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Published Date: October 19, 2022

Published Date: October 19, 2022

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Good Theology Is Not Enough

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Top 5 Winner!

The uncovering of sexually predatory abuse and behavior by Christian pastors and leaders in recent years—and the coverup by those around them—has been staggering. Every case that’s come to light has been deeply grieving. The twisting up of sexual abuse with the things of God is uniquely devastating, and it makes an evil act even more demonic. I’m sure I’m not the only egalitarian who feels a keener stab of pain when the perpetrator is also egalitarian. I’ve found myself thinking, “You too? Even you?”

It would be so much simpler if all of the perpetrators in these cases were found in complementarian churches, wouldn’t it?

But cases like those of prominent egalitarians accused of abuse suggest that having a theology that enthusiastically affirms the equality of women in the work of God, marriage, and life does not restrain a person from sexually abusing or assaulting women. So I’m left with some significant questions. What does this mean for egalitarian theology? Why is believing in—and even strongly advocating for—a good theology about women not enough to prevent these men from abusing women?

The simple answer would be “sin.” That answer isn’t wrong, but it it keeps us from thinking more deeply about needed solutions. If anything is going to change, we need to find better answers, and urgently. Let’s look at one of the underlying factors propelling the perpetration of sexual abuse in egalitarian churches.

Misogyny Persists in Egalitarian Contexts

I can only speak to American culture, but this is what I have come to believe: there is a rotted root of misogyny that continues to live on in us despite our best efforts to kill it. We can see evidence of this in how we continue to treat certain culturally masculine traits as superior to culturally feminine traits. We often demonize these “feminine” traits in men while praising—or at least tolerating—these “masculine” traits in women.

Let’s consider a couple examples.

We associate strong leadership with attributes that are more culturally masculine in nature, especially in politics and business. Showing emotion in leadership, while becoming more acceptable in limited ways in some settings, is still considered weak. Of course, that doesn’t include the emotion of anger, which we perceive as masculine and therefore acceptable.

We equate physical strength with being visually larger and stronger—which is easier for men to achieve. Meanwhile we begrudgingly acknowledge the incredible strength of women who endure pregnancy and childbirth. And we never acknowledge the menstruating woman in the workforce who continues performing her job as if nothing is happening for the several days each month she experiences bleeding and painful cramps. We consider the everyday displays of the physical strength and endurance of women too taboo for “polite” conversation.

These are just two examples I see of the many cultural disparities with misogynistic origins. We learn all of these things at a young age. Then society reinforces them throughout our lives, at all levels of culture. It is much worse within the church at large because we can spiritualize these disparities. But if egalitarians reject misogyny, then why are there still so many ways egalitarian churches demonstrate that they devalue women—namely, in ongoing instances of abuse?

What Are Women For?

These recent cases of abuse in our own egalitarian house show us that consciously believing that women are equal in all ways and meant to share in the preaching of the gospel and church leadership is not enough to counteract the most insidious subconscious belief: that women exist for men. We exist for men’s consumption, for men’s care, for men’s support, for men’s pursuit, for men’s artistic muses, and for men’s betterment. The old “plain” reading of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2 has persisted deep in our psyche.

This is the conclusion I have reached to make sense of these egalitarian abuse cases. Because somehow, some way, the underlying belief in the abuser seems to be either, “This woman wants this,” or else, “What this woman wants matters less than what I want.” What is this at its dark heart other than simple dehumanization, made permissible by plain old misogyny, casually planted at the age of four in a Sunday school classroom and grown in a cultural greenhouse that reinforces this belief over and over again?

It does not seem to matter what theology these men professed, what egalitarian churches and organizations they helped start, or what seminal books they wrote. At the end of the day, when it mattered most, they still saw women as being for them, as other, as less.

This should be raising red flags for all of us who consider ourselves egalitarian, women and men alike.

The Erosion of Trust

If I’m being very honest, these cases have deeply rattled me and eroded my trust—and not just because I admired some of the famous egalitarian men who have been accused of abuse. I knew none of them personally, but as a  woman working in church spaces, it has made me wonder about the intentions of the men I do know. I have prayed that what I perceive as good and beautiful coworker and friend relationships are truly that, with no other motive.

From my perspective, I am just going about my life trying to do my job well and serve God with my gifts, and I trust that everyone else is too. Yet I know that other women in my exact position have found out that what they thought their relationship was with a brother in Christ—that of peers, pastor/counselee, or boss/employee—was something different for the men.

That kind of betrayal is beyond words. I desperately wish that I could believe it would never happen in an egalitarian context. But we all know that’s wishful thinking.

It is hard for me to maintain hope of true change this side of heaven. And of course there are other factors at play: the ability of the human heart and mind to compartmentalize, the damage that power without accountability can cause, and the isolating effect secret sins have on the perpetrators and victims. So I wonder, will we ever see a day when egalitarian leaders of faith are truly free of the poisonous tendrils of patriarchy and misogyny?

We Need to Examine Our Deep Biases

The only path toward true change that I can see requires heavy introspection, education, and a willingness to let the Holy Spirit do some drastic housecleaning and remodeling. We need to interrogate ourselves and our own deep biases and beliefs—yes, this includes women too. We should all be doing this work, regardless of gender.

Given the power imbalance that continues to exist, men in particular need to go even farther. There are some questions I think it would be helpful for all men to ask themselves. Do I truly like women, or do I only like the way women make me feel? Do I have as high a regard for the ways women are strong as I do for the ways men are strong? Can I name traits in women I know that I would like to see in myself? Where and how am I submitting to women?

Ultimately, all these tragic and disappointing abuse cases have proven that we can’t rest on our laurels when it comes to having the “right” theology. They have revealed that we can’t assume that having theological beliefs about women that most align with the example of Christ and the fullness of Scripture is enough to fully rid us of the misogyny humanity has been steeped in since the fall of humanity in Genesis 3.

In a time when the gifts of both women and men are so needed by a church that has failed to embody Jesus in the world, we must continue to advocate passionately for the egalitarian mission. But we can’t assume that simply affirming women’s equality means the work in our own hearts and souls is done. As egalitarians, we must resist the impulse to make “good theology” our resting place. Will you join me in seeking the help of the Holy Spirit to reveal and uproot any deep misogyny that still lingers in us as we do the crucial work of restoring God’s plan for women and men in partnership together?

Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash.

Related Reading

5 Steps for Churches When Abuse Happens
Are We Continuing to Sideline Women in Conversations about Abuse?
The Unavoidable Link Between Patriarchal Theology and Spiritual Abuse