Covenanters Anonymous: What the TVC-Jordan Root Scandal Means for Right-Wing Christianity

Covenanters Anonymous: What the TVC-Jordan Root Scandal Means for Right-Wing Christianity June 11, 2015

Recently we talked about the Jordan Root/TVC scandal, which involved a megachurch learning about a pedophile in their midst and mishandling that news in every way conceivable.

Today we’re going to talk about how this scandal is another illustration of exactly why fundagelical Christianity is doomed and deserves to be so.

Not a museum of saints, nor a hospital of sinners, but something altogether worse. (Credit: Ioan Sameli, CC license.)
Not a museum of saints, nor a hospital of sinners, but something altogether worse. (Credit: Ioan Sameli, CC license.)

This branch of Christianity depends very heavily on the idea of covenantal obedience, which in Christianese is a way of saying “extra lots and serious obedience.” A covenant is a type of very serious, quasi-religious agreement between two people or groups. Yahweh is said to have begun a covenant with Noah to protect his people after the Great Flood he’d used to genocide the whole planet. In exchange for the Jews’ obedience and offerings, Yahweh promised to help them in various ways. In the same way, a very common doctrine found in Christianity is that of the so-called covenant of grace, which is the agreement that this same god makes with Christians to preserve safely from Hell anybody who does all the correct things. The idea is that this isn’t just a promise, or even really a business arrangement. It’s a super-duper, extra-dextra, double-death-dog-dare level of deepness. It’s like a marriage agreement times eleventybillion and it cannot ever be violated.

Overreaching Christians love to think of themselves like little Jesuses who are allowed to do whatever he did even though they are not gods themselves. If he was allowed to be nasty to people and insult them, lie for a good cause, throw tantrums about out-of-season trees, tell his people to steal horses for him, destroy other people’s property, and make deliberately-confusing parables, then they get to do all that too. So if their Savior made covenants with people, then obviously they must do so as well even if they are not infallible, omniscient, omnipotent gods and can’t always be sure they’ll be capable of fulfilling their end of the agreements they make.

Though a covenant is supposed to be a two-sided agreement, the ones these Christians offer to their inferiors are decidedly one-sided. Inferiors have next to no recourse if something goes seriously pear-shaped. Power is stripped entirely from them and given to the other side, which is trusted to behave responsibly and fairly. Even their right to speak out against abuse–even to share that the abuse is happening–is taken away as well through cultural conditioning about preserving the group’s image and protecting the reputation of its leaders. This illusion is sometimes believed, sometimes not, but it’s still part of the fabric of all relationships. When I was Pentecostal, the group in power–men, of course, husbands, fathers, and pastors–made a big ostentatious show of how harrrrrrrrrd it was that they did all the heavy lifting of running women’s lives and assumed all the risk for women’s souls if they directed them in error, but I don’t seriously think anybody believed for a second that it was really that onerous of a job–though we all acted like we did. We knew we were getting the shit end of the stick, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it; we thought our god had told us to obey these men, so whether they were fibbing or not about how difficult their assignment was, it wasn’t like we could change it.

What we should have been asking was “What happens when someone in power abuses that authority? What real checks are there on an abuser’s ability to prey on others?” But because we thought we were in an agreement demanded and commanded by “God,” we didn’t ask those questions. We trusted that “God” would never put over us men who would hurt us, except when that was exactly what happened, in which case it was obviously “God’s” will that we suffer for some reason. That was literally what I was told by my pastor during one of the times I fled to him for help with some outrageous demand Biff had made upon me: my obedience would sanctify him and “convict” him into behaving better, and if I just prayed a lot then “God” would improve Biff’s leadership skills by magic. (I wonder if this pastor would have been okay with having a hospital intern do brain surgery on him, since learning-on-the-job was that okay by him.) But at no point was I told that “God” had made a mistake in giving an abusive narcissist total, unfettered, complete, and unchecked power over me. That kind of power was part of the message of my religion, even in the milder forms of it, and it simply wasn’t questioned or even able to be questioned.

That’s why the idea of covenants are what is, essentially, going to doom this kind of Christianity: they are false cloaks of authority used to grab extra control over others by people who are manifestly unqualified to have that kind of power over anybody. We’re starting to wise up to that kind of false authority and we’re starting to reject it in ever-increasing numbers. We’re starting to understand how important bodily integrity, human dignity, civil rights, and self-ownership are, and we’re starting to comprehend–however dimly, in some circles–what a disastrous idea it is to strip power from women and hand it to men.

But the Christians who need to learn those lessons the most are going to be the last to master them.

Any time you see someone applying the dogwhistle word “covenant” to a voluntary association, be it marriage or church membership or belonging to a sandlot kiddie baseball league, you need to watch out. The people putting that term on the association are hypocrites who are well aware that no sane person would submit to their worst-case treatment or their total overreach, so they need an external cloak of authority to force people to do so anyway. A god’s command is the ultimate authority, and it’s one that Christians will respond to when they’ll refuse all other demands. These wolves in sheep’s clothing know that if they can’t command obedience and compliance on their own, then calling these commands “covenants” will do the trick.

