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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • D Salzburg

    Abuse like this is also rampant in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for the reasons outlined in this article. Elders discourage reporting cases of abuse to authorities, and can refuse to believe the child making the allegations in the absence of the (supposedly biblically required) two witnesses to the event in question. A visit to the website http://www.silentlambs.com will provide a reader with nightmares for a considerable time!

  • allein

    “and to lock their daughter’s bedroom at night.”

    Is it just me or does this contradict their “the man is the head of the house/family” doctrine, to advise the wife, who is supposed to submit to his wishes, to lock him out of any room of the house and be (presumably) the only one with the key? The scary part is that it acknowledges, without outright admitting, that he is, indeed, a danger to the child. Also, I find it rather unwise to have a child that young locked in a room. If there was an emergency that could spell disaster.

  • GCT

    @allein
    Maybe it’s to lock the daughter in so that she doesn’t get up in the middle of the night and tempt the father to sin. That would fit with the normal story that women (and girls presumably) are temptresses that lead men astray.

  • allein

    Good point; I didn’t think of it that way. But what if it’s the daughter’s very presence in the house that tempts him? If he can get into the room it doesn’t matter if she’s locked in or not.

  • RR

    Yes, but…

    Child abuse is so prevalent outside of established religions. The abuser can be a respected professor, an idolized scientist, a school teacher, or any number of individuals who populate entirely secular institutions. Create an atheist institution with officers and other leaders and there will be abuse.

    Yes, those who pretend to know the will of god are given some theological authority may be abusers. But children often recognize any adult as being all-powerful, unfortunately. It is such a difficult problem.

    Let’s not forget the role that religion plays in comforting the abused. I know several abuse survivors quite well. One was in a family of non-believers, and she found great comfort in religion. If her family had been more active at church, she may have reported the abuse to a church staffer or teacher. Another found solice in the faith of the Catholic church as a child, though she has since changed to denominations which treat women as equals, of course.

    Yes, all the situations Adam describes are quite deplorable. But incest families tend to be isolated by nature, with few ties to church or community. These situations are just as deplorable. If religion were eliminated today, the rate of child abuse is unlikely to decline, unfortunately.

  • GCT

    The difference is that with secular abuse cases, the abuser is generally not sheltered and is brought to court as well as taken away from the objects of their abuse. Secular institutions generally tend to try and solve the issue and fix the problem.

  • RR

    @GCT, I would venture the distinction is more definitive between public vs. private institutions, instead of religious vs. secular.

  • GCT

    Um, no, that’s not the case. How many secular institutions (like schools) are claiming to be above the law like the catholic church has done? Seriously, read the OP. Adam lays out a well-reasoned argument as for why the insulating nature of religion leads to this type of abuse plus cover-up. It’s not a coincidence.

  • Azkyroth

    Child abuse is so prevalent outside of established religions. The abuser can be a respected professor, an idolized scientist, a school teacher, or any number of individuals who populate entirely secular institutions.

    These situations are just as deplorable. If religion were eliminated today, the rate of child abuse is unlikely to decline, unfortunately.

    Perhaps you could provide a link to the studies or statistics you used in determining the relevant prevalence?

    I know several abuse survivors

    Oh. So much for that.

  • Leum

    The difference is that with secular abuse cases, the abuser is generally not sheltered and is brought to court as well as taken away from the objects of their abuse. Secular institutions generally tend to try and solve the issue and fix the problem.

    Based on our understanding of the psychology of abusive relationships, and given the recent example of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most secular abusers will also get away with abuse. Atheism alone isn’t enough, rationalism alone isn’t enough. Ending abuse requires a full acceptance of the dignity and rights of all people, which means dismantling patriarchy, racial oppression, and class oppression.

  • Peggy

    With all due respect, Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State horror *DID* come to light. Yes, it took much longer than it should have. Football culture is very patriarchal and insular–but still secular. This means that we can see the perps come to justice and not religious criminals working within an insular religious hierarchy. Jerry Sandusky makes a very good example of this, actually.

  • Leum

    Yes, and the Catholic sex scandals also came to light. It took longer, in part because the Catholic Church had way more practice at keeping things covered up.

