Although my parents currently attend an Episcopalian church, swear, and drink a lot of wine, my family resembles the independent Baptist Duggars — America’s most famous Evangelicals — in many ways, one tragic. When my sister, then age 15, reported that she had been sexually abused by someone in our family, she was counseled by family members and church leaders that prosecution would make things worse. Better to forgive, they told her, and find true reconciliation with God. She was also warned that criminal proceedings would tear her family apart. And because she loved her family, she relented. After all, she was a child with nowhere else to go. She had been taught that her whole world was her family and her church, and they all conspired to keep her silent with the admonition to forgive. And forgiveness so often means complicity.
In the wake of similar allegations against Josh Duggar — who has admitted to sexually molesting five female minors, including his sisters, as a young teenager — churches and Christians have been quick to portray the Duggars’ brand of Christianity as a fringe sect, nonrepresentative of the mainstream. The Duggars belong to Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI), which describes itself as a home education system that gives homeschooling families training and support. But in reality, it’s a way of life that requires adhering to strict codes of conduct and very literal interpretations of the Bible.
My parents once considered joining the ATI. In addition to giving up rock music (Christian and otherwise) and requiring mothers to have no employment outside the home, membership would have required my father to shave his beard and give up his television. The beard, he said, he could live without, but he could never relinquish the Dallas Cowboys. We didn’t join. Saved by the Dallas Cowboys.
But we did not escape ATI’s influence. It’s easy to distance oneself from the more extreme aspects of Quiverfull Christianity, like jean jumpers and having 20 children. But the lessons taught by 19 and Counting about women, moral authority, and submission — lessons that directly contributed to the repeat abuse and attempted cover-up of what has been referred to as Duggar’s “mistakes” — are taught in mainstream Evangelical churches across the country. And these lessons are contributing to a wider problem of perpetuating sexual violence among America’s Christian communities.
There are no repercussions when all an abuser has to do is ask for forgiveness from the victim and God.
The Evangelical church is a closed system that values its own governance over the American judicial system. In fact, the church, structured by the laws of God, often finds itself at odds with “the laws of man.” These conflicts are reconciled through a practice referred to as church governance, where many churches espouse a system found in the Bible in Matthew 18. The offended Christian is to first approach his “brother” with the fault in private. If there is no resolution, then the offended party should approach again with witnesses. Ultimately, he should tell the church. While instances of church governance are on the decline, many mainstream pastors defend the practice. In a 2014 article, John Ortberg, influential pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, noted that church discipline can be effective if practiced correctly. But all too often church governance puts itself in between abusers and the law.
This is nothing new to anyone who has been involved in a church. Growing up in a slew of Evangelical churches, I saw this system of governance deployed to handle anything from adultery to domestic violence to pedophilia. And in each instance, this system has failed to stop abusers or protect victims. There are no repercussions, because all an abuser has to do is ask for forgiveness from the victim and God. In 2013, Sovereign Grace Ministries was accused of covering up a pedophilia ring. Bill Gothard himself stepped down from his leadership position amid accusations of sexually harassing young women. Gothard cited the Matthew 18 directive for solving disputes among Christians, rather than the law that protects women from abusers. It’s a pattern of abuse, faith, and silence that, as Evangelicals love pointing out, has been seen before in the Catholic Church. But it seems that the pattern of using faith and fear to silence victims is a trait that many faiths share.
Evangelical church leadership is typically male, ill-equipped to handle sexual reports, and liable to blame women. Recently, Village Church in Dallas, headed by the popular pastor Matt Chandler, has been accused of protecting a missionary who admitted to pedophilia. Instead of punishing the missionary, the church instead punished his wife, who initially reported her husband and sought an annulment of their marriage by rescinding her church membership. Last October, Mark Driscoll, former pastor of the mainstream megachurch Mars Hill, was accused of blaming a woman for her husband’s affairs and use of pornography because she didn’t provide sufficient, unfettered access to her body. (Driscoll was later ousted from his church for mismanaging money.)
The blame heaped on women for their sexual abuse is a by-product of the paradox of purity taught by Christian churches. Virginity is, according to the church, a woman’s greatest gift. Evangelical churches encourage women to cede control of their bodies over to her husband or her father — it’s a doctrine of freedom through submission. And because a woman’s body is valued as an object, women are often blamed for the sexual sins of men. If a man lusts after a woman it’s because she led him to sin. Under these circumstances, what woman could afford to report her abuser? She’s the only one with something — with everything — to lose.
Abusive personalities seek closed systems, and the mainstream Evangelical church provides them.
This paradox of freedom through sexual submission is not only taught in fringe sects of Christianity. Victim-blaming attitudes are rife within the Evangelical church. I work with a local nonprofit that provides counseling and spiritual guidance for women, and I’ve heard countless women tell stories of pastors encouraging them to stay in abusive marriages and model Christ’s love to their husbands — husbands who faced no repercussions at all for their actions and are often in positions of leadership in the church. When I pleaded with a dear friend to leave her abusive, alcoholic husband, she told me that her church — a mainstream Evangelical in a wealthy Minneapolis suburb — had counseled her to save her husband with her example of godly submission. Despite her husband’s abuse, repeated drug use, and affairs, the church never censured him. Rather, his wife bore the burden, receiving “encouragements” to be more holy. When she finally did leave him, she lost all of her friends because, divorce, well, that’s a sin.
I recount these examples — and there are so many more — not to drag the church through a litany of accusations, but to show that what is happening with the Duggars is not an anomaly. It’s an epidemic in Christian faith. Christian churches wield incredible social and political power. And they are the the ideal context for domestic and sexual abuse. Abusive personalities seek closed systems in which to abuse, and the mainstream Evangelical church provides that in spades.
In 2014, Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University, called out what he saw as a culture of silence and abuse in Evangelical institutions by founding GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). GRACE is an organization dedicated to solving the problems of abuse within Christian organizations. According to a 2014 Slate article, GRACE is “a little too good at its job,” and is often fired by the institutions that hire it.
For years my sister struggled to beat back past trauma by achieving holiness. She tried to live according to the highest standard of forgiveness, which often meant family dinners with her abuser. Once she called me from a closet in his home. She was spending Thanksgiving there and had been so overcome by anxiety that she locked herself inside and asked me to come get her.
Later, as an adult, she decided to prosecute and discovered the statute of limitations had expired. The abuser, on the other hand, went to great lengths to claim his forgiveness and holiness. As many Christian abusers do, he frequently quoted the example of King David, whom God forgave for his sin of taking another man’s wife. In other words, my sister's abuser apologized vaguely for his sins — but claimed that we should forgive him because God forgave King David for murdering another man and taking his wife. I have an email from the abuser that asked why, if we are all sinners, as God states, I couldn't forgive him. This twisting of spiritual language shows how malleable it can be to an abuser's objectives and pathologies. In these instances, forgiveness always means complicity.
There will be no meaningful change until Christian churches are forced to re-evaluate the idea that the locus of a woman’s power lies in her relationships with her male family members and husband. Until then, our world will always be filled with abused daughters of faith — girls like my sister, like the Duggar girls, and so many more. Girls who are stripped of their autonomy, abused, and blamed, who are told their silence is holy, while their abusers go free.