The immediate and general effect of calling an agreement a “covenant” is that victims immediately have a tougher time escaping from the agreement. Instead of making the system have fewer worst-case outrages, they try to make it extra-dextra hard for victims to find redress and justice when a worst-case situation inevitably emerges. The more restrictions they pile on, they hope, the fewer victims will want to go to all that trouble and will instead just submit. That’s kind of how forced-birthers are doing it too, by trying to shame women into gestating against their wills and make acquiring abortion care way too prohibitive and shameful for most women to access–and it’s being done for exactly the same reason, and it’s producing much the same results: misery, women getting hurt, flagrant abuses of power by those in authority, and increasingly-shocking outrages committed against those who are not in power.

Enter The Village Church (Or Not, as the Case May Be).

TVC–and Acts 29, and its entire sick branch of Christianity–has revealed its true colors in their handling of this scandal. In the email they sent to members on May 23, they reveal exactly how diseased their branch of Christianity is and how resistant it is to external checks on its own power by saying, in response to a question about whether their behavior is harassment, that “we don’t believe any of the attempts we’ve made to communicate with Karen [Hinkley] have been harassing in any way.”

Well, see, it’s not up to them to decide whether their own behavior is harassing. It’s up to Ms. Hinkley to determine that, because she is the target of their behavior and the only one qualified to know exactly how she feels about what they’re doing. And she’s already indicated it feels like harassment to her. This is gaslighting, and it is something abusers do.

TVC’s leaders even claim, in total defiance of her statements in her own letters, that they think she’s secretly asking for their “help” and then go on to say that they will graciously allow her to present “her side of the story” before demanding she be reconciled to her onetime husband (it’s worth noting that this letter was sent out a month after her annulment was finalized, so I’d say that ship has sailed). They even include some bonus misogyny by restating why they think that women should have no voice whatsoever in church leadership. As far as they’re concerned, their one-sided power structure is actually the BONUS PLAN for women. They’re already doing more than enough to ensure everyone’s safety in their churches; only uppity women would ever find fault with their generous offer to do all the heavy lifting by leading them all. This is a blatant attempt to dictate Ms. Hinkley’s reality to her and it, too, is abusive behavior.

They don’t see why anybody could have any trouble with anything they are demanding. If they do say so themselves, they are totally in the right and are being perfectly reasonable. Nobody is allowed to say otherwise, and nobody is allowed to judge them any differently. They are the supreme leaders and will accept no correction or oversight at all over themselves, their fiefdom, or their little pond. That’s why their not-pology wasn’t actually directed at Karen or even concerning anything they did to her but rather was meant to sound very soothing and sweet to fundagelical ears–and vilify her if she didn’t accept their completely reasonable-seeming offers. This is a flagrant attempt to emotionally manipulate someone they’ve already hurt into feeling obligated to do what they want, and it, too, is abusive.

This is what happens when you give one group all the power, and the other group none–just as we saw in the Duggar scandal. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s improved. Nothing can, until the leadership opens up power to those who currently have none, gives voices to those who currently have no say in their system, refuses to protect men over women and perpetrators over those who’ve been abused by those perpetrators, and takes abuse allegations way more seriously.

The lopsided system itself is the problem, and by protecting that system, they reveal their real priorities: power and self-interest.

As Christy Thomas has observed, “where women have no voice, they will be routinely abused. Period.” Jesus is not making Acts 29 churches any different from any other organization that strips half its members of voices and power and then gives all unfettered and complete power to the other half. The only result that can occur from that power distribution is misery and abuse. That’s why secular organizations aren’t allowed to discriminate anymore: our government is realistic enough to know that “separate but equal” is a recipe for disenfranchisement and harm. We’ll talk more about why that is some other time, but for now, be alert for other groups that try to make that kind of system work. You’ll see abuse there, under the facade, every time.

In the wake of the recent Pew Forum findings, you’d think churches would be taking an extra-hard look at their overreaches and boundary-violations, but no, it’s just business as usual, just increasingly blatant power grabs by people who are starting to sense that their authority and dominance are starting to topple. Instead of examining why their system seems to produce so many egregious abuses, those in power in these systems think the problem is that they’re not adequately explaining their message to everybody (no kidding; that’s what the pastor actually said in his not-pology originally, though once the scandal began to escalate into a PR disaster, he began to get a little more serious about it).

Church discipline failing? Add more church discipline!

And always, always, always protect the owners of almighty penises.

Karen Hinkley has accepted TVC’s latest apology, so the saga seems to have come to an end for her at least, but the real proof in the pudding will be if her former church starts to seriously examine its covenant mindset. There’s not some magic way they’re going to be able to practice a totally one-sided power structure and have worst-case scenarios like Ms. Hinkley’s turn out any other way than hers did. The message is the problem, not how the messengers are trying to enact it. And if their abuse of power hadn’t gotten the attention it did, you and I both know that they never would have offered even the lame attempt at a not-pology they offered at first.

That is why we have to keep the heat on these hypocrites.

And that’s why we’re going to keep doing so. If people weren’t making loud and clear our displeasure and disapproval, nothing these churches’ victims could do (or were doing, for that matter) would get them justice and help. Jesus sure ain’t making their rulers behave. I’m not fooled by their huge about-face between May 23rd and yesterday; the leaders of these groups have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t even begin making token gestures toward compassion and humanity until their bottom lines start to suffer–which can’t happen within the bounds of the fundagelical culture of silence, privilege preservation, and circled wagons. That culture literally has no way of helping itself or fixing its flaws.

Speaking of, next up we’ll be talking about some new developments in the Josh Duggar sex abuse scandal and also Saturday we’re slated for the Left Behind-a-Palooza. See you then.

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