender roles are encouraged are more likely to become violent adults, to rape women acquaintances, and to batter their intimate partners than men raised in more egalitarian homes.”[1]  

Still, many churches excused themselves, somehow believing their own style of patriarchy was better. “It’s biblical,” we were told. “Biblical patriarchy,” often referred to as complementarianism, has been justified not only by faulty interpretations, but sometimes by deliberate revisions of Scripture. Research zeroed in, alerting us to the fact that organized religion is not an exception to the rule, but rather is “implicated in contributing to socialization that supports violence against women.”[2]

And lest we think that Christianity somehow rises above other organized religions, new research links particular Christian beliefs, including complementarian theology, with domestic violence.[3] Christians are meant to be people set apart to do God’s good work, as a city on a hill, as light. But what happens when our theologies not only fail to prevent, but perpetuate a great darkness that has devastated 1.3  billion women globally?

The patterns we’re seeing in the SBC are mirrored in other systems where widespread abuse is prevalent.

1. Exclusively Male Authority

Men have exclusive authority over women and children, holding the power in governing structures like churches as well as in the home. When women come forward, leaders close ranks, uniting to form a wall impenetrable to criticism or reform. They uphold the sanctity of the system rather than the sanctity of the lives of current and future victims.

These systems say that male “headship” offers protection. And yet, victims are the ones encouraged to protect their abusers, the church’s “witness,” or even God’s reputation by standing down and letting church leaders deal with the problem internally. It should not need to be said: It was not the victims who sullied the church’s witness.

2. Prohibition against Female Leadership

Men alone are encouraged to formally study and preach Scripture. Women may be permitted to minister to other women and children, but not teach or preach to men. If a woman wants to share something with a mixed audience, she must do so under a man’s authority. Her words are subject to greater scrutiny and less trust.

In an environment like this, of course women don’t feel safe coming forward to speak against men. But this isn’t biblical. Does it need to be said? Jesus appointed a woman as the first witness and preacher of his resurrection to the male disciples.

3. Culture of Silence

In complementarian churches, a culture of silence is carefully cultivated. A woman is valued for being meek, submissive, and compliant. Discussing church problems with others is considered gossip. Critiquing someone in authority gets you labeled “difficult” or “insubordinate.” Saying “no” to a man of the church may be considered an act of rebellion against God.

A culture of silence is a breeding ground for abuse. Does it need to be said? Scripture indicates that God rewards women who act boldly. Esther, Ruth, Mary of Bethany, the woman with the issue of the blood, the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter, the persistent widow- all women who pushed into spaces they weren’t allowed, among rulers and religious folks, to pursue healing and deliverance for themselves, their families, and their people.

The systems humans make to understand or relate to God are not God. Theology is not God. Church is not God. But these systems hold tremendous sway over us and our lives. They represent God to us. They shape how we relate to God and to others. When they tell us, “this is what the Bible says,” we believe them. But Jesus warns us about bad teachers who come as ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. He promises that we will know their teaching by its fruit. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The fruit of patriarchal theology is poison.

It's scary to start taking something apart without knowing what will exist in its place. That’s why I’m so thankful for organizations like CBE, who help us dismantle bad theology and build a solid framework of good, Scripture-based theology. Contrary to the patterns above, God’s vision for the church is for women and men to share authority, teach each other, and speak up for those who are oppressed. As we consider the way forward, I pray we will have the courage to ask whether our theology is bearing good fruit and, if the answer is no, to dig up the tree and plant something better.


[1] Crowell, Nancy A, and Ann W Burgess. “Read ‘Understanding Violence Against Women’ at” National Academies Press: OpenBook, 1996,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jankowski, Peter J., et al. “Religious Beliefs and Domestic Violence Myths.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2018,

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