It seems like there is a never-ending litany of miserable stories about abusers, predators, and scam artists lurking around Christian churches. If I wanted to write one of those blogs that concerned itself chiefly with exposing and discussing these people, I’d have to seriously step up my publishing schedule–because there are that many stories, and each is more nauseating and horrifying than the last.
But for some strange reason, Christian churches rarely engage with the problem they’ve created for themselves and perpetuate through their cultural practices and beliefs, and today I’ll touch on why that might be. Though what I talk about here is going to touch on Christianity the most, broken systems exist all through human societies–and they all work along remarkably similar lines, and have remarkably similar structures and problems. The worst mistake someone could make would be to assume that simply escaping Christianity means that one has escaped all potential for abuse.
With that in mind, let’s get started with the five reasons why Christianity has a problem with abusers in their ranks.
Defining the Problem.
In secular culture, we’re mostly well aware of the fact that not all people given power are responsible with their power. Mostly, we know that some people even seek that power specifically because it will allow them greater access to victims and give them freer license to abuse those victims. But we’ve also learned that checks on that power–in the form of oversight, precautions, transparency, accountability, and serious punishment when all of those other pre-abuse measures don’t work–help lessen the incidents of abuse.
I say “mostly” because we haven’t quite caught on to the fact that some of the authority we’re giving people isn’t used wisely or lovingly. For example, the American police system has been much on many people’s minds of late–and for good reason. The phrase “broken system” appears to very ably describe what’s happening in our law enforcement of late. The more power our government gives itself and its law enforcement arms, the more nervous citizens get.
But at least we’ve got the right idea. Laws exist that at least theoretically protect the sheep from the shepherds and prevent the shepherds from running amok with their power. We generally try to find, stop, and punish those who abuse the people under their control. And as awareness is growing of the extent of abuse in some of these broken systems we experience now in our society, we’re starting to demand changes.
Not so, in Christendom.
In toxic Christian churches, one finds next to none of these precautions and protections, and certainly none of the punishments or restraining measures that secular culture and more progressive churches have put into place. If I were to decide tomorrow to embark on a new career as a serial abuser and grifter, I can think of no better place to focus my efforts than on fundagelical Christianity in particular.
How Do We Get To This Place, Where This Stuff Happens?
Some time ago, I kicked off the Broken System series with the plaintive question asked by a Christian minister who had seen a huge number of predators and abusers in his own church network. Speaking of a man who’d been discovered to be a sex abuser, he said,
So when I heard about Joe [Raleigh], was I surprised? No, but I was sickened. Just like when I heard about Timothy Thompson. How do we get to this place, where this stuff happens?
His question has an answer; it’s just not one he’d like to hear.
1. Christians mistakenly assume that Jesus makes Christians decent people.
The level of trust that exists in Christian churches, especially far-right-wing ones, is legendary. The relationship between ministers and congregants is extremely tight and intimate for the most part, and the culture itself encourages this intimacy. Christians in these churches are encouraged to think of their pastors as literal fathers, and for the most part they’re probably okay in thinking this. Even in these churches, I think most pastors try to be worthy of this dramatic level of trust.
This trust extends to the rest of the church. When you hear a Christian refer to his or her “church family,” they’re not just saying pretty words–they are encouraged to think of their fellow congregants as family members in a very real sense. Many groups do almost everything together, spending time at each other’s houses, watching each other’s kids, helping each other when it’s needed, and spending hours upon hours socializing together. Just as it’d be all but unthinkable to think of one’s father as abusive, it’d be the same to imagine one’s own church brother doing something awful.
When I was Christian, we were explicitly instructed to depend upon and help each other because, unlike out in the big bad secular world, Christians had Jesus filling their hearts, so they alone could be trusted. We thought that non-Christians, who lacked faith in Jesus, were completely untrustworthy and might do anything at any time. We thought they, lacking that infilling in their hearts, had nothing holding them back from hurting and abusing people and betraying trusts put in them.
Now, many Christians would be the very first to chirp that Christians “aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” This line gets trotted out every time a Christian is shown to be a massive hypocrite (someone who says one thing but does another). But they don’t live like they believe this. That’s just something they say when one of them is caught in some misdeed. They live like they think that anybody who claims to be Christian must be decent and trustworthy. That’s why affinity fraud is a particular problem for churches. And that’s why sex abusers in churches discover that all they have to do is act pious and sanctimonious, and they can get nearly unlimited access to children.
If they actually lived like they believed that Christians aren’t perfect, then maybe they’d have way less of a problem with abusers in their ranks. But instead, we get endless declarations that this or that abusive Christian pastor is “anointed” and indignant spluttering about how someone couldn’t possibly have done this or that crime because he or she is just such a great Christian!
