Submission Theology Is Abuse Theology

I’ve written a lot about the child-abuse coverup by the hierarchy of the Catholic church, but not because I believe Roman Catholicism is the only religion guilty of these crimes. Far from it! Any religion that preaches the virtues of submission and obedience is inherently vulnerable to abuses of this kind. When religious leaders are believed to possess special wisdom or special favor from God, it’s only too easy for them to abuse that power to violate those who trust them.

It’s happened at a Zen Buddhist center in Los Angeles. It’s happened in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg. And now it may be happening again, as alleged in an extremely important lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a major network of white American evangelical churches.

As T.F. Charlton’s article on Religion Dispatches says,

Sovereign Grace is a U.S.-based church-planting network (they say “family”) of predominantly white, suburban, reformed evangelical congregations. C.J. Mahaney, the current president, and Larry Tomczak – today a pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tennessee – co-founded the Gaithersburg, Maryland church that would become Covenant Life in 1977. It was the first in what would become a network of 91 churches across 25 states and 17 countries.

…The two men now boast ties with some of the biggest names in reformed evangelicalism, including Albert Mohler, president of the country’s largest Southern Baptist seminary, and Seattle’s “cussing pastor,” Mark Driscoll. Harris and Mahaney are also board members of influential, staunchly conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Once again, the internet has played a role in breaking down religious walls of silence and bringing the truth to light. Since 2007, blogs like SGM Survivors have been leveling accusations of widespread sexual abuse in SGM churches. Most of these stories follow a drearily familiar pattern: the victims are almost always lowly and powerless, usually children, and their abusers are church members in good standing. When abuse victims complain, their pastors discourage them from contacting the police, hush the matter up to prevent “embarrassment,” and in too many cases, dismiss the victim as a troublemaker who’s inventing stories or who brought it on themselves.

But SGM-affiliated churches have their own unique teachings that make things even worse. Like some other evangelical denominations, they put great emphasis on obedience, partitioning families and communities into strict hierarchies of submission. This means that when a person lower in the hierarchy makes an allegation against someone higher up, it’s essentially a violation of that imposed order, and you can imagine whose side the church leaders almost inevitably take:

[F]amilies were pressured not to report abuse and to “forgive” perpetrators, with even children as young as three being forced to meet their abusers for “reconciliation”… Women and children who came forward were threatened and ostracized if they resisted efforts to “restore” their abusive husbands and fathers to a position of “leadership” in the family.

Even more sickening:

An anonymous adult witness mentioned in the lawsuit… further alleges that church leaders told her her husband had been “tempted” to molest their 10-year-old daughter because Taylor hadn’t “met [her] husband’s needs physically.” Fairfax pastors instructed her to allow her husband to move back into the home and “make sure [she] had physical relations with him regularly,” and to lock their daughter’s bedroom at night.

It’s no accident that sexual predators flourish in this church culture. In fact, it’s the ideal environment for them. Charlton’s article sums it up perfectly:

The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children — especially girls — are uniquely vulnerable to abuse…

At its root, abuse is the harmful exercise of power over others. Submission theology protects the privileges of the powerful; as a result, abuse survivors in submission cultures are not able to fight effectively for support or accountability. It is possible that victim advocacy is inherently impossible in a culture like SGM’s.

But while I hope the people who filed this lawsuit get the justice they’re seeking, I can’t help thinking that even if it breaks the SGM church network wide open, it won’t accomplish anything permanent. The root problem isn’t any one church or group of churches. The root problem is that there are too many people willing to suspend critical thinking, grant unearned authority to religious texts, and submit themselves to unaccountable church authorities who claim to speak for God. As long as there are those eager to be exploited in this way, you can cut down one weed, but others will inevitably grow in its place.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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