Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The root of the problem is a theology that enables sexual abuse

As someone who was raised in a white evangelical Christian family and church, it deeply saddens me every time we hear that another leader of that community is guilty of sexual abuse. One of the latest is Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church in Southlake, TX. 

Thirty-five years ago Morris began sexually abusing Cindy Clemishire, who was only 12 years old at the time. The abuse continued for over four years. Once Clemishire spoke out against the abuse, Morris left the ministry for two years and received counseling. After that, he returned to the ministry and is now the pastor of a church that attracts an estimated 100,000 worshippers weekly. He also served on Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board during the 2016 campaign and has been a relentless MAGA cheerleader ever since.

From what I've seen, there are some individuals and churches attempting to document this kind of abuse in evangelical churches/organizations and develop ways to address the problem. But most of them focus on after-the-fact interventions designed to support the victim and hold the perpetrator accountable. No one seems to be willing to address the fact that sexual abuse is obviously rampant not only in Catholic Churches, but evangelical circles as well. 

In writing about Morris, Amanda Marcotte provided insight into the root of the problem.

As ex-evangelical therapist Jeremiah Gibson told Salon earlier this year, sex has never really been the issue with evangelicals. It's more about "the performance of gender" and maintaining a rigid gender hierarchy. While right-wing Christians talk a lot about "purity," that expectation only applies to women. Men, as the history of Christianity in America makes clear, largely get to do what they want, confident that the church will usually look the other way — even when the behavior is criminal or blatantly predatory...

The problem with expecting women — or in so many cases, underage girls — to bear the responsibility for maintaining "purity" is that it directly conflicts with another mandate placed on women in evangelical circles: total submission. Women were placed on earth by God, according to this theology, primarily if not exclusively to serve men...It's a lose-lose situation: Women are supposed to make themselves attractive and compliant, but if a man abuses or assaults her, that's her fault for not uttering the otherwise forbidden word "no." Furthermore, if she did say no but failed to fight him off, after a lifetime of being told that it's sinful "pride" to stand up for yourself, then that's her fault too.

That theology of "total submission" applies to children as well - which explains why young boys are also the victims of this kind of abuse. Once women and children have been properly schooled into a theology that tells them that men/fathers/pastors are at the top of a rigid hierarchy and that it is "sinful pride to stand up for yourself," the table has been set for sexual predators. 

In order to root out sexual abuse in the church, both Catholics and Protestants will have to grapple with a theology that actually enables the abuse. I have to say that I'm not optimistic that is going to happen any time soon. 


  1. Thank you, Nancy. I have similar grim predictions for the near term, but if it's ever going to change, every moment spent describing, analyzing, and uncovering this mess is well spent

  2. I could not agree more with "Anonymous' " comment above. Many religions have organized their structures as some sort of 'pastor-led power pyramid' somewhat similar to the structure of the RC church where all authority emanates from one pope. My knowledge of the Scripture does not show such a construct, nor does it seem to suggest that today's "Evangelical" churches should be led by the wealth-seeking prosperity gospel preachers who seem to possess all power within that organization. And, for what it's worth, "Christian Nationalism" is a blatant and intentionally misleading 'contradiction in terms.'


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