Worse, one of these days someone like me will suddenly realize that if someone can be Christian and still a terrible, awful person, then surely someone can be a non-Christian and still be a very kind, decent person, and then all kinds of cans of worms get opened up!
2. Christians care so much about selling their product and retaining current consumers of their product that they cannot allow the existence of these abusers to become common knowledge.
Christianity is a very successful marketing campaign. It depends upon selling itself to people. If a big part of its campaign is about how “accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior” can make you a better person, then they’re certainly not going to like the idea of people who did that and yet haven’t changed overmuch. But that’s a far more common occurrence than the “miracle” of the addict who magically got clean after conversion, or the angry, violent asshole who magically realized the error of his ways upon conversion and became forever after a soft-spoken, kindly gentleman.
Many years ago I identified a phenomenon I called the Happy Christian Illusion going on in my church and marriage. The phrase refers to this tendency of church members to pretend they are very, very happy and joyous all the time, that nothing is wrong, that nobody’s doing anything bad to anyone, and that everything is going exactly the way Christian culture says it should. This illusion must be preserved at all costs. If someone does get hurt or abused, or sees something that needs to be dealt with immediately, then that person is told not to make a big deal out of it to preserve the church’s reputation and to keep outsiders from seeing that Christians can, indeed, be terrible people too.
If the people in a Christian church aren’t any better than the people found in any other social club around, then what’s the point of conforming to all of their bizarre, otherworldly demands and giving that much money and time to them? We’d be better off joining a gym club or a gardening society. At least then we’d get a nice garden or a healthier body out of the deal.
And I think Christian leaders are well aware of this fact.
They allow nothing to interfere with the illusion they’re peddling to the unwary.
3. Christians tend to react very poorly to any suggestion that anything about their illusive happiness isn’t quite what it seems.
Ever heard about ChurchRater.com? It’s a site where people can donate anonymous reviews of various churches around the world. I was fooling around there a little while earlier today. It’s not easy to find any review that’s actually substantive–most people write short and very uninformative reviews along the lines of “I love my church and it’s just awesome!” One declared that his church loved and accepted everybody, and when someone pushed back on that declaration by asking if this church really did love and accept absolutely everybody, a small argument erupted examining that detractor’s spirit for sin, because obviously that was the only reason for asking such a divisive question.
I also noticed that I had to look very hard to find any churches that got less than a 3-star (out of five) rating (there’s no way to search by rating, a curious omission considering most other ratings sites do this). When I did find a 1-star review, I quickly noticed that indignant Christians piled in to defend their beloved church against any and all criticism. The accusations of overreach, authoritarianism, power-lust, and abuse are consistent and constant, but reading these brave paladins’ rebuttals is like reading about a whole other church! If you want to see toxic Christianity at its worst, this review’s comments will satisfy you in spades.
The owners of ChurchRater seem very friendly on the surface; their site is written to be as accessible as possible to people who are either seeking a “church home” or are wondering about joining a church for the first time. But then this happened in the middle of that huge cluster of comments:
It is from one of the site’s co-founders. It reads:
I would like this all to cease. ChurchRater is not the place for this. No one did what I asked them to, which was remove names, etc. To the pastors and staff of Agape: it looks like a lot of people are struggling with how you do church. I would heed their words and do some outreach. To the former attendees of Agape: it’s time to move on, or it’s time to address these things with people who can affect them. Posts on a website are a good start, but posts on a website are often where good starts go to die. I wish you all the best.
My mind was blown. Not only was he declaring that his own site–a place where churches get rated and where informative reviews are both sought and encouraged–was actually pretty useless, but he was very blatantly silencing the people who have very clearly been hurt–and advising the people who hurt them to “do some outreach,” which (if they do it, which is thankfully unlikely) will only get them back into the lives of their victims again, which is going to be the last thing those victims want! Yikes! Would he tell a sex offender to go talk to his victims about how to stop being a sex offender?!? (I get the feeling I won’t like the answer to that question.) When faced with such a serious list of abuses and overreaches that this church has committed, his stated response is to tell everyone criticizing this church to shut up already and go away. It’s hard to imagine how the people getting told this felt about it, but I know I sure wouldn’t have felt loved, protected, or nurtured by it.
And, uh, not to put too fine a point on this next part, but this guy thinks he’s one of the Nice Christians. (Edit: He’s not a Christian; he’s one of the co-founders of the site, but apparently an atheist. I’m still not impressed. That was really not a good thing to tell people who have been abused by a church.)
4. Christians care more about maintaining their Happy Christian Illusion than they do about protecting the innocent victims of abusers.