  • Jack

    The problem in all of these sexual abuse cases, whether religious or secular, is submission to authority, and a culture that values protection of authorities over protection of victims. That’s Adam’s main point. The football culture at Penn State was of that kind, and that’s why the abuse went on as long as it did there, but there is no human institution that advocates submission to authority more does than religion. Couple that with ossified doctrines impervious to empirical evidence, like the insistence of the Catholic church that priests must be celibate men, and the problem is greatly compounded.

  • Adam Lee

    I’d also add that when the Penn State scandal did come to light, the school’s board of trustees actually took punitive action against the people who allegedly helped cover it up – firing Joe Paterno and the college president Graham Spanier. By contrast, the Catholic church and other religious institutions where child abuse took place have taken no significant action against the people who helped to conceal it.

  • 2-D Man

    From the OP:

    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.

    From the objection:

    If religion were eliminated today, the rate of child abuse is unlikely to decline, unfortunately.

    It’s a common tactic of the religious to pretend that reasonable criticisms of their ideology were theirs all along. See also: slavery.

  • plutosdad

    RR: “But incest families tend to be isolated by nature, with few ties to church or community”
    What? do you have a source? because abuse is pretty much all over the place, including the parents and church and school. My wife has some stories from her Southern Baptist upbringing, of how some fathers reacted when they wanted to have a therapist give a puppet show to the kids to teach them about abuse.

    The issue is the authority and the control institutions have. And the particular idea that men are the head of the home just reenforces and enables abusers.

  • plutosdad

    As an aside: actually this just reminds me of Becket. I was watching the old movie with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, and when Becket was arguing with Henry II that the secular authority had no right to arrest Priests who sexually abused a parishioner, I thought, wow, for centuries Becket has been recognized as a Saint, but all this time his Sainthood was based on what we now think is unwise (letting a bureaucracy police itself) and evil: refusing to allow justice to be carried out against abusers.

    People talk as if he fought to keep church and state separate, but actually he fought to keep the church and it’s members unaccountable for their actions, which is different.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    I believe that, in America, we have breached the separation of church and state. The cover-ups of the abuses by the churches are nothing short of organized conspiracies. Jesus said,”Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” This includes rendering unto the elected government the perpetrator’s of crimes against the laws of our land.

    Those who live by the laws of the Old Testament don’t represent me or our modern American laws. The USA is supposed to be neither monarchy nor theocracy; it is supposed to be a democratic republic. Maybe the only way to rectify the “sins of our fathers” is to create a true democracy.

  • BT

    Unfortunately, religious communities are probably particularly vulnerable to abuses of authority given their nature as holders of truth (however defined).

    They are, however, by no means unique. Slower, perhaps, to adjust to modern realities and limits. But not unique.

  • Daniel

    You’re mistaken in attacking religion as a cause of sexual abuse. While it does occur in religious communities, it doesn’t occur at a higher rate there than elsewhere in our society. Statistics that support this claim can be found very easily online. http://www.themediareport.com/fast-facts/
    You should stop standing on the bodies of wounded children to justify your hatred of religion.

  • Steve

    Adam, have you not heard of the Migram Experiment? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment)

    You find abuse in religious authority structures and think, “AHA! Religion is at it again! If only they have up their dogmas, we wouldn’t see this behavior!” Except… abuse happens in every system with authority. You’ve fingered the wrong culprit.

  • GCT

    To Daniel and Steve,
    The point isn’t that abuse only happens in churches. Perhaps you both need to go back and read the OP. And, Adam has previously written about the Milgram experiment. That’s part of the point.

    You should stop standing on the bodies of wounded children to justify your hatred of religion.

    Why should we not oppose religion? It’s fundamentally flawed and causes real harm. Given that it’s flawed and causes harm, what reason is there to stand by and not argue against it, or even to support it?

  • Austin Correia

    Religious bodies are derivatives of the public of society, the significance of which is debatable. And hence they are responsible in the humane and civil sense of the word to the society in which they operate. Apart from the beliefs we need to take each other seriously instead of letting each other of the hook by writing each other off. Articles like these point out to a need for the society at large to evolve, obviously secular, modes of thinking and systems where perpertrators of abuse are brought to book in a humane and efficient manner. Can we pit our own human being efficiently against irresponsible authorities, religous, patriarchal, racist, class-based?

  • Chris Hoffman

    In Canada their was Mount Cashel Orphange run by a church.catholic?, residential schools for natives run by different churches for government. Sexual abuse,physical abuse,emotional abuse, cultural genocide. In ice hockey, junior hockey cases of abuse.


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