When one Florida church actually banned children from its grounds in order to keep their pastor, convicted child sex offender Darrell Gilyard, in place, the news outraged many people–but probably made total sense to the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. When Josh Duggar turned out to be a sex abuser and possible rapist, Christians turned out in droves to defend him (until he cheated on his wife, of course, because that’s just the last straw for them). Most of us also know better than to read comments on any news story about a Christian preying upon underage children, because we know we’ll find Christian after Christian defending the abuser and laying blame upon the victim for doing something to cause that Christian to “lose control.”
This culture has evolved a great many ways of protecting abusers at the expense of the people getting abused. Thankfully, more and more awareness is being raised about it, but still, one must ask: How many pedophiles like Jordan Root are still operating in churches because their loved ones and pastors are desperately covering up their crimes? I’m going to put this out here right now: I think that we only hear about a fraction of the actual problems in churches.
I linked you to a Christian site just now for a reason. I want you to read the piece, if you can (content note: domestic abuse, child sex abuse). Take a look at the heartbreaking messages from the voiceless, the vulnerable, and the helpless–all begging their leaders to handle abuse cases better than they are now. That implies that there are a hell of a lot more abusers in these churches than we could possibly imagine, and there are a lot of suffering Christians whose plight is going unheard and unheeded by the very leaders who are supposed to be protecting them.
In response to the ChurchRater.com site, incidentally, a Christian news/opinion site ran a post criticizing it and casting doubt on whether or not any church rating site could be truly trustworthy or helpful to Christians. Regarding one unnamed review accusing a minister of all sorts of improprieties and possible crimes, the Christian wrote, “Whether true or not, is a public website the right place for Christians to be voicing these accusations?”
So there you go. If you have to accuse a minister of anything, you must do it totally privately, following the intricate rules that the broken system’s leaders put into place to maintain their power, or else nobody will listen to it and you’ll get in trouble for speaking up. Except if you do jump through those hoops, then nobody will know about it to be careful of this minister in the future, and he probably won’t come to justice because the accusation was only a private one, if that. And if it is made privately, then it will be made before a jury of the wrongdoer’s peers, who are also far more interested in maintaining their power than they are in bringing a wrongdoer to justice.
Following their rules, it’s all but impossible to bring any abuser to justice. Isn’t that peculiar?
5. They really don’t like any form of oversight.
Oversight implies that there is something that needs to be overseen. It implies that the people in charge of a Christian flock are anything but anointed by a living god who is actively helping them minister to these people, and that the group itself is having trouble regulating itself and caring for the people it has declared authority over.
And it implies that there is a limit to the power that abusive Christians have claimed for themselves–that this power can be removed, lessened, peeled away, and taken away, and that they can be punished for the dark deeds they commit in the shadow of their idolized Cross.
I think the crux of the problem can be found exactly there.
They’re not going to happily and voluntarily give up the power they have grabbed so eagerly for themselves. The dominant people in a broken system never do. They must be forced to give it up by rule of law or some other force they can’t deny, and they will be kicking and screaming the entire way. They know what it means to be powerless in their system, and they want no part of that! Even the people who currently don’t have much power in that system will resent and resist reformation efforts–because one day they might have power themselves, and they don’t want to reach the playground only to discover that it’s being closed for good.
Don’t be surprised when a broken system resists any and all forms of oversight. From top to bottom, it is built in a way that makes change all but impossible. Mark Driscoll himself resigned rather than face any lessening of his power over others, and the Southern Baptists are still bristling at the very idea that they need a database to keep track of all the predators in their own ranks.
For a group that regularly hurls accusations at ex-Christians about how “bad Christians” chased us off, when entire books get written advising Christians about what to do about abusers in their midst, you’d think that Christians as a group would care more about them. But they don’t. They’re happy to use those abusers as excuses to hurl at departing members, but they’re not doing anything serious to stop any of it. The few gestures I see being made are mostly coming out of liberal churches, not fundagelical ones, and the few fundagelical churches making stabs at this level of accountability are not making much headway, with every inch forward resisted bitterly by the very groups that need that forward movement the most.
How Could Anything Here Ever Go Wrong?
The one thing I can say for sure here is that there is definitely no magic invisible friend making Christians behave better than non-Christians do. But Christians can’t really admit that, can they? If there isn’t a Jesus “convicting” sinners’ hearts and leading predators and abusers to grace and reform, then their whole system needs overhauling. And the leaders of that system might be willing to make a few piddling and largely posturing gestures toward change, but they are not going to cheerfully do anything that seriously lessens their own power.
We’re going to talk next time about how to use these principles to evaluate a system’s safety level and trustworthiness. See you then and enjoy your weekend!